Amps: How Many Watts Do You Need?

Published on Feb 19, 2016

In this episode, Daniel and Mick are tackling a couple of potentially confusing questions…

• How relevant is the output wattage of your amp to its actual volume?
• How relevant is the output wattage of your amp to its tone, dynamics and response on the end of your guitars and pedals?

To help explore these questions and more, they have a Vox AC10 Twin (approx. 10 watts), Vox AC30 (approx. 30 watts) and a Mesa Lone Star (approx 100 watts) on hand.

Daniel is using his Fender Custom Shop ’63 Telecaster and Mick is using his Fender American Vintage ’62 Stratocaster.

The pedals used today are:

Wampler Tumnus Overdrive
UK & Europe:

Fire Custom Shop Carpe Diem Distortion - no longer made

Analogman ARDX20 Analogue Delay

As always, all amp and effects switching and routing is via TheGigRig G2.

Now, this almost certainly won’t be the last video we do on the subject as we suspect it will throw up a ton of questions. We absolutely love your feedback but before taking to the keyboard, the following may answer some of the more obvious questions…

Mick’s thoughts after hearing the audio and editing the video…

Well that was interesting! As Dan and I mentioned during the video, we had an idea of what the resultant tones would be, but we were interested to hear what actually made it to the recorder. A number of questions spring to mind after hearing the audio back…

Q: Why didn’t we use a dB meter so there was a visual representation of the volume differences?
A: It would have confused things further. Your ears/brain are incredibly sophisticated at interpreting loudness in a way that your eyes/brain just aren’t. Plus, the last time Mick used a dB meter (comparing amps with a dragster for Guitarist mag), the dB results had very little relevance to what we actually ‘heard’ on the day.

Q: How come all the amps sound more or less the same volume in the audio?
A: Because quiet signals don’t sound as good as loud ones. If we’d have set the recording levels to handle the highest level from the Mesa, the AC10 would have sounded relatively thin and weedy, which certainly was not the case in the room. Mics require a little more intervention than your ears when it comes to level adjustment.
Also during playback, your brain will tell you that a louder sound (as long as it’s not over loud or clipping) is ‘better’ than a very quiet one. Again, we wanted to avoid that bias.

Q: How loud was it, really, in the room?
A: The faces tell the story! The AC10 and AC30 were borderline uncomfortable. Probably an excellent club gigging level, although we’ve had to play A LOT quieter. The Mesa was more than uncomfortable for more than a few seconds’ playing. It’s hard to imagine a ‘normal’ pub or club gig where you’d get to play that loud (in mine and Dan’s world anyway).

Q: Don’t confuse a ‘loud’ sound with a ‘full’ sound? What does that mean?
A: This relates to recorded guitar tones. We attempted to demo the answer in the video, but as it happens, the Mesa ended up sounding pretty big too, and that may well be because of the room mics we use. In addition to the Sennheiser e906 mics on the amps there is also an X-Y pair on our recording device (Zoom H6), faced away from the amps. We mix some of this in with the cab mics as it gives a more realistic impression of what we’re hearing in the room – a lone e906 (or SM57) on a belting speaker really doesn’t sound like the amp in the room. It sounds smaller, more contained, with little of the low-end resonance and whatever else the room brings. It can be a great sound for recording in a track because it sits well in a mix. In addition, the louder you push a big amp, the more those reflections and room sounds can become problematic for the mics, which is why you need to limit them, either by acoustic treatment in the room, or by simply using close mics only. All of which helps to explain why using smaller amps with a couple of mics can be so much less hassle and yield far better results when recording - especially at home or in small project studios. That’s what we mean when we say a ‘loud’ sound isn’t necessarily a ‘big’ sound.
Er, except when you're out playing live, un-mic'd. In which case it's hopefully both!

Q: So did we actually conclude anything in the end?
A: Yes! You can get a great sound out of any decent valve amplifier, regardless of wattage, when you have your pedals chosen and set up to work with that amp. Some people like smaller amps cranked to compressing, overdriving oblivion, while others like big amps for maximum headroom and dynamic range from their pedals.

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