Gigging without an amp isn’t a new concept, but it’s a good one…
From utilising the best multi effects pedal to simply DI-ing your instrument, there are many ways to gig without an amp. We’ve decided to dig into this a little further to see what the upsides are to leaving that gorgeous but hefty piece of kit at home.
Case in point (the auld anecdotal evidence bit)
A while ago I was at a gig watching a five-piece band in what could best be described as an underground bunker the size of a shoebox. There was all of about 40 people milling around the venue, so you wouldn’t have thought there’d be much need for sound reinforcement, other than ensuring that the singer could hold his own against the other band members.
Undeterred, it appeared that every amp was cranked and miked, the drum kit was miked, and the singer’s mic level sent through the roof. The singer was audible but unintelligible, the sound pressure level punishing, and the ringing in my ears might never go away. I know it’s rock ‘n’ roll but I didn’t like it. I don’t think the crowd thought much of it either, instead retreating to quieter spots well away from the stage. Not only did this water down the engagement between band and crowd, but it didn’t do the band any favours whatsoever in selling their product – their music – in the best way (which to be fair to them is really, really good).
Whilst being guilty of favouring a 100-Watt amp atop 4 x 12 cab in the past, I have since learned that bigger isn’t always better. Yeah there is the thrill of recreating the poses of your heroes but what’s the point if you’re going to potentially aggravate the very people that you’re trying to impress?
Thanks to music tech evolution coming on in leaps and bounds over the years, we can take control over our sound in ways previously unknown. We’re going to see what options are available and why making the switch to an amp-less setup could be more practical for your requirements.
Breaking from tradition
Dipping back into the past for a second, those amp stacks were a result of music tech evolution in their own right. When rock ‘n’ roll kicked off a cultural revolution back in the ’50s, it was difficult for bands to hear themselves above hordes of screaming fans. Therefore, amp manufacturers met the requests of their punters by designing louder amps to rise above the wailing teenagers. As time progressed through the ’60s and ’70s the desire for increased volume levels intensified, and it wasn’t unusual to see rows and columns of amps and cabs lined up across stages at festivals and arena-sized gigs.
Decades of research into public address (PA) system design and the prevalence of line array speaker systems at festivals, modestly priced active and passive PA systems for medium to larger venues, and even personal monitor systems for musicians on the go, mean that that amp stacks are redundant in most cases.
I’m not saying that you should ditch your gear outright as there’s nothing quite like the thrill of plugging into a stack that’s as tall (or taller) than you, waiting for the tubes to warm up, turning that dial up to a level that could be misinterpreted for miles around as an Emergency Broadcast System, and absolutely hammering the life out of your instrument.
What I am saying is be open-minded, explore the alternatives, and you might be pleasantly surprised.
Guitarists have it good
We knew that already though, right? When it comes to advances in gear and tech it’s a fairly safe bet that guitarists will be one of the first to benefit. The range of gear available ranges from the affordable to the ‘should I tell my partner?’ to ‘how can I hide a second mortgage from them though?’.
Before we go on, it would be remiss of me not to make reference to Fractal Audio with their astonishingly brilliant Axe-FX II XL+, an all-in-one preamp/effects processing system used by many industry heavyweights such Alex Lifeson, John Petrucci, Devin Townsend, Steve Vai and Guthrie Govan. Seen as the benchmark it has revolutionised many guitarist’s perceptions as to what is achievable with regard to guitar amp and fx modelling, making it a far more desirable option for those still clinging to their treasured amp stacks. For those with budget constraints it isn’t necessarily the most realistic. Thankfully, there are several manufacturers in hot pursuit with gear that is more wallet-friendly.
Line 6 Helix Range
Line 6 are no strangers when it comes to modelling, I can remember their Spider amps knocking about when I was a kid (let’s just say that I am now considerably older). With plenty of experience in the amp and fx modelling game, it is no surprise that Line 6 knock it out of the park with their Helix range which includes the flagship Helix, the Helix LT, the HX Stomp, and the HX Compact, all tasty multi-effects processors capable of profound tone sculpting, signal processing and with visually evocative LED rings to boot.
HeadRush Pedalboard and Gigboard
HeadRush offer the wow factor when it comes to their Pedalboard and Gigboard amp and FX processors. Ever since they burst onto the scene the HeadRush units have been turning heads and blowing minds. With processing power by the bucketload, an unbelievably slick interface, the ability to connect to virtually anything and everything along with near constant updates that make them better and better, what’s not to like?
BOSS GT Family
“Strong and stable” used to stand for something decent until T-May got hold of it, but that is what you get with BOSS and in your gigging gear it’s what you want! For years guitarists have been utilising BOSS multi FX processors into their live rigs, whether with an amp or directly into a PA. They still do and with good reason. The GT-100 is a metal masterpiece with amp models and FX powered by BOSS’ proprietary COSM technology. Emulating a wide array of classic and modern models you can use a GT-100 solo or go full Johnny Marr and use a couple – lavish or what?!
However, when the GT-1000 came out things stepped up several gears. Next-generation digital signal processing and proprietary AIRD technology for improved sound quality, a wide array of connectivity options including Bluetooth nonetheless, as well as tonne of BOSS effects in a bomb-proof chassis. Well played BOSS.
To DI or Not to DI?
If you’ve already got a pedalboard setup that you’re happy with complete with pre-amp or pedal with CabSim (e.g. Strymon BigSky) but need a little more reassurance, then you can’t go wrong with an active DI Box (if you don’t know what they are then check this article out).
In short you should probably just have one handy anyway, as even if you don’t use it, they can be an absolute lifesaver for anyone in the band. It’s like a signal Swiss Army Knife for both instruments and microphones. Not only that but they’re also pretty inexpensive considering what they bring to the table, and a good example if the Chord Active DI Box. Keep it tucked away in your gig bag or coat pocket for those special occasions (and by that I meant when the proverbial hits the fan) and take on your rightful title of ‘Hero/Heroine of the Day’.
Bassists benefit too
Bassist’s may already know the joys of DI-ing from their amp into the FOH desk, but once again the amp can stay at home. Those boffins at Electro Harmonix were onto this early doors with the likes of the Battalion Bass Preamp and DI pedal that combines tone shaping, MOSFET distortion and EQ in an all-analogue circuitry powered pedal. Slip that bad boy in your gig bag and Robert is your Dad’s brother. Getting even cheekier, if you prefer the dulcet tones of the Deluxe Bass Big Muff PI then it’s got a DI output ready and waiting too. Masses of power in an all-metal chassis that will blow the skin off a rice pudding like it ain’t no thing.
Things to remember
If you’re going down the route of hitting the stage without an amp, then there are some crucial points to remember.
Firstly, if you don’t have a decent PA system, then make sure that the venue does or else you could find things a little awkward if you rock up with gear in hand and nothing to plug into. Our recent article on the different types of PA systems available can give you a steer in the right direction if needed.
Secondly, it should go without saying but test your gear at soundcheck to ensure that everything is as it should be. Spending hours upon hours dialling in the right tones at home or in the practise room is for nowt if you can’t match it on the stage. If there’s a FOH sound guy (or girl), then make good use of them and tweak the onboard EQ within the amp or FX processor until you’re happy.
Thirdly, owing to the lack of amps on stage, make sure that there’s an adequate monitoring system so that you can hear yourself. Better still, get hold of some In-Ear Monitors (IEMs). You don’t need to go down the custom route, but you’ll find them invaluable during your performance. Something like the Sennheiser IE 40 Dynamic in-ear monitoring headphones will easily get the job done.
Fourthly, always bring a backup. Worst comes to worst if you have a backup pedalboard with a decent DI box, then all bases are covered, and it will still be a damn sight easier and lighter than lugging a big rig.
So, in short let’s list the reasons why favouring an amp-less setup might suit you:
- Tonal versatility – if you stump for an amp and FX processor, you have more than one amp model and a vast range of effects at your disposal.
- No more back-breaking labour – You don’t need a roadie to carry your gear and if you don’t have that luxury, your lower back and shoulders will thank you.
- Save those pennies – Maintaining a tube amp can be a costly business unless you’re able to do it yourself (even then the price of decent tubes can bring a tear to the eye).
- Total control – not only can you control signal levels and where you send them, with MIDI you can integrate automation, switching and connect to external gear with infinite potential.
- Intuitive layout – rather than wandering back and forth between gear to make adjustments, you can dial in all the settings before you even get to the gig in the comfort of your own home, save them, and recall them when needed.
- Preserve your sanity – No longer will you have to warm up the tubes or frantically find which cable in your complex pedalboard setup has just broken.
- In keeping with points 3 and 5, no maintenance means no fuss and more of your ‘per diem’ to play with.
- Simpler stage monitoring – Easier monitoring thanks to no having to compete with cranked up amps on stage.
- Minimal security – Less to worry about security-wise and I’m talking theft, loss and accidental damage (all those lovely insurance terms). Backup your patches and sound files to the cloud, and worst comes to worst, simply replace the unit and download everything again.
- Preserve relationships – Slip in some headphones and you can practise along with stage-ready sounds without disturbing band mates, family, that neighbour who never seems to sleep…
- Get creative – having a raft of amp models and effects at your disposal promotes your creativity to roam freely into previously unchartered territory.
Try it out
Don’t be afraid to cut loose from your amp, it might seem odd at first but sometimes it is just more practical for the reasons listed above. If you do choose to stick with your amp though, give it the care and attention it deserves and play loud and proud – at least loud enough to feel with speakers push the air and make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. The proper way!
If you have a burning desire to get in touch, then our Customer Service team can be reached via telephone on 01925 582420. Our in-store specialists will guide you through the wonderful world of Guitar, just pop into your nearest Dawsons store.
Jon is a multi-instrumentalist with a passion for inspiring others to get involved in making music. After spending many years playing venues here, there and – pretty much – everywhere, he joined the Dawsons’ Music Web Team before progressing into his current role managing the Dawsons Blog.