What sounds great in an engineered and controlled environment—say, playing at home on your own—does not always translate well into the same sound in a different venue or volume. At a jam session or gig, you find yourself part way between collaborating with other players and contending for real estate in the EQ range at much higher volumes. As Dan summed up, “The topic this week is how do you balance your clean sounds and your gain sounds…it isn’t always that obvious!”
The TPS experiment of the week compares the clean and overdrive sounds produced by the same pedals (predominatnly the Keeley D&M Drive, MXR Reverb M300, and Boss Blues Driver) through amps of different wattage but of the same pedigree. In the heavyweight category is the 50 watt Marshall Plexi 1987 XL, perched atop a 4x12 Marshall cabinet. This beast is affectionately dubbed “big Jim.” In the featherweight category is the Marshall Class 5, which Mick aptly described as “the mini Bluesbreaker.” Since the Class 5 is dwarfed by the half stack, it was awarded the nickname “little Jim.”
In this week’s action-packed 47 minutes and 52 seconds of TPS on-air goodness, Dan & Mick cover a lot of ground. They address some common misconceptions about volume loss and recovery, prescribe some ways of balancing clean and dirty tones in a mix, and offer wisdom for anticipating dynamic shifts when entering a new environment and gear set-up. Of these take-aways, we’ll cover two counterintuitive yet clever methods for using pedals to achieve a greater sense of balance and clarity across the spectrum of crisp cleans to roaring drives.
High Wattage, Loads of Headroom, and Gain Pedals for Clean Tones?
It’s a common misconception that wattage in guitar amps is primarily correlated with volume. Yet, as Dan & Mick demonstrated, the more important consideration is the higher headroom afforded by amps with greater wattage. In short, the wave signal has greater height and depth, which means both the amp’s natural break-up point is higher and it has increased range and capacity to accommodate additions to the signal from guitar pedals. This is not, however, to say that small amps with more moderate wattage and headroom can’t sound great on their own or with pedals. There’s no question, the Class 5 holds its own. Yet, as Dan highlighted, when it comes to playing clean sounds at higher volumes, “you need to know that when dig in it’s not going to receive those notes and amplify them in the same way [as a larger amp].”
As Dan & Mick also demonstrated in the episode, if you’re practicing with little Jim yet gigging with big Jim, it’s important to be aware of how the architecture of each amp responds to added gain and boost. For example, kicking in a boost or overdrive pedal with little Jim will probably lift the sound and deliver that dynamic aggression in a more apparent way simply because the headroom ceiling is lower and it clips sooner. Since big Jim has a higher ceiling, the response will be different and it might not lift the sound in the way you anticipated.
So what is one prescription for alleviating this? As its battle-worn enclosure attests, Dan’s Keeley modded Boss Blue Driver has been a staple on his rig for years. (Apparently, he was not the only fan of this stompbox, as Robert Keeley made its approximation available to the masses and next generation in the recently released Keeley Super Phat Mod Dynamic Overdrive. The ongoing history of the classic pedal now also includes the Boss Blues Driver BD-2w Waza Craft). For Dan, however, this stompbox served as an “always-on” pedal, set at the lowest possible gain and used as a platform for his clean tone on higher wattage amps. Dan reflected, “What I love about using a light overdrive for clean sounds is the way it reacts when you dig in…as my dynamics lift, it doesn’t get louder it just gets into a light overdrive.” With this approach, you’re able to make the most of the headroom and know it’s there when you need it yet optimize the pedal as a way of limiting and controlling the clean sound. As Mick concluded, essentially this tactic “turns your 40 watt Hot Rod Deluxe, or in our case a 50 watt Marshall, into a 5 watt Marshall because it’s reacting in the same way that little Jim’s reacting.”
Need to be Heard? Fight the Urge to Kick In More Overdrive!
If the strategy of using a gain pedal to set up clean dynamics seemed counterintuitive, shying away from stomping on another overdrive when more energy, aggression, and cutting through the mix is required will seem flat out odd. Typically, heavier and more energetic parts of songs have all hands on deck in the band. This often results in a wide frequency sound, making it easy for your guitar part to fade away or fail to pop out in the mix. Most of us inherited an equation of more gain equals more volume. As Dan noted, this is not the case and overlooks the related issues of compression and EQ. So, how do you reclaim your space in the sonic range while fighting the urge for more gain?
Dan & Mick offer a few ideas. “What I would do,” suggested Dan, “is maybe even reduce the gain a little bit [on a pedal].” Again, while counterintuitive, this can serve as a way of retaining the mid-range EQ home base of the guitar while providing it with more of a spiked edge to cut through a muddy mix.
If you’re entirely averse to reducing gain, another strategy would be to add a graphic equalizer pedal—like the Boss Equalizer GE-7, Hotone Skyline EQ-V, or MXR 6 or 10-band EQ pedals— to your board to engineer your own mid-frequency boost. This approach allows you to craft the overdrive dynamic you desire and then shape the EQ dimensions so that the most essential mid-range frequency is pushed ahead of the rest.
Finally, a bit of compression might also be the answer. As Dan always says about compression, “it’s the overdrive for your clean sound.” By this he means that a compressor pedal will limit the dynamics of the signal by nudging the high-highs and low-lows ever so slightly closer. This of course will reign in the dynamics of the clean tone sounds as well as provide a different sort of push, sustain, and focus to grittier overdriven tones when they’re sat in the mix.
While the episode as a whole included these and many more insights applicable to transposing tone from small spaces to big venues, Mick closed off with a comment on the relevance of the topic to where most of us play, most of the time: in the controlled, low volume environment at home. As Dan added, it’s also a matter of being aware of how dynamics are somewhat organic, as they are a result of multiple factors including playing style, pedal choices, and amp character: “It’s about being aware of the dynamic range of the gear you’re using [and] being aware and sensitive to the music that you’re playing.”
Whether you’re in the market for a gig-worthy big Jim-type amp or more of a little Jim-style guitar practice amp, stop in at Riff City for loads of amp options for any venue and pedals to help created and retain your style in any setting imaginable.
TPS Episode Rig Rundown:
Guitars: Dan: 1963 Closet Classic Fender Telecaster (ca. 2000). Mick: 1962 American Vintage Fender Stratocaster (ca. 2000).
Amps: Marshall Plexi 1987 XL (50 watt), 4x12 Marshall cabinet; Marshall Class 5.Effects: Origin Effects Cali 76 Compressor; Kingsley Page Tube Boost; Keeley D&M Drive; Boss Blues Driver BD-2 (compare Keeley Super Phat Mod Dynamic Overdrive); Strymon Timeline; MXR Reverb M300; Providence Chrono Delay; Fulltone OCD.