Acoustic guitars can produce soft sounds with light strums and loud sounds with a more aggressive style of play. However, there will always be a limit to the loudness and gain. What if a guitarist wants to play for a big crowd? What if the drums or the horns keep drowning out the guitar section? Amplification solves these problems with clever circuitry – with gain. Amps boost the signal coming from acoustic and electric guitars so that the sound can fill up a venue. These amps usually have two controls labeled Gain and Volume. The terms gain and volume are often used interchangeably but they are actually quite different. So what is gain on a guitar amp?
Stages of Amplification
In order to understand gain, we should first get to know what’s inside the amps. The circuitry can be broken down into two stages: the preamp and the power amp. The job of the preamp is to increase low level signals from the guitar so that they reach line level. This is the standard level for the operation of recording equipment. This is usually in the range of 20 to 30 decibels. While there are external preamps, guitar amps already have one built-in so there it isn’t necessary to purchase a standalone device. When you play around with the gain dial, you are modifying the strength of the signal in the first stage.
The power amp is at the second stage of amplification. This is where the standard signal level gets boosted even further depending on the requirements of the venue and the listeners. It can also be turned down to be almost silent if you need it to be. The power amp is more concerned about the intensity of the sound than anything else. The shape of the signal is already in its final form at this stage. All it has to do is to ensure that the right power input in present so that the amplifier speakers can produce the desired output.
What Gain Does to a Signal
At this point, it might seem like Gain and Volume are the same thing applied to two distinct stages. They are surely similar except that Gain can also change the shape of the signal and introduce distortion. If you drive the preamp hard by turning the gain up, then the signal could get clipped resulting in interesting effects. This overdrive changes the tone and character of the guitar input. The effects can be subtle or harsh depending on the guitar amplifier gain settings. It will be up to the user to find the right level for his or her style of play. There is no single correct way to set this up.
Gain does not always distort the sound. As long as you do not overdrive the preamp by staying at low gain levels, then you can simply boost the signal much like volume does. It’s when you pass a certain threshold that things start to get more colorful. Every circuit has its limit so when you reach the ceiling of your preamp, the signal will no longer get stronger. It will only get clipped and distortion becomes a side effect. Most amps have separate clean and distorted channels. The gain for the clean channel is less sensitive so clipping is unlikely. Meanwhile, the gain for the distorted channel is much more sensitive to clipping. It would be as if you were using a distortion pedal.
What Volume Does to a Signal
Gain has a tremendous influence on the shape of the sound because of its position at the start of the signal chain. Volume controls, on the other hand, are located at the very end just before the signal goes into the speakers. The volume dial is not meant to change the tone. It will only vary the strength of the signal. The limit of the volume mainly depends on the speaker’s power rating.
Is Distortion Bad?
The word distortion (check out these best guitar distortion pedal options here) has a bad connotation but it should not be seen as something negative. In fact, it is often seen as a good thing in the world of electric guitars. Distorted signals have become the definitive sound of rock for many years. Musicians have found ways to work with the distortion and to control it in such a ways as to produce songs that sound more raw and radical than clean signals. Distortion can add depth and character if used in the right way with the right songs.
On the other hand, pushing the gain to get distortion randomly can backfire. Instead of getting a nice textured sound, you might end up with a mushy tone that makes the notes hard to distinguish. Your audience can get overwhelmed by the distortion because the melody is pushed to the background. In some cases, amps become unstable with noise and amp feedback making it hard to listen. You need to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t. Try not to be overly dependent on Gain to shape your sound. Play around with other controls including the equalizer, reverb, and so on.
What is a High Gain Guitar Amp?
In fact, you might see some guitar amps being marketed as “high gain distortion” variants. These are models that are highly sensitive circuits in distortion channels that accelerate clipping while maintaining a stable signal. When using these, distortion is no longer a side effect of too much gain but the actual optimized goal.
Gain on a guitar amp provides a wide range of possibilities. On a clean channel, it can boost the signal creating the same effect as the volume knob. Going all the way to the maximum can introduce some soft distortion that can add character to the tone. On a distortion channel, gain can add rich harmonics and an edgy sound that works well with heavy metal and similar genres. Understanding what it is and what it does allows guitar players to shape their sound with precision instead of blindly changing the settings and hoping that they will get it right.