Why do people use big amps?

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solarsolar Frets: 49
This is a genuine, non-trolling question. I'm curious.

I went to see a band a few days ago at a medium-sized venue (a few hundred capacity). The guitarist was using a Marshall full-stack. The sound coming out of the amp itself was almost as loud as the sound coming out of the PA, meaning that the sound guy had no way of controlling the mix. You could barely hear the vocals, and the sound changed as you walked around the venue (depending on whether the amp was pointing at you or not).

It got me thinking: under what circumstances is a huge amp actually useful in the 21st century?

In a massive arena, obviously no amp is loud enough and you need to run the sound through the PA. So you might as well have a small amp.

In a medium sized venue, having a big amp makes the sound worse as you're competing with the PA. So you're better off with a small amp.

In a tiny venue, you can't fit a massive Marshall stack in anyway, and if you're playing in pubs then you probably don't have a big enough van to drive one round in. And I think the previous point applies anyway - if the venue has a PA (which it must do if you have a singer - surely all venues that put live music on have PAs these days?) then it will be much easier to get a decent mix if your amp isn't fighting with the PA.

At home.. well, that's fairly obvious.

So.. what am I missing? Why doesn't everyone have a small amp and rely on the PA for their live amplification?
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  • stickyfiddlestickyfiddle Frets: 8874
    Originally it was because PAs weren't good enough (we're talking the early days of The Who and Led Zep), so Marshall started making bigger and bigger amps to fill bigger and bigger venues direct from the source.

    These days, for some, it's because they simply believe small amps are rubbish and they're not a "proper guitarist" unless playing through at least 4 speakers. These people are muppets.

    For others, it's because a big amp sounds markedly different to a small amp at the same volume. These people are quite sensible, and while I much prefer a smaller amp wound up to the point of chime/crunch, I fully appreciate it's not the same thing. 
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  • ICBMICBM Frets: 30909

    For others, it's because a big amp sounds markedly different to a small amp at the same volume. These people are quite sensible, and while I much prefer a smaller amp wound up to the point of chime/crunch, I fully appreciate it's not the same thing. 
    This. I used a Mesa Trem-o-verb (100W, or actually 80W with the settings I used) 2x12" because I loved the huge, deep, spacious sound it had - much more so than any smaller amp, even at the exact same volume. If anything, it was able to fill a small venue better at slightly *lower* outright volume than a small amp. It also had the advantage that because the power section wasn't being pushed hard, the tone and the balance between the channels was totally independent of volume - I could simply turn the whole amp up or down as required without altering anything else.

    I was actually playing it at about 15W - I know this because I also had a 15W amp, and I played at the same volume with either of them, but the 15W amp was just at the point of starting to break up. It did sound fantastic like that, but *only* at that volume - if I needed to be quieter it wasn't as good as simply turning the bigger amp down further.
    "Take these three items, some WD-40, a vise grip, and a roll of duct tape. Any man worth his salt can fix almost any problem with this stuff alone."
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  • solarsolar Frets: 49
    Interesting @ICBM - you talk about your amp "filling a small venue" - you use the amp itself for your live sound, rather than the PA? And didn't have any problems with the mix, directionality of the sound etc?
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  • ICBMICBM Frets: 30909
    solar said:
    Interesting @ICBM - you talk about your amp "filling a small venue" - you use the amp itself for your live sound, rather than the PA?
    In a small bar, yes. If the drum kit is loud enough - or more likely too loud :) - and isn't mic'ed then there really isn't any point in putting everything else through the PA, since you're going to then have an odd mix where the drum sound comes directly from the drums and everything else comes from a diffuse mix at the sides. I know some people like this, but I always think it sounds more natural to hear the individual instruments.

    solar said:
    And didn't have any problems with the mix, directionality of the sound etc?
    No, but there can be if you have a small and directional amp, and especially if it's also badly sited so there's a 'beam of death' in front of it. Some people like to tilt the amp upwards, although I prefer to keep it horizontal and raise it up to about waist height roughly, and have it pointing at an angle across the stage, so it's not directly out into the audience. Height and direction make a big difference to the natural mix, which is something very often overlooked.

    If the room is big enough that the kit is mic'ed and the PA is as loud or louder than it, different ball game - but I still preferred the *tone* of the big amp turned down and mic'ed up.
    "Take these three items, some WD-40, a vise grip, and a roll of duct tape. Any man worth his salt can fix almost any problem with this stuff alone."
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  • digitalscreamdigitalscream Frets: 11568
    I used a Tubemeister 18W for a while as a power amp for my Helix, but I found it didn't have enough clean headroom...therefore, I now have the 50W R&R SOLO which does.

    It's really a question of taste, for high-gain stuff at least - whether you want the clean low-end from a powerful amp, or the boomy, fuzzy low-end from a lower-wattage amp. I tend to sit somewhere in the middle.

    As far as I'm concerned, though, there's no excuse for a full stack in 99% of occasions.
    "Mains is ouchy if you get it up you" - Sporky
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  • JayGeeJayGee Frets: 443
    solar said:
    Interesting @ICBM - you talk about your amp "filling a small venue" - you use the amp itself for your live sound, rather than the PA? And didn't have any problems with the mix, directionality of the sound etc?
    I think there’s an element of “for certain values of venue and PA” to deal with here.

    If “the venue” is a typical pub or social club and “the PA” is a couple of 1x10” or 1x12” + HF cabs, an 8 channel mixer, one monitor wedge, and no tech to run FoH then using anything other than the guitar amp for the heavy lifting is what you do...

    I use a 100 Watt Blackstar Series One head and a 2x12 cab by the way. This is because the 25 Watt 1x10 Mesa Express combo I’d previously been using (and occasionally still do) was struggling for headroom in bigger rooms against an enthusiastic drummer with a big kit and another guitarist. I don’t use more than a small proportion of its potential but I find always having more amp than I need to be a more comfortable situation to be in than sometimes having less amp than I need.


    Don't ask me, I just play the damned thing...
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  • rossyamaharossyamaha Frets: 1522

    As far as I'm concerned, though, there's no excuse for a full stack in 99% of occasions.
    Yeah but it looks awesome! At some point, I will be using a 412 with a pair of 212's either side. Largely, just because I can. And because I have no friends and a small penis. 

    I play guitar and take photos of stuff. I also like beans on toast.

    Twitter  |  Instagram  |  YouTube  |  Facebook  |  Website

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  • JalapenoJalapeno Frets: 3276
    Big stacks are a small dick thing ;)

    Lower powered amps through 2x12/2x10 (or bigger) do sound better than single speaker combos though

    Imagine something sharp and witty here ......

    Feedback
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  • impmannimpmann Frets: 7017
    I totally agree with the OP here... too many guitarists think their sound "fill" the venue and that they only get their sound if their big amp is shaking the stage...

    But the truth is very different. Even in a small pub, a good modern PA speaker will throw the sound far better than any 100w amp to the back of the room, so that those nuances of your playing actually get heard. Most guitarists don't experience this because *they are on the stage* so they don't actually hear what they sound like when the pub is full mid gig (unless they play with wireless and take a stroll).

    I weaned a died in the wool BIG amp player into using a 20watt head mic'd up - after showing him what he genuinely sounded like away from 'the moment'. *The band's* sound suffered because he was selfishly insisting on staying stuck in the 1970s - post change, we sounded 100000% better. I'm not just saying that, our audience told us too (non musos - and its *their* opinion that's probably more important). However, we were lucky in that we had a sound man and a good EV-based PA - the guitar sounds were huge, rich and righteous.

    TBH, I've walked out of a few gigs where the guitarist is just too damned loud - or where the band are too loud for the venue, to compensate for someone who just won't turn down. Squealing feedback because everything's louder than everything else isn't good, isn't clever and isn't rock n roll, despite what you may have been told.

    I've also played with a guitarist who thought he always played at the right volume. He started the night OK, but as the night worn on and the effects of standing next to a drum kit (cymbals) kicked in, he kept turning the amp up and up to compensate for his ears losing the high end... how many of you do this? Start quiet and turn up as the night goes on... the drummer doesn't get louder unless you start playing louder so he hits everything harder to compensate... if you have a decent PA, preferably with someone running it who knows what they are doing (in my experience, very few *do* know what they are doing), levels can be adjusted/tweaked *on stage* through the monitors without affecting the FOH balance, and subtly without wrecking the mix.

    Its about balance - and frankly, if you are on a stage your perception of that balance is *very* difference to that of the guy at the bar.
    Never Ever Bloody Anything Ever.

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  • vasselmeyervasselmeyer Frets: 2194
    I always think of it a little like cars. 95% of the time, people only need a 1L car, wherever they're driving. You can do 70+ MPH on the motorway but the car will be struggling for any additional acceleration (headroom) and nowhere to go when they need a little extra. For example, when a dick in a 3L M3 is sitting on your arse trying to push you harder (equivalent of loud drummer or knobhead guitarist who insists on using a 100W non MV amp because it's "their sound").

    More HP or watts doesn't mean you have to use it, but it's nice to know it's there if you need it.
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  • ICBMICBM Frets: 30909
    impmann said:

    Its about balance - and frankly, if you are on a stage your perception of that balance is *very* difference to that of the guy at the bar.
    Even though I'm on the other side to an extent - though less than you probably think - this is absolutely true. If the barman/drummer's girlfriend/random punter says the guitar is too loud (or trebly)... IT IS. Just because they don't have the musical knowledge to play in a band or mix a gig doesn't mean they can't tell when something is obviously overpowering the rest of the mix, even if you can't hear it from where you are.

    For me, using a big amp is about tone and control, *not* about volume. As an occasional soundman, I've also had at least as many problems with guitarists with small, directional amps that need to be cranked to get "their sound" and who won't turn down as I have with ones with big amps, if they know how to use them and are willing to listen to off-stage advice.

    It's *all* about the mix in the room. If you can achieve that with a small amp, great. But don't think that the big-amp guys are wrong or that the small-amp Nazis guys are always right. A cranked 15W 1x12" producing nothing but a beam of distorted midrange can be far more of a problem than a 100W amp running at less than 5W into a 4x12". (Discounting the space it takes up ;).)
    "Take these three items, some WD-40, a vise grip, and a roll of duct tape. Any man worth his salt can fix almost any problem with this stuff alone."
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  • Creed_ClicksCreed_Clicks Frets: 27
    Had a 60 Watt Fender Deville once. A "big" amp I suppose. It was too loud, so faffed around with 15 watts and 30 watts. I found 15 watts to be ok in general in small venues, but lacked that little bit of poke in some larger places. 30 watts , I always found too loud.
    I'd be happy to look at a 20 watt tube amp. I think that would be perfect for me, headroom wise.
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  • smudge_ladsmudge_lad Frets: 113
    impmann said:
     if you have a decent PA, preferably with someone running it who knows what they are doing (in my experience, very few *do* know what they are doing

    All. Day. Long, in my opinion. We have a couple of "go to" guys that we will use for local gigs/small festivals around where we play. Most of the other people we work with don't seem to have a clue, and it's very frustrating.

    We also come across a lot of students, who have/are studying sound engineering at college. I have no idea what they're being taught though

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  • David5150David5150 Frets: 101

    Guilty as charged on the turning amp up throughout the gig - soon stopped that the second I started wandering out front and listened to the racket I was making.

    But I'm not the only one in the band doing this - soundcheck is a pain at the moment as bass player gets all shy and wont play at gig volume and singer whispers into the mic at check and then lights the board up for the first song (when I'm then dashing back and forth trying to reset the levels.

    Back to the original question - used to love playing a 100w marshall half stack - just looked the part and sounded good within the limitations noted in the thread (beam of sound etc)

    But now I'm going AX8 direct to PA. Sounds 'different' perhaps a little less raw than the old amps I dragged around but the mix, and that is the important bit, is much better now.



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  • mr-macmr-mac Frets: 151
    edited May 25
    Sometimes its down to experience of band rather than size of amps.  I have seen bands can come in with their amps (smallish pub) i set the vocal level to suit band volume and they sound freeking superb with just their amps and everything is at right level... In fact had two bands do that in a small venue and sounded absolutely epic and spot on perfect.  Gets harder as venue size goes up esspecially if venue is wider as cabs are too directional to project everyone good sound.  Both the bands who sounded awesome and perfectly in level were mid age/older guys who've been gigging for years.

    biggest bug bear was after telling someone and having to convince them they'd sound shite without cab mic'd due to shape and size of venue.  They do sound check and level check and all is good.  Then when they start playing guitarist is bastard 3 times louder with totally diff tone and gain setup than he freeking sound checked at meaning i have no option but to almost zero his channel (well should have been zero but was trying to keep a tiny bit of reinforcement for all audience off axis) and then also had to fuck about with rest of bands levels and re-eq him to not let guitar overpower whole lot or be too bright.  Organiser says how come they sound crap.  Answer was cos guitarist is as thick as too short planks and a bit of a dick .  When asked to set amp as if you were playing so I can level up then well surely that's what you do... Not 3 tines volume with completely different sound hahahahahahaha.
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  • DopesickDopesick Frets: 962
    Oh man, some of you guys would hate it at a Jucifer or a Sunn 0))) gig.
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  • LestratcasterLestratcaster Frets: 316
    I play with a half stack set up, 120 watt head into an Orange 4x12. We play metalcore drop tuned music which often involves playing with loud drummers so I’ve always adopted the attitude I need to be loud enough to compete with them! We play mostly decent venues with a good PA and the soundguys are always telling us to turn down as it’s hard to control the levels with such loud high gain amps. I am too guilty of the “turning up the amp as the set goes on...” trick!
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  • mr-macmr-mac Frets: 151
    I play with a half stack set up, 120 watt head into an Orange 4x12. We play metalcore drop tuned music which often involves playing with loud drummers so I’ve always adopted the attitude I need to be loud enough to compete with them! We play mostly decent venues with a good PA and the soundguys are always telling us to turn down as it’s hard to control the levels with such loud high gain amps. I am too guilty of the “turning up the amp as the set goes on...” trick!
    May sound better on stage but as you turn up sound guy will turn down then only people in a small triangle directly to front of your amp will hear you properly.  Though some venues will be a lot worse than others for that issue ;). Don't blame you though its good to really hear your amp get going when on stage
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  • midlifecrisismidlifecrisis Frets: 1182
    ive only used a half stack at a rehearsal room and standing in front of it playing was a really great experience. but when the band were all playing and i moved to the far side of the room it didnt feel/sound different to my usual combo amp. I guess that would be the same at gig situation, ie the pub crowd wouldnt hear or feel or care any differently.  I have seen a few bands where they were using 4by12  cabs and they sounded great (they were great bands tbh) and it looked the part but whether the average punter cares or not dont think so.   our band only puts the vocals through the pa and i use a 1by 12 combo un micced which is more than loud enough so for my  pub gigs.im too old to lug big stuff around is definately a no no. I do use wireless and i do get out int the "crowd lol" at various times to get down with the laydeeeez and reassure myself the sound is a good balance.
     
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  • LestratcasterLestratcaster Frets: 316
    mr-mac said:
    I play with a half stack set up, 120 watt head into an Orange 4x12. We play metalcore drop tuned music which often involves playing with loud drummers so I’ve always adopted the attitude I need to be loud enough to compete with them! We play mostly decent venues with a good PA and the soundguys are always telling us to turn down as it’s hard to control the levels with such loud high gain amps. I am too guilty of the “turning up the amp as the set goes on...” trick!
    May sound better on stage but as you turn up sound guy will turn down then only people in a small triangle directly to front of your amp will hear you properly.  Though some venues will be a lot worse than others for that issue ;). Don't blame you though its good to really hear your amp get going when on stage
    Lol yeah, though the amp needs to be run on 3 post volume to really get the full character of it, might have to switch to a Kemper soon haha.
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  • Danny1969Danny1969 Frets: 3538

    You can certainly play huge venues with small amps. The biggest indoor venue in Portsmouth is The Guildhall which holds about 2500 and I've played it 4 times with small amps, Blackstar HT-5 and my little Fender Champion below where it looks a little lost on the big stage 



    On the other end of the scale I use a 200 watt valve (100 watt a side stereo) Marshall there's been a few gigs where I've been able to open that up a bit and it's a glorious sound ..... forget your attenuators the biggest part of a cranked Marshall sound comes from the interaction of the guitar and amp out of sheer volume ... not gain 



    The stereo setup above is capable of insane volumes on it's own but I've played it through a 32KW PA and just an open G then sounds like the voice of God :~)

    Trouble is when you gig a lot, like 3 or 4 times a week you can't be standing in front of loud amps and drummers otherwise you just kill your ears. I've got plenty of friends who did it for years and their hearing loss is the price they paid for it. 

    Of course with IEM's being so common now some guys don't even use small amps or wedges ... just modeller into PA. As you get older and the gear seems to be getting heavier that starts to sound more and more appealing :)
    www.2020studios.co.uk 
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  • impmannimpmann Frets: 7017
    Danny1969 said:


    Trouble is when you gig a lot, like 3 or 4 times a week you can't be standing in front of loud amps and drummers otherwise you just kill your ears. I've got plenty of friends who did it for years and their hearing loss is the price they paid for it. 

    Of course with IEM's being so common now some guys don't even use small amps or wedges ... just modeller into PA. As you get older and the gear seems to be getting heavier that starts to sound more and more appealing :)
    This too!!

    I played with a band using Pods into the PA with IEMs. The drummer had an electronic kit. We were playing soul, ska and a bit of blues... best sound on stage, the crowd loved it and it took less than an hour to break it all down and load it into a single estate car... nice.
    Never Ever Bloody Anything Ever.

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  • impmannimpmann Frets: 7017
    I always think of it a little like cars. 95% of the time, people only need a 1L car, wherever they're driving. You can do 70+ MPH on the motorway but the car will be struggling for any additional acceleration (headroom) and nowhere to go when they need a little extra. For example, when a dick in a 3L M3 is sitting on your arse trying to push you harder (equivalent of loud drummer or knobhead guitarist who insists on using a 100W non MV amp because it's "their sound").

    More HP or watts doesn't mean you have to use it, but it's nice to know it's there if you need it.
    Yes but the dick in the M3 can be ignored - and in fact, I find its great sport to piss them off by driving exactly at the speed limits and the more they drive like dicks, the slower I go. Twunts.

    Sadly, a knobhead who plays too loud isn't quite so easy to deal with.
    Never Ever Bloody Anything Ever.

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  • steven70steven70 Frets: 11
    edited May 25
    Here are my genuine, non-trolling thoughts. Aware it's very subjective and my argument probably loses merit once you get to proper 'big' venues where you need monitoring.

    You have a drummer- he or she will play at a certain volume. 
    The amps need to be loud enough to be heard with the drums.
    As soon as you get below this, you are relying on a sound person giving you back your guitar in the monitors. When you do this, you are already one step removed from the dynamics of what is happening in the music. And you are at the mercy of a sound person and the monitors. 

    Growing up in the 80s, I used to watch a lot of pub bands. My favourite guitarist used 2x vox AC30s which got louder as the tubes warmed up. Drummer smacked the drums and the PA was mostly for vocals.

    Sounded fantastic. Can't beat it. OK, it was not a uniform sound and if you stood in front of the guitar amps, you got more guitar. If you stood in front of the bass rig you got a face full of bass.
    But that's rock and roll, no?

    Of course, if the guitarist brings a full stack to a pub gig then the sound will be crap and he will look like a tool. But...

    I do feel quite strongly that the idea of a 'perfectly balanced' sound is not what music is about and in fact is responsible for sucking the life and soul out of most modern music I hear. That applies to recording as well, although that's another discussion.

    Just my thoughts...
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  • digitalscreamdigitalscream Frets: 11568
    I generally find that the best sound is achieved by simply asking the sound guy how loud they want you, and then asking for a bit more in the monitors if required. Nothing is gained by insisting that the PA has to cope with your own definition of loudness, and all it does is piss off the one person in the whole venue who actually has control over what the audience hears.

    This is why I use a 2x12" and a 50W (actually 40W) amp which never gets close to its rated output. Well, that and the fact that I make lots of mistakes and it's nice if I'm not so far forward in the mix that people actually hear them ;)

    Of course, I should caveat this by saying that we only play venues with a house PA and sound guy.
    "Mains is ouchy if you get it up you" - Sporky
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  • ESBlondeESBlonde Frets: 2234
    I use a larger amp because the sound is nicely dynamic. I was brunged up in an era where MP3s and generally squashed recordings onto digital format were not the norm. Even today a lot of highly technical modern tight recording sounds flat and lifeless to me. The days of being in a pub where a band played with natural dynamics and you felt envigorated are far different from today where that lovely 'mix' from pre recorded backing or MIDI is laid over by instruments running through compression. Yes it's a double edged sword, today the volume is controlled and you can hear everything nicely balanced through the PA, but having been a live engineer and owned a decent sized rig I tell you it is possible to have the best of both.
    I have also gigged with small amps where applicable, my rehearsal combo has an 8" driver and 20w, it has drowned out modest drummers before on a gig! I still prefer the (quite) sound of a bigger amp.
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  • stickyfiddlestickyfiddle Frets: 8874
    I generally find that the best sound is achieved by simply asking the sound guy how loud they want you, and then asking for a bit more in the monitors if required. Nothing is gained by insisting that the PA has to cope with your own definition of loudness, and all it does is piss off the one person in the whole venue who actually has control over what the audience hears.

    This is why I use a 2x12" and a 50W (actually 40W) amp which never gets close to its rated output. Well, that and the fact that I make lots of mistakes and it's nice if I'm not so far forward in the mix that people actually hear them ;)

    Of course, I should caveat this by saying that we only play venues with a house PA and sound guy.
    Definitely this. For me, that's a smaller amp, usually 15W or so, with a decent master volume, turned up to where the sound guy wants it and then ask for more in the monitors.

    The best live sound I ever had was a Laney VC15 with volume maybe about halfway up but micced and fully controlled. I used to get that brilliant feedback loop (guitar - amp - mic - monitor - guitar) which feels amazing but doesn't need crazy stage volumes. I loved that setup, but it needs a band who all understand how to balance a sound, and a soundman that you trust and doesn't look at you like you're nuts when you ask for "more me" in the monitors. 
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  • EricTheWearyEricTheWeary Frets: 6817
    A few ( maybe even ten ) years ago I went to see Hayseed Dixie. The support band were a 4 peice rock band and the guitarist had a Marshall stack. Anywhere within about ten feet of the stage almost all you could hear was guitar. I wasn't that interested in the band and spent part of their set wandering around the room to see where I could hear a balanced sound and it was pretty much at the back of the venue ( a place big enough for about 500 people). The people at the front may well have assumed the PA was broken.

    We play unmiced usually but try to get a sound out front that's as balanced as possible. If I had a big amp I'd have to adjust it to suit. I remember reading that Dweezil Zappa went from 'real' amps to his fractal set up primarily because he wanted people on the front row to hear the proper balanced sound of the band. Watching the recent rig rundown he did with Sweetwater there were comments about how relatively quiet it was on stage too. 
    I feel the warm, healing, liquid presence of God’s genuine cold-filtered grace. 
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  • ReverendReverend Frets: 1562
    My experience is that most sound engineers care about the mix of sounds but not the actual tones created. 

    Chris Fullard mixing a band on the other hand...


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  • ReverendReverend Frets: 1562
    Oh, and I've seen a fair few bands using Kempers etc. Not many have sounded great. 
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