Hey everyone, it’s been a while. I’m finally emerging out of 2020 blog drought hell. If you are reading this within your own home’s confines, congratulations, you too have successfully adapted to the worst pandemic in a hundred years! The emergence of the novel Coronavirus has caused a massive shift in all our lives, including how we play guitar.
I know it’s been more than challenging for all of us who are you used to making music with other musicians, instead of doing it socially distant. I can certainly attest, I fell from the mountaintop of daily creative nirvana recording epic-sounding vintage Marshall stacks cranked daily in a spacious studio, to slumming it at home in low volume playing situations. Man, did that bring me down. Remember, after a few weeks, your neighbors aren’t too thrilled about living next to the loud rock guitarist during the quarantine.
Two weeks into quarantine, I became uninspired with my guitar playing. Due to the restrictions in place to maintain social distancing, I couldn’t play at high enough volumes to get the chime one needs from proper cranked tubes. And the worst part? All gain-based effects pedals I pulled out of my collection just fell flat, sounded uninspired, and sounded fake.
What’s a working guitarist fix to my problems? I needed a serious fix to my guitar tone. A fix that would allow me to teach with the high-quality tube tone I was used to and somehow let me not annoy the neighbors when teaching music online in late-night situations. After a few nights of strenuous Google searches, and a few chats with my guitar tech and the helpful folks at Guitar Sanctuary, I settled on purchasing an attenuator.
What’s an Attenuator and Why Do You Need It in Quarantine?
Ok, last I checked, a bulky piece of electronic gear doesn’t seem to be on most people’s desert island choice for the end times, but if you’re an old school electric guitarist like me, investing in an attenuator for your tube amplifier could be the best decision you ever made. Attenuators are small boxes that you plug in between your guitar’s tube amplifier and speaker. The Attenuator uses forms of electrical resistance to lower the output volume of your tube amp before the audio signal plays through your speaker, effectively allowing you, the player, to experience the feel of cranked amplifiers at ear-pleasing volumes.
Sounds pretty great, doesn’t it? Well, why haven’t I ever recommended this as an available option for most of my students before the musical chaos of a pandemic? Truth be told, I never thought we would need attenuators. They have a notoriously lousy rap for sucking tone. The attenuators I knew as a kid left over from the eighties were just expensive tone sucking pieces of garbage that would take all your low end away. Old-school attenuators also have a nasty habit of blowing tubes in amplifiers as well. However, I like to think that’s because you’re using your tube amplifier as designers intended by rocking the crap out of your tubes at the proper high-voltage!
However, as I have come to find out, the humble attenuators have come a long way since the eighties’ oppressive tonal dark ages. Attenuators’ design flaws have been recently addressed with audiophile standards like premium jacks, better conductive signal flow, and more fine-tuned attenuation for your guitar signal. They don’t just suck your high frequencies out of the mix and turn your bass into a mushy pile of garbage. They are becoming an ever more critical piece of a guitarists practice toolkit.
The Universal Audio Ox Reactive Attenuator
Now, as I was saying before, I ended up buying a Universal Audio Ox from my buddy Brian at the Guitar Sanctuary in McKinney, TX and had it shipped to my front door in April. Universal Audio’s Ox is widely considered one of the premium guitar attenuators on the market right now, and after a quick unboxing, I could see why.
Upon first inspection, the Ox is a stunningly crafted gear that looks like it was designed with a healthy respect for the classic rock aesthetic in mind. Standing on its own feet, the Ox seems like it would be equally at home in a rack or on top of any amplifier. The gold/brown/silver/black color combinations balance well against a wide variety of amps but certainly pays homage to the classic Fender and Marshall amplifiers of the 1950s and 1960s.
I’m telling you, with the right vintage Fender amplifier, this thing looks like it was always meant to be part of my gear collection. I swear that the color coordination against my brown vintage Fender Vibroverb is the coolest thing I’ve seen in a while! Right away, Universal Audio is screwing with your perceptions by making a new piece of gear that will fit right in with all your favorites, and I think that’s a smart thing here. The visuals certainly allow the Ox to quickly incorporate into my studio setup without looking out of place.
The design folks also look like they went into great thought over making the front panel accessible to any guitarist, regardless of prior experience with attenuators. The front panel is split into two parts, the brown section controls the attenuation of your guitar amplifier to your amplifier’s speaker, to a line out to a set of monitors, or controls the volume of headphones. One of my personal favorite things about the Ox is the ability to plug in a pair of headphones and jam with my favorite amp silently late at night! There’s an almost guilty feeling knowing you’re rocking out while the neighbors are certainly asleep!
The Ox’s speaker attenuation has a stepped potentiometer set internally at five fixed positions so you don’t have to search for the perfect attenuation settings each time like you would on the vintage attenuators I used as a kid. Using fixed attenuation settings was an insightful design decision for Universal Audio, and it makes it easy to plug in and quickly find the tone you’re looking for. As long as you match the ohms of your speaker cabinet or combo before using your amplifier with the Ox, it’s very easy to get started.
With the speaker attenuation set to zero, you end up completely muting your amplifier. As you turn the dial, the volume starts to increase in increments, with five being the absolute loudest you can get. To my ear and my practice regimen, playing at three, sounded the best for the daily standard.
While playing at lower settings is doable on the Ox, there is a noticeable bass response loss from the volume being reduced so much. You can also talk over yourself at the lower settings. For just jamming out, it isn’t that bad, but the difference in feel between practicing at two and three is night and day. My favorite setting was four, but that’s when it started becoming uncomfortable for everyone else around me during the quarantine. I recommend staying at three unless you want to start getting some ugly looks when you go outside to pick up your morning paper.
As for the tone of my attenuated amplifier signal through the OX, the guitar tone is full of full frequency life and resonance. When the tubes are adequately cranked, there’s a chime I hear in notes that I usually would only get recording guitar amps cranked in the recording studio. Usually, the tube chime and shimmer an unattainable aspect of tone that one grows accustomed to never hearing when playing at home. I’ve seen players chase that tone with gain pedals or boutique amplifiers, but still never get the true tonal satisfaction of playing in front of cranked tube amplifiers. I have to say the Ox more than delivers the goods on this front alone. I’ve used my Ox daily since its purchase. The speaker attenuation is excellent for daily practice and helps keep you inspired while you play by getting the most out of your amplifier. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the Ox comes highly recommended from me. They are pricy but worth it. Can’t snag a new one at the $1200 price tag, don’t worry, I’ve seen slightly used examples these flip online for 40% off the MSRP. Universal Audio’s Ox is so worth it; I’m going to dedicate another blog post to the topic about how the extra features I haven’t mentioned have taken the Ox and made it one of those few revolutionary pieces of gear that come around. So stay tuned!