Tuesday, May 28, 2013

10 hints on how to choose a metal amp.

So you're up to buy a tube hi-gain monster, but you're not certain about how to choose the amp of your dreams? Let me share some experience within 10 hints that will hopefully help you to find the amp you are looking for!

1. Go and test 'em!

There are tons of reviews and soundexamples online. And you can read up which amp was used on which recording and stuff. These infos are surely helpful, but you can't just rely on (mostly owner's) user reviews and produced or badly produced sound examples and albums etc. The only way to find the right one is to go to the largest store you can find in your area and test as many of them until you find a pair of those that you like the most,

2, Preparing for the amp test.

First of all, take someone with you to test the amps. Be it a friend of your's or a shop assistant. Another pair of hands and ears won't hurt. When you're in the amp testing room, ask the personel to give you a guitar similar to yours, i.e. with the same pickups, tuning, or, ideally, the same model (or just take your guitar to the shop). 

3. 4x12" Cabinet.

If you already have a 4x12" cab that you really like, make sure that you test the amps through the SAME cab. The sound of the cab is almost as crucial as the sound of the amp. Even a great amp will not sound as intended if connected to a cab that doesn't match it's sound. Even if you'll have 10 cabs from different manufacturers, but with same darn V30's all these cabs will sound differently, sometimes even completely different. If you do not have a 4x12" cab, than you should begin to play the amps. As soon as you find one or more amps that you really like start to switch cabs, until you'll get the best tone.

3. How to test the amp.

Although this point appears to be quite trivial, it's not. In the first line, set all eq AND level knobs of the amp to 12 o'clock. With these settings you'll hear how the manufacturer ment the amp to sound. If you're looking for a metal tube head, you should start with the highest gain channel straight away. Who cares about clean sound?! Set the gain knobs to the point where you start to feel comfortable with playing  and start to play and let the second person tweak the settings. It's important to run the amp on fairly high levels, because of the poweramp section. In order to show it's character, a tube amp needs the power tubes to be driven well. This applies to cabs as well. Their tonal behaviour changes with ammount of signal sent to them. If the amp doesn't impress you on 12 รถ'clock setting, then take a closer look on it's additional features and filters, like depth punch, rough mode or others that significantly change the tone of the amp. At this point an expirienced person should setup the amp's sound. A competent seller is able to show you the amp's good sides. If still not impressed, go to the next amp. This can take time. But don't let anybody else to play over this amp, because it's imporant how it will sound with your hands. Setting like bass and highs to the max and mid to zero with all preamp gain knobs to the max should be avoided. This setting tends to sound cool on almost any amp alone, but with a band or while recording it's not really useable. 

4. How much watts do i need?

Most amps come with 100 watts and this is fully sufficient. Amps with more watts, like 150, have to be played on louder levels to achieve the "sweet spot". Amps with less watts will reach the sweet spot earlier than the 100's, but will be more quiet. All in all it's horses for courses. If you're rehearsing in smaller rooms and play smaller gigs 150 watt will most likely be overkill. Amps with 50 or 60 watt will have to be cranked all the time, which shortens the life of the tubes.

5. What's important in the amp's sound?

This is very subjective and you surely should like the sound of the amp that' you're playing. But you should pay attention to how well the amp reads your guitar. How detailed is your sound? Does it add mud when driven to hi-gain? How harsh are the high frequencies of the amp? Is there a lot of sand in the sound? Is this amp too noisy? If you like the amp very much, but ain't sure because of the noise, consider to add a noise-supressor. Does the amp have enough gain reserve, or does it need some kind of a booster, like a distortion pedal? I personally try to avoid any distortion pedals on metal amps, because in most cases they destroy the actual flavor of the amp. A good hi-gain metal amp will have enough distortion to kick your ass. Otherwise it's not a metal amp. If you need the amp for playing your songs, then play your songs all along. It won't get you far if "Master of Puppets" will sound great with the amp, but your songs will not.

6. New amps vs. used amps.

A good hi-gain amp will most likely cost you quite a buck, so if you're on a tight budget it's a good idea to buy an used amplifier. However following things should be taken into final account: You'll most likely have to change the tubes, which will cost you about additional 200 $. If there are any technical problems with the amp, that will appear after you have bought the amp it will cost you additional money. And there's no warranty. On the other hand if you're saving over a thousand bucks, it's not a big problem.

7. Choosing a cabinet.

As stated earlier the cabinet is almost as crucial as the amp itself. A good cab that matches the sound of your  amp will blow you away and it doesn't have to be the cabinet of the same manufacturer. The good news is: there are a lot of cheaper cabinets out there that beat the sh*t out of some expensive mesas, oranges and marshalls. You'll have to decide which one you'll take. Pay attention on how the cab handles the lower frequencies. How clean and tight are the lows? How can this cab handle high volumes?

8. Band X used amp Y on the album Z.

Forget it. How an amp sounds in real life or in a production are two different worlds. Also, most bands use combinations of multiple amps and/or multiple double tracks with different settings and then more or less heavily processed during mixing and mastering, not to speak of the fact that the band x has other guitars, effects and more importantly: guitarists. You should pick the amp that YOU AND you SONGS will sound great with.

9. What additinal features of an amp are important?

Many of today's metal amps (especially the expensive ones) provide some great additional features like cable tester's, built in effects, protective circuits, noise gates, midi interfaces, ability to store presets and so on. Which features are important and how much you're willing to pay for them is totally up to you. In my opinion, what counts is the sound of the Hi-Gain and the possibility to change tonal charactersitics of the amp. The rest is secondary. Midi interface or preset storage function is very handy if you're using a variety of sounds. Things like built in effects or noise gates are a nice addition, but i still like to choose which hardware i want to use with the amp, not being limited to the features of one single device.

10.  Oldschool tube amp with a distortion pedal.

Some older tube heads have fantastic sound, but don't have enough hi-gain. In this case you'll have to deal with some booster/overdirve/distortion pedals. The problem is: it's not easy to find a good combination, because different distortion pedals sound completely different on different amps. The good thing is, that if you'll find a good match you'll get authentic and outstanding tone, but this will require a lot of time since there are millions of boosters, overdrives and distortion pedals out there. Many musicians use ibanez tube screamers and it's clones (808 and such). I found out that blackstar pedals tend to sound great on some marshall amps. You'll have to find your own combination.

Now, do yourself a favor, stop reading reviews and watching youtube and go to the music store!

Ok. For those of you, who like to have it easy here's a list of amps i would recommend to start with (alphabetical order):

Diezel: Herbert, VH4
ENGL: Ritchie Blackmore, Powerball, Savage 120, Invader 100, SE
FORTIN: Meathead, Natas
Hughes & Kettner: Coreblade, Triamp
Mesa Boogie: Dual Rectifier, Road King, MARK V

Stay tuned!

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