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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.