It’s a known fact that tube (or ‘valve’) amps don’t sound their best at low volumes. They produce their best tone when they’re cranked, or when their volume is turned up to the ‘sweet spot.’ This is the point at which they achieve a full-bodied tone without breaking up.
The problem is that the ‘sweet spot’ is often past ‘3’ on the dial, which – depending on the wattage of your guitar amp – is very loud. So, the sacrifice many guitarists make is to play at lower than optimal volumes.
Here’s where an attenuator works its magic: it ‘bleeds off’ some of the volume being sent to your amp, so you get that great cranked sound without having to play your amp to its maximum volume. This gives you a way to practice relatively quietly while still enjoying classic tones!
As there’s a lot of variation in these products that allow you to do much more than reducing your volume, we’ve taken a look at some of the best around and what separates them. If you’re in a rush or an expert in these matters already, here’s a quick peek at our favorite products.
At a Glance: Our Choice of the 5 Best Guitar Amp Attenuators on the Market
Electro-Harmonix Nano Signal Pad Passive
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Two Notes Torpedo
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PB-1 100 Watt
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If you’re new to this, I recommend you read the whole article. That way you’ll get a comprehensive view of what they are, how they work, and how to buy the right pedal for you.
- What is a Guitar Amp Attenuator?
- Buying Guide – What to Consider When Buying One
- Product Round-Up & Mini Reviews – Guitar Amp Attenuators
- So, Which Should I Buy?
What is a Guitar Amp Attenuator?
A guitar amp attenuator is a device that’s connected between the power and the speaker sections of your amp, or between the head and the cab. They convert some of the energy between the power and speaker sections of your amp from sound into heat. This energy conversion allows your amp to let out the signal you’ve dialed in, with the tubes naturally breaking into overdrive, without the speaker volume that typically goes with it.
Are there any downsides to using one? As the volume is reduced, some guitarists complain about a loss of tone. This is sometimes true, of course, but on many occasions, it’s more of an audio illusion. The way we perceive quieter sounds is different from how we hear sounds at a higher volume. Look for one with decent EQ controls to compensate for any perceived loss of tone due to their usage.
Some of these products are compatible with footswitches so that you can stamp them on and off on stage. These are useful for performers who are using the devices to control their on-stage sound and sometimes might want to use them in reverse for a boost.
Get the Best Tone From Tube Amp (Without Upsetting the Neighbors)
People who live in flats or close to others rarely have the option of cranking their amplifiers up and blasting out sounds. Not without annoying a lot of people. But what’s the point in having a great-sounding amp, if you’re rarely allowed access to its best tone? Attenuators will let you access the sweet spot without getting annoying anyone.
Stadium-Level Sound at Small Gigs
Similarly, not all gigs require or appreciate extremely powerful guitar rigs. Sound engineers at smaller gigs are very likely to request that you turn your amp down when it’s at ‘sweet spot’. This might make you want to protest, but it’s no use. Your band will sound better at a low, balanced volume than with one guitar drowning everything else out, even if its tone is superior.
Big Sounds in the Studio
These gadgets are also useful in the studio. Many recording engineers or producers prefer to use low studio volumes, yet also want to achieve the ‘realness’ of a cranked valve amp. These devices allow the best of both worlds, helping you get top recording results.
Buying Guide – What to Consider When Buying One
Most of these units are passive, which means that they don’t need any additional power to function. Active attenuators need the power to work and can be more versatile than passive attenuators. They have a mini amplifier inside them, which – as well as reducing volumes to attenuate – can boost too.
Matching Amp Impedance
Not all attenuators are compatible with all amps – it’s essential to get one that matches your amplifiers’ impedance. Many amps have an impedance switch on them so that you can match it up to your attenuator’s impedance and avoid any mishaps. If you have a few amps already, find an attenuator with an impedance selector too.
Product Round-Up & Mini Reviews – Guitar Amp Attenuators
Ok, it’s time to take a look at some of the top products on the market.
Electro-Harmonix Nano Signal Pad
The Electro-Harmonix Signal Pad is unlike other products on this list in that it comes in the form of a passive footswitch pedal.
The pedal works just like any other footswitch pedal: you plug your guitar into the input, and the output leads to the amplifier. It works just as well as a booster pedal, as its on/off switch is equivalent to quiet/loud. A volume control and an on/off switch is all that there is to this pedal, so it’s perfect for those who want to keep things simple.
This small, budget-friendly box is perfect for guitarists who require volume-reduction only sometimes and require a simple tool that it’s easy to get your head around.
As the tone here doesn’t stay as crunchy when the volume is low, it’s not suitable for those who are looking for a consistently low volume.
– Doubles up as a boost pedal/volume pedal and is easy to use on stage.
– Very affordable.
– Doesn’t need a battery unless you require the LED.
– It doesn’t work well as an attenuator that you leave on, which is what some people might be looking for.
– The tone changes significantly as the volume drops.
The Rivera RockCrusher is a passive, reactive attenuator which interacts with the tubes in your amp to achieve the best possible tone.
It has 8-ohm and 16-ohm impedance options and can handle any wattage up to 150, so it can match a wide range of amps, and it has an attenuator dial and two level dials for the two different outputs.
There are also easy-to-use EQ switches which turn either ‘edge’ or ‘warm’ on, to bring out any sounds which you feel are lost in the volume reduction.
As well as this, there’s a switch to bypass the attenuator, meaning that you can keep it plugged in even when you don’t need to use it.
This attenuator is perfect for those who want a professional, clear sound and can spend some money on achieving it. Studio professionals, session musicians, and recording artists will not be disappointed.
It’s less suited to those who want something a bit simpler, or to those who require an attenuator which can adjust to more impedances than just 8-ohm and 16-ohm.
– Switches between 16-ohm and 8-ohm impedance, so you can use it with multiple amps.
– Edge and warm switches help you to shape the tone.
– It has a high thermal capacity and is well built, so will run coolly and live long.
– Highly priced.
– Equalization settings are switches, rather than dials.
Two Notes Torpedo
The Two Notes Torpedo is truly sophisticated and has loads of features.
As well as level controls and an impressive amount of impedance options, this product has a ‘Replay’ function, which allows you to achieve the popular recording effect of ‘re-amping your guitar.’
This multi-functional device also comes with ‘wall of sound’ software that’s compatible with Cubase, Logic, Pro-Tools and more, making it an excellent option for those who work in a recording studio or are serious about home recording. There’s also an overheating warning, which might be necessary for those who put in long hours. It’s less suitable for those who want a simple unit for quietly practicing at home.
– Impedance can be set to 4, 8 or 16 ohms, making it an extremely versatile.
– Has a replay option to achieve interesting studio results with ease.
– The ‘match’ function takes the hassle away from switching amps.
– Very expensive.
– The additional features might be surplus to your requirements.
The KLD is simple in both looks and features. It has just two controls: attenuation and level, so that you can set the amount of volume reduction on the amp and also have control over the output following the attenuation.
The attenuation dial also twists down to true bypass, so you can leave this plugged in without it affecting a thing when you don’t need to use it. There are just two jack sockets: input and output, making this one of the most easy-to-use products on the list.
It also comes in solid, alloy casing which helps to prevent the device from overheating.
This is great for people who like to keep things simple and only want to use it now and again. It’s less suitable for those who want something smart for the studio, or for guitarists who are using amps beyond this attenuator’s limit of 100W.
– Simple, sturdy and easy to use.
– Compatible with amps up to 100W.
– The alloy case prevents it from overheating.
– There are no EQ controls to compensate for the lack of perceived tone at lower volumes.
– It’s not very stylish looking.
The Weber MicroMass is a versatile attenuator that can switch between 4, 8 and 15-ohm outputs. As suggested by the ‘micro’ name, it’s tiny. It’s also well built and not too expensive.
Unlike the other products on this list, this device has no attenuation or level control and is entirely managed using two tone controls. The low/mid control doubles up as a volume control, and the mid/high knob sorts out your treble.
As well as the two dials, there’s a bypass switch so you can flick it off and forget about it when you’re able to enjoy your amp at loud volumes.
It’s great for those who have a low wattage tube amplifier, who can’t enjoy it to the max due to neighbors or family members. This attenuator is only compatible with small amps – up to 15 Watts – so don’t try to plug it into anything bigger.
– Compatible with 4, 8 or 16-ohm outputs.
– Very small, sturdy and budget friendly.
– Can be used as a DI box.
– Controlling the volume via the EQ knobs can be confusing and misleading.
– Not suitable for amps larger than 15 watts.
So, Which Should I Buy?
If you’re looking for something to work as more of a volume control (rather than to maintain the tone of your amp) that’s easy to use on stage, the Electro-Harmonix Nano Signal Pad Passive is a great choice. The fact it works passively and adjusts the amp’s volume makes it very handy as both a volume reducer and a booster.
If you’re looking for something you can use with multiple amps, and control EQ on, the Two Notes Torpedo or the Weber MicroMass are both compatible with 4, 8 or 16-ohm impedances, making them the most versatile of the selection.
If you’re looking for something simple that can also handle these impedances – without the fancy extras – the KLD/PAN AMPS PB-1 is a no-nonsense box that effectively attenuates on all amps up to 100W.
If 8 and 16-ohm options suffice, and you’re looking for something high-end and professional that has easy-to-use EQ settings and promises longevity, the Rivera RockCrusher will tick all of your boxes.
Good luck finding the right product, and let us know anything we’ve missed below.
Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He’s a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band ‘Django Mango’ and a lover of all things music. When he’s not ripping up and down the fretboard, he’s tinkering with his ’79 Campervan.