Stereo, mono and wet/dry/wet amp rigs: which is best?


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Is one guitar amp ever enough? For many of us, a single mono head/cab or combo may do the business whatever we’re playing. But others, those players who use complex FX units and require a bunch of different sounds every show, demand more. That might mean a stereo rig, or even the fabled wet/dry/wet setup. But which is best for you? Read on to found out…

There was a time in the late ‘80s when amps, combos and heads all seemed to disappear at once. A new competitor was in town, and it was seducing guitarists left, right and center.

The time of the rack had begun.

Suddenly, it was cool to build up your own refrigerator-sized rack of gear from scratch. Racks looked incredibly technical, promised unprecedented tonal opportunities, and just seemed to offer us guitarists a sense of completeness.

Of course, keeping the damn things running smoothly also required a good bit of mechanical knowhow, meaning that any guitarist who was also handy with a soldering iron had something of an advantage right from the start.

The two sides of tone

And they sounded… interesting. Above all, these ‘monster racks’ – as they quickly became known – brought a more three-dimensional sound to guitar, because most of them generated a stereo signal that players could use to assault their audiences.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.... Even Hughes & Kettner made gear in rack format. And yes, the chap in the picture still works for the company, and yes, he's still smiling today.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…. Even Hughes & Kettner made gear in rack format. And yes, the chap in the picture still works for the company, and yes, he’s still smiling today.

Transmitting a widescreen Cinemascope sound on the guitar became the trend of the day.

Studio master Trevor Horn had shown the way with his almost holographic production techniques (listen to 90125 by Yes or Grace Jones’ Slave To The Rhythm and you’ll understand what we mean!) and a number of companies ultimately started offering combos, heads and related bits and pieces in stereo format.

There was just one problem.

With stereo rigs onstage, there’s only a relatively small geographical area where audience members can stand to witness the complete aural experience – the stereo sound experience that the musicians and sound engineers envisaged.

Every music fan knows the feeling: listening through headphones can open up new worlds of listening pleasure. But if you then go the gig and find yourself unlucky enough to be stood to the left or right of center stage, you have to make do with the respective half of the stereo signal. Quite frankly, it sucks.

Stereophony at live gigs is not just a double-edged sword for guitarists, by the way: keyboards and drums can also suffer from stereo playback nightmares, and it depends strongly on the venue and the spread of the audience on whether it’s even worth making the effort.

The power of mono       

And there’s yet another problem with the stereo setup that rears its ugly head when you’re on stage.

What’s the secret behind many a great rock production where you’ve been in the crowd and felt like the guitar sound is coming straight at your face, delivering you a massive sonic smack in the head? (And in a good way, obviously.)

A good old classic rock setup: guitar player, guitar cable, guitar amp. Pure, mono attack all the way - it's a tried and tested method of bringing crowds worldwide to their knees!

A good old classic rock setup: guitar player, guitar cable, guitar amp. Pure, mono attack all the way – it’s a tried and tested method of bringing crowds worldwide to their knees!

It’s quite simple, really: the guitar sound is mono. (Even though in the studio it’s typical to layer guitar track after guitar track over one another, distributing the fatness over the audio spectrum for maximum punch.)

But this great guitar sound seems to come right from the center of the music as a whole.

It feels slightly apart from the rest of the band, almost a step ahead of the singer or the snare drum, which kind of makes sense, considering the brute force that a great guitarist can thrash into – and get out of – his or her instrument.

Ah, the psychoacoustics always have us under their control!

Finding the happy medium

But, to be serious, it’s exactly this effect most guitar players want to achieve when they rock the stage.

Anyone reading this who’s ever tried to achieve the mono effect with a stereo rig will certainly know what we mean. If you’re playing in stereo, you’re constantly looking for the middle ground, and you’ll want to hear all your special FX too – whether the crowd can or not.

Effects are a key part of many guitarists' setups, but they can also cause headaches: where they go in your signal chain, and what order they go, can be key in making - or breaking - your all-important tone.

Effects are a key part of many guitarists’ setups, but they can also cause headaches: where they go in your signal chain, and what order they go, can be key in making – or breaking – your all-important tone.

Trouble is, there is no center, because what’s usually missing in such a setup is that direct and immediate sense of the guitar’s ‘happy medium’ of sound.

It’s a phenomenon that is hard to explain, but you’ll know exactly what we’re talking about if you play guitar.

On the other hand, if you play a more traditional mono setup, then you’re the middle. The signal is direct and instant, and always easy to locate as it’s extremely close to the rest of the band.

That can lead to phase cancellation (what with overlapping frequencies and all) and you not being heard by anyone at all. Which is not good, we’re sure you’ll agree.

Wet/dry/wet: the best of both worlds?

And yet, there is one – albeit slightly sophisticated – means to combine the stereo and mono methods, allowing you to achieve that direct, dead center guitar sound and the trimmings (e.g. stereo effects like echo, reverb and chorus) that we all love so much, simultaneously.

We call it the wet/dry/wet setup.

The structure’s not particularly challenging: your dry guitar signal passes through the amp as usual, without effects or anything else. This signal then goes to the FOH guys.

Here, though, a line signal is picked up, which goes to the guitar FX rack and is amplified through a separate stereo speaker setup. And now we have to really trust the FOH guys, because they – and only they – will have the chance to mix your signals together to give you the best onstage sound.

The kind of wet/dry/wet rig many guitarists could only dream of, but it's not all plain sailing - making this kind of setup work is not simple, it can be hellishly expensive, and you also have to rely on the FOH engineers to give you the best possible live guitar sound. Could be risky...

The kind of wet/dry/wet rig many guitarists could only dream of, but it’s not all plain sailing – making this kind of setup work is not simple, it can be hellishly expensive, and you also have to rely on the FOH engineers to give you the best possible live guitar sound. Could be risky…

What you do have is a choice of how you voice your effects: you can choose to run the signals through two generic speakers (using a bog standard stereo power amp), which will not color the FX at all, leaving them exactly as they were intended to sound, or you can go through two separate, additional guitar amps, which will naturally put their own sonic stamp on the sound.

Really, the possibilities are almost limitless.

The results are worth the effort

And the method might sound complex, but the results can be spectacular. One high-profile advocate of the wet/dry/wet setup is Steve Lukather, who talks a bit about his rig in this interview with Guitar Player magazine.

Listen to Lukather live if you’re not convinced. And if he doesn’t float your boat, try the likes of Steve Stevens or Eddie Van Halen, who have also been known to dabble in wet/dry/wet rigs.

To sum it all up, then, it’s clear that guitar effects remain a challenge for many players. Playing around and learning by ear is a great way of improving your approach to effects, as it is with many other aspects of the guitar.

Like we often say on the Blog Of Tone, though, the old cliché is often true: less is more, and quality should always come before quantity. Do you really need all those FX?

Be truthful, now. Really?

Have a think about it and let us know. Have you tried any of the techniques written about above? Do you play stereo or mono, and have you ever dared experiment with wet/dry/wet setups?

We’d love to know, so leave us your experiences in the comments below, and remember this: if you only use the FX that you genuinely need, your tone could thank you for it.

 

First published: June 03 2015. Most recent update: June 03 2015.

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Leave a comment

Ian on November 13, 2017 Reply

I use a strat then split the signal from a boss tuner. One side (the through output of the tuner) into a volume pedal, then delay than a ’59 bass man clean. The other side into a pre distortion eq, wah, compressor, fuzz, overdrive, vibe/phase. Then into a tweed deluxe hooked up to an attenuator. Line out into time based affects. Then into another amp. Ideally a flat response unit of some kind but still saving up for that. I can switch the dirty side on and of with the tuner and control the clean side with the volume pedal.

Oh I forgot the post distortion eq before the time based effects.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on December 4, 2017 Reply

    That sounds like an incredible rig Ian! But loud, very loud 😉 Which is sometimes just what the doctor ordered! It’s super flexible too, we’d imagine 🙂

Robb on April 1, 2017 Reply

I am not a sound engineer or anything but do run stereo rigs. My current rig is stereo and is using a customized 4 X 12 cabinet where the two left 12s are the left channel and the two right the right channel. The immediate response is to say … gee that isn’t the greatest … you really need to separate your speakers to get the stereo sound. This statement likely comes with a lot of truth but what I think might also be a bit true is that with the left and right so close the stereo experience is actually more omni-directional and yet you still get the nuances of tonal adjustment such as chorus and presence. While it is true that sitting directly in-front of this rig does deliver stellar stereo if I was to separate the speakers then I really do believe the sound would be less omni-directional say for a person that is not in the center. I’d love to hear any comments on this comment?

My previous rig is a H&K zenTera. What I’ve wanted H&K to build for a very long time is a large stereo combo amp much like the zenTera but with tubes. Speaker outs would be beneficial also. Thank you.

Robb

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on April 21, 2017 Reply

    Thanks for the feedback Robb 🙂 We’re getting so many great bits of feedback about stereo gear (and so many letters from players wanting us to do another zenTera) that we might just have to do it for real in future 🙂 We’ll keep pestering the R&D team, so watch this space 😉

    Your rig sounds interesting, and we’re looking forward to hearing feedback from others. From our point of view, we’d say you need to just get in a second cab to test out what sounds better. Tone is subjective anyway, of course, so if you’Re happy with your sound then that’s the most important thing!

Piet on April 1, 2017 Reply

Big compliments to this really true and informative article! Was fun to read.
I’m 54 years old and experienced (studio/live) in all variations from Mono to wer/dry/wet (w/d/w). My fazit or recommendation:
Though – like in the article – you can achieve best results with every config, after all (budget, more knowledge, anti-phasing management…):
The WET/DRY/WET wins even today by far!
In addition: always had a volume control pedal for the left/right fx (for me most important on stage and studio for quick adjustments).
So rock on, give w/d/w a real chance, play and hear w/d/w in real (don’t tell me, show me, that you really experienced it)…and for sure not for every but for some guitar players: “the sun is ‘rising…!!!”

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on April 21, 2017 Reply

    Thanks for the kind words Piet, and we agree with all your comments too! We’d really recommend everyone who hasn’t yet tried wet/dry/wet to at least give it a chance, purely to experience how huge it can sound 🙂 Sure, it might not be the most practical thing to have on stage with you 😉 But as a test at home even, it’s worth it for the sonic experience…

Randy Hitz on March 17, 2017 Reply

I have been using a full modular rack for many years consisting of a Randall RM 4, Marshall JMP1, TC Electronics “G” System and a EL 34 100/100. I am actually changing over now to a Grand Meister 40 Deluxe. It should be here in a few weeks. I was wondering whether or not I was able to set up two of those heads as a stereo rig but I’d rather get the one head down first. I will also be keeping some stomp box effects that I had for my rig I play at church. It will just give me some ease of access. If I decide to go to stereo would you guys be able to help me? By the way I can’t wait for the head to get here!

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on April 21, 2017 Reply

    You would certainly be able to set up two GrandMeister heads in stereo Randy! And certainly we’ll be able to help you out too – just write us again when the situation arises and we’ll see what we can do 🙂 Enjoy your GM40!

stephen fell on December 12, 2016 Reply

Hi yes Thank you i was so happy to hear you say use a stereo amp L+R is a great way with out coloring the sound and you hear the effects as they were designed to be heard but please advice which amp? & which speakers that wont color the sound as there are hundreds out there to choose that to me would be so valuable to hear from you as i like others are using stereo fx and stomp boxes kind regards Stephen

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on December 12, 2016 Reply

    Hmm, good questions! Have you read our FRFR blog? If not, try that: http://blog.hughes-and-kettner.com/incredible-tube-tones-without-speakers-why-every-guitar-player-needs-a-full-range-flat-response-amp/

    We write in there how there’s growing numbers of players moving away from cabs altogether. Have you considered a stereo pair of active monitors? It’s definitely a big move if you’re used to standard head/cab combinations, but try this option out if you can. You’ll get every nuance of the FX just as intended – plus in this setup you know that the sounds you get at home and onstage will be exactly the sounds the crowd hears at your shows. If you want to do this and absolutely have to have a tube amp, then you need to try out the H&K GrandMeister Deluxe or the TubeMeister Deluxe – the Red Box AE is FRFR-ready, and it’s an incredible sounding system.

    Otherwise, stick with your favorite amp and build a solution around it! There’s always going to be a way to do this… It’s just how you do it that can be a challenge 😉 We hope this advice is a bit helpful, but just let us know if you have any more questions 🙂 Good luck…

Denis Taaffe on August 15, 2016 Reply

I Use a mono tube amp for the main amp and then use 2 solid state stereo amps for the wet sounds. you get the best of both worlds. I use the f/x loop send out of the of the mono tube amp to feed the stereo solid states.all the effects are in the effect loops of the stereo solid state amps.So really using the mono tube preamp for the main tone of the solid states amps. Getting the volume level of all three amps is key for this to work well. Just experimenting, but you can also leave the dry signal in the stereo solid state amps rather than just wet as well to get a dry&wet-dry-dry&wet setup.works great with looping stuff too..

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on August 30, 2016 Reply

    Cool ideas Denis, thanks for sharing them! We might have to give this idea a go at some point 🙂

Greg on December 17, 2015 Reply

Nice article. I do something similar on a smaller scale – I use a Morley A/B/Y splitter to send clean tone directly from my Tele to the clean channel of a Teal Stripe Peavey Bandit, run the other output to my pedal board, and then run the stereo outs from the last effect on my pedal board (CE-3 stereo chorus) to the inputs of an Orange Micro Terror on one side and a Marathon MX-11 on the other side – so 80 watts clean power sided by 20 watts stereo trimmings on each side – it sounds pretty good in the man cave.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on December 18, 2015 Reply

    Yep, sounds like a pretty cool rig Greg! Interested to hear a Tele into a Micro Terror – that’s something we’ve not tried yet! And thanks for the kind words 🙂

Jerry Potts on September 22, 2015 Reply

I Know This For A Fact. If The Grandmeister Had A Switch On The Back That Gave Me A Choice Between *Onboard* FX Send, And Return, Or *External* FX Send, And Return, I Would Buy One Today! Then My Tubemeister 36, And The Grandmeister 36 In True Stereo, Would Do Everything But My Dishes. Even If The Grandmeister Effects Loop Just Had Onboard FX Loop I’d Buy One. Why Should I Get An External Effects Unit, When I Would Have It All Right There In The Grandmeister. Just Send It Over To The Tubemiester, And Back Again. Plus On Top Of That. The Midi Is Already There To Control Both Of The Amps. I Don’t Want To Clutter Up The Stage With A Bunch Of Pedals. One H&K Midi Pedal Is Plenty. I Want To Fill The Room With True STEREO BIG SOUND! Stereo Chorus, Flange, And Delay. If You Built A Grandmeister With Onboard Stereo FX Send, And Return, Not Only Would I Buy One. I Think Every FX Freak Out There Would Buy One…. Question… Will You Build Me One? Just 1? In Mono Even, And No Fancy FX. Then My Tubemeister 36 Stereo Rig Would Be Complete, With The Only FX I Use Anyway, And No Line 6, Or Zoom Pedals, And Cables Cluttering Up My Work Area On Stage.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on September 22, 2015 Reply

    Thanks for the tips Jerry! We’ve passed them on to the designers here, so let’s see if they decide to use them in the future 😉

    One of them actually replied with an idea for you. He said: “Well, I know there are customers who have a GrandMeister 36 plus a TubeMeister 36 and they use the TM just as a power amp. How? The GM36 offers a line out to run a second power amp. So the line out is connected to the FX Return of the TM36. Not true stereo, but a second amp, even if it is the same model, will produce a slightly different sound, so the sound is some kind of stereo…”

lvlcCoy on September 18, 2015 Reply

I’m attempting this w/d/w rig after playing mono all my life. I’m sporting a Vox AC15 with Boss DS1 and Compression.
Thoughts are to add a Suhr line out box, TC Electronic Flashback and Hall of Fame connected directly to two Roland 40GX combo amps. Is this feasable? Should I consider using rack mount over analog stomp pedals? Or power amp?

Rob on August 29, 2015 Reply

I tried it using the XLR line out to a RC300 (mic in). Then ran the wet from the sub outs and the dry from the main to have some dry out of all.
Sounded awesome !!!
It is a lot of real estate.
But like you said, big house, loads of gear.
As for gigging ? keep it simple !

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on September 1, 2015 Reply

    Sounds like a cool setup Rob, and we bet it did sound awesome! Worth the effort of trying, for sure. And yes, probably only viable for gigs if you’re playing stadiums and have an army of roadies 😉

Rob on August 26, 2015 Reply

I run a dry / wet rig, 2 amps front ended with a split personality, both amps having separate fx loops and one has just the wet delay, flanged and sliced.
I am trying to figure the W/D/W now, but mix in a bit of dry into the wet, as wet is all or nothing when switched off, but still retain the clean signal the split personality gives on 2 amps.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on September 1, 2015 Reply

    Hmm, what’s your exact setup, Rob? Let us know and we can ask our Wet/Dry/Wet buff and see what he might be able to recommend you could try 🙂

andi lux on August 15, 2015 Reply

wet – dry – wet.

Depends on the location you are. Small clubs: Guitar, Cable, ts, amp. Thats it. Ok perhaps a tuning machine.

Grand location: Rack, FX- Units. quad-preamp, poweramp, vintage 30 speakers stereo: wet dry wet.

Thats my solution.

But after all dont forget: LESS IS MORE….

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on August 17, 2015 Reply

    You’re right Andi, “less is more” is pretty much always the way to go, especially with amp technology being so improved in the last few years. Aside from wanting to emulate the guitar heroes of the 80s, does anyone actually need a wet/dry/wet rig these days? Possibly not 😉 A couple of exceptions, perhaps: guys in covers bands who need to acurately emulate those wet/dry/wet rig sounds, and guys with massive houses and loads of gear 😉