We all know that spot on your amp where the tubes are doing their job, its unique EQ shape is rolling and ringing in the room just right, the gain is in on the brink of breakup and your guitar and pedals are in perfect tag-team. We also all probably know that vibe doesn’t come at a low wattage and certainly not at a low volume. Enter the contentious and elusie world of power attenuators.
If the idea of attenuating an amp is new or foreign to you, do yourself a favor and take notes on the first fifteen minutes of this week’s episode of TPS. Dan & Mick broke the topic and terms down expertly. Understanding attenuators indeed requires a bit of gear theory. However, the bigger issue is arguably a philosophical one: is a Plexi still a Plexi if its wattage and volume are harnessed? (Cue chin scratching and upward gazing in deep thought here).
While the world of attenuators is complex, Dan & Mick ran a number of experiments this week that showed both their problems and prospects. Dan & Mick had a lot to say about attenuators. Here’s a few words on some of their main ideas: a tip, a hack, and a reflection.
THE TIP: Keep your ear out for how compression and clarity change when attenuating. As Dan reflected on the experience of playing the Plexi at all levels across the attenuation spectrum, he noted that the main impression he got was how the guitar responded differently to the amp depending on the movement of air and sonic pressure in the room. One main intersection observed was compression vs. clarity. “The quieter it got the more compressed it seemed. But as it went louder there was a little bit more clarity…a bit more detail and dynamic range.” In this way, an attenuator can not only be a tool for getting around the challenge of volume in different situations it may also be a way of conjuring some different behaviors out of your gear. While attenuators are primarily about volume, they also impact tone. For better or worse, it’s something to keep an ear out for when managing your monster of an amp.
THE HACK: Use an attenuator to create an effects loops for a vintage amp. While effects loops are a common fixture in modern amps, if you’re favorite vintage loud maker came from the era before the effects pedal boom you might be wondering how to run your stompboxes into the rig apart from the obvious options on the front end. As Dan noted when using the Power Station, “if your amp doesn’t have an effects loop but that’s the sound you love, you can attenuate, but there is also an effects loop in the Power Station.” This means you can set all of your favorite delays or modulation pedals in the mix without running them into the input jack. In this way, the attenuator could serve a volume and wattage purpose but the real hack here is how it’s creating a space in the rig for your pedals in a way that was previously impossible. The added benefit here is that—regardless of whether your amp has an effects loop or not—this sets the pedals after both the preamp and power amp sections. This means the full gain structure and character of the amp is working as it was engineered to do before the effects are brought in the equation. Clever move, Dan Steinhardt, clever move.
THE REFLECTION: There’s always that unaccountable variable of the experience when the amp’s performing at its best. Throughout the episode, Dan & Mick both commented on the remarkable ways some attenuators were able to capture the sound and sweet spot of a cranked amp yet shrunk down to a manageable volume. At intervals, however, they also noted that shrinking that sound is not the same thing as embodying the feel of playing an amp when it’s working hard. As Dan noted, “an experience like that, when it’s so loud! It could be exactly the same sound [with the attenuator] and you wouldn’t know because it’s such a radically different experience.” It’s that physical experience of the sound filling the space and pulsing in the room. Sure an attenuator can help make a wall of Marshalls worthy of Spinal Tap manageable in a bedroom setting, but if that’s the goal, the question might be: is that gear the best choice for the setting? As Mick commented, at that point you “maybe want to get something more bedroom appropriate.”
Whether you’re looking for a monster amp, a way of taming your beast with an attenuator, or are feeling the call to downsize and get an amp that fits your realistic needs rather than your rock star dreams, come check us out at Riff City.
Guitars: Duesenberg Bonneville; Fender American Vintage ’62 Stratocaster.
Amps: Lazy J20; Victory Sheriff 22; Marshall Plexi 1987 XL (50 watt); Freyette Power Station; Palmer PD106.Pedals: JAM Pedals Delay Fuzz Phrase; Keeley D&M Drive; Hudson Broadcast Dual Footswitch; Boss MD-500; TC Electronic PolyTune Mini; Kingsley Page DS; Free The Tone Flight Time.