Why (And How) You Might Want To Turn Your Amp Down On Stage

Why (And How) You Might Want To Turn Your Amp Down On Stage

June 26, 2020 13 Comments

It’s no secret house sound engineers fight with guitarists about the volume of amps on stage, especially in small venues. It may even be a bit of a cliché to mention it. “Turn it down!” often becomes “I’ll turn it down for you!” and “I need it louder!” turns into “I’ll just sneak over here and turn this up…”

Whichever side you fall on, it turns out both sides have valid concerns, and everybody just wants to achieve the best sound possible. So, let’s look at how and why you might achieve a good balance with house sound, while still achieving the great tone you’re after.

The Can’t Hear Myself War

Here’s the crux of the situation on a stage, especially where a loud rock band and a small venue are concerned: Everyone has a need to hear themselves (and each other), but no one can!

This actually usually starts with the drums, which are almost always too loud for a room. We’ll tackle how to start at the bottom with this problem in another article, but suffice it to say, if you can tame your kit, the sound engineer/guitar feud will be easier to manage.

Focusing on the guitars, the major problem the sound engineer faces is guitars tend to overwhelm vocals, keys, and other similar elements very quickly. Since the P.A. is the only amplification these elements have, if the guitar amps defeat that, there’s no way to hear anything else in the room.

But The Tone!

The best way to handle that from a purely house audio standpoint is to eliminate the guitar amps, and put the guitars directly into the P.A. This means everyone on stage can get what they need in their monitors, and the house mix can be controlled.

Unfortunately, that can all but ruin the tone many guitarists seek, and that can destroy a band’s signature sound.

To make matters harder, most guitarists achieve their tone by “opening up” the tubes in their amps – by turning them up to eleven. In this scenario, when the engineer asks you to turn your amp down, it means changing the tone.

But in almost every venue outside of a big stage, this volume level will fill the room, blast the audience’s ears, and make a good mix impossible to achieve. Even amps that are completely absent from the P.A. mix can be overwhelming in many cases, which means if you turn up to eleven, you’ve just defined your sound as “guitars only, with a guy lip syncing to nothing at the front of the stage.”

If that’s not enough reason of why you might want to consider lowering your stage volume, consider a few other factors:

  • Your ears – Hearing loss can occur after only 2 hours of exposure to 80-85 dBs. A typical guitar cabinet can measure up to 115dB one meter from the speaker.
  • The singer – Maybe vocals aren’t your concern, but if your singer can’t hear, they’ll scream. If they scream, they’ll lose their voice, and your next gig may be cancelled.
  • The audience­ – In a small venue, guitar amps can overwhelm and hurt audience’s ears quickly, which may cause them to disengage.
  • Your band – If the guitars are too loud, the bass will turn up. The drums will play louder. The keyboardist will crank the volume. Eventually everything will sound distorted and no one will know who’s who.

Achieving The Balance

So, what’s the solution? You may not want to hear this – but turn it down. Fortunately, there are a number of ways you can reduce your overall volume without ruining your tone.

  • Elevate your amp – If your number one problem is hearing yourself, start by elevating your amp closer to ear level, or pointing it toward you.
  • Use a smaller or lower power cabinet or a preamp pedal– In many smaller venues, you can opt for a smaller cab such as our V112E extension cabinet, or use a preamp pedal like the Steve Vai VLD1 Legacy Drive.
  • Use an attenuator – Patching a power attenuator between the amp and speaker cabinet can also help reduce volume while maintaining tone.
  • Use an amp shield or baffle – If you’re not having problems hearing yourself, you can use a shield to reduce overall stage volume while maintaining your tone.
  • Point it back (or to the side) – Known as “backwashing” or “sidewashing”, pointing your cabinet toward the back or side wall may work to reduce in-your-face volume and help tame the sound engineer’s mix.

It’s Possible

The encouraging thing is, it’s more than possible to achieve a best-of-both worlds, opened up, high quality guitar sound on stage, while still leaving room for the rest of the band and the sound engineer to help you put your best foot forward. For more discussion on the subject, check out How To Improve Your Live Shows By Reducing Your Stage Volume on this blog.

And let us know your best techniques for keeping the balance on stage!


13 Responses

Douglas Robinson
Douglas Robinson

July 07, 2020

This may sound crazy, but I was at a show featuring a famous guitar virtuoso, who shall remain nameless, but who’s name rhymes with Hal HeMedola, and there was no amp on stage. An audience member asked about it and he said by the time he got his Mesa sounding right it was too loud for the venue, so it was miked backstage with a blanket over it. Hearing that was a thunderbolt for me. If you ever saw Yes with Trevor Rabin you’ll remember him pointing his miked speaker cabinet TWARD THE FLOOR! Another “WHAAAT?” moment for me.

Dennis Meredith
Dennis Meredith

July 07, 2020

I have been a professional audio engineer for 35+ years. I have mixed house sound as well as monitors for over 100+ national touring acts. I am also an accomplished guitarist as well as a lead and backing vocalist. I have played in many venues and basically devoted my life to music and pro audio. In my opinion this article is well thought out, and some very good advice. I have been on both sides, musician and engineer, and I am in agreement with you. This is good reading for any musician that is playing in a band. Thanks for sharing!

John Jonasson
John Jonasson

July 07, 2020

As a sound tech I sat in as a guitarist sometimes, in various rock bands, for 30 years. Another good reason to turn down is that your carefully crafted signature guitar sound doesn’t sound like that out front anyway. I he knows what he’s doing, sound guy probably has a lot of low end and vocal frequencies rolled out of your guitar channel anyway – the beautiful brown overdrive sound you’re making sounds more like light beige in the mix!

Raul Sciaky
Raul Sciaky

July 07, 2020

Good article.
I have conversations with the drummer (my son) and the guitar player who claims to have ”hearing loss”. Two years ago we went to in ear systems. Helped a lot.
The struggle is real!

Joe Couture
Joe Couture

July 07, 2020

First of all let me say that I am an old-school guitarist who has been playing for more than 50 years. I grew up through the 60s and 70s and we would always pride ourselves on just how loud we could be! I play now at church and there’s two things that are essential but that most sound folks don’t seem to realize. First you cannot just stick any old DI box between the guitar and the PA. I really love the Hughes & Kettner that I’ve had for over 20 years and there’s plenty more out there nowadays that will work just fine. Without this any attempt at distortion creates that wonderful chainsaw affect :-) Secondly I really love our IEM headphone monitoring system but if your church doesn’t have one there does need to be a separate sound person for monitors or at least a sound person who has a listening ear and will respond to a monitor mix touch up. After saying that however when I do my own personal recordings of the church service you can still barely hear the guitar in the congregation so it sounds great to me on stage but sometimes I feel like I should have just stayed home:-) I’m not trying to be some sort of Guitar Hero at 61 but I would like the mix to the congregation to somewhat resemble the original song that we are covering:-)

Lock McShane
Lock McShane

July 07, 2020

As a sound man, I have sometimes put the amp in front of the guitarist, angled up towards the face. Then if too loud, it affects the audience less.

Tom the Cookie Man
Tom the Cookie Man

July 07, 2020

Love you guys and I hope you’re currently considering the market for an “isolation” speaker-cabinet. I think you already know what I mean: a switchable impedance speaker load, driven by the output from the amp of the instrumentalist, with multiple mics inside an enclosed cabinet, capturing the signal of one or more ROBUST speakers, routing that signal to outputs for “the house” system, and/or to the stage PA and/or to one or more other amps. Volume used to be a HUGE issue back in my days onstage but no one would listen to me about “isolation” cabinets. Now days, studios all over use them. You guys could make a MAJOR iso-cab system that I’ll bet people would love (and BUY!!). PLEASE give it a try. Ears all over the world will love you for it. LET THAT PICKER TURN IT UP!! (but keep the decibels enclosed & civil). ROCK ON! Luv, Cookie Man

Alan Joseph Fraser
Alan Joseph Fraser

July 07, 2020

I haven’t found anything that works yet..this is a good start more ideas please.. I play guitar and I need more information on how to manage stage sound… Another problem is when one guy mixes the sound from the stage.. Nobody out front to objectively set levels.

Gary Tobin
Gary Tobin

July 07, 2020

I have found using a small combo amp and putting it in front of my pedal-board on the floor, pointed back at me – angled straight up to my face, allows me to get all the volume I need to overcome any stage volume problems. A direct out of the amp to the FOH then allows the engineer to manage my volume in the mix.
With a small amp pointed straight up at me, I don’t need to drastically change the volume to hear what I am doing so variations in volume between clean, overdrive, and lead tones are minimal… which keeps the FOH audio guys happy and I don’t blast anyone in the audience that is in proximity to the stage area.
During sound-check, having some presence in the remaining stage monitors allows me to hear what I am playing when moving across the stage. (Obviously, in-ears solve this issue as well… when we can use them.)

Rick
Rick

July 07, 2020

Thanks for putting these best practices emails out! I am glad to see Carvin back in the game again. Miss drooling over your custom shop guitar options! Great stuff, thanks again!

Rick

ET
ET

July 07, 2020

You almost started to get it w/ get amp off the deck. W/ a decent sndsys there is no need to point a gtr amp at the audience. The stg should be set up in a semi circle & muso should be playing to each other.

ET
ET

July 07, 2020

You almost started to get it w/ get amp off the deck. W/ a decent sndsys there is no need to point a gtr amp at the audience. The stg should be set up in a semi circle & muso should be playing to each other.

James Chadwick
James Chadwick

July 07, 2020

Great article! We did have this problem at one venue. We were asked to lower our volume! We had everything going through a PA system. So it was easy to correct.

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