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http://lamkins-guitar.com/music/article/why-small-amps
David Lamkins picked up his first guitar a long time ago. As best he can recall the year was 1967: the year of the Summer of Love. Four decades later David has conjured up an amalgam of folk, rock and jazz solo guitar music for the occasional intimate Portland audience.
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location: Portland, OR USA

Facets: loudness, opinion, performance, sound engineering, @musings info
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Small amps and big PAs?

What's up with the small amps? Everyone and his brother wants to find a quieter tube amp with that big tube-amp sound. I can almost understand that desire for folks who play at home. Never mind that home players would be better off with a modelling amp; even a "small" five-watt tube amp is very loud - far too loud for a typical hundred fifty square foot room in a quiet dwelling shared with family or roommates. And I can even see the benefit for a modern rock or country artist, touring stadium venues and working with a top-notch sound crew (having professional monitor and FOH engineers); they get that cranked-amp sound at a volume that's appropriate for the big stage while still letting the sound-reinforcement system do its job of providing stage and FOH coverage. But small amps and big PAs make absolutely no sense for a venue that holds one or two hundred people.

So why do we do it? Why do we try to find a (possibly mythical) amp that can sound just like a big cranked-up amp with its volume throttled back to a level such that we can mic it through a PA to make it not only loud enough for FOH, but enough louder so that the audience can only hear the amp through the PA. It seems like such a great idea: didn't Jimmy Page get a huge sound in the studio by micing a practice amp? Doesn't Neil Young get that delicious barely-in-control sound out of cranked fifteen-watt Fender Deluxe, even in a huge venue? I'm sure that there are other examples that show how a small amp can work for you. Keep in mind though, that these people have the knowledge and control that they need to get the sound they want.

Small-club sound - in venues that have a (always oversized) house PA - is way louder than it'd ever be with few hundred watts running wide open from the backline and a vocal-only PA. The most common argument is that the sound is "better". I don't buy it; I've been on stage and in the house in these venues, and the sound sucks everywhere. The mains are so loud that you can't even hear the direct sound from your amp on stage, and the sound guy seems to be more interested in giving his subs a good workout than in reinforcing the band's stage sound.

Who benefits? The sound guy, of course. He gets paid a guaranteed cut right off the top, just like the production team in a record deal. The bands (three or four a night in most venues around here) split what little's left after the sound guy is paid and the house takes their cut.

Who suffers? How about the customers? Instead of having a place they can go to hang out and listen to music, they get assaulted by sound that's dangerously - even painfully - loud no matter where they go in the club. You can't move away from the stage in case you want to have a conversation; the sound guy and his massive PA have seen to that. How about the venues? They want people to stay and drink; they don't understand why only the band's close friends come for one set and then go somewhere more hospitable. Hell, if it wasn't for loyalty most of these bands wouldn't even have their friends out there; it's not a pleasant experience being an audience member at these places. And how about the bands, huh? How are you going to build a local following if no one can bear to walk in off the street and hang out for a while?

It's stupid, but that's the way it is at most of the rock venues (and there are a lot of them) around here.

April 15 2006 20:00:43 GMT