Gain is not volume.

So, it’s early in the morning and I’ve got tons of things to write about!

Unfortunately, none of those things have a damned thing to do with guitar – or they’re just so damned complicated that we’re looking at a 10,000 word article.

Seriously…

I spent like 30 minutes trying to figure out an excuse to talk about George Price and altruism. Man, I really, really wanted to write about him – ’cause of a conversation with that same ‘crazy_eyes’ who has been featured before.

By the way, that can be summed up as my motives aren’t altruistic. I get something from all this. I get satisfaction and happiness. I love inspiring people to find their passion, it gives me a sense of accomplishment. It’s not altruism – but I can’t really wedge that into an article about Price. Damn it!

I then spent about an hour trying to figure out how to tell you how the 12 tones per octave were only a suggestion and not even strictly a convention in Western music. I really wanted to tell you about some wonderful guitar styles that you may not know about.

By “wonderful” I mean, “fucking weird.”

I’d even made it as far as typing the intro, or at least starting it. That’s when I realized that I’d pretty much have to explain music theory – and not a little bit of it, pretty much all of it!

I can do that – but it’s gonna take a whole lot of articles (with a whole bunch of words) and there are much better teachers than I am. I may very well do it, ’cause you weirdos like my writing style and it’s not like I’m doing anything better, but today is not that day. After all, I just blew about 1.5 hours trying to figure out what to write!

(This was not aided one iota by my tendency to get distracted by shiny objects.)

It’s gonna take a whole lot of discussion about ornamentation, things like slurring, a dozen different instruments, a dozen different cultures, music history, and more. All that just to get to the point where I can explain the music theory behind the various notes that aren’t actually assigned a damned letter. And, all that just so I can show you a picture of a pretty nifty guitar!

So, I figured I’d tell you about ‘blue notes.’ No, no… That’s also gonna require 10,000 words! I’m also reasonably sure it’s not actually useful to the vast majority of people – even within the small segment that reads this site. Chances are, you already play ’em and don’t even know they’re there – or why they are there. (If you do know, you should be reading better sites than this one!)

At that point, I figured I might as well try to explain something useful.

Where’s the fun in that?!? Well, I can at least try to make it fun to write and read!

Before I begin the article, I will tell you that the eldest hoodlum (‘EH’ as some people call her) got her birthday gifts yesterday. After making her wait, ’cause it’s not her birthday, I finally relented (I shan’t say she was ‘surprised’ that I relented, ’cause she knows me too well and wasn’t surprised, but was polite enough to pretend she was!) and let her open them early.

Her reasoning was impeccable and it was logic with which I could not argue. “I need to open them early, in case anything is broken! That way, you can send it back and I’ll have them replaced in time for my birthday!” I can’t really argue with that logic!

It was a wonderful and joyous occasion. If you’d like a more elaborate description of the event, feel free to email me. Sweetwater threw some extras in along with a note that indicated she got the very last example of the guitar she wanted  and a congratulatory note for having reached the ripe old age of 16. (Musician’s Friend and my local music stores didn’t have the item in stock and the local music stores were unable to have them delivered from their supplier in a timely manner.)

So, if you want to read more about that, you can PM or email me. I’ll be happy to type that up for you, but it’s really not something I can shape into an article that has a broad appeal.

Trust me, I tried to think of a way to make it into an article and I drew a blank. I mean, I find it interesting… I’m just not sure that you’d find it interesting, my dear reader! No, you probably won’t have nearly the same level of joy that we experienced in this household and probably won’t find it all that useful. But, do feel free to contact me via the usual channels and I’ll try type something up for you. (I absolutely would love to tell folks about it!)

But, back on subject…

I’ve decided to correct a common misconception and explain gain vs. volume. The two are related, but they are not the same. I’ll probably throw some additional information in, ’cause digression is what I do!

Gain vs. Volume

There are a number of different guitar types, and some of them are meant for amplification. You have both electric and acoustic guitars, but some acoustic guitars are known as ‘electric/acoustic.’ They can not only be played and heard without amplification, but they are also equipped with various forms of electronic components that will enable them to be easily amplified.

In both cases, the electrical signal that comes out of them is pretty weak. A fairly common misunderstanding is that they have strong signals and this actually leads to a few ideas that just aren’t true, some of which we’ll be discussing today.

When the signal leaves the guitar, I’d like you to think of that as being “preamp.” That signal is processed and amplified (that is it is made bigger) in the circuitry of the amplifier.

It’s probably important to know that this subject can be very, very complicated. However, it doesn’t really need to be. I’m gonna try to tell you the information that you need to know – to understand it well enough to be able to make the best use of this information.

These are in the form of ‘electromagnetic waves.’ Your guitar’s pickups work because the vibrating string disturbs the magnetic field and that’s the electric signal that’s sent on through your cord.

Well, that’s incomplete – ’cause some are actually just like microphones and a membrane is moved and that movement is translated into electrical signals and that’s the signal that’s sent down through the cord.

But, you don’t really need to understand all that today! We can discuss that later, in another article.

This is what those waves might look like:

Yup… They’re wigglin’ and dancin’. It’s what matter does!

By the way, over the length of that image, time will pass. The number of times that peaks per second is measured in Hz. That’s not even remotely important for this conversation, but it seemed like a good time to explain it!

When your signal leaves your guitar, those peaks aren’t very big. They’re just itty bitty things and this is the ‘preamp’ stage.

Inside your amplifier, those are turned into giant honkin’ signals of sweet, sweet volume!

I suppose, I should explain something…

When you turn your amp’s volume knob up, you are reducing the resistance on the signal. You’re not actually turning anything up, you’re reducing the amount of resistance.

Let’s use a scale of 0 to 100.

When your volume is turned down all the way, you’re actually applying 100% resistance to the signal. If you turn your volume up to 1, you’re applying 90% resistance to the signal. If you turn the volume all the way up, you’re applying 0% resistance to the signal.

But, an amplifier does just what it says in the name. It amplifies the signal. It adds volume to the signal. It makes those peaks even higher. Those get output by way of a speaker, they move air, the air imparts force on the eardrums, and the brain interprets that as sound. (It’s a wee bit more complicated, but that’s not important.)

The more you amplify it, the greater the volume of air that’s moved, and the greater volume you hear. Blah blah blah… Again, that’s not actually important.

But, that’s what the volume knob does on your amp.

Gain, on the other hand, amplifies the signal when it’s still in the preamp stage.

Remember how I said the signal was weak when it left the guitar? Well, it is… What gain does is it increases the strength of that signal. It amplifies that signal – before it reaches the amplification stage.

Unlike your volume knob, which reduces resistance, the gain knob actually increases the signal. This, of course, can have all sorts of negative results.

To try to describe that better, I want you to imagine a JPG.

Zoom in on it.

Keep zooming.

Zoom some more. It’s okay, it’s your imagination and you can zoom as much as you want!

At some point, zooming in results in a blurry image. Why? Because there’s no information to fill in those slots. It’s pretty much exactly like that, except it’s entirely different!

On some amps, the ‘gain’ knob will be called ‘drive.’ A good way to think of it is that it determines how hard you’re going to drive the signal into the amplification stage.

On some amps, there’s no gain at all – and the amp will vary in how much it processes the signal before amplification. That’s gonna vary per manufacturer and brand.

At the end of the day, ‘gain’ is not ‘volume.’ Increasing the gain will (normally) increase the volume but gain should never be used as a way to increase the volume. The two are very different things and perform very different functions.

If you really, really get into your music (and decide to forgo feeding your children) and are interested, you can explore this area of the signal processing even further.

See, it’s in that preamp stage that you (probably) want to do much of your signal processing and shaping. All those pedals? Those are (almost) all meant to work on a signal before it has been amplified. If you’re really hell-bent on being destitute, they sell some pretty fancy preamps!

This is what one might look like:

On sale now, for $924!
ISP Technologies Theta X DSP Preamp – On sale for just $924 at Sweetwater.

Anyhow…

They’re two very different critters. I increase the gain on my vocals, because I lack power. Increasing the gain gives the amplifier more to work with. I give the amp a better signal to amplify. In a very formal scientific measurement, I give it a “touch” of gain. This is one of the areas where quality of equipment really matters.

Addendum:

If you’re young and live with your parents, this is important. If you have a spouse, children, or live in an apartment, this is important. If you have neighbors that live close, this is important. If you want to win a debate, this is important.

I want to digress for a few moments, now that you know the difference between volume and gain and why they’re not actually the same thing. I also wanted to use the word ‘addendum.’ It’s a delightfully fun word to say. Go on, say it aloud. Yeah… It makes my mouth happy to say that! It’s almost as much fun to say ‘addendum’ as it is to say ‘mystique!’ Almost, but not quite…

Moving on…

If you go back up, you’ll have seen me mention that your volume knob actually works by changing the amount of resistance on the signal. This has wider implications!

It is because of this that the volume level, the amount of resistance on the signal, actually has a huge affect on the tone.

That’s right…

Volume is more than just volume!

The more energy being transferred, the greater the ability to shape it. (Within some limits, of course.)

Think about it like this: If you have a giant canvas, you can paint all sorts of stuff on it. Well, if you have a giant electromagnetic wave, you can shape it even more.

You can’t really effectively write a sonnet on a pinhead. You can sure as shit write a sonnet on a full size piece of paper!

Where the hell am I going with this?

Your amp is, as a general rule, pretty much fucking useless when the volume level is turned down below 3. 3 is, for some unknown (!) reason, what I find to be about the ‘magic’ point.

Below that, and it seems to be about the same for all amps, there’s just not enough of a signal to meaningfully get much tone. This is actually explained by the resistance but can get pretty complicated and it’s not actually important.

At the same time, and this has some more variation than the minimum threshold, an amplifier above a certain level of volume (often) starts to sound like shit. This is all going to vary based on the model and manufacturer and some brands sound better at higher volumes than other brands and there’s some subjective criteria as well.

The key point is that guitar amplifiers are kinda useless below about 3. For a variety of complicated reasons, this is pretty universal. Are there exceptions? Of course.

Can you increase your ability to adjust for this? Of course, but only to a limited extent. The guitar is, for the most part, a pretty broad brush and making fine strokes is difficult, but you can improve the results with time and your equipment choices will have a significant impact on your ability to do so.

What this means is that you probably shouldn’t have a 200w amplifier for your house.

See, it’s not *really* about the total volume – as in the sound that you hear – but it’s about the amount of resistance being added to the signal.

To try to explain this by way of demonstration…

If you have a 200w amp and set it to 1, we’ll assume that it’s outputting 20w.

If you have a 40w amp and set it to 5, we’ll assume it’s also outputting 20w.

You will get a better tone, have more room to play with the signal within the amplification process, from the 40w amp with 50% resistance than you will with the 200w amp with 90% resistance.

Increasing the resistance doesn’t just resist the volume – it resists the fidelity with which you can shape the signal.

You can do some processing during the preamp stage, but there’s still an impact by adding resistance to the amplification stage. You can use your pedals and shape the signal before it hits the amplification stage, but those efforts to shape the signal will have impart less change to the larger signal after the amplification process.

To put it yet another way, you will not sound like Slash – until you turn the fucking volume up!

You can process that signal all you want. You can buy all the gear, take all the lessons, and completely master the mechanics. However, you will not sound like Slash until you turn the volume up.

Sadly, this doesn’t always translate into needing to have higher output volumes. Remember what I said about the 40w amp vs. the 200w amp? Remember that it’s also able to be interpreted as a percentage of resistance added to the system?

Well, the 40w amp sounds better at 20w than the giant expensive amp at 20w – because you’re resisting the signal less.

I seriously don’t like the term, but some people will describe the above scenario as the 40w amp being “freer.” I don’t like the term, but it is applicable. From a physics standpoint, the electromagnetic waves are less restricted for a 40w amp, in that situation- even though the output volume is mostly the same.

There’s also a whole lot of hocus-pocus, myth, and absurdity that people use to justify it – but it’s true that an amp sounds better at higher volumes – to a point. Some amps just suck when they’re turned up all the way and this is because they are simply adding too much noise to the signal, be it too much for the electronics or the physical limitations of the sound-producing bits.

What this means is that you should have a practice amp and a performance amp – minimum. Even better, you should turn ’em up – and turn ’em up regularly!

So, kids… If your parents argue with you, tell ’em TheBuddha told you to turn your amp up ’cause the physics support the idea that it sounds better! If they complain, then you now have an excuse to get another amplifier!

If your only amp is a 1,200w monster, that’s kinda useless for using within your home. Sure, it’s awesome – but it’s pretty useless. When you turn it down below the ‘magic’ number of 3, it’s gonna sound like ass. When you turn it up past 3, you’re gonna get an eviction notice.

You need two amps, at least. It’s just science!

Bonus Tip: Before you even plug your guitar into your effects pedals, plug it directly into the amp and adjust it to get a good tone. The preamp stage only has so much ability to improve the tone and you’ll get better results from starting with a good tone than you will from starting with a shitty tone and working your way towards a good tone.

That last paragraph makes me want to talk about PRS, but that’s a topic for another day. I can certainly make it topical, and it is topical, but I’m pretty sure that this article is already going to be long enough.

I should also mention that it takes all these things, and more, to get a good tone. There are many, many elements that go into getting a pleasing sound – but the most important of those elements is you. And, yes… Yes, it is damned difficult.

No amount of buying good equipment will make your results magically better. There is no substitute for learning to play. All these things do is improve your tone and give you more choices about how you shape and amplify your signal. There are no pieces of equipment you can buy that will mean you don’t have to put your hours in.

If you don’t send the amplifier a good signal, there’s fuck-all the preamp stage can do to fix that. If you can’t play well, electronics aren’t going to fix it. Worse, you not only need to learn how to play your instrument – you also (maybe – you could just learn acoustic and never amplify it) need to learn how to properly use your equipment so that you can get the maximum benefit from it.

If you’re not willing to put those hours in, don’t even bother. If you’re not willing to spend the hours devoted to understanding how your equipment works, don’t buy it. You don’t have to learn everything, that’s not required. You do have to learn some.

If you don’t learn how to get a pleasing tone, you won’t have fun. You won’t enjoy the sounds you create. If you aren’t enjoying the sounds you create, and you’re unwilling to put the hours in to make them sound pleasing to you, there’s no point in your playing. Do you know what they call it when you make sounds that you don’t like? Noise pollution.

It’s work. More importantly, it’s a lot of work – and you must do the work before you are really having fun and enjoying yourself. I speak with new guitarists every single day and it’s pretty universal for them to express how much more work it is than they thought it’d be. It’s damned difficult and making the decision to play an electric guitar means you have added more complexity – because you now have to understand that aspect of musicianship, beyond understanding your instrument.

Finally, I’d like to think that I’ve made the above information approachable. It can be made really, really complicated. To truly understand it completely (or as well as is humanly possible), one would probably also want to be a physics major or an electrical engineer.

But, it doesn’t have to be terrifically complicated – I don’t think. I’m not sure if I’ve made it understandable? In fact, I’d love some feedback on this subject. Do I make things understandable? Ideally, even a layman can read my gibberish and come away with an acceptable level of understanding of the topic.

Please, do let me know. If I’m not making it understandable, there’s really not much point in continuing to do it the way I have been doing it. If it’s not understandable, I should adjust to make it more approachable and work on improving my writing some more. I can’t really tell that from this perspective – and proofreading doesn’t actually help that much. Until next time…

Shut up and play us a song!

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