Recording Does Not Require Great Volume
Guitar amplifiers and recording have always had an uneasy relationship, the primary sticking point being that guitar players like to play too loud. The usual joke told here is about how that’s caused by drummers, but really it’s because guitar players know they are more important than other people. It’s obvious, otherwise why would they be able to play so loud?
The main reason they can play so loud is because of the way the human ear works and the fact that the electric guitar is right in the frequency zone where we hear things best. This frequency range is shared by such instruments as the tenor and alto saxophones and the clarinet, and the human voice. The very lowest and highest notes played on a piano seem less-pleasant but also quieter than the notes in the middle 5 octaves or-so.
Volume is of course measured in decibels or “dB” which, if you look into it, is like saying distance can be measured in ounces or that good intentions are deductable. Here is a link to the Wikipedia entry on the decibel – have fun and come back here when you’re done.
Okay, so now that we “know” what a decibel is, we have the concept of how much volume is bad for you. Well (and all explanations of things involving decibels start with the word “well”), that depends on the variable that always seems to go along with any use of decibels as a “unit” of measurement, which in this case is exposure over time.
If you’re exposed to 85 continuous dB for eight hours you are in danger of endangering your health, i.e. your hearing most probably. And for every 3 dB more of continuous exposure the permissible time is halved. So for 88 continuous dB the limit is four hours, and for 91 dB it’s two hours, etc.
The obvious problem with this is the idea of “continuous” dB: there isn’t really such a thing as that. Exposure to sound is extremely variable over time. Think of a symphony going from tip-toeing music to huge crashing thunder and everything in-between. Averaged-out measurements assume a regular distribution of volume intensities, even though a single momentary exposure to sound in excess of 100 dB in the wrong frequency range can be damaging. There are no absolute numbers when measuring volume exposure. Still, dB-per-dB, we can take more of them in the nice middling frequency range of say 80 Hz through 3 kHz. But there is no mystery why so many guitar players like Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend have hearing damage: too much exposure to high levels of decibels; too much sound pressure level too near the ear.
Microphones have the same problems people have with their hearing in that too-high sound pressure levels can cause them to distort or even break. Yet the conventional recording wisdom is to get a “good” amp sound by sticking the obviously phallic microphone right up there into the amp’s throbbing speaker or, perhaps just to complicate the relationship, multiple speakers. And it’s likely for the amp and mic to be surrounded by sound-confining apparatus like gobos, not to keep outside noise out, but to block-off the awful cacophony that is the sound that we want to record.
The days of bringing a huge Marshall or Hiwatt stack into the recording studio are gone (except for metal players). Modern microphones and mixing boards introduced in the 1970s were more sensitive and flexible, while the recording equipment’s fidelity was higher. Players started using smaller amps in the studio because they could exercise more control over the tone, and because engineers started putting their feet down over excessive volume. Certain low-power amps became favorites, and perhaps foremost among those are the Fender Deluxe and Princeton models.
Why the Princeton Recording Amp?
Fender has been making Princeton models since at least 1948, but in 1964 the model was re-engineered as a “serious” practice amp or small venue performing amp. In 1965 the now-iconic Princeton Reverb “blackface” was introduced. This was also the year Fender was sold to CBS, who would change the cosmetics to silver-and-blue in 1968, but otherwise leave the Princeton unchanged until pc-board designs came along. Later in its product lifetime there would be all kinds of Princetons, like the “Princeton Chorus” and the confusingly-named “Princeton 65” that has nothing to do with the 1965 model. These were two of the solid-state monstrosities from the late 1980s/1990s that no one is proud of.
Fender decided to trade on the Princeton’s legacy as a recording amp when they released the Princeton Recording Amp in 2006. This model would have more in common with the ’65 reissue that came after it than with the actual 1965 model it was modeled after. But in a hearkening back to the whole 1980s Rivera/Lake Oswego/Sunn melding it also sported a plethora of studio-friendly toys like a headphone jack (1/4-inch!), a 3-pin balanced line-out with level and ground lift controls, and an effect send/return loop. But then in a sort-of confused bid to do things like a modeling amp they built-in analog compressor and overdrive effects, and added a somewhat problematic attenuator that could be used to turn the speaker down to total silence.
This, I’m sure they were sure, was the answer to the encroachment of digital signal processing: who wouldn’t rather have a real tube amp that’s as at-home in the home studio as those BOSS GT-whatever things? A lot of people wouldn’t, apparently, since the retail price was $1,200. By 2010 the Princeton Recording Amp was no more, except on EBay. This is too bad, really, unless your goal in life is to get a great-sounding Fender amp for not much moola. So how can a recording amp be had for $300 when a reissue ’65 Princeton Reverb goes for $900? It has to do with perceived market value – here’s a pie chart illustrating the perceived relative value of various Fender amplifiers.
As you can see, the Princeton Recording Amp is just slightly better regarded than the Red Twin, and somewhat less loved than crappy solid-state amps, which are just about 50% less popular than any tube amp made by anyone. There are reasons for this that we will delve into, but for now I think it’s important to recognize that the vilification of the Princeton Recording Amp is a good thing because cheap bastards like you and me can afford them. It’s a great-sounding amp with great features, and its bad reputation is somewhat overblown.
Designed by History?
The Princeton Recording Amp looks quite a bit like a 1965 “blackface”. Size is similar and both have black Tolex, a black faceplate, black skirted knobs, and a sparkly silver baffle cover hiding a 10-inch speaker. The Recording Amp is a little deeper to accommodate the attenuator hardware that is apparently at the back of the chassis under a ventilation grill in the top of the amp.
I have no idea if it sounds the same as a ’65, but then I have no idea if the reissue marketed today does, either, as I’ve never played a real ’65. That was fifty years ago. When was the last time you saw someone wearing Hagar double-knit slacks?
Here’s what I can say: it sounds authentic. I have played through real Deluxe and Twin amps from the 1960s and 1970s, and I use those as a baseline for my comparison of the Red Twin to the “authentic” Fender sound, if there ever was such a thing. The Recording Amp example I play fit nicely into the category, as it has everything you love about the clean channel on its big brothers and sisters.
There are two input jacks at the left end of the faceplate. Jack number one is for “normal” instruments while number two is for “bright” instruments (like active circuitry?). It has one volume, one treble, and one bass knob. It has a reverb mix knob. So far it’s as if I took a chainsaw to my Twin and just hacked-out the upper left corner of the cabinet. It sounds warm and soft at low volume and treble levels, but as you turn things up the “Fender spank” starts to come in. The signal is deliriously clean all the way up to about 7 – 8, where crunch begins: great creamy tube crunch. The whole thing is like gay porn.
So that’s the actual “Princeton” side of things. It’s a very nice 15 watt tube amp. Or a very good 20 watt tube amp. If you search the Internet you will find no one, not even Fender themselves, agree as to which it is. Most retailers list it as 20 watts, but they are dealing in perceived value and that means more watts = more desirable = more expensive. The official Fender user manual states:
10W into 8Ω @ <5% THD @ 1kHz (15W into 8Ω @ 10% THD)
Basically what this says is “if you don’t turn it up too loud it sounds good”. It sounds what has come to be called “clean”: a signal well within the bounds of the amplifier’s operating power range. The more watts you push through the tubes, the more Total Harmonic Distortion you get: harmonic intervals within the signal are being overdriven to the point where the sound breaks-up into static. The higher the THD goes, the higher the signal break-up goes as more harmonic intervals become “polluted” with noise.
Most amplifier wattage ratings from the manufacturer state a number that approximates the point at which distortion overtakes the clean sound, using the mysterious RMS measurement that you see on every audio thing. This is why a 100 watt amp like the Red Twin can cause a 100 watt attenuator to belch smoke. When actually playing the guitar your technique, effects, and amp settings can drive the preamp and thus the power amp to current levels far above the rating. The Red Twin can push-out 150-175 watts (or more) when pushed hard with the boost knobs pulled out on the gain channel (I said, actually pulling that number out of my ass based on the amp and attenuator specs and potentially unreliable Internet chatter. I haven’t ever measured the actual wattage while playing).
So the typical characteristic of a Princeton is there: it’s Fender’s excellent clean channel with a smaller power amp and speaker, providing excellent tone and playing response at a scaled-down volume range. Still, as a non-master volume amp, the Princeton’s two-tube push/pull power amplifier delivers surprising volume when cranked-up to where the crunch lives. If you play quiet and clean you won’t disturb your neighbors too much. But if you use the amp’s own un-attenuated distortion at all you probably will end-up talking to the police.
In the studio there are several tools available to deal with the distortion=loud problem. The first is a compressor to extend sustain at lower volume levels, since that’s what a lot of players are after from the distortion. But second there is the fuzz and distortion and overdrive family of effects. These make it seem as if your guitar is Bruce Banner and whenever it gets excited it unexpectedly and very improbably morphs into the Incredible Hulk, so now your amp is scared and it sounds “dirty” at lower volume levels. The third instrument of distortion is an attenuator: a box that goes between the power amp and its speaker(s) and literally drains-away power from the final output signal like a vampire, usually converting it into heat. Now you have the full enchilada of preamp and power amp tone, amp distortion and all, but at lower volume. Fender built all three into the Recording Amp.
Not to Say that’s a Good Thing
These three tools are not exotic nor are they overly expensive, so we can only assume Fender thought the convenience would be enough to sell units at least to actual recording studios to make money on the high-priced Recording Amp. Perhaps they thought if the things caught-on with pros maybe that would translate to consumer sales. Or maybe everyone at Fender HQ in Arizona was smoking crack in, say, 2005 or thereabouts when the Princeton Recording Amp was being designed.
Well, think about it, in 2005 we were “winning” the war in Iraq and ignoring the other war in Afghanistan by keeping it at a low simmer through puppet rulers. And middle-class people were just starting to figure-out exactly what kind of people sold them that great mortgage on their house a few years earlier. And although there were signs the economy might be a hollowed-out shell built on non-existent credit and war spending, people were pretty positive about the economy, overall. It was like the world Barbie and Ken live in, where no one suspects that hard times will come once puberty does its work, and Barbie and Ken lose not only the big house but the vacation cottage, too. And the speedboat and most of the expensive clothing had to go, until finally you end-up with a naked Barbie and Ken under a pile of stuff in a closet. For those of us who lived through the Bush years it was as if we were trapped in a horrible yet slyly ironic nightmare, only to feel as if we might wake up, yet in the end unbelievably we just rolled-over and the nightmare picked-up right where it left-off.
But that’s enough musing about ancient product marketing strategies from almost exactly a decade ago. How did the Princeton Recording Amp work? Well, here’s where perceived value intersects with actual case evidence. A cursory scan of the Internet gives the impression that the Recording Amp was a dismal failure: awful tales of “hissy sound” or “fizzy highs”, of attenuators that go dead, and of lost knobs from the lower control panel. Dig a little deeper and you find opinions like it’s really a great tube amp, just too bad about the unnecessary built-in effects and wonky attenuator. And then, if you focus down on comments about the Recording Amp that don’t contain any serious complaints, you get the feeling that if you “get a good one” you’ve struck gold tube-amp-wise.
If you look at that pie chart above you could easily apply it to “relative bitching level” of the Internet’s “conversation” on just about anything. It’s just like it’s always been in bars, pubs, and comfy forest inns since at least the invention of alcoholic beverages and moving about to any extent: most of what people have to say is about how awful their retched lives are, or what worthless pricks some other people are, and the more they complain the louder they tend to get. Meanwhile reasonable people are just living their lives because they feel they have little to complain about. It’s not that these people don’t drink. Some of them are voluminous imbibers but they tend to break-out in song or tell bad jokes.
The Internet is like that. You have to weigh the relative numbers of comments that are good, bad, or indifferent according to the scale that says half of everyone on the Internet is complaining at any given time. Then maybe a quarter are not only not-complaining they are raving, to such an extent you may suspect they are comments generated by algorithms run on marketing computers. Then there are the people who aren’t really commenting on the topic at hand but are projecting their own daily concerns onto whatever the topic is. Then there are the usual opinion trolls who just gainsay everything the original commenter said, or purport to be historical experts but cite no referenc…ahem! Then come the comments that just “yell” some obscenity for no apparent reason, and then come monetary pleas for children who need surgery (running neck-and-neck with isolated and difficult to interpret Biblical quotations). And then of course there are the search results that for some reason feature pets…, but you get the idea. You have to look to find something 100% positive about the Princeton Recording Amp through a search engine.
Well, I said to myself, this looks like a Fender tube amp that was made with me in mind. And I did not catch myself in time because, of course, since I said “Well” it turned-out what I was saying was going to explain something about decibels.
Some Cheap Online Dealings Later….
Mine came with just the top row of black skirted knobs, the three knobs for the overdrive on the panel below, and the level knob on the back panel. I substituted completely alien-looking knobs off a Dean Markley practice amp for the missing compressor and attenuator knobs. The up-front and in-harm’s-way second control panel makes me suspect that if you find one with all the knobs it probably hasn’t been dragged about much. My specimen also sports several Tolex gouges and stains, telling me it’s been used and probably in the presence of alcohol. But it is otherwise a well-cared-for amp that was valued by the people who owned it before I did. Or it could be that it just wasn’t used much because it sucks for some reason, though I have yet to find one.
The cabinet is overall in the traditional Fender Tolex over plywood style, though with very thin back panels – that’ll teach you to store stuff in there! There are metal caps on all but the front top corners. It supposedly weighs 45 U.S. pounds dry weight. It seems to me that over the years the government has been enlarging how much a pound weighs, but then they’d have to gimmick ounces, too, and that seems far-fetched. Maybe it’s because things made in Mexico are heavier having been manufactured nearer to the equator, I don’t know, but it’s a substantial enough amp that I never lift it and wish it had casters like a Twin.
The “traditional” knobs in the top panel are well-made and the potentiometers behind them turn easily yet with smooth dampening, and they are all about the same except maybe the Reverb knob is a little too comfortable at about 4. The knobs on the lower panel are not as robust-feeling but are by no means cheap. They also have a dampened movement but without the same level of resistance or “viscosity”. The overdrive tone knob has a 50/50 detent. The Trans-Impedance Power Attenuator knob feels far more fragile than other controls, even the tiny square spring switches to bypass effects. Up until that discovery and especially considering the four-switch “foot-bar” included, my impression of the amp build was “usual Fender tank – unless sturdily attacked from the rear” (and how could any foreign object literally penetrate the back of your amp? What are the odds?).
But I am wary of the light and maybe plastic-y feel of the TIPA knob, though I have freely admitted above that the actual plastic knob was taken from a small solid-state practice amp. But the concern was born before I mounted the brave volunteer knobs from the Dean Markley, in that I found it lightly difficult to turn the two compressor potentiometers without knobs because of the dampening, but it was easy to turn the knob stem of the TIPA. It veritably glides between lightly-felt detents all around its rotation. This isn’t a bad thing in itself, as it indicates the TIPA knob really is a rheostat (or maybe a multi-selector) and not a potentiometer. But it also feels as if it might be easily, umm, impaired with rough usage.
As with the Red Twin, the backside is where the “recording” toys are in the form of a balanced XLR line out with a Level knob and ground lift switch, and a Send/Return loop between the preamp and the power amp, and a headphone jack (1/4-inch! Really! Just on the back for some reason). Of course there is the usual fuse cap, metal toggle on/off switch, and 8Ω speaker jack with the warning that an 8Ω speaker must be attached at all times or damage may occur. There is also the 5-pin footswitch jack and a fairly long cable that connects to the 4-switch foot bar.
It Sounds Incredible
The Princeton side of the Princeton Recording Amp really delivers as far as tone goes. As a tube amp, with all the Recording Amp features set aside, it delivers excellent sound and a violin-like playing feel that takes a good guitar like a modern Fender Stratocaster to a new level as a musical instrument. Even though The Red Twin has six-times the power potential and so just gobs more headroom to make truly expressive playing possible, the Princeton seems even more sensitive to the interaction of the force applied strumming or picking, with small adjustments in pressure in the other hand’s fingering, slight or extreme vibrato, smoothly modulated bends with vibrato stops along the way, etc. In other words it has the touch that is half of what we’re after in a tube amp.
The sound from the 10-inch Jensen has less low-end than a 12-inch would, but it commands attention with its articulate and never mushy lows, strong mid-range output and the detail of the tone moving into the high range, and highs that are distinct, not as “chimey” as a Twin, but feel more like the ringing of a good acoustic guitar. The simple Bass and Treble tone controls are sensitive and have a surprising range. And you can crank the Volume up to about 8 before there is significant distortion. So the addition of an overdrive effect seems logical since you need it to get any distortion, and the Overdrive/Tone/Level Tube Screamer clone onboard does a fair job. But still, my actual Ibanez pedal can do even more, just as my Boss Compressor/Sustainer can do more than the Threshold/Level unit onboard the Recording Amp. But in a pinch the somewhat lackluster circuits are there if you need them.
The surprise is the Trans-Impedance Power Attenuator. Not only does it work, but unlike most attenuators that use a large rheostat to shunt-off signal power the TIPA has very precise-feeling detents that take-down the volume in a very regular and linear way – there’s no crowding of all the actual low-volume signal at one end of the knob scale while everything above it is just loud, real loud, and very loud. It’s extremely useful in a way master volume knobs should be but never are. And while I doubt I would crank the thing down to silence for any length of time, you can easily knock 1/3 off the volume and suffer no change in your tone. After that the highs start to suffer, as any attenuator does.
I suspect the thing might be a multi-selector knob that’s just switching-in banks of huge ceramic resistors that have been stepped in such a way as to keep the change in volume uniform between selections. There is that vent in the top of the thing, although so far I haven’t noticed any appreciable heat rising through there. You can make-out stacked pc boards down in there. Maybe it’s some solid-state jiggery-pokery, I don’t know and I’m not willing to take it apart just yet to find out. But so far it works well, although I only use it to tame the beast when overdriving it. For clean tones the Princeton is quite pleasant on its own with the Volume knob at around 3-to-4.