In the recording studio, you don’t always need a lot of power from a guitar amp. If anything, sometimes less is more when it comes to level, and many seasoned engineers will tell you that some of the biggest guitar sounds can come out of some of the smallest amps.
There are a lot of benefits to using small amps in the studio: They can give you more and better-sounding gain at a lower-level, they’re easier to swap in and out of a tight corner, they’re less expensive, so you can have more flavors on the same budget, and they’ll often have a uniquely memorable personality and tone.
Remember that in a literal and philosophical sense, recording itself is an illusion. Sounds – the vibrations of molecules in the air – cannot truly be captured and bottled up – only impersonated in another form. Your microphone doesn’t know how big your amp is, it just knows how good the tone sounds. And your VU meter doesn’t know how loud your signal is in absolute terms. It just knows how far you can make it move.
With that in mind, here are some small, classic tube amps that are best-suited for the recording studio. Turn ’em up.
Signature Models: The Vox AC-15, Mesa Boogie Studio 22, and The Fender Pro Jr
The EL-84 power tube is little brother to the EL-34, the tube found in Marshall and Orange heads. The lower-powered EL-84 is often characterized as having a little bit of the EL-34’s trademark “bite” and mid-range push, but with a little less low bottom and a slightly more supple sound.
The quintessential pint-sized guitar amp that most guitarists are likely to think of first in this family is the classic Vox AC-15, an early favorite of The Beatles. It can deliver anything from Vox’s unmistakable trademark “chime” to a distinctive saturation or gritty crunch.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s the Mesa Boogie Studio 22, the main amp used on Nirvana’s Nevermind. It’s an almost over-designed tube amp with a thick and assertive clean sound, a graphic EQ, and the ability to deliver edgy tones and blistering saturation in an equally convincing way. Currently, a new model of amp occupies this niche in Boogie’s line: The adjustable-watt “Express.”
Small vintage amps from Gibson Epiphone have relied on the tube as well, and today, solid and affordable EL-84 amps are still being churned out by lower-cost brands from Crate to Peavey. They all have their dedicated fans. But the one that takes the top of this list is a relative newcomer and a fast favorite in the studio world: The Fender Pro Jr., which is easily among the most affordable – and coolest-sounding – studio tube amps that company has ever made.
There’s not much to the Pro Jr. Just a handful of tubes, a 10” speaker, and two controls: volume and tone. But this amp is a little devil, known to blow the hair back. At low levels it gives a full-bodied-yet-articulate clean tone; turned up loud, it screams with unexpected authority.
The Jr. doesn’t do extreme overdrive on its own (you’d have to push the front end of it with a pedal to get that) but the tone it does give is endlessly satisfying. Come to think of it, there’s a lot of things the Pro Jr. doesn’t do: reverb, tremolo, EQ. But that doesn’t seem to hold this amp back. So many engineers I know are surprised by just how often it’ll win a shootout against larger amps. I’m one of them.
A slightly larger version, the Blues Jr., packs a little more wattage, a larger 12” speaker that softens some of the Pro Jr.’s bite, and a few extra controls that allow for a decent reverb and a little more preamp gain at low volume levels. But believe it or not, prevailing guitar-amp-snob opinion chooses the ultra-compact Pro Jr. as the winner. If you need a small, affordable, great-sounding foundation for a studio amp collection, this could be just the thing.
Signature Models: The Fender Princeton, Fender Deluxe and Fender Champ
The EL-84 was perhaps the most popular choice for compact guitar amplifiers in Britain during the early days of electric guitar. But here in the States, that honor went to the 6V6, which powered some of the best-selling and most-coveted small Fenders in history.
The 6V6 was at the heart of the Fender Champ and Vibro Champ – little powerhouses that just love to be pushed hard. Each model has a bit of its own tone, from the throaty roar of an old tweed champ to the endlessly endearing and almost brittle smack of a silverface Vibro.
The 6V6 was also the foundation of the 22-watt Fender Deluxe, a favorite of Blues wailers and Americana-loving guitar geeks everywhere – A Stevie Ray Vaughan impersonator’s weapon-of-choice and a longtime favorite of Neil Young.
It’s hard to pick one to top the list, but in our book, the amp that stands as a no-brainer choice for most recording studios is the ever-flexible Fender Princeton.
At low enough levels, the Princeton provides an elegant, brilliant clean sound that could fool you for a Fender Twin Reverb. Pushed a bit, it breaks up in a way that is distinctively “Fender”, but perhaps not quite as specific or as identifiable as the Deluxe. And at any setting in between, it can offer a classic-sounding tremolo and a luxurious reverb that’s almost impossible to top.
Odds and Ends
There are other great options for small studio tube amps. The 6V6 is basically a lower power version of the 6L6 found in many larger American amps like the Twin Reverb and the Fender Bassman. And, although it’s a stretch to consider them truly “small” there are a few small-ish options that use this tube and offer a unique-yet-versatile tone: The Fender Vibrolux and Ampeg Reverberocket come to mind.
Some folks make a great miniature tube amp out of an old portable cinema speaker. The Moviola Mangasync comes to mind. Just install a guitar jack, and you’re good to go.
Some companies offer single-power-tube heads and super-mini combos that put out as little as a couple watts or so. For more on that see VHT, THD, or the Orange “Tiny Terror.” If you’re prepared to live dangerously – and don’t mind putting the longevity of your amp at risk – you can always hook one up to a variac. (But if you blow up your amp, don’t tell your repairman it was our idea.)
The choices listed above are some of the longstanding classics, but they’re not the only options. Some of the most unforgettable tones can come out of amps with little or no “pedigree.” There are guitar players that love old Sears Silvertones and vintage Airline amps; Jimmy Page recorded the bulk of his guitar parts on the first few Zeppelin records on a tiny “Valco” brand amplifier, and Dave Davies of the Kinks used a small Elpico amp (with a torn speaker no less) for The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.”
Of course, some people will tell you that amp simulators have come so far that there’s almost no reason to bother getting down and dirty with guitar amps anymore. But even if that is true – and I’m not so certain that it is – which is more inspiring to work with?