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Choosing An Amp To Record With

Updated: Mar 24

Last month, we asked a big question: how do you choose a guitar to record with? Hopefully you enjoyed experimenting and coming to some conclusions on that – but now, there’s another dilemma to sort out… which amplifier do you plug into?

While the tone of your guitar is principally important, the way your chosen amp produces it will have the final say on the sound that gets recorded in the studio. After all, the amp cabinet is where the microphone is sitting! In this tutorial, we’ll cover five basic factors to consider when choosing an amp for your studio guitar work – whether you’re going to buy one, hire one, or have an informed discussion with your favourite studio about the range of amps they have available in-house.

1. Tube vs solid state

First up, let’s address the main thing most people want to know about amps, with a very basic explanation. A tube (or valve) amp is powered by vacuum tubes – old-fashioned pieces of hardware that can take an electrical signal (created by your guitar) and power it up (i.e. amplify it). A solid-state amp does basically the same thing – but instead of tubes, it uses a circuit of transistors to do the signal boosting, which is a much cheaper and more modern approach to electrical engineering. The signal never passes through a vacuum; hence the ‘solid-state’ name.

The rear panel of a Mesa Boogie Lone Star guitar amplifier, with 5 tubes visible in the centre
The rear panel of a Mesa Boogie Lone Star, with tubes (x5) visible in the centre

Compared to their tube counterparts, solid-state amps are cheaper to buy, cheaper to run, generally more reliable, and weigh much less. However – with the exception of some of the very latest solid-state technology – it’s generally accepted that tube amps sound richer, respond more naturally to dynamic playing, and produce nicer distorted sounds. They are also a lot louder watt-for-watt – for example, a 20w tube amp packs more volume than most players will ever need, while a 20w solid-state amp will struggle to keep up with most drummers.

It might not technically correct, but it’s helpful to think of tube amps as analogue and solid-state amps as digital. One has an organic flavour, and one has more of a processed feel. Ask yourself whether that matters to you or not, and think about whether one is better suited to your music than the other.

2. Clean vs dirty

For a lot of people, this characteristic alone might be enough to settle the whole question we’re posing in this tutorial. It pays to consider your amp’s capacity for clean and distorted sounds, and how that matches up with the style of music you’re making.

Most solid-state amps offer a wide spectrum of clean or distorted sounds at the flick of a button (plus sometimes digital effects like choruses, phasers, and more). Whether any of those sounds are usable, let alone pleasing to the ear, is for you to decide… you’ll need to test a few different amps and flick through their channels to determine which ones do a good job and which ones fall short.

A photo of Fender Twin Reverb guitar amplifier
Fender Twin Reverb - famously clean

On the tube side, many amps do one job, and do it well. Some focus on producing a pristine clean tone – like the Fender Twin Reverb. No matter how loud you turn them up, they stay clear as a bell. Other tube amps are designed to maximise their potential for distortion – like nearly all Marshalls ever made. You can't turn them up much before they start to sound ‘greasy’, and ultimately break up into a wall of distortion (which means there is very little ‘clean headroom’).

However, there are plenty of more modern tube amp designs out there that do allow you to switch between a clean channel and a dirty channel (or sometimes multiple dirty channels for even higher gain). Mesa Boogie and Soldano are two brands that are famous for their tube distortion while also offering a desirable clean channel on many of their amps.

In any case – if you’re going for a dirty tube amp sound in the studio, it’s probably best to look for one with a master volume knob. The master volume knob will allow you to keep the total volume under control while you use a separate gain knob to saturate the preamp tubes and adjust the amount of distortion to your liking. The Vox AC30, Marshall JCM 800, and Fender Hot Rod Deluxe are three of the most popular choices of master volume amps for players who want to produce edgy drive sounds while keeping a lid on the level.

On amps without master volume knobs – such as the legendary Marshall Plexi – the only way to produce distortion is to saturate the power tubes, by cranking the amp up to ear-splitting levels… You can use an attenuator device to control the volume, but you have to make sure it’s a good one – and even then, you have to be happy with the way it alters the tone. In my view, it’s much easier to get an amp that does the job without technical workarounds. Save the Plexi for when you’re playing at Wembley.

A photo of a Marshall 1959 Super Lead Plexi guitar amplifier
The Marshall 1959 Super Lead 'Plexi', with no master volume knob... watch out!

Now, before we move on, I know what some of you are thinking: surely you could just get your overdriven sounds with pedals? Well, you’re right – it’s a viable option. Just remember that the studio is where we’re capturing the purest guitar tones possible, and if you’re serious about dirty guitar tones as a feature of your music, it’s worth thinking about what natural amp distortion – particularly rich, organic tube amp distortion – could bring to your recording. Even if you are set on using your favourite drive pedal, putting it through a crunchy tube amp will make it sound even creamier.

3. Tonal character

Many amps can be categorised by their particular tonal character. For example, you often hear people talk about the ‘British sound’ associated with English amp brands like Marshall and Vox, which is bright, chime-y, and on the thinner side. There’s also the ‘American sound’ made famous by Fender amps, which is much fuller and fatter, and packs plenty of mid-range punch. Think about which way you want your amp to lean.

Factor the guitars you’ll be using into this equation as well. A Gibson Les Paul paired with a Marshall is so popular because the girth of the Les Paul’s humbucker pickups is offset brilliantly by the brightness of the amp. A lot of people also love a Fender Stratocaster plugged into a Fender amp because the Strat’s biting single-coil pickups get rounded out nicely with broad warmth. These are just two examples – there are no rules, of course – but have a think about the balance you want to achieve with the guitar(s) you have.

A secondary consideration here is the range of knobs and switches available on the amp’s control panel. Within the window of the amp’s overall character, these controls will help you shape the sound of the amp more closely to your taste. Some amps, such as the Marshall JVM410 or the Mesa Boogie Roadster, have a jam-packed panel of over 20 knobs and switches that will help you tinker with your sound. At the other end of the spectrum, amps like the tweed Fender Champ only have a solitary volume knob – so you’d better like the way they sound!

Another option you might like to investigate is amps (particularly solid-state ones) with ‘modelling’ switches that let you change the voicing of the amp between British, American, and other options. If you don’t want to commit to a single flavour, and you’re happy with the tonal reproductions on offer, a modelling amp might be the one for you.

A line 6 Flextone modelling guitar amplifier
A 'modelling' switch on a Line 6 Flextone, offering a range of different amp styles

4. Speakers

Even though the amplifier circuitry does the heavy lifting in terms of tonal character, the size and configuration of your speakers will also affect the sound you wind up with.

In a ‘combo’ amp, the speaker comes connected to the amp in one single cabinet, making it a complete package. Combos come in all kinds of different sizes, however. A Fender Princeton Reverb combo comes with a single 10-inch speaker, whereas a tweed Fender Bassman combo comes with four 10-inch speakers… and consequently, the latter has a lot more surround-sound oomph than the former.

Two small Vox AC4 guitar amplifiers
Two of the smaller combo amps in the business - the Vox AC4C1 (L) and AC4TV (R), each with a 10-inch speaker

Alternatively, if you buy an amp head, you will have a choice of speaker cabinets to connect it to. The most common options are a single speaker, two speakers, or a four-speaker quad box perfect for that Plexi setup at Wembley. The head will sound noticeably different with each cab.

The studio mixing process can obviously fatten sounds up or thin them out to your liking, but (as we always say at Island) it’s best to be right in the ballpark from the start of the recording process. So, compare the differences between speaker sizes and single/multiple speaker setups. See if you like the fatter sound of a bigger rig enough to warrant going in that direction.

An orange guitar amplifier with separate amplifier and cabinet
An Orange head and cab setup - the cabinet here has a single 12-inch speaker

5. Multi-amp setups

Multiple guitar amplifiers set up for recording, including a Laney, Fender and Vox amplifier
Amps ready to be set up for multi-amp recording

Lastly, I'm sitting on the fence a bit, and saying that if you have the means… try to do all of the above! Multi-amp setups are fantastic for flexibility both in concocting tones during the recording session and blending tones to taste during the mixing process. Your guitar will be connected to two or more amps each with their own microphone(s), so you can record a range of tones on your parts simultaneously. Try to create combinations of amps that provide versatility – like a clean amp with a dirty amp, a big amp with a little amp, or even a solid-state amp paired with a tube amp.

So, that wraps up my top five tips for picking the right amp(s) to record with - get out there, use those ears, and see what one speaks to you. Happy playing!

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