You would have to have been living under a rock for the past ten years to not have realised that the small valve amp movement has made its mark. The boom in home recording has pushed amplifier manufacturers to develop amps that can deliver a full sound at lower volumes. After all, not many of us have neighbours that appreciate a JCM800 blasting all day, let alone all night. While it is not always an option to play large amps in a home environment, with all the options for smaller sized and lower powered valve guitar amps available, I think we need to look at what can be done in the home studio to make them sound as big as possible.
WORKING THE VALVES
The main reason why most guitarists are not popular with their neighbours comes down to the fact that a valve amplifier needs to be run at a certain level in order to get the most out of its tone. The preamp handles the gain stages at the start of the signal and doesn’t really affect volume too greatly, but it’s in the power amp tubes that all the real tone is created. Cranking the gain for maximum breakup and keeping the volume down just doesn’t work, as the signal will sound weak and lack top end definition. The solution is to turn up the power amp tubes and get them working, although this is not always possible with larger amps. However, if you employ a smaller valve guitar amp and run it hard, you can get a great tone at a much lower volume.
Like bigger stage amps, if you just go for a higher preamp gain setting and pull back on the power amp tubes, these smaller amps will sound very lacklustre due to the smaller wattage and often smaller speakers. To get those power amps working hard and really improve the tone of your low wattage amp, I find it can often be better to pull back on the gain and run the power amp stage flat out instead, as you will get some breakup from the power tubes too. The resulting overall tone will be much thicker and sound like a bigger amp than what you are actually using.
KEEPING IT SECLUDED
It’s been an old trick that’s been used for years, in fact many stage rigs that involve towers of amp stacks often employ a small combo amp backstage in an isolation booth with a microphone on it. The sound the audience hears at some gigs is in fact just coming from a small combo through the PA system and not from the towering array of speaker boxes that look so impressive on stage. You too can employ this idea in your home studio to get a big sound whilst keeping the noise down. There have been a few isolation cabinets available over the years, but they are often hard to find. The simpler way is to work with what you have.
Often a couple of chairs and a queen sized quilt will allow you to cover up your amp and microphone to reduce the noise. Placing the amp in a cupboard will take this one step further in reducing the noise your neighbours have to hear, just be aware that running too long a guitar cable to your amp is going to cause noise and affect your tone, so try to keep it localised.
A better way to deal with a room’s reflections is to work with a reflection filter around your microphone when setting it up in front of the amp. This will not really help in the overall volume, but it will improve the sound you get in your recording. sE Electronics make a nifty device designed to place two microphones in front of an amp. It allows for a side address microphone to be mounted within the curve of the reflection filter and also an end-fire microphone, like an SM57, to be mounted through the filter without the need for any other stands. This then isolates the microphones from the room, allowing them to pick up just the sound of the amp itself.