For a long time (we first encountered it in the early ‘80s), all was quiet on the Power Soak front. This is possibly because the system’s undoubted advantages – like giving the player the chance to enjoy fully saturated power amp distortion at bearable volumes, for example – were always accompanied by massive shortcomings that couldn’t just be explained away.
That classic phrase our parents and grandparents used to wheel out with regularity – “Everything was better in the old days!” – is not usually the case at all. It may sometimes be true, of course: back in the old days, rock ‘n’ roll felt louder, more genuine and authentic, and the electric guitar was the undisputed symbol of a generation of youth on the move. But the technology that first made the Rock ’n’ Roll Revolution possible was still in its infancy. The then-universal amp volume, a full tube 100-watt wall of sound, was not just responsible for epic rock moments. It was also accountable for countless cases of acute hearing loss and ringing in the ears and, above all, some of the most pathetically unbalanced band sounds imaginable. The guitar was simply too loud! And when you turned it down, it sounded s****. Or, to put it mildly, terrible.
Every guitarist has been privy to that well-used soundman’s old chestnut: “Turn the guitars down on stage!” To go some way towards solving this problem, the idea was hatched in the ‘70s and ‘80s to transform a portion of the power amp’s output into hot air. Or, more simply: to install a power resistor between the end stage of the amp and the guitar cab that would absorb a certain amount of the energy, turn it into heat, and only send a fraction of it on to the loudspeaker. In most cases, you could even select the amount of reduction yourself using a high power resistor network (also often referred to as a power attenuator). Finally, things quietened down and became a little more orderly on stage. And the best part: the amps were then made so that guitarists could rock them at the power limit – ‘til they were almost whimpering for mercy, in fact – and to such extravagant extents as they wished in order to get that sweet distortion they so loved and desired.
There was, however, still one key catch: most amp heads of the day featured a 100-watt output. They also often had no master volume knob, meaning that you could only truly enjoy that downright addictive distortion when you turned the gain control – in true Spinal Tap style – up to 11. However, the energy that this freed up would also invariably bring even the most sophisticated Power Soak system to its knees, meaning that guitarists would often end up irritated as their hi-tech “full throttle systems” developed highly individual and uncontrollable lives of their own. An incredible amount of compression crushed the sounds too, and that, coupled with the unwanted noise and the accompanying problem of microphonic pickups, meant that use of these early Power Soak systems was a highly suboptimal – not to mention not very satisfying – experience. One of the most well-known systems of the day, by the way, was the Tom Scholz Power Soak, developed by the guitarist of the well-known band Boston.
As the years wore on, things became quiet on the Power Soak front. Although it lived on as an oddball footnote in the minds of diehard old-school believers, the triumph of the tube amp master volume control almost finished it off for good. Recently, though, interest in the Power Soak has surged once again, thanks to the virtually overnight success of the so-called lunchbox amp, which has created a new performance category all its own. Nowadays, 50 or 100 Watts are no longer needed to blow our heads off. And sure, the power offerings of today might be laughable when compared to times of yore – but they’re certainly more manageable. And before you ask the question, the answer’s a resounding YES! Twenty watts, when cranked onstage, can be bloody loud!
These days it’s possible, with the clever use of circuit technology, to sacrifice a portion of these 20 Watts – thanks to a combination of tube shutdown and a resistor network – for the sake of impossibly delicious and saturated power amp sounds. And without any of the Power Soak’s earlier foibles, too. And there’s more: through the integration and connection of this Power Soak technology with MIDI, it’s now possible – for the first time ever – to store various channel and sound settings together with a Power Soak setting, which really helps extend the tonal ranges of these diminutive musical treasure chests in previously unimaginable ways. The first genuinely successful relaunch of the Power Soak came with the Hughes & Kettner TubeMeister 18. Still quasi-analog, it allowed the player to select various power levels. Its bigger brother, the TubeMeister 36, took things to another level, allowing Power Soak settings to be saved by MIDI – and then allocated to the amp’s various channels – for the first time ever. The system was so conspicuously inconspicuous in its operation that it quickly and quietly became an indispensable part of many a modern-day guitarist’s setup. The Power Soak truly had grown up. And of course, we’ve saved the best little detail ‘til last: external Power Soak units can easily cost hundreds of whatever your local currency is. On the Hughes & Kettner TubeMeister and GrandMeister series, though, it’s included as an essential standard…
First published: June 06 2014. Most recent update: October 30 2015.