April 2015

Big Sound in Small Packages

Understanding the history that led up to the development of small but powerful amplifiers.

National Standards: 7, 9, 11

Prepare: Have the class read Big Sounds in Small Packages (page 36 of the student edition). The article provides a history on amplifiers and PA systems, and how they developed in a cultural context to lead to the invention of small but powerful amps.

Key points in the article:

  • In the 1960s, live shows were amplified through towering stacks of amps, as PA systems were yet to be developed for bands.
  • When people observed that professionals used small amps in studios, a market grew for smaller, low-wattage amps.
  • As companies like Epiphone, Orange, and PRS manufactured 5- to 20-watt amps, Peavey did market analysis, later coming out with a model with a built-in attenuater.
  • Where a one-watt guitar amp can fill a church, keyboards, bass, and electronic drums prefer to have wattage on reserve, especially as low end frequencies require more power.

Begin: Compare and contrast the high and low use of power in amplification. Topics may include:

  • The visual effect of large stacks of amps, but the tone and balance lost in the heavy amplification
  • Purposely maxing out power for overdrive in guitar amps, and attenuating power to preserve tone (and when either is preferable)
  • Providing keyboard, bass, and electronic drum amps with extra wattage for low end power, and the technical and cultural factors why guitar amps require less

Develop: Share the following videos of small amp demos:

Peavey’s Vypyr VIP 1 20-watt guitar and bass amp:

Official Epiphone demo of their 18-watt “1939” Century Amplifier.

The Orange Tiny Terror, a 7-pound tube amp that can switch between 15 and 7 watts.

Does the small wattage of these amps seem to affect the volume or the sound quality?
How do the Epiphone and Orange tube amps compare to the digital Peavey?

Apply: Have students test their knowledge of the history of small amps with this quiz.

Answer Key:

Note: Answers appear randomized for students. Correct answers are in bold below:

Question 1: Back in the ’60s, PA (or sound reinforcement) systems had yet to be invented for use in live music. What were rock bands using instead?

• They used a few regular amps and turned them all the way up.
They used massive stacks of speakers to amplify their instruments.
• They left amps at normal volumes but played loudly to project to their audiences, like old-fashioned stage productions.
• They played only in medium-sized venues where they wouldn’t have to maximize volume to be heard.

Message with correct answer:
While it left an impression on the audience, the downside to this setup was that there was nothing to balance the mix of different instruments, so everything sounded loud and distorted.

Question 2: “Disgusted” by the trend of low sound quality, Charles Watkins of WEM in London developed the first PA systems for instruments and vocals, that both amplified and balanced sound. How did this ultimately change how amps were used?

It became less important how loud amps could get, and more important how they sounded.
• Amps were used at full volume in the studio to replicate the classic live sound.
• People forgot how to use them since all controls were done through the PA.
• It made them obsolete.

Message with correct answer:
The new PA systems were designed to produce enough power to amplify several instruments, balanced the sound and in another key improvement, allowed musicians to hear themselves from monitors — speakers onstage that point directly at performers so they can hear how they sound.

Question 3: The stacked amps of the ’60s influenced guitarists to:

Buy more powerful amps than they needed.
• Strive to stack their amps even higher with each passing decade.
• Buy earplugs.
• React by playing quietly instead.

Message with correct answer:
In certain settings, rock guitarists also like to max out their amps’ power to get a distorted “overdrive” effect.

Question 4: What people who attended popular rock concerts–where amps were sometimes stacked for appearance even after PAs–didn’t know was that professionals recorded with:

Small amps with less power.
• Their pets.
• Tone-correcting technology to synthesize the stacked amp effect.
• Bass amps, that gave their guitars fuller tones.

Message with correct answer:
Often using basic practice models in the studio, professionals preferred them when recording because with less power, they could turn up to get the tone they liked without being too loud.

Question 5: Over the past 10 years or so, people have been recording more at home, and are better educated on how their favorite rock guitarists recorded. As a result:

• Huge amplifiers made a comeback.
• Old recording artists began auctioning off the practice amps they once used in the studio.
• Amplifier displays are less likely to impress people.
There’s become a demand, and therefore a market, for small amps.

Message with correct answer:
Soon came models like the five-watt Epiphone Jr., 18-watt Century 7th Anniversary model, the 15-watt Orange Tiny Terror, the 15-watt Ibanez Tube Screamer Amp, the 20-watt Paul Reed Smith 2 Channel Custom 20 combo, and Peavey’s new Mini Head series, which can plug into speakers, a PA, or a computer (via USB).

Question 6: Peavey, the amp manufacturer who we interviewed for this article, waited and watched how and why small amps were used before releasing their own. Their small guitar heads’ built-in attenuaters…

• allow users to set reverb and delay effects.
allow users to set power to 100%, 20%, or 5%.
• allow users to double the power with psychoacoustic (or sound perception) technology.
• allow users to record their performances in the amp.

Message with correct answer:
To attenuate means to reduce, so attenuaters enable users to reduce power. This can be helpful, as Michael Smith of Peavey points out that a player could set it at one-watt and still manage to fill a small church with sound.

Question 7: Why do systems and amps for bass, keyboard, and electronic drums especially use hundreds of watts?

• They need more amplification since they generate a small signal.
• They need a greater boost for large amphitheaters.
They need the power to better amplify low frequencies.
• The “more is better” philosophy shifted from guitarists to these instrumentalists.

Message with correct answer:
Low end frequencies require more power since the sound waves are bigger and don’t travel as far. Systems and amps for acoustic guitar, bass, keyboard, and electronic drums also don’t make use of the “overdrive” effect, so it’s better for them to have power on reserve.