Guitar/Buying an Amplifier
Amplifiers come in a wide variety of designs and your choice of amplifier should be based on the type of music you wish to play. Your local guitar dealer will let you test the different amplifiers they stock though they may only offer a limited range due to space restrictions. Its always a good idea to visit many dealers including pro-audio outlets to test amplifiers across the entire price range before committing yourself. This chapter will explain the difference between a tube amplifier and a solid state amplifier as well as exploring the variations on these two basic designs.
- 1 Tube, Solid State and Hybrid Amplifiers
- 2 Features
- 3 Amplifier and Speaker Wattage
- 4 Types of Unit
- 5 Size
- 6 What makes a good amplifier?
Tube, Solid State and Hybrid Amplifiers
Tube amplifiers produce a warm and fat tone that is popular with guitarists. New models are available from Marshall, Fender and Vox as well as other manufacturers many of whom have an equal reputation for quality. Vintage tube amplifiers are available to buy though maintaining them can be expensive especially with regards to the cost of replacement parts. The continuing popularity of vintage amplifiers from earlier decades has resulted in a market for reissues.
There are three operating modes for tube technology: Class A, Class B and Class AB.
- Pure Class A operates by having a full continuous current flowing through the tubes. The tubes are still fully powered even when there is no signal to divert to the speaker. This makes Pure Class A tubes expensive to run; similar to a car idling in neutral with the throttle pedal right down. Pure Class A responds very fast to an input signal with a tube saturation (distortion) that many guitarists find appealing. Many Pure Class A amplifiers use tubes with a low wattage to offset their inefficient operating mode thereby increasing the tubes lifespan and reducing running costs.
- Class A refers to an output design that doesn't use a Pure Class A single-ended output stage. Class A uses a pair of tubes or multiples terminating in a push-pull output stage.
- Class B is rarely used in guitar amplifiers due to crossover distortion issues so manufacturers instead use a combination of Class A and Class B known as Class AB.
- Class AB operates by using a pair of tubes. Whereas Pure Class A produces the entire waveform, positive and negative, with a single-ended output, Class AB produces the entire waveform using two tubes with one handling the positive voltage and the other the negative voltage. In comparison to Pure Class A, which uses a full continuous current to achieve a three hundred and sixty degree waveform and is always on at full power even when there is no signal present, Class AB uses a smaller amount of constant current to achieve the same always on state for the two tubes. Class AB is thereby more efficient with regards to power consumption and heat dissipation and the operating life of the tubes are greatly extended.
- A tube is based on vacuum technology and requires more energy than a solid state amplifier with the same wattage.
- Vacuum tubes are expensive and require replacement every one to four years depending on use.
- Amplifiers with tubes are generally heavier than solid state amplifiers due to the need for an output transformer.
- Tube amplifiers are usually more expensive than a solid state amplifier.
- Tubes require a warm-up period before they reach optimum performance.
Solid state amplifiers are very popular with beginners due to their affordability. Solid state amplifiers have a fast attack time and are immediately available for use when switched on. Solid state circuitry allows more volume to be applied to the output signal before clipping occurs which makes the amplifiers suitable for jazz or acoustic guitarists who may wish to retain a clean sound at high volumes. A solid state amplifier matched with good quality speakers can produce a wide frequency response. Some solid state amplifiers use field effect transistors (FET) on the preamp stage which at high gain produces a distortion similar to a tube amplifier.
Solid state amplifiers retain a tight low end while producing a full harmonic distortion at high gain which is desirable for the metal genre. This has resulted in a range of solid state amplifiers specifically designed for metal guitarists. Solid state amplifiers tend to be smaller and lighter than their equivalent tube amplifiers and these design factors allows manufacturers to build amplifiers weighing less than 10lbs which are capable of 150w clean RMS sound. Root Mean Square refers to continuous output as opposed to Peak measurement which is the wattage of an amplifier measured in a short burst.
Solid State amplifiers:
- A solid state amplifier requires less energy to power than an equivalent tube amplifier.
- Solid state circuitry needs minimum maintenance and there are no tubes to replace.
- Solid state amplifiers are more robust than tube amplifiers.
- Solid state amplifiers are available in an affordable price range.
- A solid state amplifier requires no warm-up.
All amplifiers have a preamp stage which boosts the signal from the guitar before it is sent to the power amplifier stage. Hybrid amplifiers are designed to utilize both tube and solid state technology and are available in the following configurations:
- tube preamp coupled with a solid state power amplifier
- solid state preamp coupled with a tube power amplifier
A tube preamp coupled with a solid state power amplifier outputs a tube tone with a fast attack. A solid state preamp coupled with a tube output provides solid state high gain with the warmth of tubes.
Design variations may include digital modeling, integrated tube/solid state stages or further additional tube or solid state stages in the signal path:
- The Vox Valvetronix signal path starts with solid state effects and preamp which sends the signal to a tube/solid state integrated output stage.
- The Line 6 Spider Valve signal path starts with digital tone processing followed by a tube preamp which sends the signal to a tube power amplifier.
- Input - accepts a quarter inch mono jack cable
- Power - off and on
- Volume - adjusts the volume
- Speaker - built-in or separate cabinet
- Gain - the amount of boost applied at the preamp stage
- Tone/Equalizer - treble and bass tone knobs or graphic equalizer
- Headphone socket - headphones can be used for private practice
- Channel selection - switch between clean and high gain
- Additional inputs - high sensitivity input for use with a low-output pickup and low sensitivity input for use with a high-output pickup
- Modeling - digital emulations of popular amplifiers and effects
- Onboard effects - built in proprietary effects such as chorus, delay and echo
- Effect loop - external effects can be plugged into the amplifier
- Line in - the audio signal bypasses the preamp stage and is sent directly to the power amplifier
- Line out - the output from the amplifier can be sent to another power amplifier or mixing desk
- Speaker out - standard on a separate amplifier and when found on a combo amplifier allows a different speaker to be used
- Foot-switch plug - an external foot-switch can be plugged in
- Impedance switch (on tube amplifiers only) - change the resistance, measured in ohms, of the amplifier to match speaker impedance
- Standby switch (on tube amplifiers only) - the standby switch has exactly the same function as the standby mode of a computer which removes the need to cold boot when taking a short break. Any technology that requires a time period to reach optimum working state benefits from this idea. Components are powered down while remaining in a ready state which saves energy and extends their operating life.
Amplifier and Speaker Wattage
Amplifiers are rated for the maximum amount of watts they are designed to output and speakers for the maximum amount of watts they are designed to accept as input.
The wattage rating is an indication of loudness though some amplifiers may output more or less wattage than they are rated for. It is recommended that your first amplifier should be in the 30-50 watt range. If you are intending to buy a 100 watt amplifier you will need to consider using a rehearsal studio for practice. When recording or playing live you should capture the speaker output with a dynamic microphone, the industry standard Sure SM57 is relatively inexpensive, so that the output can be routed to a mixing desk or PA.
Due to the way tube amplifiers and solid state amplifiers distort there is a perceived difference in loudness with tube sounding louder given the same wattage. The fact is that both are equally loud but the sustain on solid state amplifiers is not as good which results in a perceived lose of volume. If you are gong to be in high overdrive all the time, solid state amplifiers will actually sound louder, but often more piercing.
Another question is whether you need the louder wattage. On the other hand, in order to push the lower frequencies of the sound, wattage is important. This is because the idea of a good distortion, in general, is to have an amplifier that pushes as much clean bottom end into your overdriven sound as possible without getting flabby or muddy, which is what creates the hugeness of the sound. The lower in wattage that you go, the quicker your bottom end will mud out.
Solid state amplifiers:
- 10-30W: home practice
- 30-50W: band practice, recording, small club
- 50-100W: large venue
- <10W clean: self practice, recording
- <10W overdriven: self practice, recording, small club
- 10-20W clean: self and band practice, recording, small to medium club
- 10-20W overdriven: band practice, recording, small to medium club
- 20-30W: band practice, gigging
- 30-50W: gigging
- 50-100W: extremely loud in confined spaces though diffuse in large halls
The function of a speaker is to convert an electrical signal into acoustic energy or sound waves. This is achieved with an electromagnet called the voice coil which is attached to the speaker cone by a spring called the spider. The vibrations from the voice coil are transferred via the spider to the speaker cone.
A speaker cabinet will have either a single speaker or multiples. Most two speaker amplifiers, ranging from the smallest 50 watt combo amplifiers to the MG15MSII Microstack offered by Marshall, have basically the same amplification circuit as their single-speaker counterparts. A two speaker configuration may have a smaller diameter than their single speaker counterpart e.g. 2x10″ instead of 1x12″. The main benefit of having multiple speakers is that it increases volume as well as bass response without sacrificing the higher frequencies. By having more speaker cones the speakers will move more air. For example, a 2x10″ will have a surface area of 157 sq.in. while a 1x12″ will have a surface area of 113 sq.in. A 4x10″ cab is often used for large combo amplifiers as it provides most of the bass response you'd get from a 1x15″, but retains the high frequency that the 1x15″ can't produce. Also, it will have increased power-handling capability, or more precisely, they split the amplifier output. Thus, given same amplification head, a two speaker configuration will have louder volume, but only half the power to each speaker.
All else being equal, generally a low power speaker is louder at the same power as a high power speaker. This is known as efficiency or sensitivity. A 25 watt speaker with a 10 watt amplifier will generally be louder than a 100 watt speaker on the same 10 watt amplifier. Thus, a multi speaker cab will allow the use of low power speakers with a high power amplifier.
Lastly, in some styles of music, such as rock and blues, the speakers sound their best when being pushed close to their max power ratings. When buying cabs for your amplifier the best power rating is about 150% of your amplifier's rated output e.g. 150 watt for 100 watt amplifier, 75 for 50, etc. Any higher and you'll actually lose volume.
Head and cabinet match up
A speaker out will have a certain acceptable impedance. For solid state amplifiers, you should only plug in speakers that have the same impedance, even though larger amount of impedance is also somewhat acceptable (e.g.: a 8ohm plug can only accept 8ohm or 16 ohm) Plugging in a speaker with lower impedance will very likely burn your amplifier.
Tube amplifiers are much more sensitive to speaker impedance. Any mismatch between the speaker impedance and the impedance set on the amplifier will cause a strain on the tubes and transformer. It is more acceptable to plug in a speaker of lower impedance, however, the opposite of what you can do with solid state amplifiers. A higher speaker impedance might be ok as far as it is no more than twice than the one set on the amplifier. Never turn on a tube amplifier with no speakers connected. This might cause severe damage to the output transformer. Always turn off your tube amplifier before disconnecting the speaker. Some amplifiers have shorting jacks (e.g. Hiwatts), these may allow you to change speakers on the fly, but always at the amplifier side of the cable, never at the speaker side.
Types of Unit
The combo amplifier is a one piece unit containing both the preamp, power amplifier, and the speaker(s). Typically they do not exceed more than 100 watts, as they are designed to be relatively portable. Most combos have just a single speaker, ranging from 6" to 15" but some have two or four speakers. The most common is a single 12" with a pair of 12" being the next most common.
Micro amplifiers usually have 1 watt, and do not exceed 10 watts. This class of amplifiers is known for its small size (no larger than a computer speaker), designed for portability (such as carrying them in your guitar bag). While some may have built-in speakers, they usually cannot be heard during jam sessions. As they are solid states and generally low wattages, if they do not utilize FET circuitry they tend to go into an unpleasant distortion very quickly. Aside from homemade solutions (such as the famous Ruby amplifier), Danelectro Honeytone and Vox amPlugs are all good choices.
DI Unit including amplifier modelers
A deviation of solid state that attempts to mimic the gain-compression on a valve-based amplifier, it is basically a combination of a very clean power amplifier and a tone modeling unit producing most of the tone. Some may consider this as the Swiss-army knife of amplifier. The best of these amplifiers can recreate the sound of many other units with acceptable accuracy and also have effects such as delay, chorus, flanger, reverb. The effects and modeled amplifier are patched into the correct configuration to recreate classic rigs such as a Gibson L5 being played through a Fender Twin Reverb or a Fender Stratocaster coupled with a Marshall stack. The power of modeling allows preset patches to be created that can emulate an acoustic guitar or synth. For beginners cheaper modeled amplifiers or a small emulation box like the Line 6 POD may initially be useful though if you find yourself returning to the same patch then it may be time to buy that particular combination.
There are basically three kinds: Analog circuitry, Dedicate DSP, and modeling processor (typically also have many digital effects onboard). Analog circuitry and dedicated DSP are typically the best kind, while modeling processors seems to have a bit of a lag between your pick attack and the sound produced, and you should test one carefully before buying it.
Many amplifier modelers or micro-amplifiers, like the Rockman, are actually DI Unit hybrid with effect units. A DI unit transforms the unbalanced, high impedance signal from the guitar into a balanced, low impedance signal for use with a mixer; however, some desiged for use with guitar have amplifier modelers within them, and may have multi-effect processors for additional effects. Most often these are used with headphones, but they also allow direct input of the guitar to the mixing desk in a recording studio, while retaining some of the tone and quality of an amplifier.
The main benefit of using a DI unit is that they are compact, and they can get "loud enough" and have a particular tone. This is particularly true for amplifier modelers and "headphone amplifiers", as their embedded electronics frequently have a somewhat decent approximation of a tube amplifier. You can also use these in recording, or use it like a preamp and plug it into a larger amplifier for volume. Also, if you are often going to hook up to a PA system with your amplifier, these may provide a cheap option and quicker setup than a larger amplifier.
The main disadvantage of DI units is that they cannot completely capture the tone of a guitar amplifier. The ultimate way to connect an electric guitar to a PA is to use a microphone in front of the speaker.
Their wattage may range from 5 to 50, though from 30 on its hard to say whether it is purely practice alone or can also be used for small gig. Generally, they are designed to be used in a small space, because the small size demands a small space for a suitable volume for practice or recording. While they come in various size, for a solid state amplifier, one should need at least a 10-inch, suitable for jam sessions.
Small gig amplifiers
From 30 watts upward, these combo amplifiers the smallest package which is considered suitable as a stand-alone amplifier for small gigs. The standard is usually 50 or more watts of power and one 12″ speaker, though some manufactures may use less wattages of 30 and 40, while employing more than one speakers. For tube amplifiers, even a 30 watts is enough, though with better models, sound quality of solid state amplifiers begins to approach levels acceptable to professional musicians.
While a 2x12″ combo may be seen as simply an amplifier with one more speaker, the volume of air moved essentially double, and thus make it louder. Benefit of using two speaker instead of one is that it allows stereo effects. Some consider these to be the absolute minimum serious amplifier.
- Busking amplifiers
These small and portable battery powered amplifiers are designed for outdoor use when no mains power is available. The battery will normally provide up to six to ten hours use on one charge though buying a spare battery or ensuring that the amplifier can also be used with AC power will offset this limitation. Examples include the Pignose Hog 30 which has an 8″ speaker and a rating of 30 watts and the Vox DA5 which has a 6.5″ speaker and a rating at 5 watts.
Heads, Cabinets, and Stacks
One of the iconic images associated with rock music is the stack:
- head - amplifier
- cabinet - speakers
When purchasing the two, make sure of the impedance of the cabinet, and the power rating for the head at that impedance. Make sure the cabs RMS rating is about the same as the head's power output at the impedance of the cab. A head can be solid state or tube, the latter being less durable, but sounds better and is more expensive. Generally a single cabinet would have 4x12″ speakers though 1x15″, 2x12″ and 4x10″ cabinets are also available.
Why would someone want to make an amplifier with low wattage, which is usually 5 to 15 watts – making them practice amplifiers, but in a stack format? The MG15MSII by Marshall is a microstack aimed at the practice and entry level market. While they may be in a stack configuration these low wattage solid state heads are essentially practice amplifiers.
However, for many <20w tube amplifiers, such as Epiphone Valve Junior's Stack configurations and its numerous clones, such as Crate Blackheart BH5H, or the Marshall 20w Lead and Bass Head, it provides much more flexibility that cannot be provided in a combo. A hot rodded class-A tube amplifier – which can go up to 16 watt RMS with 2x 6v6 and proper output trnsformer, pumped out a 4x12″ cabinet, can be as loud as a 50 watt solid state amplifier, and thus it provides potential to upgrade in the future. Furthermore, by separating the speaker from the amplifier, customizing (hotrodding) the amplifier is actually easier than a combo. Since pumping sound through more speakers produces more volume but has a softer sound, it may be even better than a fully cranked 50 watt tube amplifier during a performance. By separating the amplifier and speaker into two pieces, it could also be easier to carry, as in the case of Orange Tiny Terror (15 watt), which comes with a shoulder bag.
These are the types that most people talk about, with a head unit from 50 watts, that's good for a small club, to the standard 100 for large auditorium. For a small auditorium, a half stack – connected to one 4x12″ speaker cabinet– is more than enough.
For a larger venue, or even an arena, you may run a full stack – that is, you'd have two 4x12″ cabinets, one stacked upon another vertically. The size, however, is tremendous; when fully deployed they are as tall as a grown man, and even when disassembled, you will still need a van to carry them. In case the volume is not enough, you can either hook up to even more speakers, or better yet, use another stack as a slave. Obviously, these are not really good for practice, as not only are they hard to transport, but also too loud. It is recommended that earplugs should be worn when near a loud amplifier or PA to avoid tinnitus and loss of hearing. Earplugs are available from reputable dealers.
A Marshall head and full-size cabinet are bulky and heavy items to transport. A full-sized Marshall cabinet has two handles, one on either side, and requires two people to lift and move it safely. In the early stages most bands transport and setup their own equipment. Storage and transportation must be considered when buying a large guitar rig.
Combo amplifiers are favored by many guitarists because of their compact form and matched amplifier and speakers. The Vox AC30 and Fender Twin are examples of combo amplifiers. Small practice amplifiers such as the Vox DA5 or Epiphone Valve Junior are suitable for home use and are easily transported and stored.
What makes a good amplifier?
A solid state amplifier can provide a good tone. In fact, many pedals that are designed to create a metallic tone are designed to use the hard-clipping functions that the solid state amplifiers provide, one thing that tube amplifiers cannot do well.
Tube amplifiers are sensitive to their input signal. The harder you play with your pick, the more they tend to break up and distort. The softer you strum, the warmer and breathier they appear to sound. This is known as touch sensitivity. Multiple preamp gain stages can sometimes push an amplifier to the point where you do not hear the pick attack on the string. Finding a balance where pick attack and sustain are clearly articulated is the sign of a superior matched preamp and power section. With a good quality tube amplifier, the subtle changes you make with your pick and finger pressure has a dramatic impact on the sound and is part of the process of creating your own identifiable style.
However, a solid state amplifier has not yet been able to recreate the dynamic feel of a tube amplifier. While a solid state amplifier can get fairly close in tone, it's many times harder to influence the tone simply by how the guitar is played. A good tube amplifier will distort on command when digging into the strings, while a lighter touch cleans everything up with seemingly infinite levels in between. Where as, a solid state amplifier usually requires adjustments to the controls in addition to playing style to have any effect on the tone.