Any guitarist will tell you that the biggest problem with using a tube amplifier to practice is that they are very loud. Tube amplifiers are at ther best at high volume. However, if you want to get the best sound out of your amplifier, you need to learn how to overdrive a tube amp at low volume. This blog will look at different methods of how to overdrive a tube amp at low volume and the best ways of doing so.
Sure, you can squash the volume and gain down a bit, but you still want to have as much tone as possible. These two don’t really coincide, unfortunately. Let’s take a look at a few different ways you can get a hot, overdriven tone at lower volumes.
To make a long story short, the best budget option is to use a volume control pedal through the send/return on your amp.
Some amps don’t have this option though. Or, maybe you are looking for a quick fix and you don’t have a volume pedal. We got you.
There are a few budget options for dealing with this issue. They are easy enough to engage with just with things you have lying around the house. On the other hand, there are also plenty of specialized hardware options that do a much better job.
If your amplifier has a send and return loop you can easily use a volume pedal to adjust the volume of the playback without compromising tone. You just need to plug the send from the amp into the input of the pedal, then the output of the pedal into return of the amp. Simple.
This is different from using a volume pedal in your effects chain on the way to the amp. Instead of changing the volume of the signal to the amp, it changes the volume of the sound that has already been processed by the amplifier.
Got an old comforter, quilt, or oversized cushions around? Any of these things can be used to muffle the sound of your amp by placing them in the path of the sound. So if you have enough to sit in front of the speaker, over the cabinet, and under the amp this could be an option.
However, if your amp has no drive unless it is absolutely cranked this won’t make much of a difference.
Be careful if you know your amp runs hot too. You don’t want to start a fire!
Preamp tubes can be bought fairly cheap and are pretty easy to install yourself. If you want to get a warm tone at lower volumes it's a good idea to get a lower power tube so it pushes into overdrive at a lower volume.
Just make sure the tube you buy still matches your amp. You don’t want to buy one and have it not fit. There is also a risk of blowing fuses in your amp if there is a mismatch.
When using a tube amp, you'll usually have to connect it to a speaker. The speaker helps amplify the sound coming from the amplifier, allowing you to hear your playing.
But, what if you just want to use your tube amp for late-night silent recording? Well, that's where load boxes come in.
These replace the speaker in the signal chain so you can plug into a computer, or headphones and get that rich overdriven tone at much lower volume - 0 volume if need be.
Given that speakers are a big part of amp tone as well, you will have to use a software or hardware speaker sim to get the exact tone you're after. You could also choose to run the signal into a different power amp for greater volume and tone control.
An attenuator is a device that you place between your guitar head and the speakers in your room. It acts not unlike the output pots of a control panel on an amp, allowing you to control the volume of your amplifier without having to alter how loud you have it set up.
You can now keep the setting on your amplification device as high as you want while still being able to control how loud the sound is produced and distributed in your room.
They work similarly to the volume pedal idea discussed earlier but are more expensive, yet also more reliable.
An isolation cabinet or an iso-box is a soundproof cab for your guitar speaker. Given that they are “soundproof” you need to have a microphone in the box and then connected to a mixer and then headphones. This is the most expensive option to lower the volume of your tube amp. The costs of the extra parts you need can add up, especially if you are using a quality microphone.
They also have potential issues of the enclosure rattling or creating a muffled tone. Personally, I’d steer clear of using these unless I already owned one.
Not taking into account price, an attenuator is the best option. Yet, seeing as you may already have a volume pedal laying around this is a very close second for overdriving a tube amp at low volume.
A load box could also be great if you have decent recording equipment at home already.
If you don't want to spend any money you could just use household objects to dampen the sound.
These are all the ways I know how to overdrive an amp at low volume. Other than using an overdrive pedal of course. If you think we missed anything let us know in the comments.