Most of us spend a great deal of time playing guitar in either a bedroom or a small home recording studio. Limited space, grumpy neighbours and a patient family makes it hard to really crank that amp. Still, we all want a big and fat tone that has all the qualities of playing on a loud stack. In this feature I’ll share some of my tricks for getting great tones at bedroom levels.
My home recording studio is a typically bedroom-sized room equipped with a few low wattage amps. I have a couple of smaller tube amps that serve the purpose of both practice and recording (although most of my live guitars are recorded in our rehearsal studio). I’ve experimented a lot over the years and found ways to achieve a big tone on low wattage and volume.
So what is a big tone? What do we want to achieve on a smaller amp? Well, personally I want the same full bodied character I get when I drive my Reeves Custom 50w really hard. I want the sound of glowing hot tubes on the very edge of breakup and speakers pushing air. This makes my guitars and pedals sound fatter, warmer and more compressed but it also makes my ears adjust, trying to even out those transients and focusing on to the mids. This can’t be achieved on low volume alone so we need to compensate and simulate it.
I’m a believer in that you can get great tones from almost any type of equipment. Still, getting an amp that’s suited for a smaller room, will save you a lot of headache. Tube amps are usually easier to make sound good on lower volume (and manipulate to do so) compared to solid states, which have a more static character and can sound thin.
A 50w or 100w tube amp is usually out of the question for bedroom players but a 15w or 30w is still a very loud amp and most of these needs a bit of volume to sound as intended (meaning: you need to crank them a bit for the tone really open up). Most bedrooms doesn’t need more than 5w or maybe 1w. Amps like the Laney Cub12, Hughes & Kettner Tubemeister 18 and Hiwatt’s Tube Series (among others) feature a built in power scaling that allows you to down-size the wattage to 5w or even 1w. This will allow you to set the amp at the edge of break up or full blown distortion without getting too loud – much like an attenuator but more effective.
The amp should have a master volume control in addition to gain. If not you’re basically just raising the distortion level, which leaves you with less headroom and, on low levels, often a thin sound. Amps with a scooped mid range, like Fender (or similar), will often sound brighter and thinner on low volume. An amp with more mid range, like Hiwatt (or similar), will sound warmer and more balanced.
One of the biggest mistake many guitarists do – both on stage and smaller rooms – is to neglect the importance of mid range. When playing alone your guitar often sound best with a typically mids scooped tone. The lows and highs makes the tone really scream. Still, your ears are designed to pick up on the mids range, as that’s where the main register of the human voice lies and when you bring those fabulous mid scooped tones on stage, your guitar will drown completely behind the drums and keys. This applies to bedroom setups too. Crank that mid range and your guitar will sound warmer and fatter and you’ll have a much richer sustain.
The lows can really mess up your guitar. Again, when playing alone you probably want to feel the lows but that’s where the drums and bass are and while you don’t have a full band in your bedroom too much low end will make your guitar sound muddy and flabby, rather than focused and tight. Lower the bass, crank the mids and keep the treble at a moderate level. The precise settings depends on your guitar, amp and taste.
Some amps also feature a tone or presence control that, depending on the amp, boosts between 4-7kHz. Be careful with this one but try to find the right balance between it and the treble.
Don’t be afraid to give the amp a bit of break up. You probably don’t want full overdrive but a super clean amp often sound thin. Raise the gain until you start to notice a breakup. If your amp has two channels, you might want to experiment with the gain channel and get it as clean as possible. In many cases this is a better basis for your pedals that a purely clean channel. What we want is to compensate for the effect we get from driving the tubes hard on a bigger amp.
An attenuator, like the THD Hot Plate, is placed between the amp and speaker cab. This allows you to crank the living shit out of your amp, while keeping a neighbour friendly volume. These are best used when relying on your amp’s gain to create overdrive and distortion. In that case you want to place your modulations and delays in the amp’s effects loop. However, if you run your amp clean an attenuator will be a bit redundant as you can basically just lower the volume on the amp. Besides, why not just buy an amp with lower wattage?
We often forget volume pedals in our bedroom setups but these are basically acting like an attenuator only placed at the end of your chain, which allows you to raise both the gain and master on your amp, as well as increasing the volume on your pedals to push the amp a bit and keep a low volume.
I’m not a big fan of the send/return effects loop on amps but a great tip is to place a transparent booster in the loop (if your amp has one). When you crank the gain on your amp, you’re boosting the pre-amp, which adds overdrive but it will also make your amp sound thinner. The fatness sits in the output stage but this can only be boosted by playing loud. However, placing a booster in the loop, will drive the output stage harder, without actually raising the volume.
It needs to be a transparent, mids scooped booster like a Buffalo FX Powerbooster, TC Electronics Spark Booster or similar. Set the EQ on the pedal neutral, the volume slightly above unity and the gain as high as possible without the amp starting to break up.
Some prefer an EQ for this application. This will give you the tools to both boost the volume and enhance certain frequencies like the mid range.
A pickup booster is placed first in the pedal chain. It boosts the input signal from the guitar to the pedal board and is designed to respond to the character of your pickups and the dynamics of your playing. I’m featuring a Fire Bootle from Effectrode on my studio board. It’s got a tube, which makes the tone warmer and slightly fatter, but it’s also got a switch for rolling off those highs. In short, the pedal can make a thin sounding Strat or Tele sound like a Les Paul with P90s or humbuckers. An extremely versatile and handy tool.
More conventional boosters, like the Buffalo FX Power Booster and TC Electronics Spark Booster, are placed after your high gain pedals. To simulate the effect of a cranked tube amp, set the volume slightly higher than unity and the gain just at the edge of breakup (you might want to lower the treble accordingly). This will both make your cleans sound warmer and, when combined with other overdrives and distortions, these will sound smoother and have more sustain.
Some gain pedals has a dynamic volume stage, meaning that lowering or increasing the volume will change the character of the pedal. Increasing the volume on your overdrive or distortion will also boost the amp, which again will make the pedal sound smoother and slightly more compressed. Experiment with this and find the right balance between boost and not altering the tone too much.
A compressor might not be an obvious purchase. Especially for a tight budget. But again, we need to compensate for the lack of tube and speaker compression that makes the tone sound smoother and warmer. A compressor will balance your signal by tightening the lows and rounding off the high transients. Don’t be afraid to compress a bit more than what you’d normally would on a loud amp.
Vintage style fuzz, Muffs and boosters has very little mid range and, as we talked about above, mid range is crucial for the guitar to be able to cut through that dense band mix. It’s also crucial for the pedals to sound fat and smooth and in case everything fails you might want to reconsider those pedals and get something with more mids.
Overdrives like the TS9/OD808, OCD and Dover Drive (and similar) have a lot of mid range. Likewise, distortions like the RAT and Evolution (and similar) has more mids and compression and will, in many cases sound far better than a buzzy fuzz. There are some so-called stacked Big Muff clones available too, like the MojoHand Iron Bell and Skreddy P19, which although not straight up ram’s head clones, will in many cases sound better.
Again, the lack of mid range and too much low end, will make your tone sound both thin and muddy so although you might find some of these mid range boosted pedals both boxy sounding and a bit thin in the lows, they will make your guitar sound warmer and stand out in a band mix.
Vintage style single coils has a low output and very little mids, which can sound rather thin on smaller amps and low volume. Try swapping your pickups for someone hotter, like Texas Specials or a full set of SSL5s. You can even go for P90s or mid 50s humbuckers. This will compensate for the warmth and natural compression you get from louder amps.
Good cables and fresh strings are also easily overlooked but very important in getting the tones you want. Bad or low quality cables tend to both drain and colour your tone. Old strings sound dead and will not respond as well to your playing as new strings will. Don’t compromise cables and strings just because you’re playing at home. Tone lies in every part of your setup. Understandably, a tight budget might force you to focus on other parts of your rig but get the best cables that you can afford and restring as often as you can. It will make a big difference.
I hope you got a few useful tips here. I think my philosophy and best tip is – never stop experimenting with your gear and get to know the potential of the gear you have. It doesn’t need to be expensive or high end stuff. Most of your tone lies in your mind, fingers and your ability to make the most of what you got.
Please feel free to use the comments field below and share your secret tone tips!