It’s a well known fact that tube (or valve) amps need to be well driven to achieve their best sound (or the best ‘tone quality’). These amps produce their best tone when they’re cranked, or when their volume is turned up to the ‘sweet spot’ (the point at which the amp achieves a full-bodied tone, without distorting).
Until you reach this sweet spot, the tone of the guitar will sound thin and weak.
The problem with this is that the ‘sweet spot’ on valve amps is often past ‘3’ on the dial, which – as all valve amp owners will know – is pretty loud. So, the sacrifice many guitarists make, when they’re rehearsing or playing intimate gigs, is the frustrating loss of the great sounds that the amp is capable of, for the purpose of playing at an appropriate volume.
Here’s where an attenuator works its magic: an attenuator ‘bleeds off’ some of the volume being sent to your amp, so you get that great cranked sound from your amp without having to play it at max volume. Guitar amp attenuators essentially give you a way to practice quietly whilst still enjoying the full benefits of a tube amp being played hard.
As there’s a lot of variation in guitar amp attenuators that allow you to do much more than just reduce your volume, so 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 favourite 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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Attenuator Rivera RockCrusher Power Attenuator
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Two Notes Torpedo Reload Reactive-Active Attenuator
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PB-1 100 Watt Attenuator
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Weber MicroMass Attenuator
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Note: The links above take you to more information, current prices and customer reviews on Amazon. If you do purchase something we get a small commission, which has absolutely no effect on the eventual price that you pay.
If you’re new to attenuators I really 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?
A guitar amp attenuator is a small device which is connected between the power and the speaker sections of your amp, or between the head and the cab.
Guitar amp attenuators convert some of the sound energy from your amp into heat energy, so that you can turn your volume up high to achieve your desired tone, then reduce the amount of sound which comes out.
How Does a Guitar Amp Attenuator Work?
Guitar amp attenuators 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 dialled in, with the tubes naturally breaking into overdrive, without the speaker volume that naturally accompanies this.
When Will I Use a Guitar Amp Attenuator?
Great Tone in the Practice Room
People who live in flats, terraced houses and even semi-detached houses rarely have the option of cranking their amps up and blasting out sounds. Not without annoying a lot of neighbours, and potentially facing an eviction warning!
But what’s the point in having a great-sounding amp, if you are rarely allowed access to its best tone?
Attenuators allow you to access the tone without causing conflict.
Stadium-Level Sound at Small Gigs
Similarly, not all gigs require extremely loud guitars. Sound engineers at smaller gigs are very likely to request that you turn your amp down when it’s at ‘sweet spot’ volume. This might make you want to weep and 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.
Fitting an attenuator on top of your amp can give you the control you need to get your volume, tone and even EQ exactly how you want it on stage.
Big Sounds in the Studio
Attenuators can also be 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, which enables top recording results.
Different Types of Attenuator
Most attenuators are passive, which means that they don’t need any additional power in order to function.
They can be passive-reactive or passive resistive. Reactive attenuators are designed to interact with the amp in the same was a speaker does, whereas resistive attenuators’ sole task is to convert the sound energy into heat.
Active attenuators require power in order to work and can be more versatile than passive attenuators.
They have a mini amp inside them, which – as well as reducing volumes in order to attenuate – can boost volumes on smaller amps.
Things to Consider When Buying a Guitar Amp Attenuator
Not all attenuators are compatible with all amps. There are a few important things to consider before you open your wallet.
What is your Amp’s Impedance Rating?
It’s important to buy an attenuator that can match your amp’s 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!
How Many Watts is your Amp?
Not all attenuators are suited to all amps. Before you buy one, check it’s compatible with the wattage of your amp. Some attenuators have a 100 Watt limit (or less), so if you’re playing through something that’s bigger, you’ll need to make sure you’re getting an attenuator without the 100W restriction.
Features You Expect to Find on Most Guitar Amp Attenuators
Most attenuators have an attenuation dial, which sets the amount of attenuation. These can often be twisted all the way to bypass, meaning you can leave your attenuator plugged in whilst not in use.
There is also usually a level control, which adjusts the amp’s output after the sound is attenuated. Some attenuators combine level controls with EQ controls, allowing the low/mid dials to also adjust the volume of the signal.
Inputs and Outputs
There is always an input and output jack on a guitar amp attenuator. The input is for the head of the amp and the output leads to the cab. Some attenuators have additional inputs and outputs, for additional direct outs or headphones.
Additional Features You May or May Not Want
Some attenuators are compatible with footswitches, so 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.
Adjustable impedance is a feature on many attenuators and the more adjustable it is, the more amps the device will be compatible with.
If you’re thinking of buying one for a studio which might record multiple amps, or even if you’re a gear junky yourself with multiple amps, having an impedance selector in your attenuator will be essential.
As the volume is reduced using an attenuator, many guitarists report 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 to how we perceive sounds at a higher volume.
Attenuators with EQ controls included allow you to compensate for any perceived loss of tone due to their usage.
How to Use a Guitar Amp Attenuator
So, now you know what you’re looking for when buying an attenuator, you might need to know how to use one…
Plugging into a Combo Amp
To plug an attenuator into a combo amp, plug the device between the amp’s speaker out and the speaker. Although it’s a combo amp, you can usually still disconnect the internal speaker with a jack lead. Simply unplug this, plug that lead into your attenuator and plug the output from the attenuator back into the speaker. If your speaker cable is too short, you can use a female to female extender.
Make sure you’ve set the appropriate impedance!
Plugging into a Head and Cab
Using an attenuator with a head and cab is similar to using one with a combo amp, if a little more straightforward.
Plug the device between the head’s speaker out and the input to the cab. This is where the attenuation with take place.
You might be wondering, more literally, where to place you attenuator.
As they can get very hot, it is most sensible to put them above your amp as the highest thing in your rig. Heat rises and needs space to avoid fire.
Round Up & Mini Reviews
Time to take a look at some of the top attenuators on the market. To help you decide which is best for you, we’ve listed the features of each of the attenuators, along with suggestions about who they might be most suited to.
1. Electro-Harmonix Nano Signal Pad Passive
The Electro-Harmonix Signal Pad is unlike other attenuators 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 amp. The pedal has a volume dial which allows you to set a lower volume than is actually coming through the amp.
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 attenuator 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 with the sound of an amp that’s turned up.
– 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.
2. Attenuator Rivera RockCrusher Power Attenuator
The Rivera RockCrusher is a professional, 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 are able to 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.
– Equalisation settings are switches, rather than dials.
3. Two Notes Torpedo Reload Reactive-Active Attenuator
The Two Notes Torpedo is a truly sophisticated, active attenuator which also has loads more features.
As well as level controls and an impressive amount of impedance options, this attenuator has a ‘Replay’ function, which allows you to achieve the popular recording effect of re-amping your guitar. This is when you record a clean track, then put it through the effected amp at a later stage, for clarity and an increase in options. There’s a ‘match’ function on this attenuator, which ensures that the level going to the DI matches the level being sent to the amp: the trickiest part of re-amping in the studio.
This multi-functional device also comes with ‘wall of sound’ software that’s compatible with Cubase, Logic, Pro-Tools and more, making it so much more than an attenuator and a great 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, two-dial attenuator for the purpose of quietly practising at home.
– Impedance can be set to 4, 8 or 16 ohms, making it an extremely versatile attenuator.
– 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.
4. PB-1 100 Watt Attenuator
The KLD is a passive resistor attenuator which 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 all the way 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 attenuators.
It also comes in solid, alloy casing which is helps to prevent the device from overheating.
This is suitable for musicians who want to keep things simple and may only want to use the attenuator on occasions when it’s necessary.
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 the attenuator from overheating.
– There are no EQ controls to compensate for the lack of perceived tone at lower volumes.
– It’s not very stylish looking.
5. Weber MicroMass Attenuator
The Weber MicroMass is a versatile attenuator that can switch between 4, 8 and 15 ohm outputs.
As is suggested by the ‘micro’ name, it’s very small. It’s also well built and not too expensive.
Unlike the other attenuators, 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 on this attenuator, 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 valve amp with a low wattage but loud volume, who can’t enjoy it to the max due to neighbours or family members.
It’s less suitable for those with high power amps. This attenuator is only compatible with small amps – up to 15Watts – so please don’t try to plug it in to anything bigger (things will get damaged!).
– 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 is the Best Guitar Amp Attenuator?
As you can see, which attenuator you buy depends on what you’ll be using it for.
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 the obvious choice. This is more of a guitar pedal than anything else, though the fact that it works passively and adjusts the amp’s volume effectively makes it very handy as both a volume reducer and a booster.
If you’re after something that you can use with multiple amps, and control EQ on, the Two Notes Torpedo Reload Reactive-Active Attenuator or the Weber MicroMass Attenuator 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 Attenuator Rivera RockCrusher Power Attenuator will tick all of your boxes.
Featured image source
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.