Tone Tip: Low To No Volume Practice

As I’ve gotten older, it seems like my guitar playing needs to be quieter and quieter.  As a teenager, I’m surprised my parents even tolerated the volumes I would play at all the time.  When my wife and I moved into our first house, we had very close neighbors.  So that was the first detriment to my sonic carnage.  Also, by the time she became my wife, she had heard enough of my guitar playing to last her a lifetime.  So that required being able to be quiet enough to be drowned out by a TV.  After a few more years passed we created a little human.  This tiny human required a lot of sleep and any excessive noise would create just pure mayhem.  This pretty much relegated my guitar playing to when my daughter would be asleep.  It also created a challenge to have inspirational tone that only I can hear.

Luckily, the market has delivered more and more options to create tonal bliss at a volume you could talk over or into your headphones.  Here are some of my favorite ways to practice at low to no external volume.

Power Attenuators

This was my first step towards lowering my volume.  An attenuator is a device you put between your amp and your speaker that reduces the power that makes it to your speaker.  This is a good option if you have your big loud amp that you love and you just want that same tone at home.  There are plenty of these on the market now, I’ve personally used both the Carl’s Custom Power Soak and Weber Mini Mass, but there’s plenty to be found on eBay here.  The Carl’s Customs were rather inexpensive and did the job well for taking a bit of the edge off of my dimed Vox AC-15, but when attenuated down to bedroom level, it just sounded way too dark.  The Weber Mini Mass was a bit more expensive, but it had switch to add some of the treble back in.

The downside to using an attenuator regularly is you will probably be constantly pushing your power tubes.   An amp that’s cranked a lot will tend to go through tubes quicker.

A Low Powered Solid State Amp

This is probably how I practice at home the most.  Solid State amps do often leave much to be desired at gig volume, but at bedroom volumes, they can sound pretty darn good.  Especially if you’re a pedalboard player like I am.  If you have your pedals you like, plugging into a solid state amp that’s similar to your gig rig will yield similar tones.  For example, if you use a big Fender tube amp as your loud amp, they have plenty of small solid state amps that will keep you in the same ballpark.  Same with Marshall, Vox, etc., A lot of these amps also have headphone out jacks.

This is a recent favorite of mine, the VHT Redline 20 watt head.  Here is a quick demo I just posted of it, and best of all I snagged it off eBay for $69.99 shipped to my door.

My tone tip for small solid state amps, especially combo amps, is to make sure you upgrade the speaker.  Most budget amps come with sub-par speakers which are the difference between a “terrible” tone and a “pretty darn good” tone.  Or even if it’s a bigger solid state amp, it will generally sound the same at any volume (until it runs out of headroom and starts clipping).

A Small Tube Amp

There are a plethora of small tube amps with build in power attenuation these days.  There are tube amps from Blackstar (HT-1, HT-5), Bugera (G5, V5, T5, V22), Vox (AC-4), and Marshall (DSL-5),  just to name a few, all of which will go down to either 1 watt or .1 watt.  Granted, if you crank a 1-watt tube amp to full volume, it is still capable of waking someone up in another room if your walls are thin enough.  I’ve spent a lot of time practicing at home with my Bugera G5 head in .1 watt mode. Here is a demo of that head:

Just like with the small solid state heads, these amps often suffer for subpar speakers in the small combos. A speaker upgrade will go a long ways.

Smartphone/Tablet Apps

You can do pretty much anything with a smartphone these days.  I pretty much run my life from mine.  You can also create some pretty good tones on one.   What’s crucial with using your smartphone apps is to have a good interface to plug your guitar into.  There are some that just use the headphone jack, but I always found they had a lot of latency.  Using one that plugs into the lightening or USB jack seem to create the best sound.  There is the Line 6 Sonic PortiRig ProApogee Jam, and many others.  Once you get the interface, there are plenty of free apps, such as Ampkit, JamUp, and Garageband that have decent amp modeling for noodling through your headphones.  There are also some ones you have to pay for like PocketAmp and BIAS.  BIAS was always my favorite because it allows you to go in and fine-tune all sorts of nitty gritty component-level minutia.

Speaker Emulator and Your Effects Loop

Speaker Emulation technology has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years.  Impulse Response technology has made models of a mic’d cab almost indiscernible from a real cab and mic.  There are expensive load box and software setups, but this blog focuses on frugal guitar solutions, so here is an affordable approach to using your favorite amp with speaker emulation.   If you amp has an effects loop, simply use the effects send on your amp into the speaker emulator pedal, such as the Mooer TresCab, Mooer Radar, or Digitech CabDryVR.  If your effects loop is a series effects loop, it should mute the sound to your speaker.  If your effects loop is a parallel effects loop, then plug a patch cable into the effects return with nothing on the other end of it.  This is how I recorded this video with the Mooer TresCab and my Mesa Boogie Studio .22+:

With most of these pedals you’ll still have to send the signal to a mixer board or some other monitor speaker to hear it.  The Mooer Radar has a dedicated headphone jack on it.  It costs a little more than the other two, but I think this feature alone makes the extra price worth it.  The reviews I’ve seen of it on YouTube sounded so good that I just ordered one.  A review will follow on that.

Digital Modelers

Some people love them, most people hate them, but the good ol’ Line 6 POD and all of its kidney bean shaped glory did revolutionize playing guitar through headphones.  These can be found dirt cheap everywhere, and they can actually sound good enough for home practice.  I have the HD POD Desktop, which is a big step above the original POD, and can be found relatively cheap.  There are also plenty of cheap digital modelers from ZoomDigitechVox, and many more.  There are plenty of high-end modelers from the likes of Axe FX and Kemper, but I live in the cheap world.  Maybe I’ll upgrade to one of those if I win the lottery.  Until then, the good ol’ kidney bean works just fine for me.

Cheers,
Chuck

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3 thoughts on “Tone Tip: Low To No Volume Practice

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  1. ¡Great tips! One I could add if you have an effects loop, is having some pedal that is completely clean like many boosts, and can give you some negative gain, placed on the loop.

    I use one I built similar to an RC Booster with the clipping removed, set a gain lower than unity and I can at least keep all the juice from the preamp late at night.

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    1. That is true too! I’ve personally never tried it though. Does it still keep good tone? From what I’ve read they’ll only work in a series effects loop, not a parallel. In a parallel loop, an unaffected signal will still go from the preamp to the power amp, no matter what’s in the effects loop. In a series effects loop, the signal will completely go out and back in the effects loop jacks. (Not sure your level of expertise, but in case someone out there was thinking about using a pedal in the effects loop 🙂

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      1. Definitely in series, yes, parallel processing will now work that way since as you said, the unprocessed path is still unaffected and loud.

        In my case, I’ve always managed to keep quite a decent sound with the boost pedal working as an attenuator. I can keep the pre-amp hot and even the master (if available) loud too, I simply turn the boost on after certain hours and keep going as.

        In my AC30 for example, turning the master down too much makes the sound kinda dull and thin, while keeping it up and using the pedal sounds quite similar to regular loud use, minus the power tube cooking of course, but it’s way better that way.

        This pedal also has bass and treble, so if I have to compensate a bit because of the pedal changing the sound when set too low, I can do it easily. I suspect an EQ pedal would allow for very close tone matching as well.

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