Gigging *Without* an Amp

 

Now I know the image above will give some people fits. Just the idea of doing a gig without your favorite amp roaring behind you is enough to send people to their sheds, grabbing pitchforks and lighting torches. This article is about why some guitarists choose to go direct at gigs. Going direct doesn’t replace the traditional guitar/pedals/amp formula that has powered popular music for over 60 years. Bass players and acoustic guitarists have gone direct for years, and technology is catching up to the ears of electric guitarists. Of course, no one is trying to tell every guitarist to do this, but it does seem to have merit in certain situations. Those situations are exactly what we will be talking about here.

The Best Sound a Band Can Get

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Generally, a band sounds the best to the audience when you have an attentive, knowledgeable sound person who is paid well by the band or venue. He also needs the right tools to balance the sound for the room. If all of the instruments onstage are blasting at full volume, the poor PA can’t keep up- and the people in the first few rows have their heads torn off by whatever instrument amplifier they are unlucky enough to be standing in front of. This results in an unbalanced mix that the sound person can’t fix. It might sound awesome onstage, but you want the audience to have a great experience too, right? With monitors, side fills, several amps/cabs, and a fort full of cymbals onstage, things get loud quickly, and everything competes for the same sonic space. It is easy for band members to get into ‘volume wars’ while the sound dude/dudette takes everyone out of the mix but the vocals right before they throw up their hands and shake their heads. The audience might not know what sonic problems are occurring, but they definitely will hear it. An audience member describing a gig like this to a friend might say, “I saw this band, but they sounded terrible.” No one wants that kind of review. We spend a lot of money on guitars, pedals, amps, and microphones. But many  musicians at the gig just set everything up and hope for the best.

A band can sound good with conventional amps and PA gear. But it takes musicians who are sensitive to each other as well as the overall sound of the band. It takes a skilled soundperson who has the gear (and knows how to use it) and enough time to get a proper soundcheck.  Going direct attempts to solve these problems. Adding IEMs (In Ear Monitors) solves more. Yes, you don’t have amps blaring behind you. No, you don’t look like Jimi at Woodstock. Yes, you have to get used to the way things sound and learn how to perform without amps.

Why Go Through This Dance?

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I can give my own story as why I decided to go direct at shows when the band I am in uses our own PA. In a 5 piece band, with dense guitar, a busy keyboardist/organist, a 5 string bass, 3 vocalists and a cymbal-happy drummer, things were getting loud onstage. Our singer would have the monitors close to feedback all night (and it would feedback several times in the night). Live recordings, both in the room, or miked on TV or radio were a mess of frequencies, since setup times were quick, and we hoped for the best. My amp, a Mesa/Boogie with 6v6s & EL84s sounded amazing. But everyone said they couldn’t hear the vocals. When we listened back, we heard what everyone else (didn’t hear). We were a sonic mess. We tried clearing it up with EQs and amp placement. It sounded clearer onstage, but microphone leakage and feedback were still a problem, and the band had internal ‘volume wars’ with each other. Truth is, we didn’t always have a great soundperson. We were carrying a lot of gear. The venues we played and the sizes of the stages and audiences varied wildly. After several poor sounding gigs that left my ears ringing (even with earplugs), I started investigating. The first decision was to go with IEMs. This would eliminate the bulky monitors (with 1 poorly placed handle, mind you) and stop the feedback problems. It would free up stage space. The next problem was realizing that the amps onstage easily could overpower the IEMs that were directed right in our ears. So I came to the conclusion that the only way past this problem was to get rid of all of the amps.

That’s kinda drastic…I ain’t doing that…

13_FLYRIG_ANGLEHold on now, this is my story, right? Anyways, realizing that I don’t use multiple amps live, and that I tend to stick with 1 basic amp sound, this was going to be easier than I thought. The amp sound I use is more of a Fender Twin sound with a little more mids, but not as much as say, a Deluxe. The gain is something I get from my pedals (like an 805 Overdrive and a Vapor Trail Analog Delay).  I didn’t need a device for live playing that replicated dozens of amps, cabs, and microphones. My setup is simple: Good pedals plugged into a simple modeler like the Tech 21 Fly Rig 5.  It is a simple amp modeler with reverb that I can even use as a full pedalboard if mine goes down. Getting use to IEMs with a well-mixed band took a little bit of doing, but after a few gigs, I had adjusted just fine. You can change your own balance of the band in your own ears, but it is sort of like listening to a CD and playing along with it. It is not much different than what I do at home, anyway, so once I got over the ‘hangup’ of not carrying my amp (my back thanks me), and not seeing my amp behind me, it made a lot of sense. We take 50% less gear now to gigs, and the recordings (and reviews) are much, much better. My ears don’t ring for 2 days after. I can still get glorious feedback (from my pickups hearing the PA sound), and all of the little tricks I do on guitar remain in tact. The pickups on my guitar still deliver the same sound. To my ears, it is easier to mix out front, and much, much easier to balance all of the instruments without all of the stage volume. We also have a lot more room onstage to move around.

Exit the Amp, Enter the Fractal Axe-FX II XL+

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I spoke with Matt “[email protected]” Picone, of Fractal Audio, about the increasing use of modelers for today’s biggest acts. Their flagship modeler, the Axe-FX II XL+, is used by bands as diverse as U2, King Crimson, and Taylor Swift. Increasing numbers of top-level guitarists are discovering Fractal’s dozens of effects/amps/cab/microphone models and the obsessive tweakability inhe
rent in their designs. In the credits of Fractal’s products, Matt Picone is listed alongside Cliff Chase, the company’s founder, president and DSP/Hardware engineer, as contributing to “everything else.” He says that title suits him because it spans a range of duties including support, artist relations, brand development, sales, marketing, PR, sound design, docs & manuals, e-commerce, business development, infrastructure and much more. Their products are not just for ultra rock stars, as Matt explains:

For those who are new to the idea of performing without a traditional guitar amp, why would somebody choose to not use the same setup that has worked for 60 years?

Woah… I think I’d better use a list to answer this question or it will really get away from me. How about a top ten?

1.      Versatility – You’ve literally got the world’s largest self-contained virtual collection of amps, cabs and effects at your fingertips!

2.      Weight – a LOT less. This is important if you’re leaving the garage for the first time and don’t have roadies, if (like me) you’re trying to not injure your back anymore lugging equipment), if you’re a touring band trying to spend less on cartage and more on crew, or if you’re a worldwide act who needs to truck and fly your stage rig between continents.

3.      Control – a LOT greater, including the ability to improve on the past. This might just mean the ability to create a signature tone without limits, but it also includes things like how easy it is to switch, synchronize, or automate changes.

4.      Precision – All of the above, plus a masterful suite of EQs, compressors, etc.

5.      Consistency of sound from night to night/venue to venue (and anywhere else).

6.      Greater reliability and less maintenance. (Seen the price of great tubes lately?).

7.      No pesky stage levels. FOH engineers like control. They simply can’t create a mix in a smaller venue around a cranked 50W amp.

8.      We talked about reliability but lets add security: you can back up your entire rig to a laptop (or dropbox!), then swap in a spare Axe-Fx anywhere on earth and be guaranteed the exact same playing experience. I’ve seen this save people after many a gear “accident” on the road.

9.      Quiet practice in a bedroom, basement, hotel, tourbus with the same sound you’ll use on stage (just don’t be too tempted to tweak without inviting Fletcher and Munson!)

10.    SOUND QUALITY! This really is first and foremost. You get all of the above PLUS a sonic experience which inspires creativity and brings out the best in your favorite guitars… in you.

What advantages does a ‘I use one basic sound’-type of player get from performing without an amp?

Perhaps all of the above except #1?

Your products are on the world’s biggest stages, with artists from U2 to Taylor Swift. Are your products only for players hitting stages with the best PA systems in the world?

I estimate that fewer than one in a thousand of all Axe-Fx units in the word today are used on world-class stages with great PAs. In fact, MOST players probably don’t use a P.A. at all, or rely on one to bring their personal sound to the venue (with the same caveats they’d have when mic’ing a traditional amp). These players use personal stage monitors, power amp and speakers, or a traditional guitar amp. And all of the things I’ve just mentioned should also be placed next to the many guitarists who are not playing on stage at all, ever. Studio monitors—whether they are modest to magnificent—give you a really satisfying new way to play.

If a band is recording their first album, what advantages do they have going ‘ampless’?

How about not needing a pro studio AT ALL for guitars and bass? This is the core promise of the Axe-Fx and modern recording technology. Now in your home studio you’ve got a mind-blowing amp collection for less than the price of one single amp! Some really incredible guitar albums have had guitar parts recorded at home.

But a lot of bands also go in to a pro studio for the shared experience… add to that the expertise offered by a producer and engineer. In this scenario, you might have a hard sell but I’ve had a lot of producers and engineers call me to order an Axe-Fx after hearing one in this context. Nick Raskulinecz, Richard Chycki, Jack Douglas to name a few. In some case  guitar tones are prepared in advance on the Axe-Fx and then the “team” works together to decide what the album is going to sound like. I’ve also done consulting where the Axe-Fx was used to Tone Match the sound of stems from “the last album” or an old masterpiece. I also just saw a video where a band kept fooling this superstar producer by switching to the Axe-Fx and telling him it was the real amp he had set up in the live room. In all of these cases, you’re basically also dealing with many of the same things from the “top ten” list above. I also think it can save time and money. Just think about how easy it makes re-amping and how important that can be to notching things up a level… re-crafting guitar tones around a new mix idea. By the way, these things are all equally true for established artists as well; doing your first album is not really all that different in this regard.

If a player is really attached to their amp, how can they take advantage of the effects in your flagship Axe-FX II?

The Axe-Fx II is also the world’s most powerful hardware multi-effects. To use it with an amp, just create presets with no AMP or CAB blocks. Some people run separate chains of effects —some before the amp and others in its loop. This is called the “four cable method.” Or better still: match the sound of your amp and send THAT to front of house while you use your amp on stage in all its glory.

By the way, we also offer a floor unit designed expressly for this purpose: the FX8 has effects but no amp or cab modeling. It is really exploding right now.

get along

Gigging without an amp has many advantages, but amps aren’t going away anytime soon. Whether you use an amp live or not, the overall sound of the band shouldn’t be an afterthought. It doesn’t matter how good you sound at home or onstage if the band itself doesn’t sound good to the audience.

Have you ever played live or recorded without a traditional guitar amp?

 

Join the Conversation

18 Comments

  1. Great Article, I’ve heard a number of great things about the AXE FX systems, and if I were to continue with the type of setup I have now, I’d likely end up running the FX-8 in the future.
    But I’d also like to share my interesting Goldilocks setup into the mix, I’ve had a Boss GT-8 for years and I love that thing for all the control it can give me at the front of stage. However, I’m only 18 and never had the kind of money to buy an amp I’d love to run 4 cables for (or in my case three, I run a Line6 wireless), so I use the virtual preamps and run it into the Effect return of my 6L6 loaded Kustom amp (never liked the preamp in it). This very fact made my gigs in high school extremely easy, as I could use virtually any tube amp with an FX loop as my backline, then adjust the global EQ accordingly to pull the best tone possible, or in one instance I had two amps at my disposal so I got the pleasure of switching up my Delay and Chorus type effects to their stereo modes. I also have a couple of pedals on my board to address a few tonal setbacks I found in the Boss, but that’s only suiting my personal taste. Enjoy my board…

  2. In my experience, sound people *love* when the band is going direct, for all the reasons stated in the article. There is a reason that many top bands are using DI devices on guitar and bass. It isn’t the only way of doing it, but many well-rehearsed bands working with ace sound people seem to do fine with it.

    1. I played a gig (to an empty house) at The Haunt in Ithaca NY. A lot of up and coming regional bands play there. We, on the other hand are just a cover band from Binghamton, about an hour away. While setting up, the sound man left a mic on the floor where I’d be setting up. I let him know that I send a direct signal. I could tell he wasn’t happy. After the gig though, he came and complimented me on my sound, saying that he didn’t expect a direct sound to be that good.
      Unfortunately, a few years prior, we were playing in a festival where there were many bands. THAT soundman flat out refused to use a direct signal and insisted on mic’ing my cabinet. I had spend MONTHS designing and programming my TWO preamps, one for the stage and the other for the board… certain effects were sent to one and not the other… My whole sound was based on two pre-amps running at the same time. This is about as close as I’ve come to physically punching anyone. I told him to plug in to the XLR output right “there.” He wouldn’t… made excuses as to not knowing which channel on the snake ithe other end was plugged into. (That made no sense at all… wouldn’t he know which channel the MIC was in? All he had to do is remove the mic, plug that end of the cable into the output of my unit.) Weeks later, people in the audience commented to me that they remembered that I played and sang the gig “fuming” over something. Half of my sound wasn’t there AT ALL.

    2. I understand and concur with you totally, as a sound man, I love it when everyone is direct, it makes life so much easier. every mike you eliminate adds roughly 3 db headroom overall to the max level without feedback. But as a bassist, and a Chapman Stick player, ampless just feels too flat and lifeless for me. I recently worked a John McLaughlin and Fourth Dimension gig in Bali, Both John, and Gary Husband went direct, it was wonderful. The bassist was amped though, for the same reasons I prefer to be amped If I am playing bass. Nathan East is another who doesn’t like bass in the monitors, preferring the sound and dynamic control of having his own amp. By and large, I find that generally (with some VERY notable exceptions) people who grew up playing concerts “back in the day” prefer amps, subsequent generations of people who grew up playing with small “portable” amps (think SWR, etc.) generally don’t mind going ampless, they have pedal racks, and have the sound they want from that. They don’t miss the air moving on their strings, because they never had it.. Perhaps because I am a dinosaur, I need the feel of 6, or 8 10s behind me, (or at least 2 15s), the resonance effect it has on the strings, makes my instrument come alive and it breathes with a feeling no pedal rack can duplicate. You should see Bootsy Collins’ rig, he had 2 1x18s, 2 2x15s, and 2 4×10 boxes, and that is what he calls his “small gig rig”! I guess I grew up regarding the amp as an integral part of my instrument, without it, playing feels, well, like you don’t have an amp! Even in the studio, I run a DI into the board, but I play through an amp for my own feel. Peas.

      1. Wow, to work with Johnny Mac! But he makes anything sound better, right? I am not a Stick player (love the instrument though), but I would think with a well-tuned setup, it might actually be easier? I think Tony Levin is running a Kemper now for his Stick. The whole idea isn’t an either/or thing, or which one is better. The idea is “running direct is a thing now, and here’s why.” But no one is taking our amps away. BTW, Bootsy is cray cray.

        1. Yep, that is his “small gig rig”. His normal rig setup is
          – two Crown Micro 5000 and 3600 power amps
          – eight custom cabs with EV speakers: two 4x18s, two 4x15s, and four 8x10s
          Now THAT is what I call a rig, guess that is why he is Bootzilla!
          Great to have if you can afford roadies!
          Yes, ampless is a “thing” now, (actually has been for a while), and, can be a sound techs’ dream, for reasons too numerous to list here.
          There is one drawback though, rather than signal that they might want a little more gain, too many players simply grab their volume knobs without warning. (the “sandbagging” I referred to previously), or kick in an overdrive pedal they “forgot” to check during SC. What sounds good for them onstage can send the audience running with bloody ears, Techs running for the backup cab cables, and lawyers sharpening their fangs. A little gain in their monitor, becomes multiplied by the power of the FOH. Sometimes it is a thought to let them blow out an amp speaker, rather than a bank of FOH speakers!
          Maybe a follow-up article on what a musician needs to know when going ampless would be useful.
          But all that aside, as an old school bass player, Personally, I gosta feel it hit me in the back, as well as on the One!!!

  3. Fantastic article. I pretty much do all of my recording nowadays through my AxeFX II. Paired with a good set of studio monitors, it’s perfect for the at-home musician who does not want to sacrifice quality. I have a nice Tone King amp and pedalboard with nice boutique pedals like the Strymon Timeline, but when recording it’s so much easier to plug the AxeFX into my laptop. I don’t have to fuss about with mics or room treatment. Also, having three big dogs, it’s great to not worry that they’ll start barking in unison at the mailman when I’m almost finished with a “perfect” take.

  4. Great article and very enlightening comments too. One thing I’d like to add is that it seems to me that a considerably large expense is necessarily involved in going the ampless route i.e. Axe FX + midi controller at the least, in an Axe Fx setup. Granted, amp setups can be just as expensive or more expensive, but cheaper amp options are available.
    One cheaper ampless option mentioned in the article is the Tech 21 Fly Rig used with pedals in front of it – I actually got a $270 Tech 21 RK5 (very close to being the same thing as the Fly Rig 5 mentioned in the article, but the Richie Kotzen signature version with his signature OMG distortion replacing the “Plexi” OD which is on the Fly Rig 5). I’ve used it direct into a cheap PA at practice and it doesn’t sound good to me that way – however, it sounds really pretty good going into an amp, which is what I did for a set-up-quick-and-get-out-after-playing hour-long gig a few weeks ago, plugging into an amp provided at the place we played at. It still didn’t come close sound-wise to my relatively cheap amp setup (hybrid Marshall JMD 50 watt head into Marshall 1960A 4 x 12 cabinet, no additional effects), but a lot more portable of course. So maybe I need to experiment with adding OD pedals to the RK5 for an improvement in sound.
    But overall, to me, the excellent sound quality of the Axe FX (the other guitar player in my old band used one, and sounded awesome) comes with a high price tag, and it comes down to economical options for me personally.

  5. I do all my recording through my Axe FX, though there are many ways to USB record to computer. That being said, I plan to play live using my Ax and my other FRFR gear. I’m using a Matrix 1600-watt amp and a Matrix 2×12 (FRFR) cab and will run direct-out to PA when the time comes. I see no reason to lug around a half-stack or stack let alone the consistency and versatility of this setup. This is my first time using FRFR, and was tempted to go with a hi-end head and cabinet combo, but the up front investment will be worth it. I won’t ever have to buy effects pedals or change heads when I want a different sound. I did add a Mission SP-2 expression/volume pedal and also use my old Pod X3 Live for a midi controller. As for volume, I’m confident that my setup will hold its own vs. most other half-stack setups. I may add an Atomic CLR or another Matrix 2×12 (like the one I have) for a monitor later on. Another important factor is my band does cover songs and the Axe setup allows me to tailor my tone to match the bands we cover at the click of a switch. As a guitarist and computer tech/nerd, it doesn’t get any better than this for me. The configuration possibilities are endless.

    1. Awesome! This is my point. There are many advantages to not using a conventional system, but no one is stopping you from digging out the old pedals and an amp if you want to.

  6. I’ve never played a gig without an amp, but I am prepared to… Instead of spending a ton of money on AXE FX (which a good amp can be a small fraction of the cost of AXE FX, especially if you still need to buy monitors, power amp, etc…), I keep a Line6 Sonic Port in my bag I can use with my iPod, iPad, or iPhone. Cheaper than AXE-FX. I do use the Line6 Sonic Port into my iPad for recording tracks for different projects. A lot less than AXE-FX and easier to use. Another option.
    I have relied on the Sonic Port as a backup rig in case I do have an amp failure. At one point, I kept a Tech 21 PowerEngine 60 on hand to plug my Sonic Port into. Works great for studio and stage work. Again, so much cheaper than AXE-FX which unfortunately, this article plays heavy into spending over $2,000 for the rack mount unit. Don’t forget a decent PA, Monitors, and a Rack to mount it in (another $1000 if not more?). Yea, AXE-FX is sounding worse and worse than bringing a small combo amp..

    1. As the author of the article, I don’t use an Axe-Fx, but a $250 Fly Rig. But if I want to talk to an expert on modeling, I wanted to ask the company that knows it best. Sure, you have to take in to consideration a PA, but you have to do that if you own an amp too, since proper sound sends keeps the volume lower on stage to send everything through the PA.

  7. My live rig for years has been a multi FX floor pedal (currently, and for the past seven years, using a BOSS GT-8) running the left and right outputs into the effects RETURN of a small amp on stage and through a speaker cab simulator (lately, a “CABTONE” by Digital music Corp, at other times a Hughes & Kettner “RED BOX”) We often play as a ten piece band, with trumpet, trombone, three saxes… and here am I with a 30 watt Behringer amp with an 8 inch speaker, my BOSS GT-8 and a CABTONE direct box/speaker simulator going to the PA. Sounds great. (I’ve substituted bigger amps at times… a Tech21 Power Station… but to my ears, the Behringer sounds better.) You’re probably thinking… a 30 watt Behringer? That’s a “toy,” right? It’s enough. Well, that and the fact that the other “direct” channel is in our monitors, making for a rich 3D stereo sound on stage between the amp and the monitors. I am looking to upgrade to a multi effect processor that allows different cab simulations per patch – maybe the Eleven Rack… (I would have a hard time justifying the expense of the Fractal system) but honestly, I’ve been very happy with the setup I just described. Been happy with it the past seven years, and before that, it was different amps (actually bypassing everything but the power amp and speaker) and different floor processors (Digitech, Rocktron, BOSS…) but the same idea… one output to the board, the other to a small amp.

  8. A lot of folks in NYC play with just a pedalboard into a house amp, typically a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe or Blues Junior III. Not coincidentally many pedals are often designed to drive exactly this sort of amp. I’m playing small-end jazz gigs so all I really use is just a guitar into a clean amp and get away without any pedals at all.
    But I’ve seen some name players with just a pedal board and a guitar. Nir Felder played twice for jazz pianist Youngjoo Song (really great check her out) and he played an American Standard Strat into a pedal board. I’m not sure what his pedals were but he sounded good with ’em.

  9. I’ve read and heard a lot of comments on youtube about noise and buzz with the FlyRig. Is that an issue? How can you overcome that?

  10. How does it get to the PA? I’m in a small church and even a 15 watt amp is heck loud in there. So how would I run it? I’m considering going amp/effects board coveredby wireless system to the mixer. Would that work?

  11. Went with the Boss line of modelers years ago, currently using the GT-1000 with AIRD technology and haven’t looked back (to amps). Much easier sound setup for gigs. (Also works great with my DAW as a USB audio interface with 3 outputs – Main, Dry, & Sub). The caveat with any modeler is you have to put in the work and time to set them up to your tastes. The stock presets are usually crap.

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