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Buyer’s Guide. Guitar and Instrument Amplifiers.
Walk into a well stocked music store and you will be faced a huge selection of guitar amplifiers. What amp is the right match for you and your guitar/s? It can be a difficult buying decision. Here is a basic guide to assist your amp choice. Sure you need to inform yourself about amplifier specs and features, but do not stress too much. The simple approach is choose your budget, review a few models and make the purchase. The state of current technology and manufacturing techniques means that most amps are of good build quality and will deliver acceptable performance, even for a modest budget.
There is a general rule of thumb, advocated by musicians, the cost of the amp ought match the cost of the guitar. Why? Well the amp is the channel through with your musical talent will broadcast to the audience. Basically, do not diminish your guitar's potential by matching it with an inferior amplifier. But that not mean that amps of a lower price are of a low quality. These days, with the advanced computer aided manufacturing methods, the cost of producing amplifiers is lower while the relative quality improves. This trend benefits amp buyers.
the electric guitar, acoustic guitar, electric bass guitar, electronic keyboard.
Electric Guitar Amplifiers: These are very popular amps. This level of popularity is a result of the broad appeal of the electric guitar.
Acoustic Guitar Amplifiers: These amplifiers are optimized to project the brilliant highs of the acoustic guitar while preserving the warm mid-ranges and bass. Acoustic amps have inbuilt speakers and usually support a mic plug and a line for guitar pickups.
Bass Amplifiers: These amplifiers are optimized to not distort sounds of the lower registers.
Keyboard Amplifiers: Basically these amps are designed to accurately reproduce keyboard sounds in a similar manner as a PA system.
Amp Unit types
Combo Amps: House both amp unit and speakers in one box. These amps are what you will most commonly find in the market. One of the benefits of these amps is they are easy to carry and transport.
Amplifier Head: This type of amp is a single unit without speakers. Amp heads require a cable connection to speakers. It is advised to use high voltage cables for connecting the amp head to the speakers. Avoid standard type instrument cables. If you plan to use several speakers, then this type of amp is well designed for the task.
How an amp functions
The primary function of an amplifier is to convert electrical signals into sound. To achieve this task, amps use two circuits or stages, namely: preamp and power amp. The preamp processes the signal received from the guitar and sends to the power amp and other processes in the amp, such as the EQ and effects loop. The task of the power amp is to boost the signal sent to the speakers.
Vacuum Tube Amplifier
Vacuum tubes are what you will find in the original radios 50 odd years ago.
When over-driven and heated with electrical current, tube type amps produce a tonal warmth and a unique 'distortion effect' not found in digital type amps. Although tube amps are considered an older technology, being replaced with solid state technology, they remain popular for many musicians.
Solid State Amps
This type of amp incorporates newer circuit design and aims to replicate the tonal and sound processing qualities of the older vacuum tube amp models.
The choice between a tube or solid state amp depends on both your budget and musical genre. The sound and tonal differences produced by both type of amps is generally only detectable by a trained ear, however purists tend to opt for the vacuum tube amps because of the more analog tone and distortion sound quality. Newer generations of musicians tend to opt for the latest in amp technology, namely solid state circuits, primarily because this type of amp suits modern music genres. Plus very affordable quality amps are available with this newer technology.
When research amplifiers, ensure the unit is capable of multiple channels, which can be set independently allowing the user to seamlessly switch between channels. For most musicians, channel switching capabilities is an important feature. Channel switching is especially useful for the electric guitarist for the ability to effortlessly switch between the loud distortion effect and the clean rhythm tones. Most amplifiers are already equipped an accessory footswitch which facilitate channel changes.
The power of an amplifier is measured in Watts. This is a measure of the capacity of the amp to power the speakers. Bear in mind the following guide when researching your amplifier purchase:
a) The higher the wattage spec, the louder sound capability of the amplifier.
b) Vacuum tube amps reproduce a louder sound per Watt of power when compared to solid state type amps. For example, a 5 Watt vacuum tube amp will deliver a similar sound volume as a 40 Watt solid state amp unit.
c) A headphone jack is standard in an amp unit. Although it is a simple feature, it is especially useful for practice sessions while not disturbing your neighbors.
Most amplifiers support a number of inbuilt effects. Here is a brief overview:
a) EQ: The amp unit will feature 2 or 4 dial knobs that control the range of sound frequencies For instance, increase treble settings for a brighter sound, adjust the middle EQ to full and the treble and bass to zero to achieve the natural sound of the guitar, add extra bass tones by increasing the bass frequency. As we are familiar with the slider type EQ controls on a home stereo system, then experiment with the EQ controls on an amp. Adjusting the treble higher produces brighter sounds, while adjusting the middle and bass produces rich deeper tones.
b) Effects Loop: An effect loop is controlled by an external chord and facilitates changing the signal carried between the preamp and the power amp.
c) Digital Effects: Most modern amplifiers feature a range of digital effects that may include; flange, phase, reverb, echo, chorus, pitch shift and so on. Remember we mentioned channels earlier, well channels can control effects which can be preset and assigned to a channel. The channel switcher can then easily switch between different effects presets. In many instances, amps will feature preset effects combinations.
Speaker quality is important, of course. be mindful of your budget, but try to get the best speakers for your budget. bear in mind that heaver and more expensive speakers are generally translate better sound quality. Better quality speakers facilitate better coloration of the amps signal, thus creating a richer superior sound.
- 8” Speakers: smaller amplifiers.
- 10” Speakers: housed in practice amplifiers.
- 12” Speakers: find in amps used for performances.
- 15” Speakers: usually found in bass amps and housed in a separate cabinet.
Buying an amplifier requires some initial thought and research. Be clear about the purpose of the amplifier and how it will match and enhance your musical genre. Some considerations include: the style of music you plan now, the number of instruments you plan to attach to the amp, are there other band members who want to plug into your amp, the size of performances and venue types.
Some helpful tips
- A 40 Watt solid state amplifier featuring 10" speakers will project adequately in most performance situations, depending on the loudness of the drummer.
- A 60 Watt solid state amplifier matched with a 12" speaker is completely suitable to all but the loudest performance locations.
- A 30 Watt tube amp is adequate enough for a full rock band performance in most locations.
This guide is a starter for you on the path to buying the right guitar amp that meets your musical style and performance needs.
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