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Low Volume Guitar Tone | Mack Amps


Maximize Low Volume Guitar Tone

In this article we take a look at what happens when you listen to an amplified electric guitar at low volume.  Admittedly, that's kind of an oxymoron - who cares about playing an electric guitar at low volume, crank it! 

However, there is a high percentage of guitarists who spend most of their time playing at home or in situations where low volume is all they can get away with. 

So, we're going to explore what happens to the sound coming out of your amp when you turn down and how to enjoy your low volume sessions to the greatest extent possible.

Two scientific principals come into play when considering the effect of low volume on sound and what to do about it: Fletcher-Munson Curves and the Proximity Effect.  The first explains how we hear different frequencies when the volume of a sound changes and the second explains what happens when we move closer or farther from a sound source.

The 'Loudness' Button on Your Stereo Finally Explained!

Fletcher-Munson Curves, sometimes known as Equal Loudness Contours, are basically a graph with multiple plotted curves on it that represent how the human ear hears different frequencies as the volume of a sound changes.
The ear's frequency response isn't the same for all frequencies.  And, the frequency response changes as volume changes.
'FM Curves' show that as volume decreases low and extreme high frequencies get softer at about twice the rate of mid-range frequencies.  
Below are the actual curves plotted on a graph whose horizontal axis represents frequency and whose vertical axis represents sound intensity.  The curves show that low and high frequency tones must be louder than mids for the human ear to perceive them at the same level.  You can also see that as the intensity of the sound decreases, the lows and highs have to be much more loud relative to mids for us to perceive them as being equally loud.
That means that as a sound gets quieter the lows and highs fade more than the mids and we end up hearing the sound quite differently.
The Loudness button on your stereo tries to counteract this phenomenon by boosting the low frequencies (and sometimes the highs too, depending on your equipment) to compensate for the ear's natural non-linear frequency response at low volume.
Why do we guitar players care?  We care because as you turn down your amp your guitar's tone will change and it's highly likely that you will perceive the change as being bad.
Experiment by picking a listening position a few feet from your amp with the amp/speaker cab sitting on the floor pointing forward (not angled back).  Set the amp at a reasonably high volume and dial in a tone you love.
Now, turn the volume down to 1 or 2 on the volume dial and return to your listening position.  Of course the volume will be much lower, but pay attention to the quality of the tone - its frequency content.  
You will hear a tone with noticeably muffled highs and dramatically faded lows.  The 'body' and 'presence' of your tone has been greatly diminished.
So, what do we do if low volume is your only option?


The Proximity Effect

The Proximity Effect refers to what happens when the distance between a sound source and a listening device is reduced.
You are probably familiar with the Proximity Effect relative to singers and microphones.  We all know what happens when a singer moves their mouth closer to a mic - the bass frequencies of their voice are enhanced.
There is a technical explanation as to why this happens, but we won't dive into that here.  All we need concern ourselves with is that as the distance between the sound source (guitar speaker) and listening device (ears) decreases, the apparent bass component of a sound increases.  Cool!


Optimizing Low Volume Guitar Playing

So, what do we do to make our low volume jam session as enjoyable as possible?
Two simple things:
  1. First, arrange your speaker cab so that the speaker points directly at your head.  Speakers are reasonably directional devices meaning that they tend to 'beam' sound in the direction perpendicular to the plane of the speaker front.  The farther away you are from the speaker the more the sound disperses, but if you typically stand or sit a few feet from your cab there is a lot of frequency content that is being beamed right past you.  And, high frequencies disperse less easily than bass frequencies.  This also contributes to muffled highs.  Pointing your cab at your head compensates somewhat for the reduction in highs you hear as the volume drops.
  2. Second, move as close as you can to your cab while maintaining a comfortable playing position and adjusting for the volume level - don't damage your ears!
That's it.  You might be very surprised at how much better your rig sounds at very low volumes by simply pointing your cab at your head and moving in as close as you comfortably can.  Simple, but effective.
There are a growing number of low power amps on the market that are designed to produce good tone at low volume - our Mack Gem is one example.  If you have a low power amp or are considering buying one, remember to get in close to your speaker to make the best of your playing session when the baby is sleeping in the next room!
Don Mackrill