Studio Diary #31: Attenuators Colour The Sound

This photo shows the front panel of my Fryette PS-100 Power Station attenuator. To one side, we can also see a glimpse of my Two Notes Captor too.
The Two Notes Captor and Fryette PS-100 Power Station

Attenuators are one of the reasons we can enjoy valve amps at home without upsetting the neighbours. I’ve never really thought about how they affect the overall tone … until now.

In this blog post, I’m going to look at the two attenuators that I have – the Two Notes Captor and the Fryette PS-100 Power Station – and work out what they sound like. And I’m including some sound samples, so that you can hear the differences for yourself.

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New Arrivals For February 2020

Winter NAMM 2020 has been and gone, and now we wait for announcements to become shipping product … and then to reach the UK, which can sometimes take months longer.

I’ve pre-ordered a couple of things that were announced at (or around) NAMM. They’re going to take up most of my gear budget this year. The PRS S2 Singlecut McCarty 594 might arrive by the summer. We already know that Neural DSP’s Quad Cortex won’t arrive until the autumn at the earliest. At least I don’t have to wait as long for the Lark (Rhett Shull’s new signature pedal from Mythos Pedals); that should ship in March.

I’m still keeping an eye out for interesting bits of gear, but it’s got to be pretty special – and at a special price. By and large, I’m only looking to pickup pedals to help me fill in the gaps in my collection, or provide complementary tones for recording with.

Finally, I may have finished my planned revamp of the home studio, but now I’m sitting down to use it, I’m finding that a few things need sorting out, and that there’s a few gaps that are nagging at me a bit. I’m going to be tackling those, but not all in a single month 🙂

Here’s what arrived this month.

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Studio Diary #17: Getting A Better Recorded Guitar Tone By Using Impulse Responses In The Right Place

The whole point of last autumn’s home studio revamp was to get things to the point where I could start recording music again. However, as I mentioned in my 2019 review of the home studio gear, I wasn’t sure I’d got my signal chain order sorted out.

It was a good call.

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New Arrivals For November

My home studio revamp is in full swing. I’m hoping to complete it this month, so that I can spend the winter months getting to grips with it all and starting to record music for myself once again.

The second hand market on eBay has picked up a little since the horror show that was October. It feels like the number of items is up a little, but I haven’t really felt tempted by any of the items put up for sale.

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Getting To Grips With The Two Notes Torpedo Captor

Back in January, my wife bought me an 8 ohm Two Notes Torpedo Captor as a birthday present. (It was going to be a Christmas present, but Two Notes can’t make these things fast enough to keep up with demand!) And last week, I added a second one to my rig, to go with my ridiculously-overkill Synergy Amps dual-amp pedal platform setup.

Two Notes Captor on top of an amp
Two Notes Torpedo Captor

What Is It?

The Two Notes Torpedo Captor is both a reactive load box and a fixed-level attenuator. There are three different models available: in 4 ohms, 8 ohms (the one I have) and 16 ohms.

  • As a reactive load box, the Two Notes Torpedo Captor allows you to run your amp without having to have a speaker plugged in at all.
  • The -20db fixed attenuation allows you to turn your amp up to get the power tubes cooking and have a (slightly) quieter volume level coming out of your speaker cabinet.

The Captor is a completely analogue device. Unlike the Torpedo Live or Torpedo Studio, there’s no onboard computer to run impulse responses or power amp simulators. If you want to use it for silent recording, you’ll need to run a plugin in your DAW on your computer.

Why Is It Important?

It’s the first affordable reactive load box to hit the market, that I know of at any rate.

Before this, there was the Suhr Reactive Load (currently £399, twice the price of the Captor) – extra software required! – then the Torpedo range (starting from £560 for the Torpedo Reload and then the Torpedo Live at £680).

That’s a lot of money to spend on a reactive load box for a single amp setup. For a dual-amp setup, you effectively had to budget for a third amp, and then spend that money on a pair of Torpedo units.

Priced at £199, the Captor is a game changer.

Why Is It Useful?

Those of us playing and/or recording at home often want silent recording – the sound of our amp on 10 into our computers, but not coming out of a speaker cabinet at the same time. And that’s where the Captor comes in.

Valve amplifiers need to be connected to a speaker cabinet, so that the signal generated by the output transformer has somewhere to flow to. If you forget to plug your amp into a speaker, you’ll blow the output transformer (if you’re lucky).

A load box like the Captor allows us to run a valve amp without plugging in a speaker cab.

Buy the Captor that matches your amp’s required output impedance, and plug the amp’s speaker out into the Captor. Now you can safely turn your amp on without blowing anything up.

From here, you’ve got a couple of choices on how to get the sound out of the Captor.

As An Attenuator

I originally got the Captor to use as an attenuator.

I’ve been making my own Kemper profiles, and I wanted to crank the amp as much as possible so that the source signal sounded as good as possible. Power tube saturation plays an important role in the overall quality of the tone, and to get it to kick in, you have to turn the Master volume up.

However, my little home project studio The Hermit’s Cave is just an ordinary room in an ordinary house. A cranked amp – especially my Blackstart HT-100 – will wreck my hearing in here. Not to mention the problems inflicted on my family and my neighbours!

That’s where an attenuator comes in.

An attenuator takes the cranked signal from your amp and bleeds some of it off. What comes out the other end is a quieter signal, to save your hearing and your marriage!

More expensive attenuators offer variable power soak levels. The Captor offers a fixed -20db attenuation. To put that in context, that’s roughly the difference between 2 and 4 on the HT-100’s Master volume control.

Which is just enough to get the power tubes cooking nicely.

The end result? A big difference to the quality of the tone captured by the Kemper Profiler – without a louder volume coming out of the speaker cab. There’s more definition to the tone, with the power tubes filling out the mids nicely. And that’s exactly where the Kemper’s internal algorithms seem to work the best.

However, I’m not ready to sell off all my pedals and stick exclusively with the Kemper just yet. Which is where my new Synergy Amps dual-amp setup comes in … along with the Captor’s other useful function.

For Silent Recording

Right now, I’m using a pair of Captors for silent recording.

I’ve just built up a dual-amp setup: a pair of Synergy Amps SYN-1 enclosures, with different modules in each, running into the two channels of the Synergy SYN-5050 power amp. I’m running that in stereo mode, with each channel running out into an 8 ohm Captor.

There’s no speaker cab plugged into either Captor. Instead, I’m using the XLR line out to run a mono signal from each Captor into my Apollo Twin unit. With two Captors, I can run two mono signals, and effectively have a dual-amp setup for blended pedal tones, a la That Pedal Show’s usual setups.

The only noise? The fan on the SYN-5050 power amp, and (if I crank the power amp too much) some sympathetic noise from each Captor. The noise was annoying when I had everything out on top of a speaker cab. For now, I’ve bundled them under a desk and out of the way, and that’s cut down the noise just enough to be able to ignore it – most of the time at any rate.

Both channels at the Apollo run into my DAW (I use Reaper – it’s excellent). There, I record onto two separate channels – one for Channel A, and a different one for Channel B from the SYN-5050. I have different impulse responses loaded onto each channel, chosen to match both the preamp module and the guitar I’m using.

The Captor comes with a license for Two Note’s highly-regarded Wall of Sound (WoS) impulse response plugin. I’m actually using something else – mixIR and the Redwirez BigBox collection.

I’ve been using the Redwirez BigBox for the last 4 years, so I know it well and I’ve had a lot of practice getting the results I want from it. It has great, phase-corrected impulses that suit all the Synergy preamp modules that I’m using. I’m really happy with it.

The end results are excellent.

I found that I got the best results using the XLR output of the Captor, rather than the TRS Line Out. You need to be able to provide phantom power – which the Apollo Twin does.

The Line Out doesn’t need power to operate. I struggled to get a signal that I liked from the Line Out. The output volume there seems to depend on how loud you run your amp. The Captor is rated for 100W amps, and my amp is 50W. Even cranked, I found I was having to crank the preamps on my Apollo Twin too. The end result was too noisy for my tastes.

Your mileage may vary.

What’s The Competition?

The Captor is the entry-level model for Two Note’s Torpedo line of units. There is nothing entry-level about the results you can achieve with it.

On one of the forums I hang out on, someone else posted that the Captor sounds identical to the more expensive Torpedo units. If you don’t need the features of those units – and at home, you probably don’t – then the Captor is an excellent choice.

Almost any other competitor – the Suhr Reactive Load, or Fryette’s Power Station – still relies on impulse responses running in your DAW. You might prefer how these units affect the tone. Each load box uses a different design to bleed off the power, and each design has a different effect on the end tone. We all hear things differently, and which unit you ultimately prefer will be a subjective matter of personal taste.

The only way you’ll get a substantive improvement over what impulse responses offer is to use a proprietary modelling solution like Universal Audio’s OX amp top box. If you want to know more about that, here’s a recent blog post comparing it to the other options.

Final Thoughts

I’ve only just finished wiring up the dual-amp pedal platform. It’ll probably be Easter weekend before I have the time to sit down and really explore what it can do. I’m excited for the possibilities.

There’s no two ways about it. I wouldn’t have been able to build this before the Captor came along.

Because there’s no software running on the Captor – and therefore no software drivers to worry about as time goes on – not only is the Captor cheaper, it should also outlive its more capable big brothers.

If you’re recording at home with valve amps, and you don’t have anywhere to run a real speaker cab at volume, the Captor + impulse responses should be on your list of options.

How To Sound Like A Gear Demo

Brian Wampler has posted a great video, walking us all through his exact recording process for the amps and pedals in his videos.

It’s incredibly generous of Brian to share this with us. For many YouTubers and professional musicians, recorded sound quality is a competitive advantage – and teaching these techniques is a source of income too.

Please head over to YouTube to leave a like and a supportive comment if you found Brian’s video useful.

What Are Impulse Responses?

This question crops up on guitar forums from time to time. I’ve been using IRs for home recording since 2014. They’re great for home recording, where it isn’t always practical to mic up a real cab. And there’s no reason why you can’t use the same setup to listen to your rig when practicing or just noodling at home too.

An IR is an Impulse Response. It’s an audio model of how a reference tone is affected by something. They’re commonly used to emulate what a guitar cab, speaker, microphone setup does to the audio signal from a guitar amp.

There’s several different ways you can run IRs:

  • pedals, such as the Two Notes Le Cab
  • outboard gear, such as the Two Notes Torpedo line
  • plugin in your recording software on the computer

I run them on the computer. Just personal preference. I’m reluctant to spend that kind of money on outboard gear that has a limited shelf life. Even if the gear itself still works, at some point they’ll stop making new operating system drivers for the unit.

To get the guitar amp signal into the computer, you need a load box of some kind. The load box connects to the speaker out of your amp, and then runs into your audio interface as a line-level signal. Without a load box, you will blow the output transformers on your amp (if you’re lucky). You need a load box that matches your speaker out – 4 ohms, 8 ohms or 16 ohms.

There’s quite a few load boxes on the market these days. ‘Reactive’ load boxes are considered the best type to get. Instead of a single load, they vary the load, mimicing the way a real speaker fluctuates as you play. You can get standalone reactive load boxes like the Two Notes Captor, or outboard gear that’s both a load box and IR player all in one.

You can do other cool things with IRs too. I have a set of impulse responses that model different venues – for example, the sound of a theatre or (my favourite) a famous neolithic burial chamber. I use them in my mixes to add life and room ambience, without needing expensive outboard gear or CPU-intensive plugins.

Final thing to know about IRs is that they’re an audio snapshot. They capture what happened to a reference signal at that point in time. There’s nothing active or dynamic about them at all. You don’t edit an IR if you don’t like it – you switch to a different IR instead.

That’s why Universal Audio’s OX unit is getting so much interest, because it uses active software models rather than IRs. It should be indistinguishable from a real cab, speaker and mic – as long as you like the cabs, speakers and mics that they’ve chosen to model. IRs offer a lot more choice, at the expense of being static models.

You can purchase IRs direct from speaker manufacturers like Celestion (haven’t used them myself, heard rave things about them), or from third parties like Ownhammer or Redwirez. If you’re just starting out, and you’ve no experience micing up real amps with real microphones, I recommend buying a bundle like the Redwirez Big Box (not affiliated, just a happy customer). A bundle gives you a lot more options to explore, allowing you to experiment and figure out which cabs, mics, and mic positions you prefer.

If you’re looking for silent playing and/or recording at home, it’s hard to beat a good load box and a set of impulse responses for the money. You can get great tone, and keep the family and your neighbours happy, all at the same time.