How much is too much? Amps with purpose
So you are looking to invest in an amp but you now have stumbled across the ultimate question plaguing musicians since the dawn of electric riffage... How many watts is enough? The answer to that is as simple or as complicated as you want to make it but there are a few key factors to consider when choosing the size of your rig.
"Am i ever going to play outside the bedroom?"
Sometimes this question is taken like some kind of insult but this is not a derogatory elitist statement, just an honest factor for you to consider. If you only want to achieve some beautiful sounds in your home with your chosen setup then the amp market is an open sea of possibility, but be honest with yourself! Because not all amp situations are applicable to band jams or road lyfe.
"What kind of music am i playing?"
Horses for courses my friends. Amps that claim to do it all (outside of new digital i.r modelling amps) Rarely do and not all amps are suited to the same purpose. Most traditional amps do two things well and that is to bring their particular voicing and headroom to the table as a platform for you to achieve tonez. So what exactly is headroom? Let me refer you to this little graph I whipped up.
A good description of headroom is that it's a measure of clean amplification. Let's pretend my little graph represents a 100 watt amp, and the pink squiggle is your guitar signal. You are playing in a loud rock band and the A line of the graph is representing the average amount of power used to amplify your signal, around 50 watts which is a fair bit of push. The P line above the A line represents the peak output of your amplifier. The space between the A (average) and P (peak) output lines is your headroom.
You will notice that your guitar signal has some high peaks of volume above the A line. Because of the high headroom these are accommodated by the amp without compressing or distorting the signal giving you clean amplification.
Now let's imagine this is now a 60 watt amp and you are running it at the same volume as before. On the graph the green L line is the new peak output and as you can see the guitar signals sudden jumps in volume are exceeding the headroom making it inadequate for clean amplification.
"So how much headroom do i need?"
So now you understand headroom and you might be thinking "oh no i must have big amps!" But that is not actually the case.
Some styles of music owe their most iconic sounds to low watt amps being pushed to the limit, compressing and distorting resulting in some unique sonic statements players still attempt to replicate today. Because there is no one answer to this question we circle back to the all important "what kind of music am i playing" this is an absolutely paramount question when choosing your ideal amp.
It largely hinges on your taste so arm yourself with knowledge. Utilize the internet and ascertain what amps your favorite artists use in live applications. There is a massive amount of info available, talk to people in groups and forums, watch YouTube reviews and if possible try some equipment first hand with the guitar and pedals you will be using. Be warned however that a piece of equipment that sounded incredible on old mate YouTubes guitar channel may not be quite as amazing as it seems . Take demos with a grain of salt. What your hearing is often a recorded blend of mics and room sound, tweaked and sweetened in production. And you may not have the thousands of dollars necessary to have a signal chain that replicates the sound you were hoping for. However having given due warning i still feel YouTube is a great tool to get a ball park idea what you're buying.
"I'm still not sure what to commit to. What do i do?"
My hard fast rules are simple. If you're not sure, wait. Hire and borrow equipment till you find the gear you seek.
Some things to consider on this journey into sound are....
How big are my bandmates amps? If you play rock or metal and bring a 20 watt amp to a session with a 100 watt Marshall half stack and 500 watt GK bass rig with 6x10 you may as well mime playing. Unless you're in a recording session, or in a venue with a sweet P.A and competent sound tech you will be overshadowed. Even with the other amps turned down and you turned up to unity the lack of head room will flatten the amps dynamic range and your sound will be pretty lifeless by comparison to the full dynamic range at the same volume in a more powerful amp. Also good luck telling people to turn down in jams and gigs where it's you and a vocal P.A vs the world.
So match closely the power of your band mates. You can make a big amp sound smaller with volume decreases and compression but not a small amp bigger.
Also if you play with high gain go big. An already distorted signal can suffer if further compressed or distorted by low headroom. Notice how most heavy bands have large wattage amps? That's the reason. High volume, big headroom makes great high gain tonality.
Lastly a final little tip if you go down the solid state path take your desired tube amp power and double it. I play a 200 watt quilter and it holds its own against 100 watt tube amps with no P.A assistance. But take heed the way a solid state amp sounds with increased volume can quickly get ragged sounding at the top of its range. This is because they amplify in a way more akin to your car stereo than a tube amp. Ever top out your car stereo? Pretty nasty isn't it. By ensuring a larger headroom you can cleanly reach the volume levels of your tube counterparts and it can still be in a small package.
So did you get anything out of this? I hope so. Please bear in mind these are only rough guidelines to help you on the tonez quest. I'm just a tech but i stand by this advice. I would never suggest you do anything I wouldn't or haven't. Once again Knowledge is power. Take in as much as you can and make up your own mind. It's sound and beauty is in the ear of the beholder.
Till next time Stay safe and riff hard
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