Power amp pedals are starting to take off, and they can literally be a lifesaver for gigging guitarists! Some can even be the basis for your entire rig! Today we go over how these little miracles work.
Power Amp Pedals Explained: Back Up Your Back Up!
I was a Boy Scout for several years, and I learned a lot from being a Scout. Stay with me here, I swear we are going to talk about guitar gear. The whole motto and ethos of the Boy Scouts Of America revolves around just two words: “Be Prepared”
I have followed that for most of my life, and applied the Boy scout motto to every aspect of my life. I always have a back up plan, and then another back up plan if the first one fails. In fact, I get made fun of quite often for being so composed in situations where the feces has been diverted at a high velocity to the oscillator.
If you have read any of our material about gigging, then you know I talk about how often things can go south on stage. I always took a duffle bag with me to gigs that had everything I could possibly need in case something went wrong. I had extra batteries, cables, gaffer tape, strings, a microphone, and just about anything else you could need on stage.
It is always a good idea to have a backup guitar as well. I always took two guitars to every show, since you never know what is going to happen. On tour, I would have an extra amp and tubes. But for local gigging, it was silly to bring along an extra amp, and just not economical.
Power amp pedals are not a new idea, but they have taken off in popularity. These pedal-sized amplifiers can be a lifesaver if your main amp goes down during a show. But they can also be more advanced, and can even be the basis for your entire rig now.
Today we are going to look at power amp pedals, and talk about how they work. We are also going to explore how you can use them to be a supplement, or the basis for your entire rig. But in case you are entirely new, we are going to also start with what a power amp is, and how it is essential to amplification.
What Is A Power Amp Exactly?
Most guitarists plug into their amplifier without thinking too much about how they actually work. Guitar amps come in many different shapes and sizes, and they all use different types of power amps. Some of us are super nerdy about our amps, while some guitarists just play what sounds good to them.
But there is a lot going on behind the scenes every time you turn on your amp and start playing. A guitar amplifier relies on multiple components to get the final sound that you hear coming from the speaker(s). The most important, is the power amp.
What Is A Power Amp?
The Power Amp is the part of your amplifier that is considered the “final piece” of what makes your amplifier produce sound. The Preamp section of your guitar amp is the part that creates the sounds and colors your tone. The Preamp section needs the Power Amp section to “boost” the signal to your cabinet or speakers.
The power amp section of your guitar amp comes in two main varieties. The two most common types of power amps that you find are either tube-based, or solid state. These two types of power amp actually work much different from one another, and causes a heated debate among guitarists.
Tube-Based Power: Different brands may use different types of power tubes. British brands like Marshall use EL34 or EL84 tubes, as they break up naturally and have a natural compression effect. American brands like Fender will usually use 6L6 or 6V6 tubes in the power amp section, as these can pushed much harder without breaking up.
Which tube based power is better? That decision is going to be up to the guitarist. Some guitarists prefer the natural breakup that you get from an EL34 power section. Other guitarists that need a loud clean tone usually lean towards 6L6 for the headroom. Both are very good, and it just depends on what kind of “feel” you prefer.
How many power tubes you have in your amplifier is based on a lot of factors. “Clean” amps usually only have one or two power tubes, since the preamp is not as complicated. However, an amp with cascading amounts of gain like a 5150, will have more power tubes to handle the complex preamp output.
Tube amps are generally thought to sound better, but the downside is the maintenance involved. Some amps require biasing, re-tubing, and part replacement on a pretty consistent basis. It can be dangerous to do this yourself, so most people take their amps to a tech.
Some tube amps are a hybrid design, and use tubes accompanied with solid state technology, like Blackstar Amplifiers (even if they deny it!). While hybrid amps are not as popular as they once were, some companies still use this tech to keep the cost down. These still require maintenance in most cases.
PowerStage 200 is a pedalboard-mounted power amp that de-livers clean, musical volume for players who rely on modelers or stompboxes, with gig-friendly features that will also pay divi-dends in the studio and rehearsal space. Pumping out 200 watts in a compact, slick-looking enclosure, the PowerStage 200 goes way beyond simply taking your tone and making it louder.
Solid State Power Amps: These do not rely on tubes at all to boost the preamp sound. They use electronic transistors to boost the preamp. The advantage of solid state is that it is more reliable and predictable. The downside, is that solid state doesn’t break up naturally in a pleasant way.
Solid state amps are usually the ones you see that have built-in effects, or modeling software. Something like the BOSS Katana is a great example of how a solid state amp works. A solid state power section does not require maintenance, and is lighter in weight. In a solid state guitar amp, the preamp is going to have to do all of the work to get distortion or breakup.
The power amp pedals we are going to look at today are mostly solid state, since they are small enough to fit on your pedalboard. Some power amp pedals are hybrid in design, meaning that a single tube does the preamp work, and is then boosted by a solid state power amp.
You can read all about the differences between tube and solid state in our big amp guide.
Different Types Of Power
This is something often overlooked when talking about guitar amplifiers, and power amp pedals. There are different classes of power, and this will have a pretty big impact on how your guitar amp responds. Both tube amps and solid state amps follow the same rules when it comes to “classes”.
The class type really matters when you break down how an amplifier, or even power amp pedals actually work to output sound. Most solid state amps you come across, as well as modelers, are Class D. Tube amps on the other hand are Class A, or sometimes Class AB. But what does this all mean?
- Class A: Low power, low efficacy, best fidelity and sound
- Class B: Higher power, bad fidelity for guitar amps
- Class AB: More efficient that Class A, higher power, good fidelity and sound
- Class D: Most efficient use of power, loss of fidelity and sound
Something like a Fender Champ amplifier would be a Class A, since it is low power and has less work to do. Most other amplifiers that exceed 30 or 40 watts are going to be Class AB, since they have more of a load to carry, but still need to hold a good amount of fidelity.
Class D is where we find most solid state guitar amps, and this is where a lot of the bad reputation comes from. It has the most efficient use of power, even though it is not being used to push tubes. But you lose a good amount of fidelity and harmonic frequency, especially in the midrange. This is most apparent when it comes to high gain amps.
We have already talked about it a few times on Electrikjam, but the BOSS Katana uses a Class AB power section. This is one of the reasons the Katana sticks out in a band situation better than other solid state amps that use Class D. The fidelity that you get from Class AB is superior, and it has been the Katana’s secret weapon, even under high gain applications.
So most tube amps are going to be Class A for the low wattage ones. The Katana, and most high power tube amps are Class AB. When it comes to modeling amps like The Catalyst, Helix, or most other solid state amps…we are working with Class D power.
Now, with all of that out of the way, I hope you learned a little about guitar amps today, and how the power section and power amp might be the “last” part of the guitar amp’s signal, but it might the most important by a longshot! The power amp can make or break an amplifier design.
So How Do Power Amp Pedals Work?
Power amp pedals can be used a few different ways, based on their feature set. Some are simple sources of power that do nothing to color your sound, while others like the Blackstar DEPT. 10 that we just reviewed can be the basis of your whole rig!
Most power amp pedals are floor based units, that are the size of a regular pedal on your pedalboard. Power amp pedals can be used alone as the basis for your signal chain, with your pedals doing the work of a preamp section of an amplifier!
Power amp pedals come in a few different designs, but the idea started out really simple. Most of the first pedal-based power amps were solid state power that you could add to your board, and they usually featured one knob to control the volume. Which brings us back to the beginning of this article!
Power amp pedals can be a “life raft” if your main amp happens to die on stage. You can have the power amp pedal set to match your amplifier volume that you use live. If your amp dies in the middle of a set, all you have to do is click on the pedal and keep playing.
We say it all the time, but we say it because its true: If something is going to go wrong, it will usually be on stage. I have seen catastrophes where a guitarist suddenly had no signal because something went wrong with their amp. Whether it is a blown tube, a melted transformer, or a myriad of different problems…that guitarist is dead in the water.
So simple power amp pedals can take the place of your amplifier for a short time, if your amp happens to die on stage. Most pro guitarists that you see touring have some kind of backup plan, and if you want to be treated like a pro, you should act like one!
But more complicated power amp pedals have started to show up, and these can actually take the spot of your amp. More and more guitarists are moving over to digital for shows, which means you plug your rig straight into the PA system of the venue, and the soundman takes care of the rest! Power amp pedals can be that link to the PA, without going digital!
Power amp pedals like the Orange Terror Stamp is a full-on Class AB tube-based amplifier that can sit right on your pedalboard! It uses a single tube to act as a preamp, and solid state power to amplify it. This gives you 20 watts of hybrid tone that would not only work great on stage for a backup, but can easily replace your amp rig!
The Seymour Duncan Power Stage 200 goes even further, and delivers 200 watts of solid state power. It has speaker cab emulation, but it also allows you to just use it fully as an amp. It has a full EQ section that provides a warm clean tone, that you can build off of with your pedals! With the speaker emulation, you can go right into the front of the house PA system.
Lots of guitarists that do not want to go digital, usually have a pedalboard setup that they love. Power amp pedals allow you to downsize your rig, and only carry along your pedalboard between gigs. The Orange Terror Stamp for instance has output for actual speaker cabs, or emulated output for the venue’s PA system.
Which brings us to another feature, recording. We did some recording with the Blackstar DEPT. 10 AMPED unit, and it sounded amazing without any adjustments out of the box. Although you can change speaker IRs on the Blackstar, Duncan, as well as the Orange Terror Stamp for output!
Power amp pedals might be the perfect “bridge” for people that like the convenience of digital gear like the Helix, and having a traditional analog rig with analog pedals. They can work on the stage, as well as in the studio to get tones without blasting a tube amp, or using amp sims. Power amp pedals are the perfect “compromise”.
We picked our three favorite ones below. These have all of the features you need to either have a backup amp, or replace your existing amp. Important features like and FX loop, and emulated output were all taken into consideration when we chose these!
Where Do Power Amp Pedals Sit In My Effects Chain?
This was the first question when I started trying out power amp pedals, and it makes logical sense to wonder exactly how you treat these power amps. You should treat them just like you would treat your amp, and envision them as your amp, even if they are just a backup solution.
Power amp pedals should always be at the end of your FX chain, just like your amp would be.
Some of these pedals have a full FX loop like you would find on the back of your amp. If you are using something like the Blackstar DEPT. 10 to replace your amp, then make sure to treat it as such. Modulation pedals can go through the FX loop just like your regular amp.
If you are just using a power amp pedal as a backup plan, then just put it at the end of the signal chain right before your amp. In this case, I would avoid the power amp pedals that color your tone, or have working FX loops. Even if they do have an FX loop, if this is a back up plan, skip it. It wont hurt modulation and reverb to not sound great for a few songs!
Power Amp Pedals: Wrapping Up
I hope this has broken down just how useful these pedals can be for any gigging guitarist. These can literally save the gig if your amp breaks, and you won’t have to stop the show at all if you have your power amp backup set properly.
But on the other hand, these can also be valuable tools for taking the place of your regular amp! They can also be great for studio situations if you have something like the Blackstar DEPT. 10. Unfortunately, the Blackstar is really “the first of its kind” right now. But I think the whole idea of power amp pedals is really catching on.
The Seymour Duncan power amp pedal has a lot going for it as well, and can be a fully functional amp replacement from a reputable company. Like the Blackstar and Orange, it has an emulated speaker output. With a full EQ section, you could easily dial it in to sound almost identical to your amp.
Hopefully we will see more hybrid designs like the Blackstar, Duncan, and Orange power pedals, that can give you more options than just “backup power”. I think the idea is really catching on, and we will be seeing more of these as time goes on! These power amp pedals can really bridge a gap for people that still enjoy analog gear.
The Blackstar DEPT. 10 AMPED 1 100W amp pedal is an all-in-one, take-anywhere solution for professional gigging, practicing and recording. It features Response control using patented TVP technology (KT88, 6L6, EL34, 6V6, EL84, Linear USA, UK and Flat preamp voices). Dial into your sound with Bass, Middle and Treble controls, as well as footswitchable Reverb. Toggle between your favorite and current settings with the footswitchable Preset. The AMPED 1 includes Cab Rig DSP speaker simulator, with USB, headphone jack and balanced XLR outputs.
What are Power Amp Pedals?
Most power amp pedals are floor based units, that are the size of a regular pedal on your pedalboard. Power amp pedals can be used alone as the basis for your signal chain, with your pedals doing the work of a preamp section of an amplifier! But they can also be used as a backup amp if your stage amp fails.