This article will focus on the loudness you need to get a great tone out of your guitar amp when recording.
Recording production has its challenges, and when recording guitars through an amp, you may want a certain guitar tone on the song you are producing. Guitar amplifiers will give you a different response depending on the model and type, but there are some general guidelines you can follow to achieve a great recording.
First, you need to know what we are looking for and consider amplifier types, microphone selection, and health issues.
How Loud Should My Guitar Amp Be For Recording? 6 Factors
When recording with your amplifier, your microphones should set levels somewhere around -18 and -10 dBfs. If you are using a tube amp, set the gain knob at 7 or above to get a warm saturation. When using a solid-state setting the master volume between 3 or 5 should be enough to get a nice clean tone out of the amp.
Then, tweak the equalizer, and effects to your liking. Once you get the tone you want, turn up the gain knob of your preamp until you see the signal coming around the levels mentioned before (-18 and -10 dBfs). Always avoid the red light. The red light means digital clipping and is translated as an error. It will sound awful.
There are to many variables when recording guitars through an amplifier and each of these may cause differences in the tone you’re going to get. To begin with, you need to know your amps to decide if you need to get higher volumes to make it sound good.
Let’s classify them.
1. Amplifier types
There are four guitar amplifiers: Tube or Valve, solid-state, hybrid, and modeling amps.
- Tube amplifiers
Many guitarists prefer these amplifiers. They were developed in the 1930s and were the only kind of amplifier that you could get out of a broadcaster and reproduce the wide frequency needed to reproduce the sound of an electric guitar reliably. The signal gets amplified by vacuum tubes or valves; as the signal increases, the tubes get warmer, adding a nice warm tone and saturation.
Like most amps, these are divided into two sections: the preamp, which can overdrive and equalize the signal, and the power amp section, which drives the speaker. Both are operating with tubes. The only problem with this kind of amp is that the tubes deteriorate over time, losing quality.
In addition, they are super heavy and require a lot of maintenance. Another usual problem is that you must crank them up to get that characteristic tube tone. Finally, getting them this loud makes them not very practical for small venues.
When recording, to benefit from the tone tubes deliver, you will need to get it to sound pretty loud. So crank the volume to 7 or above. With more gain, you will get a greater amount of saturation.
- Solid-state amplifiers
Solid-state amps work on transistors instead of tubes. It makes them lighter, reliable, and less expensive than tube amps, and they can produce really clean tones. They also have the preamp and power amp sections, but now they are working with transistors.
The new capabilities of the amp allowed manufacturers to include more options in the preamp sections, such as more equalizing bands and built-in effects. However, many guitarists do not like the tone of solid-state amps because they think they lack character and warmth from the tubes.
Tube amps were the only way to go before the 1970s when the transistors were invented, but most industries changed to them because of the lower cost of manufacturing. After their introduction, solid-state amps became more popular and affordable in the market.
When recording this type of amp, you won’t need a loud sound to make it work. The volume set to 3 or 5 should be more than enough to get everything where you need to.
- Hybrid amplifiers
These amps combine technologies using tubes and transistors to let you get the best from two worlds. The design varieties make one of the two sections work with tubes and the other with transistors. By combining these two technologies, you can have an amplifier that will give you the warmth and saturation of a tube amp when you require it and allows you to easily switch to a super clean solid-state tone when the next song is coming.
Hybrid amps are super useful if you want to change tones constantly; if you need saturation, go loud. If you need a clean tone, go softer.
- Modeling amplifiers
Modeling amps are digital amplifiers that emulate the most popular tube or solid-state amplifiers. They usually come with many different amp models and audio effects. They are excellent for the guitarist that needs several different tones in the same show. You can easily switch between setting with a footswitch and be able to play with your favorite amp in each different song.
Which one do you have?
If you have a tube amplifier and love to get a lot of coloring from your amp, you may need to dial a louder volume to get it out of your amp. With this amp, you get more color and saturation, pushing the gain knob higher as the tubes get hotter and the sound starts to change.
If your amp is one of the other three types (solid-state, hybrid, or modulation), you don’t need to get up to get a nice tone. You can keep the volume low and get the tone you need. Try recording several takes, one with a soft volume, another with an average level, and the last really loud. Compare them and listen to which you like the best.
If you have two different types of amps you can use them as you see fit for each project. There are genres that would benefit a lot from tube saturation such as Rock or Blues, and others like Jazz or Reggae where a clean tone is better.
2. Amp size
Another thing to have in mind is the size of your amp. Usually, bigger amplifiers need more “power” to move the speakers. So, to get the tone you want, you will need to be louder than small amps, which can give you a whole tone with less volume.
This concept also applies to cabinets. Recording a big cabinet will require you to set your volume knob higher to really get all the speakers moving and the resonance and tone out of the cabinet. However, if your aim is super clean tones, you usually won’t need lots of volume.
Test your amp and see how it behaves! Try different volumes in your amp, see how it responds and choose to your liking.
3. Amp Power
We have discussed amp types and sizes, but what about the power of your amp? Amplifier power is measured in Watts. Wattage and efficiency are the two factors that will determine how loud your amplifier is. You can select different amp wattages depending on the application you will use.
As a misconception, we tend to believe that double the watts will give us double the volume, but I’m afraid that’s not right. A 100-watt amp will only give us 3dB more than a 50 dB amp. So, instead of looking for the most powerful amp, go for the best suited for your space and application.
You can get a great tone out of a 1-watt amplifier, and that may be the best way to go if you are alone in your bedroom, but if you are recording with several musicians at a time in a large room, it will be really difficult to get it cut through with just 1-watt, and if you go with a 100-watt amp, it may be excess and you will need to leave it in a really soft volume setup. In this case, it may be better to have a 50-watt amp.
For Small home studios, studios where you will need to be in the same room as the amp, or that don’t have proper acoustic treatment, I recommend going between 20 and 40 watts. These amps will give you a great tone with enough headroom to get super clean tones at loud levels and to crack it up if you want distortion without hurting your ears.
If you have a studio where you have an isolated room to put the amp, and the musician will record in another place, you could do anything from 50 to 100 watts would be fine. You can dial in the loudness you want without worrying too much about it.
Also, amps between 20 and 40 watts will be very useful when playing in bars, clubs, and small venues, whereas 50 to 100 watts are better when playing in big venues and concert halls.
4. Select the right microphone and placement
Although you have an EQ in your amp where you can tweak the sound of your guitar, keep in mind that the microphones you use and their place in front of the amplifier will also affect how you hear your guitars once you have recorded. Therefore, it is not the same as having a condenser microphone as a dynamic microphone.
Dynamic microphones are more used for this application; they are regularly placed just a few inches from the amp grill. The center of the cone will give you brighter tones. The tone will become darker as you get closer to the edge of the speaker cone. On the other hand, condenser microphones will give you a brighter tone right away, and they are usually placed a bit farther from the amp.
It is common to use two microphones, a dynamic and a condenser, to blend the signal and get the best of both.
Whether you want to crank up your amp or like recording with softer volume, remember to get your levels in a healthy range when setting up your mic preamp gains. Some say around –10dBfs, others –18dBfs, and others visually avoid the red light. If your mic signal is too hot, try using the pad button. Some mics have it by themselves, or you may need to activate it directly on the preamp.
The following variables I consider may not be directly related to how loud you should get your amp, but they do come into play when recording and are necessary to consider in this matter.
5. Studio Location
As recording gear gets more accessible to all of us, the number of home studios is increasing rapidly, and some of us can’t afford to get an isolated room to record our guitar, and if you are recording in an apartment, it may be a lot more challenging to do this without getting any complaints from your neighbors.
The loudness of your amps while recording also could be determined by the location of your studio. It’s not the same to be recording your guitars in an entirely isolated studio as in your bedroom or living room. This can be a massive deal for many music producers out there
If this is your case I would recommend going for amps not higher than 30 watts. You can achieve great things with these smaller amps without them being too loud and getting your microphones really close to the grill.
6. Healthy loudness level
To me, the most crucial thing to bear in mind is healthy loudness. Being exposed to high-level volumes could mean harming your ears, your microphone, or your amplifier, and if you risk damaging your work tools, I think it is not worth it.
You don’t need to go that loud. The variable we use to determine loudness is SPL (Sound pressure level). SPL is the variation in atmospheric pressure caused by sound, measured in dB.
Your amplifier and microphones have a maximum SPL they can handle. Surpassing that level may cause damage to the equipment or undesirable effects on the sound. Loudness is not always perceived the same by everyone. You can measure the loudness of your amplifier by buying an SPL meter or downloading one to your smartphone.
Be careful. Exposing yourself to loud noises for extended periods will damage your ears. Any sound over 80dB is considered loud, and exposure to it in the long term will be annoying or dangerous to your hearing. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), exposure to sounds in an 80-85 dB range for more than two hours may cause hearing loss, and as your raise the loudness level, the time of exposure before damage is lower.
See the loudness table here.
Getting to know the tools you work with is the first step to making them what you want or what you need in the project you working at. Look at your manuals to get all the information you need and test them to find out what setting is the one you like the most and for what application you could use it.
As usual, there are no right or wrong answers when we talk about audio settings. What -may work for one person may not work at all for another.
Test different loudness setups to see how the amp responds; when you are comfortable with the sound in the room, try to place your microphone or microphones at different distances from the grill, at different places at the speaker record, and compare different takes to decide which one works better for your project.
Set your preamp gain around -18 and -10dBfs for a healthy signal level. For tube amps volume at 7 or above, for solid-state amps volume between 3 and 5dB.
Always use your ears, and listen to the different takes you have in context with the other instruments on your song. It could be that a take sounds terrible if you listen in solo, but listening to that same take in the mix could change your mind.
Be careful with the sound level you are exposed to. If you use your ears as means of your work, you would want to keep them as healthy as possible. Good luck!