Crank it to 11?

June 18, 2008

Dear Dude,

I always hear people saying that a cranked tube tone is the best. I’ve been to plenty of live shows but the amps were usually miked into the house PA, never needing them to ever be turned past 3 (not saying they weren’t). I’ve always had solid state or hybrid amps, but nothing as loud as the 6505 I just purchased. When I’m at home I play at around level 3, so I could totally see myself blowing a speaker or losing sound quality around 6 or 7. I’m wondering if I’m putting my cabinet, or even head, in harm’s way by really letting the thing crank? My current setup is an ESP viper, 6505 head, and a Basson 4×12 cabinet.

Crank it to 11?

Dear Crank it to 11,

Live volume and more directly, stage volume is a battle fought every day in clubs throughout the world. This battle pits would-be guitarist against the ever knowing (or at least ever-claiming to know) house sound man. Now, if you are lucky enough to travel with your own sound guy (like myself, wuz up Johnny!) then you will get the distinct pleasure of battling the same person night after night! So how loud is too loud? Is there such a thing as to loud? And what’s a reasonable stage volume? Can playing too loud damage your gear? These are questions I have asked myself many times, and here is my take on where you should set that dial.

I am very familiar with the 6505. I have had all models of the 5150 line as well as a few different versions of the 5150 II and the 6505. I have mentioned before that it’s my safety amp because if you get them in relatively good condition they all tend to sound relatively the same. Not something you always want in an amp but it does get the job done. On the 6505 (the distorted channel we are talking about here) there are two volumes you need to be aware of, the Pre Amp (PRE) control and the Master Volume control (POST). Your overall volume and tone for this amp is basically the blend of these two knobs.

I have never run a 5150/5150II/6505 live with the POST volume louder then 5 (and 5 is pushing it, I usually have it at around 4) and I usually run the PRE volume at around 4 or 5. I use a tube screamer or Ratt pedal for extra distortion. I don’t like how the preamp gain sounds after it gets past 5 on those amps. If you listen when you crank that up you also get all sorts of extra high and ultra low end that to me just makes it sound too muddy. I see other dudes out there making the grave mistake of cranking up that PRE knob way too loud. Just to be clear, you can’t “cover” up sloppy or inconsistent playing with more gain. Don’t fall into this trap. Metallica, Magedeth, ACDC, Van Halen, Slayer, Anthrax, all the great shredding bands play with minimal gain in order to have each note sing. Even Dimebag who did play with a shitload of gain made sure it was still clean and clear so watch out with that PRE knob on the 6505, its not just a distortion or volume knob.

I would say if you run your head consistently or even a few times with the POST on 7 or higher you may damage that head. I doubt you’ll fuck up a speaker cab but it is possible. The quality of the tone and overall sound on most modern amps tends to deteriorate when you turn them up too loud. See, the idea of cranking up a tube amp comes from the olden days when you had to crank it up to get any distortion. Now amps are made to get those sounds at minimal volume and they don’t really have the same characteristics as their older counterparts, so cranking them up doesn’t add anything to the over all sound quality.

If you have an older amp and want that crazy ass sounding rock distortion, but don’t want all the volume, you can always look into what is called a power break. Marshall makes a really good one. I got into the power break when I had my experimental stage involving Marshall JMP’s. They were loud as fuck (like, I mean, too loud to even play a show with) but it was the only way to get that sound I wanted. The power break worked great for me. It’s designed for the specific purpose to allow you to run those tubes hard and still get overall volume control.

Volume is all about moderation. You want the guitar to sit well with whatever you’re doing. If your just jamming at your house or recording I would say put the PRE volume at 4 to 6, depending on how hot your guitar is, and put the POST volume at like 3 or so to jam or record. If you’re rocking with a band then push that bad boy up to 4 or 5 with the POST volume. A 5150, 5150II, 6505 should be loud as shit when placed on the distorted channel, POST volume at 4, and PRE volume at 5. If yours isn’t then maybe it needs new power tubes or there is something else with your set up that might need tweaking. I frequently change the power tubes on my heads. It’s expensive but it absolutely affects the overall sound.

It’s good to know that most pro musicians don’t run their actual amps that loud. You might see them on stage with a wall of amps behind them but most of the time only one head and cab is turned on. Shit, I have seen some big, big, big metal bands play with walls of amps but have their actual live sound coming from small combo amps or even pods. Many musicians prefer to run their amps quiet I think most notable, Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine. I have read more then a few times that he prefers his stage volume very quiet and I think few can argue with the power that is Rage live. Keep all this in mind when you enter the battlefield of volume and live music. You want to find a good combination of your tone, your volume in relevance with the other instruments, and of course your overall sound in the front of house (or live room).

The Dude