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Gearhead vs Tech-Head: The difference between volume, tone, distortion and overdrive

I was thinking about a conversation I had with an ‘associate’ some time back. Let’s call him a Gearhead.

A Gearhead is one of those guys who plays in a bar from time to time but has to have a full-on 100W Marshall stack watching his back at all times.

“I have to have the amp turned up to at least nine to get my tone,” he said, with an air of importance. “And the volume is always set at seven. The drummer has to play pretty hard just to be heard over me!”

To me, the guy was 1.) being terribly inconsiderate of every other player in the band in respect to their personal tastes (not to mention the drummer) and 2.) he didn’t really know what the hell he was talking about. I figured that he’d read Slash or somebody else say the same thing in some magazine interview and figured that it sounded cool.

I’m more of a Tech-head. I did my time studying acoustics, standing waves, tube saturation and the effects of proximity in relation to microphones. I also learned that tone and volume are two separate things and that one does not factually necessitate the other.

Take tube amplifiers, for instance. Because of physical limitations of the tube (or valve), you can only get so much clean volume out of one until the preamp tubes reach a point of saturation and then begin to overload the grid component of the tube with more electrons than it can process. This tube distortion is generally referred to as overdriving the circuit. Overdrive and tone are not the same thing. However, overdriving the preamp does affect and effect the overall tone of the signal being reproduced.

Guitars exhibit tone  by virtue of the type of wood of which the instrument is built, the sort of pickup the guitar employs (single coil or humbucker), the type of strings the being used and the fingers playing them. The only other things which effects tone is the style of tubes, speaker size, the amplifier cabinet and the type of enclosure utilisied by the amp manufacturer. I could go into resonant frequencies of the cabinet here but it would be terribly boring, and they don’t really come into play when the amplifier is cranked so loud your teeth rattle. Volume just means freaking loud. It marginally has little to do with tone.

When the speaker (or driver) of an amp is pushed, by volume, beyond it’s physical ability to reproduce a given signal cleanly, the result is speaker distortion. Some people use this anomaly to their advantage to achieve a certain effect.

Personally, I’m not a fan of speaker distortion. You really can’t do much in the way of controlling  it, and the speaker become less efficient at this point. It actually gets in it’s own way of doing the job that it was designed to do.

Another kind of distortion I don’t read much about is microphone distortion. Just because a Shure SM57 is ‘rated’ to 120dB doesn’t mean that it represents a given signal well at that level. 120 decibels of some frequencies will render you deaf. Not too many deaf musicians last time I checked.

This is the way I like to describe it: Let’s approach our signal as if it were water, and our equipment as if it were plumbing. Our strings are the rain, our pickups are the water table. The water pours through the wires and cables and is collected at the amplifier, that is to say, the lake, and the resultant sound spills out of the turbines, or speakers. Now, how much of that water do you realistically expect to force into that little water-hose we refer to as the microphone? Everything in our signal path has physical limitations beyond which we begin to receive diminishing returns. If the microphone has this type of volume blown into the diaphragm constantly, we compress the very feature which makes the microphone dynamic and our signal actually begins to lose volume. Lots of folks scratch their heads and just keep turning up when they should, in fact, turn down.

If you think that you are still a fan of distortion, crank up the microphone preamps of your mixer and push the master sliders all the way to the top and play on. If you, like most folks these days, are recording digitally, you’ll encounter the nastiest sound of all: digital distortion. It is, in a word, useless. If you are are an analogue junkie, as am I, you will encounter something less offensive known as tape compression. I still don’t like the sound of it, but a fine board which utilises great preamps, in conjunction with a tape machine with plenty of headroom, can really make good use of this sort of saturation. The Beatles had George Martin make use of it on several of their recordings. At the time the engineers were pitching fits over this sort of equipment ‘abuse’.

The point that I’m driving at here is that magazine ads will do their damnedest to convince you that you aren’t a real guitarist unless you spend a couple thousand bucks on a guitar and another three thousand on an amplifier. Look, on the lead to ‘Stairway to Heaven’ Jimmy Page used an old Telecaster and a Supro amp that just maybe could push eight watts, top end.

The lesson to take away here is the adage:  “It ain’t what you’ve got, it’s how you use it.”

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About Johnny Nowhere

Johnny Nowhere is a songwriter/composer and owner of Hell Paving Company, music publisher. Johnny doesn't really exist outside of the music industry and Facebook. He is simply a figment of my imagination.

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