The Combo Behind the Full Stack

How do those incredible rock bands achieve those massive on-stage sounds? The real answer, in most cases, may surprise you. Ages ago, one of my producers told me a story. Pete Townsend, performing in his usual high energy manner, was caught just offstage by an unusually perceptive fan. No one in the congested mob could hardly miss the intimidating wall of full stacks roaring behind the band, but one detail apparently escaped all of them, save one man. He nervously approached the legend. He pointed past the guitarist to the cord dangling from the full stack behind Townsend. The amp was not connected to his guitar!

Now this was not an example of some kind of Who-doo magic. Nor was Pete the grandfather of Milli Vanilli. The story ends with Townsend leading the astute man behind the full stack tower to reveal ….. a Fender combo.

A Fender combo? That is the secret to the thunderous Who sound?

I tried to verify my producer's story, even with the marvels of the internet, I could not find it. Here is a quote I did find.

"I have terrible hearing trouble. I have unwittingly helped to invent and refine a type of music that makes its principal proponents deaf."

– Pete Townsend

A good quote. It is contrary to the point of my aforementioned rock anecdote, but nevertheless, it is a good quote. Well since Pete has proven he is of no help, let me tell you what I know. I am no Pete Townsend but I do know that tube amps do not sound their best until they are saturated.

Saturated? Now what does that mean? Before you go dunking your Traynors, let me give you a working definition for our purposes. Tube saturation is a natural distortion / overdrive (I use these terms loosely) achieved at volumes typically above 4 or 5.
So for these amps to sound their best they must be turned up louder. If you have an extremely high wattage amp and you must crack it to Spinal Tap's "11" to get the best sound, that makes for some difficulties in the live mixing department. This is why some opt for the 30 watts or 50 watts, the combo behind the full stack. The full stack looks the best, but some genuinely prefer the tones that open-backed combos offer as well.

Having been raised on high wattage, I know that this news goes against the rock's grain. Part of it is personal preference. There are millions of devout Mesa Boogie fanatics from which I have just isolated myself. And I have to admit, it is nice to have a little more power at outdoor venues. But for those of you writing off a low wattage amp simply because it does not put out the juice of your Crate, give it a little thought first. Louder is not always better. Think of tone quality and individuality before ball-crunchingness. Let the soundman do the mixing and maybe save a bit of that hearing for old age.

I know Pete would agree.