I’d like to start this blog out with a question to anyone reading this. Have you ever found the PERFECT tone, documented the settings in some fashion (in a notebook, taking a picture, etc.) only to discover that when you return the next time to play, it just doesn’t sound right anymore? How about going to practice or just jam and it feels like your entire rig just sounds awful and wrong? I can give a resounding answer of YES to all of those above. It baffled me for awhile because I knew that my settings hadn’t been messed with in the least bit, so it made no sense why it was happening.
I decided to record myself for a few days, seeing if it was something that was going on with the amp or my setup or whatever the heck it was. Aside from fluctuations in my skill level (Hey, we all have good and bad days playing), the tones were consistent despite sounding different each day to my ear. One day it was a bit too bright, another day sounded phenomenal, and another day my tone was too muddy. Again, I was using the same guitar, pedals, and amps. Of course, the next instinct was to go to Google, and it’s apparent that I’m not alone. It’s become a bit of a joke at this point that *something* must happen to make it not sound as good. Maybe someone bumped the board or the amp, or the magic pedalboard gremlins are up to some form of trickery.
So what’s the deal then? Long story short, one part is life. Not to sound overly cliche, but that’s the simple way of putting it. Everyday things that we experience during life all add up to how the human body reacts to external stimulus. Stress in all forms is proven to wreak havoc on the body, and it can definitely do a number on your ears. Looking back at those days where my tone wasn’t as good, I realized that the first day I recorded, I had stayed up late the night before and subsequently woke up earlier for work the next morning. That night after playing a few minutes and being dissatisfied with my tone, I cut everything off, got our two little boys to bed (5 and almost 2) and my wife and I went to bed at 8:30 that night out of sheer exhaustion. I got a lot of sleep that night, and sure enough my tone the next day sounded like the life was back in it again. The following day at work was hectic and erratic, so when I went to play my mind wasn’t focused, and my tone wasn’t very appealing at all. I haven’t been able to find a fix for this yet, but my solution has been to take a break and just either play acoustic or my electric unplugged. There have been many times where I just decided to put it down and walk away from it for a day or two, maybe more. Usually when I come back and plug in it’s because the craving to play has kicked in and a reinvigorated love for it has sprung back up.
Now let’s talk about tone consistency at various locations. The scenario is that you’ve got a great tone dialed in at home, you go to your practice space, and it sounds completely off when turning up your level to match the people you’re jamming alongside. Several contributing factors can cause this, and the rig can be adjusted accordingly to increase the consistency of the tones produced. One major point that needs to be hammered home is that a guitar rig will react very differently at bedroom-level volumes versus gigging volumes. The layout and acoustics of the room play a massive role in the overall tone and feel of the amp and rig. For instance, if the practice space is a bedroom or basement, our ears become accustomed to that room, and the amp and pedals are setup accordingly to sound good in that room. Let’s say hypothetically that the usual practice space is in a basement or garage with a concrete floor. Alternatively, if the band is at a gig with a large stage made of wood, the amp can sound excessively boomy due to the wood resonating the frequencies in the room. On the flip side, going from playing on a wooden floor to a concrete floor can make the amp feel stiff. While we’re on the subject of playing out, power fluctuation needs to be mentioned as well, and that can play a big part in tone. If the space at home is running at 109v out of the wall, but the output at a gig is 115v for instance, then there will undoubtedly be a tonal difference because your amp is receiving more voltage. Increasing or starving the power can lead to an array of tone fluctuations, which is a reason companies have been making power conditioners to keep a steady flow of current to the amp, no matter what the gig is.
A solid example of this in practice is that we had a person on our Tone Group on FaceBook (Wampler Pedals Tone Group, you should check it out). He mentioned having fantastic tone in his room where he practices, but when opening the window, it seems like he lost a tremendous amount of depth to his tone and everything sounded thin. After discussing it, several members chimed in and said it had to do with the pressure changes and the layout of the room, and how the frequencies coming from the amp disperse differently. In that scenario, the bass frequencies weren’t bouncing back and stayed confined in the space, and that’s why the tone sounded so much fuller when the windows weren’t open.
As the output of an amp increases, several things can come into play. Preamp’s can begin to clip once they’re pushed to a certain point, so if a rig sounds overly dirty, it could be that the preamp is distorting, where at lower volumes the output isn’t as high. One thing you can try is to use an active volume pedal in the effects loop of the amp, which will lower the signal hitting the phase inverter and cutting down on the clipping ab it. If your amp doesn’t have an effects loop, you can try putting a volume pedal at the end of your signal chain, which will cut some of the incoming signal and subsequently lower the gain. A relatable way to think of it is plugging directly into a dirty amp, and adjusting your guitar’s volume to reduce gain. The same premise applies. Yes, this will change the tone a bit, but in reality, EVERYTHING alters the tone. Clipping is a reason a lot of players like really high-headroom, high wattage amps because it eliminates the chances of the amp distorting at gig volumes. Along with the preamps reacting differently, speakers begin to compress as they attempt to move more air. The harder an amp is pushed, the harder those speakers naturally compress.
Taking all things into consideration, the chase for tone is never-ending, and more often than not leads to just as much frustration sometimes as it does elation. Give it time, think things through and start from the bottom and work your way up in chasing your perfect tone.