Small Amps for Small Spaces?

I’ve got a Tweed Champ kit, and I’m not afraid to use it. Or at least not VERY afraid.

Why do they make amps so damn loud?

It’s not just a cranky question from a guitarist who’s drawing depressingly close to the “Get off my lawn!” years. I ask sincerely: Why?

Big amps make total sense — but only if a) it’s 1969, b) you’re playing venues with Jurassic sound reinforcement, and c) you’re a guitarist in danger of being drowned out by Keith Moon or John Bonham.

Okay, end of harangue — I’ll have time for that when I’m chasing kids off my lawn (after I move to the suburbs and GET a lawn). But as I get psyched up to build this review model of Tube Depot’s Tweed Champ kit in the coming days, I figured I’d ask what folks are using these days to get cool amp tones in their bedrooms and basements. Not dedicated practice amps, necessarily, but great-sounding stuff that happens to be ultra-low-wattage? Name your petite-amp poison!

Anyway, I’m stoked about this kit. I’ve already completed a few amp clones from Ceriatone. They were fun to build and sounded great. But I can tell right off the bat that this Tube Depot kit has at least one major advantage over its Malaysian cousins: This one comes with a fabulous 40-page instruction manual. (Most clone vendors simply link you to a schematic.)  Having  created a few step-by-step instruction manuals myself, I can testify how much painstaking work these entail. Hats off to Tube Depot’s Rob Hull for doing it right!

Details and build report to follow. But now, let’s talk tiny-amp tone!

50 comments to Small Amps for Small Spaces?

  • Lee

    I use a vox AC4 for home and any jam without drums. Great tone, accepting of pedals and being able to select 1/4-4watts is cool too. I’ve been interested in the orange dark terror for higher gain sounds at a reasonable volume, might check one out over the holiday season!

    Cheers

    • joe

      Thanks, Lee. Yeah, I’m interested in the little Orange amps too. I have a cool Orange AD15 I’ve used on a lot of sessions, and I’ve wanted to hear their micro models too.

      • Dirtbagg

        Joe, I’ve finally finished my Tiny Terror home build.
        I bought a transformers from Mercury Magnetics for the transformers. There is a schematic in the kit. I will try to get a youtube video of it this weekend.

  • I have a BlackStar HT20.. It’s louder than what I need, since it can easily be heard over a drum kit for practicing. I would have got the HT5, except it has no clean headroom (I have a pretty liberal idea of what “bedroom volume” means). It’s got a pretty ridiculous modern high gain distortion sound, which is fine, but I really want to build some more pedals!

    Those Tube Depot kits do look nice, and their Youtube channel is awesome. Full build videos for pretty much all their kits. However, it seems expensive to get shipped to Australia.

  • cms

    I swear by my BWM Chimp II

    (they are a lot better at making amplifiers than they are websites)

    It’s kind of a tweed Champ clone, with a handful of helpful modifications, like pentode / triode switching, to drop the power between 5W/2W and a built-in attenuator , which seems to be a chunky rheostat, which allows it to run really hot, at nicely listenable volumes. It’s really responsive to the guitar controls, for tone shaping. The main limitation is the tiny speaker tends to flap when it runs at volume. It is capable of running an external cab, but I don’t currently own a suitable impedance one, and haven’t yet tried. that.

    It might be of interest to MichaelM, because they’re Australia based.

  • Peter

    I have a Fender “Princeton Recording-Amp” which works well as an apartment amp with its built in so-called “Trans-Impedance Attenuator” (stupid pretentious name). The amp at full on is around 15 watts, ok with some drummers. I don’t care for high gain amps at any volume, I prefer to get there with pedals if need be, and the princeton like its better known cousins takes pedals well, and has a nice cleanish sound with volume under 7 or so. It also has a fine XLR out, with some sort of speaker simulator, for running silent into a computer interface or mixing board.
    This was an unpopular model and has been discontinued, but I like it, fits many of my needs.

    • Rob

      I love my Princeton Recording Amp. It is definitely loud enough for the band I currently play in (Blues, soul, classic rock). Easily holds its own with the drummer, who is not too much of a pounder, but still plays pretty hard.

      Also at home and rehearsals, it’s great quiet too. I run it somewhere close to just breaking up on full chords (anywhere between 6 and 7 usually) with a Strat and it works great with a booster (in my case a Duncan Pickup Booster) in the FX loop, which when kicked in gives the amp a pretty convincing, cranked-tweed sound not too distant from Neil Young’s electric sound.

      No problem mic’d up through a PA either. I have a Tonetubby Alnico 10 in mine, which upgraded the sound massively to my ears. It’s a bit louder than stock, more botom end (tight bottom end) and smoother highs. Superb little amp, but it’s pretty heavy for its size.

  • Digital Larry

    My comment is more philosophical than experience-based, as I only recently ripped the guts out of my first tube amp project: the “not-originally-a-guitar-amp-but-since-it-has-no-tone-stack-what’s-the-diff” Webcor 4905-1A.

    And all I really want to say is this:

    Just because it’s a low powered amp, doesn’t mean:
    1) I don’t want a 2 or 3-band tone control
    2) I don’t want a reverb
    3) I don’t want a “presence” control

    etc.

    As I was messing around with the awesome one of a kind Joe Gore designed and built “Pure” boost/buffer and the Webcor, I thought “dangit, this thing has that tubby midrange I so dislike in these small amps”. And then I wondered: “maybe that’s the single-ended amp’s natural sound, to put a lot of even (including second) harmonic into the output”. I don’t really know yet.

    This led to my next thought, which was “why do I have to build an entire amp just to try out a different power amp/tone stack/preamp arrangement?”… hasn’t anyone come up with a (gasp) MODULAR TUBE AMP DESIGN?

    I was alive before 1994, and yet today I still cannot recall how we found out about ANYTHING REMOTELY INTERESTING before the internet! You had to talk to people or something! It was awful!

    But lo and behold – Google spits out a MODULAR TUBE AMP DESIGN:

    http://dhost.info/jschem/t7/

    Unlike Joe, and many of you, I’ve discovered that I actually HATE building electronics. I did it compulsively from age 9 to about 30. And so this idea of being able to build little amp sections, and put together different combinations, and compare them, without having to build the whole thing each time… well it’s pretty darn appealing.

  • Regarding modular amps, there’s Markbass, who manufacture a whole line made of modules:
    http://www.markbass.it/products.php

    And my tiny amp of choice has to be the Vox mini 3. It’s no purebreed of tube tone, but has some good emulations, the tiny 6¨speaker sounds surprisingly good… And it even runs on batteries! But hey, don’t pay much attention to me, as I’ve spent the last ten years actually enjoying my Squier champ’s tinny tone. :P

  • tonechaser

    My at home amps are a VHT special 6 ultra which is a great little amp for the price once you spend some time with it and a 5w Supro from 51 or 52 that just sings.

  • bear

    I had an Electar Tube 10 that I probably shouldn’t have traded. Korean made Champ-esque thing with TMB stack running a 5881 into the same dinky Champ transformer and a junk 4 ohm 8 inch ceramic speaker in a too-small sealed cab. Kind of “meh” most of the time. So why should I have kept it? Because it sounded [i]killer[/i] cranked into my EVM loaded Thiele 1-12 cab. Quiet, though? Hardly. Probably could have kept up with some mellower drummers.

    • mwseniff

      I’ve got one of the Electar 10 amps. I like mine with a KT-66 output tube in it. The output transformer in mine went bad many years ago (it was way crappier than a Champ xfrmr)I replaced it with a Thordarsen universal replacement transformer. I bought the Thordarsen xfrnr from an electronic supply house that was closing down many years ago(wish they had more than one it was made in 1958 according to the date code). This universal transformer was capable of replacing either a push-pull or a single ended xfrmr (it was really a single ended xfrmr with a center tap). It has 20 or so leads coming out which allow you to match a variety of input and output impedances by selecting combos of the wires. I spent some time swapping leads till it sounded the best and it is a great sounding replacement. After swapping preamp tubes to put a 5751 in the first position and putting in a salvaged 8″ alnico spkr it is very sweet sounding (I added some acoustic material to the cab to improve the sound a bit). Very cool little amp but it can get loud. These Electar 10 amps sold for around $100-$130 new.

      • bear

        The Electar 10 was close but not quite there, and mods like yours do push it along. When I ditched mine I think part of my thinking was that I would just DIY something of the sort that hit it better.

  • Oinkus

    Really like my new Hughes and Kettner Tubemeister 18 combo , built in silent/1/5/18 watt power options.It might do bedroom volume but it will also do fine for gigging.Wish it had an ext speaker jack to add a 12″ cab to make a mini stack. Do that with my Fender Prosonic it has 2 10″ spkrs and add a marshall 1922 2 x 12 cab to it. Gave up on the monster rig 15 or 20 years ago, just got tired of A) not having any room in my home and B) having to lug all that crap around!

  • ezcomes

    I’m deep into a build myself…building an 18W clone from Trinity Amps. It comes with schematics, and a manual to follow. They give the option of choosing their transformers (specially made for them) or you can order your own.
    The 18W comes in 4 different versions to suit different sytles/tastes, and if you are a member of the forum, there schematics to change it to others too
    They also have a hiwatt clone, badcat/vox clone…and some smaller stuff too.
    great kits for a great price!

    • joe

      I made a Ceriatone 18-watt. It is SUCH a great model. Really, all the awesomeness of a big Marshall in a not-so-big package. But still, it is a seriously loud amp!

  • Bill

    After getting back to making music a couple of years ago (after some years pursuing a career that involved several moves, and which inspired me to unload a bulky, loud amplifier) I did the research and settled on a Carr Mercury. With attenuator settings from 8 watts to 1/10 watt, and two boost stages, I think it’s the perfect amp for someone with neighbors, not too mention tinnitus. It’s very versatile and sounds great with every guitar I’ve plugged into to. Reverb, too! I assume it will be a great amp for recording, and I’m optimistic that it will serve well for small gigs. Not cheap, but US-made.

  • The ’59 Champ I did an album with a couple of years back is my benchmark for awesome shoe-box tone. Not mine unfortunately, but what an amazingly responsive and nuanced amp! And I could have got one for less than two hundred back in ’93…

  • Sem

    For home I use a Blackstar HT-1 Head… 1 Watts but when I crank it up, it is still loud enough to shake the walls and drive the neighbors crazy !!

  • Mabjot

    You might want to check out Little Lanilei (http://www.mahaffayamps.com/little-lanilei-quarter-watt.htm) a 1/4 watt tube amp that you can crank without it getting too loud. They also have a HiWatt-voiced amp and some kind of rotary speaker thingy.

  • mngiza

    Recording, practicing, jamming, yes.

    Gigging, I used to try 15- and 20-watt amps now and then, but always was disappointed, even with the amp miked and pointing at my head, even with a low-volume drummer. If you can make crispy-clean rhythm guitar happen in a band context without at least 40 watts, I don’t know how you do it.

  • mwseniff

    As you might guess from my previous posts I have a plethora of small tube amps that would fall in the bedroom category but my bedroom amp is an Ampeg Gemini II with 7591 output tubes and a 15″ Jensen Concertone alnico speaker. The amp puts out around 30-35 watts and the cabinet is as large as a Fender Super Reverb. But this beauty sits next to my bed all the time. I do this for many reasons: I own my house and the neighbors never complain about my playing, I have no roomies, and it sounds amazing!! The thing is that I play this amp when I am confined to my bed by my back pain. Playing guitar helps me deal with the pain very well and I just feel that this amp helps my pain management more than any other I own.

    That being said the king of my small amps is the amp in the case that came with my 1965 Sears Silvertone (DanElectro). This amp is sort of like a VibroChamp circuit wise but it is very sweet sounding much nicer than any post Tweed Champ amp I’ve ever played.

  • Cross_J

    I actually really wanted to buy this!!!! When you get that review + vid if possible posted you’ll be sure that I’ll be on it :)

  • I guess just about everybody made Champ-style student model amps with one or two knob circuits back in the 50′s and 60′s, and pretty much every one of them that I’ve tried was pretty cool (assuming the amp was healthy). I’m a big fan of the old Supro shoeboxers that employed a football shaped speaker.
    It wasn’t too long ago that I thought a Princeton would be underpowered for gigs, but these days it seems just about right as my Deluxe Reverb rarely goes beyond 3!

  • How

    Joe, have you tried the Carr Mercury? lt’s pricy, but it’s the best-sounding, most versatile little amp in my experience [my experience is that, for a few years, l used to manage a vintage guitar and amp shop in NYC]. lt’s one of those amps where you just can’t get a tone that’s not good.

    • joe

      Sounds cool! I think a lot about that “doesn’t have a bad sound” phenomenon, which generally comes down to restricting the range of all controls. At one point I might have found that limiting, but the more time I spend doing sound design, both analog and digital, I become increasingly convinced that that sensitively restricting control ranges is one of the best thing a designer can do for a user. :)

      • I’m with you there, Joe. Between pickup selection, my guitar’s tone knobs and pedals, I don’t really feel the need to have much for tone controls on my amp. Voicing the thing properly in the first place seems like the key. When I was recording with a vintage Champ, at no time did I miss the lack of tone controls and I was able to access every sound I was after by working the guitar.
        I once had a hellish roommate (talkin’ about you, Phil-istine) who would stand in front of his Boogie .22 Caliber and bash at the same E chord while twiddling knobs for hours at a time. At no point did it improve his banal playing or his cliche tone. I’ve always viewed amps that feature a bazillion options with a great deal of skepticism: if it just sounded GOOD, why would I need all that goop? And why would I want to spend all that time tweaking instead of playing music?

      • How

        Where’s the durn “Like” button when you need it?

        One of the nice things about the Merc is that it has enough controls to be versatile, but not so many as to be, uh, too many. lt’s just a well-designed little amp. Wish l had one.

        That said, a vintage Princeton or Deluxe Reverb, a good-sounding guitar, good hands and a brain what’s got good taste…what more does one need? Ceptin’ for maybe an analog delay…?

  • Dennis Rambo

    I use two Fender Pro Jrs as my main rig (occasionally with an added Peavey Classic 20 with a Boss RT-20 Rotary Simulator as a dedicated ‘mini-Leslie) and I’ve never had a problem with volume. Shoulder bag with pedals, gig bag over the shoulder and amps in hand. Nice. One trip.

    • joe

      Oh man — I hear you on the “one trip” methodology.

    • joe

      I remember interviewing Bill Frisell once at his house in Seattle back in the ’90s. At the time Bill was famous for using that Electro-Harmonix 16-Second Delay, and he had a lot to do with the price of those things going through the roof. He showed me his touring road case, and it had some generic digital delay in it — just because it fit into the flight-checkable case. So many people were going to such lengths to get Bill’s exact pedal, but he placed greater emphasis on his version of the “one trip” method. :)

    • How

      l do live sound at a club here in NYC; had a real good band come thru a while back, with one guitarist using a Pro Jr. and the other an Orange Tiny Terror…my eyes lit up! “l’m gonna make you guys sound HUGE!!!” And l very easily did!

      • joe

        Yeah, ask 100 front-of-house sound engineers whether they can get better live sound from small amps or large ones, and 200 will say small amps (they’ll all vote twice).

    • mwseniff

      Fender Pro Jr’s were the sleeper deal of the decade when they first came out (still a good deal esp. used). I have used my Pro Jr live many times and it works very nicely (used to have 2 but a pal talked me out of one of them, I kept the Tweed one). I currently have an old JBL D110 alnico spkr in it and I like a 5751 in the first hole. But plug it into a 4-12 cab and it is a beast but that sort of defeats the whole small thing. Now with me having a bad back somebody always carries my stuff for me and it is a temptation to go bigger.

  • I need to try out building a Tweed Champ. I see that BYOC and a few others have kits for them now too, but I’ll check out the one you listed. I own a silverface Vibro Champ and also a Champ. After retubing the VC and replacing its blown speaker, nothing I have heard can beat the tone. The only amp I have personally heard that comes close is my friend’s ’66 Bassman, but it’s so loud he can barely play it anywhere. I also have a good-sounding 60s SF Bassman, but I just use it for bass because it’s too loud for guitar gigs. If I know I’m going to be mic’d and playing through the PA as well, I just bring the Vibro Champ to the gig. I can even bring the other Champ for a spare if I want. It takes more trips for me to bring my effects and guitars in than it does to bring in my amps. :-)

    BTW, just finished up building the first 3 pedal projects. They all sound great – I gave the Boost/Buffer to a friend as an xmas gift. Since I have so many leftover parts from my Mammoth kits I’m just going to make 3 more. :) I loved the whole project, it was like an “amplifiers for Dummies” textbook, but more fun. Thanks!!!

  • I recently picked up a Vox VT80+ combo amp. Yes, it’s a modeling amp. It uses a 12AX7 tube in the power amp section, which makes it feel like a tube amp. I’ve been playing like 44 years, and have played though a lot of amps, and I just love this thing. It really nails the various amp models, like the AC30, Fender Twin, and a bunch of Marshalls, and a lot of others… and you can dial it down to whisper volume all the way up to 120 watts. And this freaking thing gets loud! Oh and it has some great effects built in too! You can store 8 presets of your own.

  • Yuri

    A solution to the Blackstar HT5′s lack of clean headroom is to use a 5751 in place of the 12ax7. Worked for me.

  • Two secret-weapon recording amps: a Kalamazoo Model Two (with the tremolo) into which I installed a rheostat between the output transformer and the speaker. I can present a constant load to the OT and turn the amp volume all the way up, but turn the actual signal to the speaker way down. It’s a five-watt amp, so I figured I’d be safe with a 10-watt rheostat (8 Ohms, of course), and it’s held up.

    Other one is an oooooold Western Electric amp that’s a little bigger than a lunchbox, with a 4″ speaker. An oddball assortment of tubes. It doesn’t overdrive, but it has character.

    • joe

      Thanks Maurice — I bet those amps sound phenomenal. Is the Western Electric originally a PA amp? Or for musical instruments?

      Did you check out the promitive PA amp demoed here? http://tonefiend.com/amps/the-last-affordable-vintage-amps/

      • Oooh, that’s nice. Great amp.

        I do think the Western Electric I have was intended for PA use, though certainly for offices and not, say, theaters or anything of size.

        Some years ago I did a cover intended for a Jandek tribute CD (didn’t make the cut…mull on that) on which I play the same guitar (Kalamazoo KG-2) on two tracks, once through the Kalamazoo Model Two (rhythm, right channel) and “lead” through the Western Electric. (Punched in on the left channel, when there’s no vocal–I did that on cassette four-track!) If you stick with it after the first verse (or subsequent verses, or the end solo), you can hear both on the track:

        http://mauricerickard.com/mp/when_the_telephone_melts.mp3

        You probably know the reason for doing two parts with different amps, but some readers might find this tip helpful: if you do two parts with the same guitar through the same amp and same mic setup, you could end up with phase problems on certain frequencies. (It sounds a bit like a cheap phaser; it’s called comb-filtering because of how it presents on an oscilloscope.) If you’re going to track two parts with some of the same signal chain, change something to avoid it–move the mic farther off the amp, switch guitars, choose the other pickup, swap out a mic or an amp. It’ll save you a world of hurt in the mixing phase.

  • nate

    i had a valve jr and ended up gutting it. The only things original at this point are the chassis and power cord. i checked out watts tube audio and ended up doing their “Fenderish 6v6″ kit. it’s a complete overhaul using a turret board. i eventually used his transformer set too.

    the amp sounds great plugged into a mesa 1×12 cab. it pretty much stays clean. i can roll the volume all the way up and if i dig in, it only gets a little gritty for a sec. although, this amp takes pedals beautifully.

    i did a custom cabinet made from walnut with a jensen 8″ speaker in it, but the tube rattle is so bad that i’m doing another cab, most likely a burled maple (or something like that) to take it back to a head. i love the natural wood with the dove tail joints, looks and sounds gorgeous.

    the amp is only 5 watts, but is nice and big when cranked, and will handle a drummer just fine.

  • Oinkus

    18 watt amps with built in soak that have a 5 watt and 1 watt options rule !And now back to you ?

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