Power Attenuators

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There is a clear winner!

With most things in the guitar world, there are plenty of options, and what’s best for you may not be best for the next guy.

When it comes to power attenuators, this is not the case; there’s a clear winner, trust me, I’ve tried all available variations on the concept.

To begin with, it’s a bit of a sad thing to buy. What guitarist in their right mind would like to turn down?!?

Let’s take a look at a bunch of different alternatives so you can see why, in this particular category of guitar products, there is only one clear choice. Or maybe, if you’re feeling creative and don’t mind having a cab you can’t clearly hear, and therefore need a monitor, two.

The first power attenuator I tried, bought, and owned was Doctor Z’s Brake Lite. It’s what you call a resistive attenuator. It’s not great; as soon as you switch it on, it feels as if the amp lost its power, punch, and feel. Maybe if you are recording and matching levels, you could argue it sounds similar, but the feel is very different.

Some say it works well with Dr. Z amps, but I used it with a Carmen Ghia and it was not great. I reckon the same problem will happen to all resistive power attenuators; they kill the feel, it’s like you’re strangling the amp.

My next attenuator adventure was a Cornell Marshall-style amp (no longer in production) which had a way to switch down the power to half; I think it went from Pentode to Triode, using less of the valve, effectively producing less power. Or maybe it took away half the power tubes, I can’t remember but to me, it just sounded different; there was no real use for the volume drop.

I did a tour in Triode mode with the Brake Lite as well; I hated it.

I then had a Rivera Rock Crusher, the recording version which was interesting to take the line out and combine with a mic’d up cab, but as an attenuator, it just loses its punch as soon as you start using the attenuation part.

The Rock Crusher is reactive, so better than the Dr. Z, but to me, still unusable. Maybe if you are recording and comparing it, changing the gain on the mic preamp, it may sound close, even the same, but it’s the feel that is the problem. Again, it feels as if the amp is being strangled.

I then stumbled on a concept I hadn’t considered before, and if you are on a budget and don’t like lifting things, you may want to try this instead of an attenuator.

If you’re happy to have the guitar coming back in a monitor or use in-ears, you could try a smaller cab. I’m especially thinking of the 110 Barefaced AVD cab.

It does sound very, very good, and the way the sound is reflected means it won’t beam, basically taking away the problem that you’re too loud.

There are plenty of high-powered 10” speakers out there that can handle any amp, the EV Force 10, for example, but also Warehouse G10C (that’s what I use), and even the Celestion G10 can take a big amp.

So one idea worth trying is to have a small cab, instead of attenuating a big cab; it’ll be cheaper and less stuff to carry! However, if you put it on the floor, stand close to it, and next to a drummer you won’t hear it, you will need a monitor or in-ears.

Anyway, back to the concept of power attenuators. I ended up buying a Tone King Imperial Mark 2. This is a two-channel blackface and tweed-style amp with reverb and tremolo. It’s got the Ironman II built-in, which is Tone King’s power attenuator.

Listen to YouTube clips and it does sound great. In reality, it’s the same issue as the Rock Crusher. As soon as the power attenuator is on, it feels weird. It may sound the same to the listener, but it’s like the amp is now limp for the player.

I switch on the lead channel and take away the attenuation, and all of a sudden it comes alive.

The clean channel on this amp is also not loud enough; crank it and it starts to gain unpleasantly. If there was only a way to turn the clean channel up, the lead channel down without losing the feel…

It was going through this that led me to the solution to all my power attenuation needs.

A reactive load + power amp is the solution

There is a third alternative in the world of attenuation that is not resistive or reactive, and then just lowering the volume. This third alternative is reactive as well but then uses a power amp to bring back the volume.

There are two players in this field that I know of, the Boss Waza Tube Amp Expander which does this very thing. I haven’t tried it; I think it’s got a solid-state power amp…

The other one (and the internet seemed so united here that I just ended up buying it) is the Fryette Power Station.

There are three models currently. The first generation eats the power using reactive technology, then having 6L6 valves producing 50W, brings it back, lower or louder than the original amp. The second generation does the same but has an XLR out for recording. There’s also a 100W with two different channels, that’s the one I bought (obviously).

What it means is that you set your favourite amp to your favourite setting, switch the power attenuator on, match the level just to make sure it’s the same (it is, and it’s freaky how that’s possible), and then go lower or my favourite, louder!

You could have a 5W amp, cranked to 100W using the power station, or, you could have a 100W amp and get it to the same volume as a 5W. Both of these concepts could be anything in between.

It works, it sounds amazing, actually, even better as there’s a great effects loop and some more sweetening functions.

So there you go, someone solved the whole turn your amp down problem, and at the same time, they managed to allow us to turn up as well – genius!

In my humble opinion, the Fryette Power Station is the most important addition to electric guitar technology since… well, maybe ever. It’s genuinely solved the issue we’ve all had since the electric guitar and amp were invented; if you turn it up or down, the sound changes.

I haven’t tried it with a digital amp yet or a pedal preamp; I’m not sure I want to find out if that works. I like amps, and now that they finally can be used optimally, I don’t want to change!

Instead, I’m now running a stereo rig using two amps, the Tone King and a Ceriatone Dumble clone. It is glorious; now I just need a second power station…

Will the GAS ever end? Probably not.

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About me | Dan Lundholm

Dan Lundholm wrote this article on Power attenuators.

This was an article about Power attenuators, by Dan Lundholm. Discover more about him and learn guitar with Spytunes.

Most importantly, find out why you should learn guitar through playing tunes, not practising scales, and studying theory in isolation.


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