Copyright January 2017 by Mike Sokol – All Rights Reserved
In Part III of building the Semi-Silent Stage I’m doing an overview of small, but full-featured, guitar amps that can fulfill the mission of playing on a low-decibel stage while still having all the bells and whistles needed to be musically creative and retain feel, presence and tone.
Now this is not an actual “review” of these guitar amps, but rather on “overview” of brands and types of gear that could work for you to build your own low-dB stage. And these are the same amps and speakers I’m taking along on my Semi-Silent Stage Seminars/Clinics for visiting guest musicians to try out. So sometime this summer I’ll publish Part B of this article about electric guitar amps and include feedback from everyone who has tried out this gear in a low-dB stage environment.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not a guitar player, but I am a rock-keyboard player of 40+ years and still have my Hammond B3 with Leslie, Mini-Moog synthesizer, and a Rhodes 73 electric piano. And I began building tube-based stomp boxes and speaker emulated DI interfaces for my guitar players 40 years ago. I currently run production sound for shows and concerts of all sizes, from small rooms that might seat a few hundred, to large concerts on outside stages that can cover an audience of 10,000 or more. These guitar amp recommendations below are for small to medium size rooms like you might find in a church or music establishment seating from 100 to 1,000 listeners. For large outside stages you may need to adjust these power recommendations to fit your SPL monitoring requirements.
Now when I say a “Low-dB” or “Semi-Silent Stage” I mean a stage that doesn’t dump more than 85 to 90 dB of stage wash into the room, which allows the FOH (Front of House) engineer to mix the room at a level of 90 to 95 dB SPL while still sounding powerful and musical. The advantage of mixing all the instruments and vocals in the PA rather then flooding the room with volume from the stage is that you can be heard EVERYWHERE, not just in the power alley down the center of the room. There can be areas on stage that are more than 85 dB at the individual musicians, but the individual instrument contributions to the stage volume can be quite low and still give the musicians enough “feel” to play musically. Many modern concerts can reach SPL volumes of 110 dB or more, and while that can be fun for a while, a steady diet of listening at 100+ dB SPL will eventually leave you and your listeners deaf. With that in mind, here are a few basic ideas on what it takes to build a low-decibel electric guitar rig.
While I know that it’s possible to design and build a great modeling processor that will emulate a guitar tube amp, there are few modeling pedals you can plug-and-play right out of the box. They take time to try out, tweak for your playing style, and save the basic settings for quick access. However, a good tube amp is easy to understand by most guitar players, allowing them to quickly dial in their tone. So, to get the party started I’m going with the tried and true signal path of an electric guitar feeding a few basic effects pedals, a 15-watt guitar amp with a tube output stage, and a 12” speaker cabinet mic’ed with a Shure SM57 mic, Sennheiser 609 mic, or XLR speaker emulated DI output.
Power to the People
I’ve come to the conclusion from 45+ years of playing on stage that “tube watts” sound possibly 6 decibels louder than an equal number of “transistor watts”. That is, a 300-watt, all tube, Ampeg SVT (with its six 6550 output tubes) sounds just as loud as a 1,200-watt, transistor bass amp. That’s probably because tube output stages can be driven into heavy clipping and still sound musical, while transistor output stages need to stay away from the distortion edge so as not to add their own harmonics. So I’m giving transistor amps a 6-dB cushion just for headroom without adding their own distortion. And, of course, 6 decibels is equal to 4 times the wattage power. On the Semi-Silent-Stage my experiments have shown that for electric guitar either a 15-watt class tube amp or 60-watt class transistor amp is more than adequate to get enough monitoring level for the musicians without blowing up the room. Remember, my 85-dB Semi-Silent-Stage doesn’t require that everything on stage be below 85-dB SPL. The guitarist can certainly be hearing 90 or 95 dB SPL of her own instrument at his or her playing position. I just want to reduce the stage spill into the room to less than 85 or 90 dB SPL (Slow-A).
Monitors: Can You Hear Me Now?
OK, this requires a slightly different definition of a monitor wedge to work for backline instruments. Essentially, ALL speakers on stage act as monitors for their respective musicians. It’s just that these “backline” speakers are under the direct control of the artist and part of their musical creation signal chain. So a guitar amp is actually both a stage monitor as well as contributing harmonics and tone to the guitar signal itself. It’s exactly that musical individuality and tone that we want to keep, while dropping maybe 12 dB of the SPL volume on stage.
To make a low-dB stage work for electric guitars, I’m going to suggest something that goes against the last 50 years of rock guitar traditional usage on stage. That is, I don’t want the guitar speaker cabinet sitting down on the floor behind the musician pointed straight at the audience. No, I want it tipped back like a floor wedge pointing up at the player’s ears so they can hear exactly what it sounds like, all the while using a lot less wattage. We then use a microphone or speaker emulated DI output to feed the mixing console. Yes, I think that Leo Fender had it right 50 years ago with the tilt-back stand on his Super Reverb, but that idea wasn’t accepted by those who needed to play large rooms and events without an equally large PA system. All the sound of the guitar had to come from the stage, so it was big amps and speakers behind the players. Think Woodstock with stacks of guitar and bass amps on stage pointed directly out towards the audience.
De-Coupling and Ice Picks…
Since cabinet position is important to the overall tone of a guitar amp, there are at least two arguments against putting the speaker cabinet up on a stand, the first one being that putting the guitar speaker up on a stand reduces its coupling to the floor and destroys the tone. To answer the first argument I’m going to suggest that raising the guitar speaker up above the floor doesn’t reduce the bass by somehow eliminating direct contact with the stage. While this effect of bass reduction is real, it’s most likely caused by a phase cancellation with the floor called a “Boundary Effect”. When positioning any sound source at some distance from a flat surface, there’s a phase cancellation that occurs at frequencies around one-quarter wavelength of the distance between the speaker and the floor or wall. So if we raise a guitar cabinet by 2 feet above the floor, that creates a 4 ft. return path, which works out to a quarter wavelength cancellation around the 140 Hz frequencies. Raising the same speaker up to 3 ft. above the floor would cause a boundary effect cancellation around 90 Hz.
That’s right in the sweet spot of bass frequencies for electric guitars, and definitely would affect the tone. So, depending how much bass thump you want in your amp, you may want to keep the speaker cabinet down on the floor. Or by raising it a few feet up on a stand you could clean up the low end. Either way is OK on a Semi-Silent-Stage as long as you tip the cabinet back to point towards your own ears and orient it so the speaker doesn’t beam into the audience. Just get it directed towards your ears, not your ankles.
Here’s two ways to accomplish that. In the first picture I’m using a portable kickstand called a Stand-Back™. This will let you use most small-to-medium sized combo amps and tip them back to “monitor” position. The StandBack™ folds up and can easily fit in the back of your guitar amp or speaker. http://www.standback.net/
In the second picture I’m showing a cabinet of my own design I call an Iso-Wedge. This uses the 12” guitar speaker of your choice (in this case a Celestion speaker) and includes a mic clip for either a Sennheiser 609 or Shure “bent” SM57 mic. I’ve added a Flapjack™ beam blocker to this cabinet (more on this next).
The second argument is that listening to a guitar speaker on-axis is too shrill or sounds like an “icepick” in the ears. Any 12” speaker is going to get “beamy” on the center axis, which is why we like to move their microphones off-axis and off-center, and why guitar players tend to listen to their cabinets the same way. However, all is not lost since you can add a “muffler” to the center of the speaker to reduce that “icepick” tone while keeping the mellow off-axis tone, even when the speaker is pointing directly at your face.
Enter the Flap-Jack™ a simple rubberized disc that sits right in center of the guitar speaker, attenuating the shrill center tones while keeping the good stuff on the edges of the pattern. It includes a hanger on a little pin that allows you to quickly add or remove this from practically any speaker cabinet with a metal grill or grill cloth.
On to the Amps
For the Semi-Silent-Stage project I’ve selected four distinctly different types of electric guitar amps and asked the manufacturers to send them to me without any promise of glowing reviews, etc.… In fact, I know that guitar amplifier and speaker selection is a very personal thing for most guitarists, so I’m only giving you basic guidelines for selecting the low-dB rig of your dreams. These are just the first four setups I’ve come up with, and all have been approved by my own guitar player Karl, who has been on stage with me since the mid-70’s. So while your mileage may vary, these small stage rigs are a great way to begin the discussion.
Fender BassBreaker 15
Nope, it’s not a bass amp… it’s a guitar amp. The Fender BassBreaker 15 is named for the original Bassman “bass” amps that have been coveted and used by blues guitar players for decades. However, the BB15 has been upgraded with a digital reverb in its otherwise all tube signal path with 15 watts of valve powered output.
Just like the original Bassman, this combo amp is super simple and gets the job done quickly. It’s basic enough for the blues player who wants to control their tone by playing style and guitar pickup selection, yet still has enough extra controls to add tonal complexities for more modern sounds. Plus it includes a speaker emulated XLR output and Mute for connecting directly to a PA system without a microphone if you desire, or for practicing in your SPL controlled apartment. And it’s designed by Fender, one of the originators of the electric guitar amp. Of course, it’s loaded with a 12” Celestion speaker and would be home on just about any stage. I think that Leo Fender would be proud of this one. Read more about it at http://shop.fender.com/en-US/guitar-amplifiers/vintage-pro-tube/bassbreaker-15-combo/2262000000.html
Orange Tiny Terror
Those of us who grew up listening to Led Zeppelin in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s know that Orange Amps were an integral part of the tone for our guitar hero, Jimmy Page. However, you don’t need a hundred watts worth of tubes overpowering a small room and giving you a headache. Enter the Orange Tiny Terror. It’s a really simple guitar amp with just input and output level controls plus a single tone control. Oh yes, there’s also a 7/15-watt selector switch on the front panel. Set the input and output gain controls to your liking and add in a dash of treble. Shazamm!!! Don’t think that 15 watts is enough power for you? Well, plug the Tiny Terror into the speaker cabinet of your choice, set it to 7 watts, and stand back. This thing is a serious pocket rocket that you’ll need to turn down a bit, especially if you tip its matching speaker cabinet back into wedge position. Think the Tiny Terror doesn’t have enough gain? Well then try out the Orange Dark Terror instead, a 7/15 watt all-tube favorite of many metal/shred guitar players. It has crazy gain and distortion, but with a very controllable volume on stage.
Hughes & Kettner Tubemeister Deluxe 20
While Hughes & Kettner doesn’t have the extended musical heritage of Fender or Orange guitar amps, its Red Box speaker emulator has been around for as long as I can remember, and was probably the first, and arguably the best, way to simulate a microphone stuck in front of a speaker. The Red Box emulates this important part of the guitar signal path by carefully equalizing the signal and conditioning it for the PA system. The Tubemeister Deluxe 20 has a full-featured Red Box with mic/line level output, which makes it perfect for connecting directly to a mixing console. Or do what I do and use both the emulated DI output in addition to your favorite mic on the speaker. The mixing choices become HUGE.
The Deluxe 20 itself is an all-tube amp with power-tap settings for 20 watts, 5 watts, 1 watt and 0 (zero) watts on the back panel. So this compact (but still relatively heavy) amp head can be used anywhere from a larger stage, to a studio, to an apartment, just at the flip of a switch. When we first fired it up, and since Karl already has a Tubemeister 18, he wisely selected the 1-watt setting. Talk about sounding fantastic with a lot of volume. Yes, at 1 watt!!! The 5-watt setting would be great for medium size stages, and I can imagine that the 20-watt setting would be perfect for powering a 4 x 12” cabinet for large shows or even a concert. It just sounds great at any volume.
This is a two-channel, all-tube amp with a dual foot-switch, which makes selecting between rhythm, lead and boost settings just a floor button push away. And it’s also the primary amp selected by my guitarist Karl for his wide range of playing styles. Karl can use it to play blues or metal or ‘70’s, ‘80’s or ‘90’s songs with just a few tweaks. So the Tubemeister Delux 20 will easily accommodate any of his 7+ stage guitars and dozens of playing styles. I’m also going to have Karl try it with his 1960 Rickenbacker lap steel guitar, and it will likely do great with that vintage steel as well.
Tech21 RK5 Fly Rig and Electro-Harmonix 44 Magnum
This is my own special home brew. Take a Tech 21 Fly-Rig RK5 designed by Richie Kotzen, run it into an Electro-Harmonix 44 Magnum pedal amp for power, and send it to a guitar floor wedge cabinet of my own design with a Celestion speaker. The Tech 21 RK5 Fly Rig includes eq, distortion, echo and reverb. Plus it’s small enough to fit into the strap compartment of your guitar case. Since it can fly on a plane with your guitar (get it… Fly Rig), you can take it to any gig and plug it into the PA system. I’ve also added a 44-watt transistor power amp from Electro-Harmonix, and built an Iso-Wedge™ guitar cabinet of my own design with a Celestion 12” Creamback 70.
This rig closely matches the original guitar setup Karl and I built some 40 years ago, back when we were getting rid of the 100-watt guitar amps on stage. And this Frankenstein rig seems to be Karl’s #2 pick for practice and small room gigs. I only had to add a level attenuator between the output of the Tech 21 Fly Rig and the EHX 44 Magnum to reduce the gain a bit and make its volume more controllable. Now it’s a really cool Tiny Guitar Rig that’s not an amp at all. Of course, the Fly Rig isn’t limited to Tiny Amp status. The beauty of this design is that it can be scaled anywhere from a small low-dB stage application, all the way to full concert mode just depending on how big of a PA system is at the gig. And you can always have the same guitar pedalboard at your feet, with all the settings you like already in place. Think of it as comfort food for your guitar. Plus you can always add the Fly Rig to any of the above guitar amps and get a HUGE amount of creative flexibility. It’s almost too much fun…!
If you want to try out any of these guitar rigs for yourself, get to one of my free 2017 Semi-Silent-Stage seminars and bring your guitar and pedal board. We’re going to experiment with all sorts of low-decibel, Semi-Silent-Stage setups, and see what works for you. Then I’ll report on the guitar amps later in the year after we get some feedback from you all. So join the party and jam with us a bit. You have nothing to lose but your excess stage volume.
So what’s next? Well in Part IV of Building the Semi-Silent-Stage we’ll explore ways to play bass guitars on stage at a lower volume, all without compromising tone or feel. I’ll show several different solutions including tactile monitors that will let you survive using IEM’s on a stage without a bass amp, and then you can just pick which one works best for you. See you then….
Mike Sokol – All Rights Reserved