The Beginner's Guide to Auditioning Amps

When you go to try out a new guitar amp, what’s the first thing you do? For some, they’ll poke around with it timidly in the store, turning it up to just shy of the 1 notch on the volume knob. On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got the guys that crank everything up to 10.

Then there are the rest of us that approach new amplifiers somewhere in the middle.

And while there might not be a right or wrong way to figure out what an amp is capable of, I’ve developed my own approach that does a pretty good job of telling me exactly what I need to know about a new amp and the way it’s going to sound.

What To Look For

Sitting down with a new amplifier can be a daunting task. There are amps out there with dozens of knobs and some that only have a few.

If you’re working with a virtual amp like Toneforge, the options (and capabilities) are multiplied by the introduction of post processing and effects.

My checklists for both situations are very similar:

· Play it very loud and very soft
· Toggle through the effects (sweep parameters of the effect whenever available)
· If it’s tube, be sure to let them warm up before playing
· If there’s post-processing, try the amp with & without
· MOST IMPORTANT: Don’t start looking for a “good tone”. Learn the intricacies of the amp first, and then dial in the right sound for your song.

That last point has saved dozens of guitarists from making huge purchases and regretting it. I find that getting a good sound out of almost any amp is easy, but you don’t want to settle for a one-trick pony if another amp can achieve a similar tone (and many other sounds).

What To Avoid

There’s just as much to avoid, as there is to try. I think a lot of amps get lost in “marketing hype” where features are made to sound unique.

When trying out new amps, don’t accept terms like “Boost” and “Presence” as the same thing on all amps; find out what they’re actually doing to the circuitry. If your “Boost” is really just an extra mid-range bump, see if you can achieve the same tone just by turning up the Middle knob.

If you can, is the Boost really adding to your tonal options, or is it an unnecessary feature that’s been added to make your amp seem more valuable?

Don't Forget About Your Cabinet/Speakers 

Remember – the amp is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to tone. The guitar you’re playing, the pickups in it, and any pedals between your guitar and the head are going to color the sound. There’s plenty going on downstream from there as well: starting with the cabinet and speaker.

If you’re looking at a combo amp, your options may be somewhat limited in this area. Sure, speakers can be swapped out, but it’s not as simple as plugging in a different cabinet when the amp stands on its own.

In a combo amp, you’ll want to focus on solid construction – even if you end up not liking the speaker quality long-term and want to upgrade, there’s no replacement for a solid chassis to put it in.

A good cabinet should resonate well with the speaker, just like what happens with a well-built guitar. This usually means that hardwoods or multiple-ply bodies sound better, while plywood and particle board sound cheaper (because they usually are).

Applying It In The Studio

Once you’ve got the right amp for the job, you need to continue the auditioning process in the studio. This means finding the right placement in your room for recording, placing the mic on the speaker just right, and dialing in your signal chain.

Some tips when working with live amps:

· Don’t put it in a corner – bass resonance builds up easily this way
· Do what you can to isolate the amp from the room (baffles, blankets, etc)
· Experiment with mic placement and different types of microphones if you have access to them
· Capture an IR of your post-amp signal chain whenever possible (recall it if needed)

Of course, you could save yourself some hassle by doing most of this with a virtual amp. If you’d rather get started down that route, I’ve got a great guide on capturing DIs.

Saving Yourself The Headache 

I’m definitely not going to downplay the satisfaction of turning an amp up loud and playing through it, but I’m also all about building my toolkit as a producer whenever possible.

As studio producers and engineers, we really need flexibility above all else with our guitar tones. While today’s client might sound great through a modern metal amp, the next might be looking for something more vintage sounding.

For this reason, I almost never audition live amps anymore unless the artist requests something specific. Instead, I’ve moved almost completely toward impulse responses and virtual amps. They’re cheaper, easier to work with, and save me time and money in the studio.

With impulse responses, I’ve been able to audition 20 tones in 30 seconds. No joke.

No amount of proficiency with a live amp could ever reach that level of speed.

Using IR packs like Conquer All, I’m able to sort through my favorite IRs quickly, and they’re ready for recall if I ever need to go back and change something.

I haven’t given up on live amps completely, but with all of the flexibility I’ve got now, and the quality of in-the-box guitar tones I’ve achieved, I can’t see myself doing it any other way.

Have You Cut The Cord?

Are you done with live amps as a starting point? If you’ve discovered the flexibility a good IR pack can add to your workflow, I’d love to have you share your experience with other engineers & producers in the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum.

Come join the conversation, and see what others are doing to improve their productions.