How to Play Your Gig Rig at Neighbor-Friendly Volumes

For guitarists, louder is usually better. But for everyone else in your apartment complex, the opposite is likely true. We all want to get some burn on our tubes and hear that singing sustain, but it’s hard to argue that sweet tone is worth an eviction notice.

Nothing compares to cutting loose and blasting an earth-shaking powerchord on some red-hot tubes, but these workarounds can help you get close to full-blown tone in between your gigs. Take a look at the pros, cons, and recommended tools below.

Attenuator

In general, there are three places that your classic tube amp can create distortion: preamp tubes (gain knob), power amp tubes (master volume), and speakers. If we’re trying to play at lower volumes, there’s no chance we’re going to get any breakup from our speakers. But you can get pretty good saturation from both sets of tubes with an attenuator.

Think of an attenuator as an overall volume knob that comes after the master volume on your amp. This means you can crank your tubes as much as you want — giving you the true character of your amplifier — and then turn it down before it hits your speakers.

In their early days, attenuators got a bad rap for burning through tubes… but think about it: the attenuator only affects the power hitting your speakers. If you’re diming your amp EVH-style for hours on end, you’d be burning through tubes pretty quickly, whether or not you were using an attenuator.

Some popular attenuators include the THD Hotplate, Radial Headload, and Rivera RockCrusher. When picking an attenuator, you just need to make sure that it can handle the wattage of your amplifier and that it matches the ohms (Ω) rating of your amp and speakers.

To hook it up, run a speaker cable out of your head’s output jack into the attenuator, then run another speaker cable from the attenuator’s output to your cab’s input. This is the simplest set up, but many attenuators have a number of other features, including direct line outs that give you more options when recording.

Volume Pedal

From ethereal swells to cleaned-up delay trails, there’s no shortage of fun that you can have with a volume pedal on your board. But it can also serve an important utility role when you run it in your effects loop.

Simply place the volume pedal first in your send chain. The key here is to set your volume pedal to a very low setting, which lets you crank your preamp tubes for maximum grit without blasting your power tubes. It’s kind of like using your amp’s gain knob as an always-on distortion box on your pedalboard.

It’s worth noting that the same effect could be produced by running any pedal with an output volume in your pedal chain. In fact, you can set a low output level for home playing and then simply switch the pedal off for gigging. Transparency is key, since overdrive or compression pedals will likely color the tone before it comes back into your power tubes, which many players feel produces a grating tonal quality.

“What about the volume knob on my guitar?" you may be wondering. Yes, as the origin of your signal chain, your guitar volume can have a profound impact on your tone. The problem is that it’s usually associated with high-end roll off that will reduce sparkle. Adding a treble bleed mod to your volume pot can help fight this issue.

Another important consideration is that dialing back your guitar volume means less signal will hit your preamp tubes, cleaning up the sound of your amp. In fact, many players notch the volume back slightly for their rhythm tone before running the pickup wide open to dig into some snarling leads. If you’re trying to maximize grit and decrease decibels, though, the best place to do it is normally after your signal goes through the preamp.

Pentode/Triode Switch

Without getting too technical, tubes usually run in pentode mode, which ensures maximum efficiency and gut-punching output. But many amps today are built with a “Pentode/Triode" switch, which will run your tubes less efficiently and result in a 40-50% decrease in power. Less efficiency means that your tubes distort at a lower volume level.

The big caveat here — as anyone who has owned a 20- or 30-watt tube amp will tell you — is that even low-wattage tube amps probably have more than enough juice to blow the doors off. On a 100-watt Marshall, your neighbors aren’t really going to notice that you bumped your efficiency down to 50%. They’ll just notice that their walls are shaking.

For bedroom guitarists, the pentode/triode switch works best with lunch box-style heads, like the Orange Tiny Terror. Switching down to seven-and-a-half watts gives you a neighbor-friendly output, while flipping it up to the 15-watt mode gives you seriously cranked tone and a reasonable stage volume for your next gig.

Amp Shields, Iso Cabs, and Soundproofing

If you’re still not satisfied with anything short of a fully juiced amp, there are still a few soundproofing techniques that can dampen the volume coming from your rig. While you’re not technically turning anything down, you’ll still be decreasing the perceived volume for anyone within earshot.

The first is an amp shield, which is a hard screen that blocks sound when placed in front of your speakers.

Already a long-standing necessity for home drummers, guitarists like Joe Bonamassa have now adopted Plexiglass shields made by companies like ClearSonic to control stage volume and get isolated, mic’d amp tones into the monitors. They boast foolproof setup and are easy to customize, but with a starting price tag of about $100 per panel, they can add up quickly if you have a larger setup.

It’s also important to note that you’re only blocking the sound coming out of the front of the amp with one of these shields. That being said, shields work best with closed-back models, since an opened back will project a ton of bassy, rumbly sound from the other side. Even with closed-back cabs, make sure you keep the amp off of any shared walls or floors. A riser (or just a heavy blanket) underneath your amp can significantly reduce vibrations as well.

Iso cabs take the same idea a step further, insulating a speaker or full cabinet inside a sound reinforced box to let you drive up the volume for a mic. You won’t be able to hear much outside the enclosure, but it has tremendous recording applications.

All of this sounds awesome, but they can be quite expensive. Setting aside custom builds, there are a few commercially available options: JetStream Iso II ($229), Randall ISO12C ($399.99) and Rivera Silent Sister ($999). As price goes up, so does the quality and features, but all of these options only give you a single speaker inside a box with one or two mic clips. If you want to use your own cab or place mics further from the speakers, you’re looking at building your own play pen.

Another option is soundproofing. Kits like Auralex’s D36 Roominator Soundproofing Foam Kit won’t cover an entire apartment, but you can convert a closet for under $200. Again, a riser underneath your amplifier will do wonders for reducing floor rumble, which will make your neighbors happy. As a bonus, it doubles as a vocal booth. The only downside is that you need to find a new place to hang your coats.

The Bottom Line

A huge part of being a guitarist is the endless pursuit of perfect tone. At the same time, you need to keep your amp somewhere, and that means you have to consider everyone who lives in your neighborhood. With one or more of these techniques, you can be a considerate neighbor and continue your quest for killer tone.


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