What is an attenuator?
we sell a huge amount of higher end boutique tube amps, we get asked
quite often about attenuators and how they will affect tone, volume,
dynamics, etc. This article hits upon some of the specifics
of the various amplifier attenuators we carry, but first we'll explain
some simple basics (which many of you already know).
What does an attenuator do? Essentially,
it allows you to drive your tube amp harder without the associated
volume that comes with turning up.
Why use an attenuator? It's well
known that the harder a tube amp is driven, the better it sounds.
With regard to tone quality, tubes love to be ran hard since
they produce their best tone when ran at plate voltage. An
attenuator allows you to crank the amp up without blasting your ears
because it bleeds off some of the wattage being sent to the speaker.
The speaker then reproduces the tone of a cranked
amp at a reduced volume.
do they work? Attenuators are placed
between the output of the amp and the
They replicate the ohm load
of a speaker so the amp
doesn't "know the difference". Most then use a coil to
reduce the wattage by converting the excess wattage to heat.
The reduced wattage that isn't converted to heat is then
sent to the speaker.
What is the disadvantage? Well, there's
always a trade-off, but in this case it is negligible. You'll
read or hear about people referring to small degrees of tone loss when
attenuating. In our experience, the potential tone loss comes moreso from a reduction in the volume of the speaker. Naturally,
some of your tone comes from the speaker being driven.
When it is driven less, the tone of the speaker will change
What models do you carry? We carry several
models from Dr. Z, Tone King, and Swart. The Dr. Z
Airbrake is one of the more popular models that was actually
designed by Ken Fischer of Trainwreck fame. It features five
settings (four levels of attenuation and a bypass) and a "bedroom
level" knob. This model also comes in a smaller package known
as the Brake
Lite, which is essentially the same thing minus the "bedroom"
knob. It's also rather unique since it is designed
to be permenantly installed inside a combo amp. Recently,
Dr. Z released the Brake
Lite SA, which is a stand alone version of the Brake Lite,
designed to be used with heads and cabs.
Swart Amplifiers also makes a very popular attenuator called the Swart
Night Light. This power attenuator features four
attenuation settings and a bypass. One thing that mnakes this
one special is the ability to select a mode that uses a light
bulb to create some attenuation while also adding a slight touch of
compression. Very nice!
All the above attenuators are extremely good values and all but the
Airbrake can be had for less than $200, but if cost is not a concern,
then check out the Tone
King Ironman. This creation by Mark Bartel is
perhaps the best guitar amp attenuator on the market, but it does come
at a higher price. It features 15 steps of reactive load
attenuation, each with pure transformer coupling. Certainly
not for everyone, but if top quality is desired at any price, this is