How to Keep Guitar Volume Under Control

Guitar players like it loud. But Houses of Worship, smaller clubs, and restaurants…not so much. In those environments, you can’t have guitars drowning out sermons, other band members, or conversations. So how can you get a satisfying guitar sound, while maintaining audience-friendly levels? Let’s look at the options.

Consider Acoustic Guitar

If you can’t tame an electric, try an acoustic guitar—they can often hold their own, without needing amplification, if they have the right body shape and setup. It’s tough to generalize about volume, because it depends on the construction, string gauge, pick, and style.

Generally, a jumbo body type—like the Yamaha LL16 (Fig. 1)—produces the most volume. (It includes a pickup, so additional, electronic sound reinforcement is an option).

Figure 1: The Yamaha LL16 isn’t just a fine acoustic-electric guitar—it has a big, bold sound.

The bigger size works best with heavier gauge strings (see How to Choose the Right Guitar Strings) to push the wood harder, and turn those vibrations into sound. For optimum volume, D’Addario’s EJ12 0.013 medium-gauge, 80/20 bronze strings are a better choice than a typical 0.012 light-gauge set. Heavy-gauge picks (Fig. 2) also pump up the volume, as does higher action. While it takes more physical effort to play heavy gauge strings with a heavy pick and high action, you’ll generate higher sound levels.

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Figure 2: Dunlop’s HEV211 is a reproduction of the vintage, heavy, nylon guitar picks that were popular in the 60s.

The body, strings, pick, and action are less of a factor with an acoustic-electric guitar. The unamplified acoustic guitar might be enough by itself, but if not, some discreet electronic reinforcement for an acoustic/electric can deliver just the right amount of boost. Fishman’s Pro LBX 500 “Loudbox” amplifier (Fig. 3) is a good choice, particularly because it’s optimized for acoustic guitar and generates up to 60W.

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Figure 3: Fishman’s line of Loudbox amps offers several models, but the Pro LBX 500 hits the sweet spot of small size, power, cost, and feature set.

The LBX 500 is compact enough that it won’t add visual clutter to a stage setup, has a phase switch to reduce feedback issues (but hopefully, your reasonable volume levels will avoid feedback anyway), and is portable—it weighs under 20 pounds.

DI (Direct Injection) Box for Electric Guitar

Plug your guitar into a direct box, and its XLR output can plug right into the front-of-house mixer. But buyer beware: An electric guitar with passive pickups won’t work with many DI boxes, because their input impedance is low enough to load down the guitar, which reduces level and dulls the highs. Fortunately, there are exceptions. Radial Engineering’s J48 (Fig. 4) has a 220 Kohm input impedance, which is even better than many effects (any loading is more theoretical than practical). Conveniently, it runs off the 48V phantom power provided by typical mixer inputs.

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Figure 4: Radial Engineering’s J48 has a sufficiently high input impedance to avoid loading down an electric guitar’s passive pickups.

The J48 includes a 15 dB pad for high-output instruments, and is suitable for acoustic/electric guitars; also consider that a direct box adds virtually no visual clutter on stage. The J48 certainly isn’t your only option, but its rugged construction and flexibility have made it somewhat of an industry standard. However, note that you’ll be sending your standard guitar tone into the mixer—there aren’t any effects, amp simulations, or other goodies. If you treat your electric guitar like an acoustic guitar, you’re covered. To go beyond that…keep reading.

Multieffects for Electric Guitar

These can accept your electric guitar input and send it to a mixer, while offering the advantage of providing some sounds that seem like they were made with a giant stack of Marshalls, but can be at any volume level. We’ve done an amp sim overview in the article Guitar Amp Simulation—Are We There Yet?, but let’s hone in on hardware options instead of the computer-based ones, because hardware boxes will be more live performance-friendly.

As listed by ascending price (starting at $999), the Headrush Pedalboard, BOSS GT-1000, Line 6 Helix, and Kemper Profiler Head (reviewed by Craig Anderton in the Feburary newsletter) are all well-respected, rugged, pro-level devices that provide the sound of amps, cabinets, and effects, at any volume level. All have XLR outputs that can feed directly into front-of-house mixers. For those on a budget, units like the DigiTech RP360XP and Zoom G5n deliver lots of sounds, but among other differences lack the XLR outs, instead providing ¼” unbalanced outputs (Fig. 5).

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Figure 5: Budget multieffects like the Zoom G5n don’t offer as many sounds, or as refined a user experience, compared to units costing several times as much—but they’ll still deliver “loud” guitar sounds at any level you want.

The Micro Amp Solution

What if you have to use an amp, because there’s no mixer? In general, amps aren’t all that visually appealing, and take up space—but there’s an alternative. The Bose S1 (Fig. 6) is small (9.5″ x 11″ x 13″), unobtrusive, and comes with a battery that provides up to 11 hours of playing time—you don’t even need to be near an AC outlet.

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Figure 6: The Bose S1 is one of those “don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it” products, because it’s hard to believe something this small can produce a sufficiently big sound for many venues.

The S1 can handle guitar, keyboards, and dynamic mics with its two inputs, as well as amplify the multieffects mentioned above. The bass, treble, and reverb controls also come in handy. Note that although you can turn it up pretty loud, you don’t have to; and besides, the laws of physics will place an upper limit on just how loud it can go.

Taming the Wild Amplifier

If a guitarist just has to use a particular tube amp to get a desired sound and be comfortable on stage, there’s still a solution: Universal Audio’s OX Amp Top Box (Fig. 7).

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Figure 7: The OX fools your amp into thinking that the OX is a speaker—but it’s a speaker whose cabinet, miking, and room sound are under your control.

With the OX, although the amp sounds and responds exactly as you’d expect, OX determines the ultimate output level. The big bonus here is that it offers more cabinet, speaker, and virtual mic choices than you could obtain otherwise in a live-performance situation. The bottom line is there’s a huge variety of sounds on offer, with your tube amp of choice, at any volume level. Many guitarists who use the OX say they no longer bother miking an amp, because what they can do with the OX is not only more convenient, but sounds better.

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way!

Although many guitarists love the sound of cranking up a high-power, tube amp until it screams, that’s not going to work in all performance contexts. Fortunately, there are ways to get big sounds at low volumes, as well as amplification systems that can sit discreetly in the background while they add sonic support to electric, acoustic, and electric-acoustic guitars. For more information on how to keep levels under control with other instruments, please see the article Make a Joyful (Quiet) Noise.

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