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Rise Of The Guitars Amidst The Quest For A Semi-Silent Stage

Another important facet in the quest for a semi-silent stage.

By Mike Sokol February 6, 2017

The author with the gear detailed in this article.

Provided by Live Sound Advice.

Small – but full-featured – guitar amplifiers can fulfill the mission of cutting the decibel level on stage while still providing the “bells and whistles” to be musically creative and retain feel, presence and tone.

That’s the focus in this third installment of the semi-silent stage series, where the mission is offering alternatives that allow musicians and engineers to work together to provide a better mix for the audience. (Previous chapters are here and here.)

Note that this isn’t an actual review of guitar amps but rather an overview of gear and techniques that work well in the quest for a quieter stage.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not a guitarist, just a rock ‘n’ roll keyboard player of 40-plus years who still owns a Hammond B3 with Leslie, Mini-Moog synthesizer, and Rhodes 73 electric piano. But I began building tube-based stomp boxes and speaker-emulated DI interfaces for guitar players decades ago, and currently run production sound for shows and concerts of all sizes.

Most of the guitar amp suggestions that follow are for small- to medium-sized rooms found in music clubs and churches with capacities of 100 to 1,000 listeners. For larger outside stages, the proposals made here might need to be adjusted to fit expanded SPL monitoring requirements.

Some clarity before we proceed. When I’m talking about dB measurements/levels, all references are SPL, Slow-A.

In addition, my terms of “semi-silent stage” or “low-dB stage,” mean limiting stage wash being dumped into a room to less than 90 dB (and preferably lower), allowing the front of house engineer to deliver mixes at 90 to 95 dB that sound powerful and musical throughout the entire room. There can be areas on stage at more than 85 dB at the individual musicians, but the goal is to keep the collective stage volume as low as possible while giving the musicians enough “feel” to play musically.

Modern concerts can reach house volumes of 110 dB or more, and while that may be fun for a while, a steady diet of those levels will eventually leave everyone deaf. With that in mind, here are a few basic ideas on what it takes to build a low-decibel electric guitar rig.

Tubes Rule
While it’s certainly possible to design and build a great modeling processor that will emulate a guitar tube amp, there are few modeling pedals you can plug-and-play right out of the box. They take time to try out, tweak for a specific playing style, and save the basic settings for quick access. However, a good tube amp is easy to understand for most guitar players, allowing them to quickly dial in their tone.

So to get the party started I’m going with the tried-and-true signal path of an electric guitar feeding a few basic effects pedals, a 15-watt guitar amp with a tube output stage, and a 12-inch speaker cabinet miked with a Shure SM57, Sennheiser 609, or an XLR speaker-emulated DI output.

Power To The People
After 45-plus years of playing on stages, I’ve come to the conclusion that “tube watts” sound possibly 6 dB louder than an equal number of “transistor watts.” That is, a 300-watt, all-tube Ampeg SVT (with its six 6550 output tubes) sounds just as loud as a 1,200-watt, transistor bass amp. That’s probably because tube output stages can be driven into heavy clipping and still sound musical, while transistor output stages need to stay away from the distortion edge so as not to add their own harmonics.

So I’m giving transistor amps a 6 dB cushion just for headroom, without adding their own distortion. And, of course, 6 decibels is equal to 4 times the wattage power. On a semi-silent stage, my evaluations have shown that for electric guitar, either a 15-watt-class tube amp or a 60-watt-class transistor amp is more than adequate to get enough level for the musicians without blowing up the room.

Remember, an 85-dB semi-silent stage doesn’t require that everything be below 85 dB. A guitarist can certainly be hearing 90 to 95 dB of her/his own instrument at the playing position. We just want to reduce the stage spill into the room to less than 85 or 90 dB.

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About Mike

Mike Sokol
Mike Sokol

Lead Instructor, Live Sound Co
Mike is the lead instructor for Live Sound Co, an AV integration and installation company in western Maryland, and lead writer of the Live Sound Advice blog. He’s also a veteran audio educator as well as an adjunct professor at Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, VA. Visit for Mike’s educational articles and videos.


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