Tone is in the Big Pedalboards & Lots of Delay

So for the sake of this article, let’s go ahead and rule out compensation for lack of skill, bragging rights, because we don’t know what else to do, and because Jonny Greenwood does. All of which have most definitely been deciding factors in the size of my pedalboard and copiousness of my delay usage in the past. 😉 So barring those, it’s this:

Because we can’t turn up.

It really is that simple. If you have a place to do this, whether it’s staying late at church or going early to a gig, crank your amp and turn off your pedals. It’s incredibly surprising how much sustain you get, and how fluently lead parts come. Now turn down, and hear the space between the notes increase. Turn on a delay though, and you can mimic some of that sustain without much space between the notes. Turn on a fuzz or a compressor, and you can start to make the lead parts flow a little more easily again. Turn on a buffer and a clean boost, and some of the fullness comes back. Turn on a reverb and an ambient delay, and you can fake some of the moving air again. And now we’re at six or seven pedals not even for effect, but just to fill somewhat of the same air space in nature that a cranked amp does.

I’ve been finding lately that the louder I play, the less I need pedals. And I’m not talking about cranking your amp in a back room and hearing yourself through in-ears, because that’s less feel than when your amp is turned down but on stage. There really is no way around the fact that we need to curb our volume somehow in many venues, and effects help us get the feel back. The thing is, it’s just a tad artificial. So remember that just because it sounds good live, doesn’t mean it will translate into recording. Pedal settings need to change depending on the volume of your amp. So if you go into the studio, put your amp in a control room and just crank it, sometimes you’ll notice that your delay is incredibly pronounced. So pronounced, that (*gasp!) you might not even need it.

So there you have it. Another excuse to add to the arsenal when arguing with the ‘tone is in the hands’ guy. Because just maybe, tone is partly in the volume. And when you can’t push enough air, your hands benefit from a little effecting of the choked signal.

Nigel may have been on to something.


21 thoughts on “Tone is in the Big Pedalboards & Lots of Delay

  1. Fascinating. You really connected the dots there. What may actually be more difficult than getting tone at reduced volumes is just trying to explain to Pastors, worship leaders, sound guys and Acoustic Guitar Players what we’ve heard and want to hear again. I just mention acoustic guitar players because most of the worship leaders I interact with play exclusively acoustic guitars and really just don’t get the “cranked amp” tone thing.

  2. Drummers have it way worse than we do. That having been said, I wish I could turn up too. But it got a lot better after I got an amp I liked better. Now I like the way I sound (through my 13 pedals) even at low volumes.

  3. totally agree … definitely different playing live and recording. and low volume against cranked, big difference. i think you can categorize this into 2

    – volume at 11
    – volume not at 11


  4. One thing that really gets overlooked in the volume wars is just how much better SPEAKERS sound when moving some air. The speakers in most of our amps are rated way, way higher than the ~5w of signal required on a “quiet” stage. I intentionally underrated the speakers in my Valvetech, but I still don’t get to put it in the sweet spot very often.

  5. Makes sense considering the whole point of delay and verb is to emulate space: the longer the time, the bigger the space. Slap a 5-second delay on that sucker and they’ll feel like there’s a mountain nearby.

    The problem with playing an amp at low level is that you end up bypassing the full character of the amp, you know, the saturation of the power tubes, the resonance of the cabinet, and the break-up of the speaker. All of these things need to be pushed close to their operating limit to reveal their most inspiring sound. We subconsciously miss these characteristics when not present, partly because we’ve listened to so many recordings over the years that maintained these attributes, but also from our own experience cranking our amps from time to time.

    Not to mention the thump in our chest when we hit a chord on a cranked amp feels nice. It’s like our mother’s are talking to us in the womb again.

  6. Randy–that’s true. Just tell ’em ‘put some delay on and trust me.’ hehe But sometimes giving folks some musical examples to listen to over the week to get them on the same page as what you’re thinking is good, both secular and Christian. Just helps to get people influenced and tracking with ya.

    Alex–cool man! I gave it a read and it looks good. 🙂 Who’s Dan?

    Eric–too true. We just stick ’em in a cage. haha

    Rhoy–lol Those are the only options!! yes!!

    Justin–killer point! That’s why the Blue’s and low wattage Scumnico’s sound so good, because they’re being pushed into their full eq spectrum.

    Steve–wonderful. I absolutely agree, and it’s amazing how much of tone and good music is not ‘measurable’ necessarily, but felt subconsciously. Love it!

    And maybe that’s what we’re all in some ways trying to get back to….tone is in the womb. 😉 😉

    Sal–I keep tellin’ ya, man…get rid of that cord. So much tone suckage. 😉 😉 😉

  7. Totally right. Every effect was more or less created to mimic a sound that you can’t get because of some limitations. Overdrive/distortion to mimic a cranked amp, reverb to mimic sound bouncing off walls, phaser to mimic two mics out of phase with each other, flanger (Karl’s favorite 😉 ) to mimic a double-tracked tape machine with a head problem…and on and on (also interesting to note that most of these effects were things that were initially seen as flaws or limitations in the studio). That being said, the most interesting and innovative guitarists are the ones that appropriate one (or many) of these sounds intended to mimic something else and apply them in new and interesting ways. In my mind, good tone is only the starting point, not the end goal.

  8. ….the thing I can’t stop thinking is just how unbelievably funny “Spinal Tap” is. That picture you posted had me laughing for like 10 minutes.

    Sorry, did you say something about gear in the post?

  9. I’m thinking of starting a line of pedals called “Mother’s Womb”…… will involve a low-pass at around 500 Hz, some gurgling effects, and a heartbeat. I’m thinking it’ll pretty much be a hit.

  10. I showed up at church a couple weeks ago with no gear and just tried holding on to an XLR cable that was plugged into the snake. Everyone quickly learned that tone is not just ‘in the hands.’ They were also mad because I didn’t have a guitar to play…

    Please note: This didn’t happen. I just keep waiting for this post from a no-effects purist on Gear Talk or TGP.

    I had this experience while playing a Marshal Class 5 at a Guitar Center. I just kept turning the volume up until it was breaking up a bit (no master) and so were the sales people… It sounded great. It was up about 80% with all of the eq knobs maxed. Then, I turned it down a bit and asked for an od and delay and it was gone.

  11. Rhoy–haha That’s great!!

    JK–whoa, man. That was deep. Great comment, brother!

    Ben–haha What an amazing scene!

    Steve–hehe Probably amongst the ambient crowd. 😉

    Josh–great story with the Marshall. I totally agree. And wait, you don’t have tone in your hands? When I hold an XLR cable, it still sounds like bad Edge ripoffs.

  12. I realized this when my overdrive was way too trebly when playing loud on stage compared to at home. Such a massive difference, which is why I took my Blackstar HT-60 and got and HT-20 for smaller shows, cranked it just lets every note bloom so gorgeously. Good food for thought Karl, cheers.

  13. Had such an amazing experience last night. Set up the amp to fire into a side wall and was able to turn up just that little bit more. Glorious. Reduced delay use by roughly 22.8675309%

  14. Gilks–superb idea. Yep, lower powered amps have the ability to reach their potential quicker in much smaller rooms. 🙂

    Justin–haha Fantastic! I might’ve suggested 21%, but that’s cool. 😉

  15. This is so true. I just bought a 1×12″ Morgan AC20 Deluxe combo. I’m going to see what the volume difference is between that and my other 35W head (on half power) with 2×12″ cab. Hoping the smaller cab makes a difference.

  16. Sort of off topic, but I played through a little VHT combo today at church. I’m not sure which one it was, but it only had a tone and volume knob (and high and low input, and some special power mode). It probably had a 8″ or 10″ speaker, closed back. I plugged into the low input with the volume 3/4 up and tone dimed. Man, that is a dark amp! I play a Tele and I had the tone dimed on my guitar too! It was pretty good tones but I think I may bring my Blues Jr, since I have more tonal options if I don’t have to have everything dimed just to make my tone somewhat bright. Then again, I was listening through in-ears (cheap headphones) since the amp is backstage, I couldn’t really hear just the amp and my setup. But the sound guy went to brighten up the amp, so he noticed it too.

    Nice little amp, though I either need to figure out how to get more headroom out of it (I didn’t really have a clean signal–more like overdriven and more overdriven), or use mine. I like a strong, loud clean signal. With reverb (I’m gonna miss not being able to adjust controls!).

    Yeah, anyway, it was fun to play in a band again! They’re all really good, so it’s easy to step in and add a little here and there.

  17. Andrew–it probably will, especially for mic’ing. You’ll have less transient stage noise.

    Caleb–interesting. I tend to like VHT/Fryette stuff, but I also tend to like darker tone. Let me know when you hear it in the same room!

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