Hearing is Believing: Getting a Better Tone From Your Rig
We guitar players are strange creatures, aren’t we? We exhibit a lot of habits, behaviors, and superstitions that other people – even other musicians – find odd. We use weird descriptive terms like “woody,” “dry,” and “icepicky” to describe sounds. We say to each other “tone is in the hands” while spending fortunes on equipment. We believe in mojo.
One thing we can tend to do (that might not be as awesome as young Dimebag is being here) is use the wrong body parts to perform a task. I’m not talking about picking the guitar with your teeth, or opening a beer with your lip ring. That kind of stuff is fine. I’m talking about the way we let our preconceptions of non-essential details get in the way of our goals.
I already covered how we can sometimes let our physical interaction with the instrument distract us during songwriting in an earlier post, and this time I’d like to talk about a similar, if only loosely-associated, topic:
Dialing in your amp with your EARS instead of your EYES.
Let me recount a recent story.
A few days ago, I traded away my Splawn Quick Rod 100-watt head. The amp I received in trade is the Fuchs Viper (now known as the Fuchs Mantis) pictured at the top of this post, also a 100-watt all-tube head.
It was difficult to part with my Splawn. It’s a powerful, versatile amp in the modified Marshall vein, capable of everything from vintage Plexi tones to JCM-800-on-steroids sounds, but perhaps the best feature of it is its ease of use. It’s just ridiculously easy to dial in. It’s an amp with simple controls that affect the tone in predictable ways, and I was very familiar and comfortable with it. That meant that dialing in my tone in any venue or situation was just a quick tweak away. I was practically spoiled by it.
But I’m fickle. I get restless. I wanted to try something different.
Enter the Fuchs (pronounced “fyooks,” for you jokers out there). On this amp, internet reports were spotty. A few demos are available online, but they’re mostly inconclusive. Hardly anyone uses one. And yet, I was intrigued. Maybe it was the white Tolex. Maybe it was the high regard of the other Fuchs amp models and the excellent reputation of their designer, Andy Fuchs. Maybe it was just my desire to get into an amp that was different from anything I’d ever used, to inspire my creativity in new directions.
But it was probably the white Tolex.
The previous owner seemed pretty trustworthy so I jumped at the trade, and after an agonizing week of compulsively stalking the USPS tracking notification website, the box arrived safely. As you might guess, I wasted no time getting it unboxed and set up. The nexus of my delayed gratification was at hand!
I then proceeded to spend the next two hours trying to get a useable tone from the drive channel.
I like to think I have a decent ear. I like to think I know my way around a high-gain, high-wattage tube amp. I’ve owned, gigged, or recorded with Marshalls, Mesa/Boogies, Oranges, Bogners, Splawns, VHT/Fryettes, and more. Some were great and some were just okay (for me), but in each case, I was able to get something usable out of the amp in question.
Except this Fuchs.
I started to wonder if the trade had been a mistake. With the Splawn, it had been so easy to find tone I wanted. Start with everything at 12:00. Adjust EQ to suit room and guitar. Add Gain knob to taste. But with the Fuchs it seemed like every typical setting I tried either yielded a super-scooped tone or some impossibly bassy mush. And backing off the Gain knob didn’t help; by the time it tightened up, I didn’t have the distortion to do what I wanted to use the channel for in the first place.
After a while, I decided I’d found a setting that sounded kind of okay, but my ears were shot, so I switched it off with the thought of coming back to it later.
That night, as I’m sitting on my couch streaming season one of The Wire on a tablet, it hit me: The rat in the detail is Carver! Oh, and also that I’d been going about it all wrong with that amp.
I’d been thinking: “I don’t want it too scooped, so I’m going to add a lot of Midrange. And I don’t want it too brittle, so I’m going to add some Bass and bring down the Presence control. And I want a nice thump, so I’ll add a touch of Thrust (Fuchs-speak for ‘resonance’). And I don’t want to use more than half the available gain… WHY DOES THIS SOUND TERRIBLE?!”
Simply put: I’d been trying to dial the Fuchs in with my eyes instead of my ears.
There was no reason I should expect the controls to react like the controls on my last amp. I’d been habitually dialing in the same settings that had always worked before and assumed that the words “high,” “middle” and “low” would all mean exactly the same on the new amp.
The next day when I fired up the Fuchs, I started with all the controls at 12:00 and just listened while I played a few things. I realized that on this amp the Bass and Thrust controls are extremely interactive; that the High and Middle controls are more like high- and low-mid-range; and that Presence didn’t actually affect the high end in quite the same way as the presence control on other amps I’ve used.
The result is that my settings on this amp are now:
- Gain: 2:00
- High: 10:00
- Middle: 2:15
- Low: 8:30
- Presence: 2:30
- Thrust: 12:00
…All of which seems very unconventional when you look at it, but actually sounds great if you just listen to it.
Despite the Low control being almost all the way down, the addition of that much Thrust (resonance) makes the sound very thick and full, and really moves some trouser legs with a 4×12 cabinet. And the Middle control being so high compensates for the natural mid-range scoop in the voicing of the drive channel on the amp, delivering a very convincing heavy tone without getting lost in the mix with other instruments.
The moral of the story may be obvious by this point, but allow me to break it down.
When dialing in your amp, ignore what the knobs say. Amp designers are as different as you or me, with different preferences and different ears. You’ll read all over the internet from different blogs, online magazines, and forum posts that certain settings, certain amounts of this knob or that one, are what’s “right” for a given tone or style… But finding the sound that is right for you is as simple as forgetting all of that and just trusting what you hear.