Attenuators: No Compromise Tone
Published on 02 December 2020
That’s what this article’s about.
Liberation from the tyranny of excessive volume, and liberation from sub-par guitar tone.
We all have our favourite tube amps, and we all know that in order to get the best out of them, we need to wind the volume up to the point where we find that beautiful sweet spot, where the tone melts into something magical.
Our family members, pets and neighbours, however, aren’t so interested in our tonal ambitions. All they know is that our carefully chosen and hard-earned tube amp is crucifyingly loud and they’ve had quite enough of it, thanks.
What to do?
You could buy a smaller amp, but to us, that defeats the entire purpose of striving for that great tube amp in the first place! It’s taken you forever to land on an amp that you love and that works with both your style and taste in guitars! Buying a smaller amp means using an entirely different set of tones whilst getting used to a different feel: those things change your playing completely!
The answer, in our opinion, is to use a suitable attenuator.
Attenuators: Compromise is a Bad Word
Yes, rather than spend money on another amplifier, we suggest investing in a device that will let you get the most out of your prized amp in all circumstances. Buying a good attenuator allows you to play your amp to its own strengths (i.e. turning it up so that those valves are cooking!) and then adjust the actual volume to much more reasonable levels. Playing at home? Not a problem, that’s what this is all about! Each of the attenuators in today’s article will preserve the characteristic tone of your amp at its peak performance and then deliver that sound at a greatly reduced volume.
They aren’t just for home use though. In rehearsal and gig situations, you’ll no longer have to compromise your sound in order to get a reasonable ‘band mix’ with the other players in your band. You just dial in your tone, get it as you’d like it, and then let the attenuator do its thing: you’ll be able to mix your preferred sound in at the optimum level for your whole band’s performance. You’ll sound more like a pro, and your bandmates won’t talk about you behind your back. Not about being too loud, anyway...
‘Impulse Response’. It sounds like that scary test they perform on people in Blade Runner, but Impulse Response is actually something really good for guitarists! Impulse Response (IR) is the measurement of a speaker, mic or environment’s reaction to a sound. Sound doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and the physical characteristics of sound waves travelling through the air play a significant part in how it all ‘feels’ when we play through relatively loud amps. In the quest for realism, all of these factors make important contributions to the overall sonic experience. IR captures the mic placement, speaker and room size, puts that all together into a .wav file and simulates it, providing the missing ‘feeling’ in sounds that don’t use cabinets.
You’ll find this a lot with digital modelling systems like the Kemper Profiler and the Line 6 Helix, but IP’s are used in many attenuators these days, too, to ‘put back in’ what’s taken away with the required volume drop. Often, you’ll be able to choose from a wide selection of cabinet types, mic types and relative positions for both. MASSIVE tonal differences can be achieved by changing combinations.
At guitarguitar, since we stock a multitude of top-class tube amps, it makes sense for us to also provide a selection of quality attenuators also. We know how much thought and research you put into your amp choices, so we want you to enjoy using them to their fullest potential! Here then, in no particular order, are three great attenuator devices that we recommend.
Suhr Reactive Load IR
Most of you will be familiar with Suhr’s superlative guitars, amplifiers and pedals, so there’s something of a shorthand in place already for this the Reactive Load IR: we know it’s gonna be good! And indeed it is, with some clever features and all-American manufacturing sweetening the deal.
Suhr want you to use this everywhere, and have made it very connectable and portable in order to do so. At home, you can wind up your favourite amp and then bring the volume to sensible levels, without losing one iota of your tone. You can use the Aux In to jam along or practise with tracks, all the while using your ‘proper’ tone. USB functionality lets you upload open-source third party IR’s to try on your rig, too, so there’s some real future-forward thinking here!
Live, there is no need to mess around with mics at all: you simply plug into the Reactive Load IP, select the Impulse Response you want, and hand a cable to the Front-of-House Engineer. Done! Perfect, consistent tone at every gig.
That goes for recording too, with the added bonus that you can also record a ‘dry’ signal for re-amping later. They’ve thought of everything!
The Fryette Power Station
Fryette are well known for their spectacular amplifier designs, but that knowledge has proven itself useful in other manners too...
Check out the Power Station. Is it an attenuator? Yes. Is it a booster? Yes. Will it retain your all-important dynamics and tone at any volume? YES. Can it help you with silent recording? Yes! It does all of these things.
OK! So...does it do anything else? Does it do anything else?
Yes, in fact: you can use the Fryette Power Station as an effects loop (after your amp’s gain section) if your amp doesn’t have one. You can use it as a power amp for your digital modeller (Helix, Kemper, whatever). It can also be a power amp for situations where you need one, like when adding ‘tube’ power to your desktop recording setup, for adding juice to a wet-dry FX set up, and as an on-stage monitor power amp for your modeller to front of house: you can leave your modeller settings as they are and control your power section from the Power Station.
In other words, this is a super-useful power load in a box, suitable for energising and powering your sound in a high-quality, controllable way. Read more about it in our dedicated Fryette Power Station blog.
Tone King Ironman II Mini
Tone King’s amplifiers are almost as mythical as it gets, so everything else they produce has that associated sheen of specialness. It’s justified, too, because their products are superb! Just take this Ironman II Mini attenuator: it’s a clever downsized take on their Ironman II unit, and it’s designed to sit on pedalboards, right where the gigging guitarist can access it.
The Ironman II Mini is for amps rated 30 watts or less, so if you have a humongous rig, consider the non-Mini version, which we also have for sale. Wind your amp up good ‘n’ loud, find your tone, and then turn back the volume from your pedalboard. Happy you, happy band and happy sound guy!
The unit also has a cool ‘solo’ setting, which effectively gives you two volume levels. Solo boosts or indeed quieter overdrives are easily achievable without resorting to extra pedals. It’s a simple addition, but it’s genius!
Universal Audio Ox
The ‘Ox Box’ has quickly become a favourite in studios across the world. This is partly due to the enviable repuation of Universal Audio, who make some of the greatest interfaces on the planet, and partly due to their early pioneering of this technology. The UA Ox offers endless mic and cabinet permutations, and offer built in processing in the way of top-drawer UA Compressors, EQ, delay and reverb. Talk about adding ‘special sauce’ to your sound?
The Ox box preserves all of the tonal details and dynamics of your amp, and can successfully simulate those hard to achieve ‘cone cry’ and edge-of-breakup tones that purists will not be able to believe is actually happening.
With the Universal Audio Ox, prepare to have your breath taken and your gob smacked.
Summary: The Glorious Sound of Your Amp, Unrestrained
Well, we don’t know about you, but if we had a world-class tube amp sitting in our spare room gathering dust whilst we played through a fine but somehow lesser specimen, we’d feel a little sad. Why do that? Why throw a puny spanner into the works of what can be your most fun and rewarding playing experiences, when it doesn’t have to be that way?
We believe that any discerning guitarist will be more than satisfied with the performance of their amps when they introduce some quality attenuation. We think that these devices, whilst not as immediately exciting a purchase as a fun little amp, provide a window for you to play to the best of your own potential, by realising the true power of your existing setup. If you have a nice, loud tube amp, don’t move in into the cupboard: grab one of these attenuators and fly with new wings.
Now, if you don’t already have a quality valve amp, let’s sort that out! We have a most fantastic collection awaiting you, from all major makers and boutique builders. Click the link below to explore our current amplifier stock and enjoy!