Why does my amp sound different at high volume?


Sound awesome at any volume

When practicing electric guitar, it’s normal to do so by yourself at low volumes to focus on learning, practicing, or writing a song. What’s commonplace is that you get used to the sound of your amp at a low volume. Chances are that you’ve tweaked your amp’s controls so it sounds beautiful and you comfortably bask in its sonic bouquet. You then come to the point where you feel confident with your playing and you’re ready to fire it up with the band to really electrify your song.

You get to the rehearsal space and after everybody sets up their gear, and you’re ready to turn it up and make some noise. Now your amp was set up perfectly when you were playing alone in your bedroom. No problem here as you think that you’ll just crank up the volume and wait to see everyone be amazed at just how staggeringly awesome you sound.

“You get used to the sound of your amp at a low volume”

Once your crazy drummer starts pounding away, you find that you really do have to turn up…like a lot. Again, no problem as your amp’s volume knob goes “aaaaaaall” the way up to 11. Now that you’re at arena rock volume, you hit that first power chord and you hear…a big ball of sonic mud. What “the hey” happened? Your amp sounded so good at home so why isn’t it sounding amazing now?

You can’t help but wonder why your low volume golden tone turns to sloppy goo when at high volume? You immediately wonder if something is wrong with your amp. Do you need to get an amp with more power like one of those 200-watt Marshall Major amps with the 8×12 speaker cabinet like Pete Townsend used? Do you have to run out and get that crazy expensive, newfangled Tripixadoraptor multi-effects pedal with the retinal scanner and thought activated expression gate?

“Your amp sounds different when it’s loud”

Fear not as this is an age old issue that faces all electric guitar players. Many learn this lesson by trial and error, but be assured that you can dial in great tone at almost any volume with your current amp (unless there really is an issue like a blown speaker).

As a starting point, first recognize that your amp sounds different when it’s loud. The reason for this is it comes back to the way our ears work, which are more sensitive to certain frequencies than others. The reality is that our ears are most sensitive in the 1-5K Hz range. As a general reference, the most common frequency range of an electric guitar is around 200-1000Hz so it’s on the low side of what our ears are sensitive to.

The guitar’s frequency range does go higher and lower that this but again, this is a reference. As a brief but more specific guideline, as you turn your volume up the low frequencies are more prominent. So if you dial in your signature tone at low volume at home and then crank it up to gig levels you’ll find yourself with a lot more low-end than you intended.

If this happens, try turning the bass knob down a little. If it’s then too shrill sounding, turn the treble and/or presence down a tad. As you’ve probably already figured out, when you’re at gig volume you need to play with your amp’s tone controls to get the sound you’re after. In my earlier article Guitar Amp Love, I recommend you turn your tone controls all the way up and turn down what you want less of.

“You can dial in great tone at almost any volume”

There’s really no substitute to dialing in your sound at gig volume but once you’re familiar with it, you can dial it in pretty quickly. It helps to give you a reference point if your band rehearsal is at gig level to help you get a grip on your tone. Two other important things at play here are dialing in your tone within your band’s mix and the acoustics of the places you play as each room has its own sound.

One last thing to mention is about outdoor gigs as you may really have to turn up because there are no walls for your sound to bounce off of. I’ve played outdoor gigs where I had the volume maxed out!

If you really want to know more on the true technical details, check out the work done by the audio forefather scientist and engineer team of Harvey Fletcher and Wilden Munson, who worked for Bell Labs in the 1930s as they were tasked on figuring out the most efficient way of transmitting a telephone call. Little did they know that their trailblazing work would translate so directly to dialing in stadium filled, high volume, Holy Grail guitar tone.

So remember kids, try this at home so you can one day be a trained professional.

With your new found guitar tone knowledge, go forth and find YOUR high volume guitar tone!

Girls rock,

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Steve McKinley is the bass player for Joel Kosche (of Collective Soul) in his solo band and for the Led Zeppelin tribute Led Zeppelified. He’s been part of the Atlanta music scene for years playing in bands (i.e. Julius Pleaser, Sid Vicious Experience, Pretty Vacant et al) and has recorded and toured throughout the Southeast. His songs have been played on the radio, he has appeared on television and is an ASCAP member. With his electronics skills and experience, he runs Atlanta Tube Amp and Steve McKinley Electronics and is an Instructor on JamPlay.com. He roots for Atlanta United, works on cars and drinks his coffee strong, hot and black. He can be found on his sites, Facebook, Instagram and Linkedin. www.atlantatubeamp www.tubescreamermods.com


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