Maybe “dating” is the wrong word but then again, most musicians develop a very close bond with their equipment. There are some significant advantages we gain as we become intimately familiar with a guitar amp and discover the settings that make it come alive for us. But sometimes you may find the need to learn your way around a new amp quickly; occasionally you might want to evaluate a purchase, get to know an amplifier you just bought, or are asked to play a show where the amplifiers are ‘backlined’ or provided (and you can’t control what they give you to play through). Whatever the reason you find yourself in new territory, a simple method many amp techs use can be very useful in “finding the sweet-spot” quickly on any guitar amp.
Step One – Test, Don’t Tailor
As I mentioned previously, each of us has a ‘sound’ we’re seeking when we plug into an amplifier. Our goal is to find that sound quickly, but to do it we need to start by doing the opposite. Rather than trying to adjust the amplifier to the same settings or striving to make it sound like your old amp, stop and methodically explore what this new amp sounds like. Effects and overdrive can make it more difficult to evaluate the gain structure, headroom and equalization systems you are working with, so start by going for a very clean, full-range sound without overdrive. You’ll also want to find out where the frequency response is most evenly balanced between highs, mids and bass. Start with the tone controls ‘flat’ or set in the middle of their range and listen to the sound carefully. As you explore the way each tone control works you will want to return to this ‘flat’ setting each time for reference before moving to the next knob. Strum or play a sustained note, then sweep the first tone control all the way down and up while listening to how it affects the sound. The extremes may sound weird but you will also be able to hear which frequencies the control affects. Once you can ‘visualize’ the range of the control, put it back to center and move to the next one. Any other channel options can be tested independently in the same way (for example Carvin Audio’s V3 preamp offers an EQX (equalizer expander) switch and a choice of voicings (deep/normal/intense & bright/normal/soak)). Remember the only purpose of this part of the exercise is to find out what each control does on its own, then it will be easier to decide how to adjust them all together to achieve the tone you’re looking for.
Step Two – Start by Looking for the Basic Recipe First
While each of us has special nuances that set our individual sounds apart, there are many common characteristics we share with the generic mainstream tone. You know what the controls can do and now you’re adding things like overdrive to tailor the sound. Before you reach for the nuances of your sound, dial in a plain, basic version. No matter what design the amp you’re evaluating is, you ought to be able to find this sound quickly.
Step Three - Make It Your Own
Now that you are at the most basic sound and know how the tone and gain controls work individually, it will be much easier to make the final adjustments to find your personal ‘sound’ and get the most out of the amp. Begin by making educated guesses as to which controls to try, but it can still be helpful to sweep the knobs first now that you’ve added gain or overdrive (these create harmonics that are also affected by the tone settings). Some advanced equalizers like the ones on Carvin Audio’s BX1600 Bass Amp offer a parametric-style EQ on one or more bands. These are really cool because you can dial in the frequency you want to control very precisely. To learn what they’re doing fast, try setting the level to an extreme setting then sweep the band control to find your frequency, then going back to the level control to blend it tastefully with the rest of your sound. Finally, most EQ designs have some degree of interactivity between the controls. When you’re feeling like the sound is close, try going back to each knob one more time and sweep it slowly around the new setting to see how it works in concert with the other adjustments you’ve made. The process might sound a little long and redundant, but once you learn it you can move through these steps very quickly (which is why a lot of technicians use it to evaluate amplifiers they’re repairing) and best of all, get to your own unique ‘sound’ in the most reliable and efficient manner no matter where you’re playing.