Little Amps, Big Sounds: Recording with Low-Watt Amps
Jimmy Page, Steve Cropper, Jeff Beck, Joe Walsh, Neil Young and a horde of other guitarists with monster tone understand that it’s not always amp size that counts. And the proof is in an array of classic recordings that include Beck’s “’Cause We Ended As Lovers,” Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way,” Neil Young’s “Over and Over” and Led Zeppelin’s epic “Heartbreaker.”
Recording with small, low-wattage amps is an art form that requires a little knowledge and imagination, and of course, some good sounding amps. How “good” is defined depends on your goal. Cheaply made vintage amps like Supros and Magnatones can produce a magnificent rumble when they’re turned up. Others never quite get to the point of saturated distortion, but can provide a loud clean sound. Regardless of the tone you achieve, miking, placement and other techniques can be used to make small amps sound bigger.
Jimmy Page became one of the first masters of ambient miking with Led Zeppelin’s 1969 debut album. The driving sensibility of ambient miking is: distance equal depth. The sound waves produced by an amp take several feet to reach their full size and reveal all of their harmonic richness. Find the sweet spot for the sound of the small amp that you are recording and place a mike there, but be careful to place the mike near enough that the overall tone of the amp is undiminished.
Multiple mikes result in the best overall sound from a small amp, with one mike up close on the amp, another microphone anywhere from six to 20 feet directly in front of the amp. Other options include placing one or two mikes off to the side and at least six feet way, or on a high mike stand at the same distance, at least five feet off the ground. If you’ve got plenty of tracks to work with and time to fiddle, give each mike its own track and try all of those positions. Then after you’ve recorded slide the faders in and out to discover the magic blend. If you’re using an open-backed cabinet or combo, also put a mike behind the amp, which will yield a darker, boxier tone.
Think about blending a direct input, or DI, signal with a microphone signal. It’s a simple move that can have great results by adding in some of your guitar’s pure tone. There are two easy methods for doing this. If your amp has a DI output, just mike the front and run a cable from that output to the soundboard. Or you can get an A/B box and split your guitar’s signal to run into both the amp and the board. The EQ-ing options on the board can yield some very cool tones as well.
The easiest way to make any amp sound big is to turn it up. This works especially well with many low-watt, small vintage amps, which get raunchy as they get hotter. More contemporary low-gain models may be too well constructed to get truly filthy when they’re opened up, or just sound boxy — as if they are choking the output signal. For a great example of an old amp cranked until it croaks, check Muddy Waters’ early Chess Records recordings, before drums were added to his studio ensemble, or, of course, Page’s Supro on “Good Times, Bad Times.”
Another method to get a little amp to roar like Godzilla is with an effects pedal. A distortion/boost is the best way to go for a sizzling tone. And while a Tube Screamer or BlueBoost or something else along those lines will get you in the zone, it’s easier with a pedal and opens up the harmonic range of the notes your playing, like the Big Muff that the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach prefers or boutique boxes like the Z.Vex Fuzz Factory or MW Fuzzytone.
Nothing sounds more like more amps than more amps. It’s easy to run multiple amps in the studio. You can either plug your guitar into the board and run the signal through a port with RCA inputs and outputs leading to as many amps as that port can handle, or, if your set-up isn’t as fancy, use an A/B box or use multiple A/B boxes to split your guitar’s signal. If you’ve got an effects pedal with stereo outs, you can record that way, too.
Recording the same part over with various amps on multiple tracks is also effective. It broadens your guitar’s character by not only increasing and varying the amp sounds you’re tracking, creating a playground of varied harmonic personality, but by actually multiplying your strums and picking with fractional variations.
There’s also a couple tricks that digital recording allows to fatten up your amp’s sound with minimal effort. Once you’ve cut a guitar track you like, it can be duplicated on ProTools and other high-end software, or even GarageBand, and pasted in a new track. Then you can left/right pan the tracks to open the spectrum up on the recording you’re mixing, or, even cooler, leave the original track as is and color the second — and third, and fourth — track by using a different amp plug-in. The result is a sound bigger than you might even imagine.