Got Guitar Amps On Stage? You Can Control Them!

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Photo provided by art-sarah

This simple setup is all it takes.
Photo provided by art-sarah

Guitar amps, on the stage, can be a burden for the sound tech.  They can be too loud and even blast out the people who are in front of the guitar’s amplifier.    You can take control of these stage amps and still meet the needs of the musician.

Getting a handle on stage amps isn’t too hard as long as you keep a few things in mind;

  1. Musicians want a specific tone coming from their instruments.
  2. Musicians use their own amps for self-monitoring.
  3. You can gain enough control over stage amps that get the musicians their tone, meets their self-monitoring needs, and gives you the right amount of volume control.

Respect the tone

The tone of their instrument is picked to meet the needs of the song or the preferred sound. An electric guitar patched through the sound system won’t have the same sound as if it was run through their amp.  Guitar amplifiers have tone controls and even the make and model of amp has its own tonal characteristics.  This isn’t to say guitarists should always use amps on the stage.  They can get a lot of tonal controls through pedals and pedal-boards.  My point is you need to respect their decision on the importance of tone.

Self-monitoring

Guitarists, who know what they are doing, will have some sort of amp stand or other means of pointing their amp up at their head.  This is what you want.  If they don’t, you’ve got a bit of work to do because, in those cases, the amp is usually pointed at their knees.  Last I checked, my knees didn’t have the ability to hear sound. Pointing the amp at their head also means less volume is required.

Talk with the musician about angling the amp towards their head. If they question this idea, ask them to play while you point the amplifier at their head. They should be on your side in no time. The proper amplifier angle can be achieved using a commercial amplifier stand or, if you need to get a little creative, one can find free blueprints on the internet for building a cheap custom amp stand. Once the amp stand is in place and pointed properly at the guitarist, have the musician set the amp tone so it’s how they want it.

Note the tone of the amp sounds differently when you are in front of it versus to the side.  In the case of musicians who have been using the wrong setup, they will need to change their tone settings because now, for the first time, they are on-axis with the amp’s speaker(s).

Volume control

Using the proper self-monitoring setup as described above, the musician doesn’t need the same level of volume.  This means you get volume control. It’s time to grab a microphone.

Follow these instructions for setting up a microphone;

  1. Using an instrument microphone, attach it to a small microphone stand and put the head of the microphone about 2 inches from one of the amp’s speaker cones. If you’ve got a Shure SM57, that’s a good one for this type of application.  Note, some amps have more than one speaker so pick one.
  2. Next, set the microphone so it’s pointing at the outer edge of the speaker cone. Listen to how it sounds in the house speakers. Now move the microphone to the near center of the amp speaker and listen in the house speakers. Note the difference between the two sounds. The farther away from the center of the speaker, the more treble you will hear in the amp. You CAN point a mic at the middle of the speaker but the range of frequencies is significantly reduced because of the design. Experiment with several locations on the amplifier’s speaker until you find the spot you like.
  3. Once the amplifier is set up and the microphone is in place, you need to find a volume level on the amplifier that’s loud enough as a monitor but doesn’t blow away everyone on the stage. This might take some trial and error and a little assertive pushing on your part if the musician is used to using their amp as the main volume source. Let them know their only concern is the volume for self-monitoring and that you’ll take care of the house volume.

 

The Take Away

Proper on-stage amp usage is about directionality, proper microphone placement, and on-stage volume control.  Respect the musician’s views on amplifier tone and their needs for self-monitoring.  A common question I get via email concerns controlling guitar amps on the stage.  You can do it.  It just takes a bit of time and the willingness to talk with the guitarist.

Question: What problems have you had with guitar amps on the stage?

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Comments

  1. Chuck says

    I hear from guitarists this line “it’s a tube amp, and so I need to turn it up loud for it to sound good”. I wish I had some sort of box I could put the amp in so they could their tone without the volume.

    • says

      Chuck, that’s where isolation cabinets come into play. Darn shame they are so expensive. Just the other week, the other audio tech at my church was telling me what he did for a service – moved the amp back-stage with the mic and pointed it at a wall. Parallel to that wall is our huge stage curtain. Not only could get get the tone but that curtain kept much of the amp sound from washing on stage. Be creative!

  2. says

    We use basic avioms and the only “rule” is that the amp (or drum kit) cannot dominate the stage or room. Everybody from the lead pastor to the worhisp leader to the tech director is onboard and vocal about this value. We’ve been very sucessful using amp sims/ PODS or smaller wattage amps off stage. the guitarist monitors usually thru an IEM or a wedge so they actually hear what the audience hears with respect to the microphone. It’s definitely a team effort to get the best mix for the room. I promote the idea of being a “musician who plays a guitar” as opposed to the “guitarist”. Everyone has personal needs and preferences but everyone contributes to the worship experience and that trumps individual preferences every time. If the artist has a pressing need to use the amp as a personal monitor, then it’s possible that they either don’t trust the IEMs, wedges, and/or sound tech or they possibly have an unhealthy need to dominate the stage with their contribution.

  3. says

    Great advice about angling the amplifier back so that the sound is directed upward to the player’s ears. Having initially looked at different amp stands (and even considered making my own), I have been using the Ultimate Support Amp-150 Genesis Amp Stand for a few years now. This stand can be set at 3 different angles of tilt, and the riser has a threaded mic mount ready to accommodate a baby boom, making a separate mic stand unnecessary. Info and photos: http://www.ultimatesupport.com/product/AMP-150

    • says

      Alan, thanks for comment on the Genesis Amp Stand. That is sweeeeeet! I love the different angles, something I don’t see in many amp stands.

  4. says

    With IEM use becoming so prevalent, and amp simulation getting so good for such little money, there really needs to be an article or two addressing elimination of amps altogether.
    Before the guitar players rise up in protest to this ‘sound guy who just doesn’t get it’, I’m an electric player most of the time, bass player some time, and keyboard player as well. I also run FOH mix and have done so for nearly 30 years in venues as varied as little 100 seat churches with 20 persons present (with the band making up 7 of the 20!) to a half-time and post game 120 voice choral concert at a Detroit Pistons game in the Pontiac Silverdome and just about everything in-between. I also teach live audio for a company that helps churches that are meeting in rented facilities each week. When the guitarist shows up with an amp simulator/multi-FX, it is very rare when that is the problem source of getting a good FOH mix to help the attendees put on their worship performance for God. When the guitar/bass players show up with amps of any size – it’s almost a guarantee there is going to be lots of time devoted to isolating the volume from the cabinet, and getting it at a level that is acceptable to the musician. Here’s my opinion – the subtlety that you might hear between your real Twin Reverb, and a simulation – is not going to be noticed by the people in the seats that are putting on the performance for God. Maybe that should be noted also here. The roles of the musicians/worship/tech team are as prompters. God is the audience, the people attending are in reality the performers for God. When we assume a different role, whether as the worship/tech team or as the attendees of a worship service, that’s when things go bad. As an instrumentalist/vocalist, if we get it in our head that we are the performer – then that’s when we get all picky because, hey, people are there to see/hear us. As attendees, when we think we are the ‘audience’ that’s when we get picky about which songs are used, style, volume, what arrangement is used, etc. Attention is placed in the wrong place instead of on collectively worshiping God.

    • Cajun daddy says

      I hear ya, and yet when Shane and Shane and Phil Wickham came to do worship at our church last month they brought a half stack on stage. The sound was good,
      the guitars were well-controlled and it was done carefully and tastefully. I’m not ready to ban Amplifiers from the stage just yet.

    • Fred says

      There is a lot to say about this subject. You are right that it is more work with amps on stage, but it’s never impossible. I think key is to use low wattage amps, and direct to musician as described in the article. In ear monitors might make a great difference as well, as you then can reduce volume on amp. I think however that sound engineers should respect guitarists’ choice of gear, as there is a lot of the time a thought behind it. Obviously, sometimes compromises have to be made…it’s all about teamwork . As a guitarists myself I definitely prefer using an amp, although I have both amps and virtual amps. If we are worshipping God, shouldn’t we make the greatest effort to do it the best way we can rather than settle for something that you might think sound ok at best?

  5. says

    I have a Blackstar Venue Series Ht Stage (60W) amp. I have it for 2 1/2 years and play it at different churches 2-3 times a week. I have a good amount of pedals and use the 4 cable method with the fx loop. Works great. a stand out feature worth mentioning is that if you turn the amp on and “don’t” flip the standby switch you can still use the emulated out. This is a great feature as we use in ear monitors and dont want amps blazing on stage so my tone still goes thru the amp then direct out straight to the front of house without the speakers on. We were going to build isolation boxes but now don’t have to. The only gripe I have is, I wish the footswitch jack for channel switching and reverb used a regular trs cable instead of the cable it comes with but other than that I am happy. Oh and I changed out the stock tubes for JJ’s which I highly recommend. I was gonna change out the speakers to vintage 30’s but since I’m going direct there is no need to!

  6. flow says

    this is one of my biggest issues, after insane drummers. i work with musicians who do a lot of solo gigging, and it is SO hard to get them to let go of the need to saturate the room with their own amp (and generally, their own budget amp). having hte amp behind the musician at all is an issue – as you get bleed into all the mics, and the ear is not so good at hearing from the back. i prefer having the amp to the side or in front, (with the phase of the mic signal reversed) pointing directly at the guitarist’s ears. both help minimise the signal reaching the other microphones.
    it can be pretty hard though, simply because of the ego issue.

  7. says

    “Be aware that the center of the speaker doesn’t produce sound waves, so don’t point the microphone there.”

    Can you please expand upon this statement? As an A/V tech, audio engineer, and amateur speaker builder, I have never heard anyone say this before.

    • says

      Xander, thanks for your comment. I should have phrased that differently – I’ll update the article. You CAN point a mic at the middle of the speaker but the range of frequencies is significantly reduced because of the design. If you check my twitter feed, I think I posted up a video link which demonstrated this…but I’m guessing that’s something you already know.

  8. says

    We’ve gone through just about every situation since I came to this church 8 years ago. We went from amps on stage to playing through just pedals, to playing through pedals into an amp simulator etc. Then back to playing through the amps again. Granted out auditorium is 4400 seats and large but even the smallest guitar amp cranked up a little bit caused issues. So after a ton of research and phone calls I settled on the Rivera Silent Sister Iso cabinets. I have loaded them with Celestion vintage 30’s. These cabinets are awesome because Rivera has ported them so that they actually breathe very well and the mics and speakers can move freely like they are supposed to. I stash them on the back corner of the stage and run the guitar players pedal boards to them via Radial SGI Tx/Rx boxes. All we do is have the guitar players bring in thier combo amp or head and plug them in to the cabinet. On the combo amps we just unplug the internal speaker. Everyone is very pleased with them and they sound great. They do tend to make the open back combos sound a little more like a closed back. We have even had a couple of national acts come through and end up using and liking the setup. Good Iso cabs make a huge difference. And yes they are not that cheap but I couldn’t have built them myself for the money.

    • says

      Jason, thanks for the details of what you’ve gone through before getting the iso cab’s. Great that you could make an investment in the iso cab’s. I’ve seen a couple of DIY cab’s and they weren’t that good. It’s hard to beat a professionally made iso cab.

  9. says

    Maybe this is the guitarist in my here, but I just don’t see this setup working. The volume of my amp isn’t based on my ability to hear it, but rather the tone that volume creates on a tube amp. I’m sure an amp guy could give more technical specs, but I just can’t get the same tone at a lower volume. Not to mention moving my volume on my amp throws off the gain to volume ration on several pedals.

    My money is on isolating and cranking. You get MUCH better tone. And though you won’t get your actually amp as a monitor, you’re final tone will be MUCH better, both in your in-ears and in the house.

    • says

      LOL – why did I know someone would mention tube amps!?! You are right in that the tone isn’t the same. And yes, an isolation cabinet would work best in that situation but iso cab’s aren’t cheap. But what about a cranked amp that’s so loud that it overpowers the rest of the mix in the house? That’s when the musician has a responsibility to the congregation. And that’s the point I was trying to make.

      Iso cab’s – use ‘em if ya got ‘em

    • Cajundaddy says

      I’d say it is very amp dependent on a case by case basis. From personal experience, my Mesa and Orange sound great turned down low volume, and placed up close to the guitar due to their modern gain structure. My 64 Super Reverb needs to be cranked up in isolation. Different approaches to make the most of each situation and achieve excellent guitar tone. No one perfect answer so I prefer to allow the guitarist to choose his favored method within the constraints of our church setting.

      Example: Led Zeppelin I & II Huge guitar tone, tiny 50s Valco amp in the studio. For many Pros, the lowly 3w Fender Champ is the ticket to massive guitar tone when mic’d in the studio.
      http://www2.gibson.com/News-Lifestyle/Features/en-us/10-huge-sounds-recorded-521.aspx

      Disclaimer: One guitarist/sound techs opinion. Others will surely disagree;)

    • flow says

      this begs the question of WHY the guitarist has an amp that can fill a stadium? it just makes every single other persons job harder. if the PA person turned up with a PA that only sounded good when turned up so loud the roof fell down, people would complain. If the drummer HAD to be hitting the kick so hard that it saturated every vocal mic, people would complain. there are choices, and the choice to NEED a huge amp is one not based on musicality, imo.

    • Anonymous says

      Oh finally someone who knows what they’re talking about. We just began using amplifiers at church and already the tone quality from the electric guitars has improved 100 fold. I do however wish to crank my amp a littleouder to achieve the tone I want. For this, I’ll have to put my amp off stage.

      • says

        An alternative to using an iso box or placing the loudspeaker in a room off-stage is to use a power soak, such as the THD Hot Plate or the Air Brake. This little box connects between the power amp output and the speaker cabinet input, allowing the amp to be run at high power settings to achieve the tone you want (via the generation of distortion and compression), while reducing the power that gets passed on to the speaker. Most units have switchable attenuation settings, so you can achieve a workable balance between the audio power level and the sound level produced by the loudspeaker. Of course, this eliminates any effects you might achieve from tearing up the loudspeaker itself, but it will get you at least 95% of the way to where you want to go with your rig.

  10. AJ says

    Off stage is a great option especially when running 30+ watt tube amps (Vox AC30, Divide by 13, Mesa Boogie, Orange AD30, etc…). The trouble with setting volume on stage is that the volume at which tube amps of this size sound good could easily fill a 800+ person auditorium. So off stage is a good option, we are currently running our amps off stage in the green room. This is a good solution especially if you have amps that run separate heads from the cab. This means that the player still has tone control over his amp while plugged into his rig and ears. The trouble with off stage amps is when you don’t have a separate head you lose control. Even smaller <15 watt amps like the Orange Tiny Terror or AC15 are better for leaving on stage while running at lower volume but still running at a volume that has good tone. But the less stage volume the better, period.

    What we're working on doing right now and I saw done at another church in the area is cutting holes in your stage to create isolation boxes. The underside of your stage is a giant Box, many stages are 2-4 inches thick and have insulation. This means they are really good at killing volume. Cut a hole between studs (32×20) is a good size, turn the cut out piece of stage into a lid with handles and a whole to run cables out of. Throw a dedicated mic and stand in each whole with power and an instrument cable to run to pedal boards.

    You can run 30+ watt amps at almost full volume an when you turn off your mains you hear maybe 60-70 db of volume. I realize this doesn't help the self-monitoring problem. It doesn't matter for us, we have an Aviom system, but if you have monitors it still shouldn't be a problem.

    Here is the thing for me, It's my Job to make our church sound as best as I can, so our drums are tuned a certain way and we use certain symbols because that's what sounds good. I've had drummers tell me the hate how our kit sounds, I don't care, it does sound good, they just want it to sound like an 80's butt rock kit. A while ago we told all our musicians that they have to use Avioms. No more Monitors, time to get use to a new way of doing things. People (worship pastor included) were unsure but now love or are getting use to them. For guitars our guitar players are told they have to have their guitars off stage (and soon in the stage holes). We honestly haven't had much fight one this, we have some great guitars player who understand and support the decision.

    To the Ken I would say you need to be diplomatic with this player if he really wants it on stage, but work with him, listen to his concerns, and have a dialogue with him on how his concerns can be alleviated by your solution.

    I'm sure not all churches have some of the luxuries we do, and can't do this but It's my job to make it sound good, and the musicians job to play well. I tell them to put their Amps in certain places because it is what will sound best and allow them to get the best tone. Some of it is building trust with your musicians. Helping them understanding the sound guy as an expert in their field (theoretically), just as much as the band members are experts in music (theoretically). We all are working together, it's not the Band vs. the Sound Engineer. If your church is anything like ours good guitar players (Lead Gtr especially) are few and far between, so the last thing we want is to alienate these players.

  11. Cajundaddy says

    The interaction between speakers, strings and tonewoods is certainly an important part of the electric guitar sound. That is why Jimi stood in front of three full Marshall stacks at Woodstock in 1969. But we aren’t in front of 500,000 people at Woodstock in ’69, this is Contemporary Christian worship music in a church. A keen sense of scale and perspective is important ;) Top recording artists around the world know they can get fantastic, huge guitar tone with a small 1-5w amp in close proximity, properly mic’d. The closer the amp is to the guitar, the better the sonic interaction, the better the tone. Once a guitarist really gets up close and personal with his amp, volume wars tend to solve themselves and stage volume is kept well under control.

    If a guitarist simply “must” turn up loud, run his speaker to an isolation box offstage and mic it there. He will lose the sonic interaction but run at a level he is accustomed to. It is after all, their instrument to play. We usually give them a choice and honor their decision without passing judgement: Quality small amp very near and pointed directly at you, or large amp in isolation offstage. We can get good results and control the soundstage with either choice.

  12. says

    One thing that’s worth trying is to have the guitar amp in front of the player pointing up at them insteAd of behind or to the side. They’ll get better sound at lower volume.

    • says

      Ken, the best bet is using an isolation cabinet. I’ve outlined the equipment you’d need in this post, Moving the Guitar Amp Off Stage. Essentially, you place the amp off-stage in a sound-proof box and you mic the amp inside the box. I will add to that if the marshall has a separate head unit, then the head unit can stay on the stage so they can still modify the tone but the amp volume is still controlled by you. Also, a healthy dose of “you are serving the congregation” might help the musician. :)

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