How to Quickly Dial In a Tube Amplifier

In my many years of working with and demoing amplifiers I’ve picked up a few tricks for optimizing the performance of tube guitar amps. One common sense trick that never ceases to amaze those I’ve shown it to is how to adjust the gain and equalizer structure on a tube amplifier in a way that optimizes touch sensitivity and allows the notes to bloom. The better the amplifier, the better it works.

So here’s what I do:

1. Turn the amp on with nothing plugged into the input

2. Turn the master volume (if applicable) and input gain all the way up so you can hear the idle noise floor of the amplifier

3. Turn the bass, middle, treble, and cut/presence, reverb (if applicable) knobs all the way down

4. Starting with the bass, slowly turn it up until you hear it ‘kick in’. You will hear a noticeable jump in frequency where you’ll detect an audible fullness that resembles a low frequency hum. Be careful to place the potentiometer right on that point.

5. Do the same thing with the middle, treble, and cut/presence knobs (in that order). Each one will have a point where there is a noticeable shift in frequency.  That’s where the threshold lies. Set each knob precisely on that point.

6. Turn down the input gain and then slowly bring it up until you hear it ‘kick in’ (there will generally be two places on the dial where a drastic increase is heard. Select the first one for edge of break up and the second one for higher gain).

7. Do the same thing with the master volume. I recommend running the master wide open, but that’s not always feasible in a live scenario.

7. Plug in your guitar, strum a chord softly, then hit it hard.

You are going to notice a couple of things that occur by setting every knob on your amplifier right on their threshold. Firstly, the dynamic response will become much more touch sensitive as softer attack stays below the overdrive threshold and more aggressive playing pushes through and beyond it. Then you will notice that single notes tend to bloom more easily and big chords respond with a k-r-r-r ang!  Again, this has to do with that threshold response. When the note or chord is first struck the amp compresses, releases the sound above the threshold, and then slowly becomes clearer as it descends back through the threshold and naturally fades out.

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25 Responses to How to Quickly Dial In a Tube Amplifier

  1. eugeneshin says:

    so… would this work w/ a Fender Hot Rod Dx? because if I’m honest… i would LOVE LOVE LOVE me a Bad Cat… had a love for those amps since the days when DC*B released A Collision… ever since then, I’ve been wanting one of those amps… well… 2 of them… Cub 2 2×12 combo and now the Black Cat 40 combo… but yea, will this work with my current amp?

  2. pastorjeffrey says:

    Is the point to find the threshold, and leave the amp dialed in there? Or does this somehow “condition” the amp? (For lack of a better term, or amp maintenance, for that matter.) Reason is, I do most of my playing and recording at home, where loud volumes will make for a not-so-thrilled wife and kids. Thanks!

  3. map hack says:

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  4. Tanner says:

    will this work on my AC30 C2? Tried it but I couldn’t tell when it kicked in.

  5. Here’s a newbie question and I probably already know the answer…this only works with tube amps, right? Any similar helpful set up for solid state? Thanks…great article. I eat this stuff up!

  6. Bob says:

    just curious…in regards to the EQ and verb ect…. do you turn the bass pot down after finding the point that it “kicks in” or do you leave it there and go to the next …ie..mid… treb, verb, ect.

  7. tonesmiths says:

    Yes. it’s important to start with the lower frequencies first. Especially with interactive tone stacks.

  8. Dave says:

    So on step 2, what if you have an input gain, input volume, and master volume? I have a blackstar ht-40

  9. Red says:

    How should I set up my amp if I plan to use an overdrive to push it into the sweet spot? Should I plug in an overdrive and set it with that active?

  10. Matchr says:

    Even works with Software Amp Simulations!
    This is SO great! Thank you!

  11. Philip Murray says:

    Great article, thanks

    In amps with 2 channels do you go through the setup twice?

    Once for the clean channel and once for overdrive?

  12. Stzzla69 says:

    P.S The only meaningful EQ dials on an amp are the ones with active EQ’s. If you’re sat for hours tweaking passive EQ’s dials then you are basically fooling yourself and eating your time away. Just crank all of them and use the tone knob on your guitar it’s what it’s there for.

    • tonesmiths says:

      Although the tone knob on the guitar is extremely useful, you couldn’t be more wrong. Passive EQ knobs cut frequencies as they are turned up. Turning the bass knob up will decrease mids and turning the treble knob up will decrease bass. Cranking both will result in a scooped frequency response with flabby bass and ice pick highs. Those knobs are there for a reason.

  13. Bernie Heerey says:

    Been looking for something like this for ages IT REALLY makes it much easier to get an amp in that sweet spot thank you

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