Ways to control your amp volume.

By and large one of the most discussed topics in our shop when it comes to tube amps is volume. The first question a lot of customers ask right from the start is "how loud?" an amp is. Unfortunately, the question is kind of a difficult one to answer with any sort of brevity.  There are just so many variables, and honestly when you think about it it is hard to find a scale to really quantify such a thing. This puts us guitar players in kind of a tough spot because it really does matter how loud an amp is for a number of reasons. The funny thing is, more times than not, we should be worried about an amp that is "too loud" rather than one that is "not loud enough." This is even more true when it comes to tube amps. In order to get the best tone out of a tube amp it's crucial to understand how tubes react as the volume is increased.

One of the main reasons that players opt for tube amps over solid state is the natural compression and warmth that a tube produces when it is pushed. No matter what you hear from the guys that sell modeling amps, there really is no substitute for a good old-fashioned-cranked tube amp. The problem is most tube amps are ridiculously loud by the time they are pushed to the point of sounding their best. For years guitar players have struggled with this problem, but recently a few amp builders have come up with some pretty effective ways to get the tone without the tinnitus. In this article, we look at a few approaches that we think do a good job of tackling this problem.

Master Volume  

Master volumes are probably the oldest approach to solving the "tone/volume-conundrum" and are still a very popular feature used by many builders today. In a very basic sense, the idea behind a master volume is to be able to adjust the preamp and the power amp volumes independently of each other, thus giving a player the ability to control how much the amp is "breaking up" or overdriving while still keeping the volume at a respectable level (if there is such a thing). If a player wants to push the amp a little harder they can increase the "normal" volume and back off on the "master" volume and the amp will now be able to be pushed into overdrive without the much added volume. The reason for this is that by increasing the "normal volume" the amp's preamp is producing more gain, but since the power section "master volume" is set lower, the signal is not being amplified as much. In our experience, this makes the amp considerably more flexible.  

Over the years, we have encountered some skepticism surrounding amps with master volumes. A lot of this goes back to some of the very early designs, ones in which some players felt had a negative effect on tone. The early master volume circuits were nowhere near as "refined" as the circuits you find on many of the boutique amps of today. Honestly, in our experience a master volume has zero drawbacks, in fact if anything it gives the player a tremendous amount more control over how the amp responds. For many players it has become almost a "must-have".

Here are a few amps that we carry that have master volumes:

Dr.Z Maz Jr

Two Rock Studio Pro

Swart AST Master


Attenuators have been around for years, however they have really gained popularity in the last few years for a number of reasons. The new designs are incredible and not to mention quite a bit more affordable than some of the first units to hit the market. As with anything, the design has been refined over the years and the units that are out now are very easy to use and do a great job of taming a loud amp. For those who are not familiar with what an attenuator does, it is probably easiest to think of it basically as a "power brake" or buffer that runs in between the chassis of the amp and the speaker/cab. As the amp sends out the signal to the speaker it runs through the attenuator and the volume of the signal is diminished.  This is normally done through a series of resistors or transformers. The basic idea is to "trick" your amp into thinking that it is still cranked without all that power going to the speaker and creating lots of volume. This allows a player to crank the amp to the point where it sounds its best, but still have some control over the volume.

Do attenuators ruin your tone? We hear this question almost on a daily basis and the answer is: not as long as they are used in moderation. With most of the modern attenuators there's very little tone loss with light to moderate settings of attenuation. Where players normally notice some drop-off in tone quality is when large amounts of attenuation is used. Much of this comes from the fact that the speaker in an amp is responsible for producing some of an amp's tone - when the speaker is not pushed as hard it does not sound as good. Chances are with light to moderate settings you are not going to notice much change in tone, other than the fact that the volume is now in a usable range.

Here are a few attenuation units that we recommend:

Dr. Z Airbrake

Dr. Z Brake Lite

Swart Night Light

Tone King Iron Man

If you are interested in something really cool check out the Tone King Falcon. This amp actually has an attenuator-built in.

Tone King Falcon

Selectable Wattage

Another approach that we are seeing pop up quite a bit these days is an amp in which the power itself can be selected in the form of switchable wattages. This is a really cool idea as it gives the player the ability to select the amount of power that they need for a given application. With this type of amp the player has more power (and headroom) or less power (less headroom) when they need it. It actually is like having several amps in one. Normally, with an amp in which the wattage is selectable there is a switch somewhere on the amp that allows you to select the power level of the amp (wattage) in the form of a few pre-set modes. As the wattage is decreased, the amp will overdrive at a lower volume making it easier for a player to push the amp into its optimum performance range. The advantages are just as significant on stage as they are in the studio. Ask any sound engineer the last time they asked a guitar player to "turn the amp up" :). Not many are going to remember.

Here are a few amps in which the wattage is selectable:

Mesa Boogie Express Plus Amps

Mesa Boogie Mark V

Dr.Z Remedy

Orange Terror series