Some equipment you buy because you like how it sounds. Some equipment you buy because you like how it works and some equipment you buy because it allows you to work faster. Then there is the gear you buy because it does all three. I’m quite new to the amp/speaker switcher party, but I’m in now and I’m staying. In this article I’ll tell you how the amp/speaker switcher works, show you how they can speed up your recording workflow and tell you about two units I have had the opportunity to try in my studio.
What Is An Amp/Speaker Switcher?
An amp/speaker switcher, (lets just call in an amp switcher from here on out) is a device that allows you to, yes you guessed it, switch between different guitar amplifiers and speaker cabinets. So why is this so important?
The picture to the right is my humble amp set up. I have a Peavey Classic 20 and a Chandler Limiter GAV-19T. Both of these are valve or tube amps of 20 and 19 watts respectively. That’s not a lot of power in guitar amp terms but these little amps sound great when you crank them up in the studio. You can drive the valves hard to get the tone but not blow your face off with volume. I also have my trusty Avid Eleven Rack under them.
A term you hear me say a great deal on the Expert sites is “commit”. When I’m writing and recording guitar I like to find a tone or sound for that track and commit it “to tape”. Yes I will probably record a clean DI track but 9 times out of 10, I will use the tone I recorded from the amps or the Eleven Rack. The problem comes when you are auditioning guitar tones from more than one amp or guitar preamp. This is where the amp switcher really comes into its own allowing me to switch between amps heads seamlessly without the need to pull the guitar jack from the amp or processor.
How Does An Amp Switcher Work?
There are two types of amp switcher. You can buy what is called an ABY guitar pedal but this is really only a routing pedal. It send the guitar signal to either amp A, or amp B or to both A and B, or Y as it is known. Strictly speaking this is NOT an amp switcher but a routing box but some have been known to call it an amp switcher. What I’m talking about are proper hardware units that not only deal with signal routing and switching, but also the loading of our delicate valve amplifiers. It’s all very well just switching the signal but valve amps do not like to be switched on and not have a speaker or load attached to them. If you are unfortunate enough to ever power up a valve amp without a speaker attached (and I do not recommend that you do) you are more than likely going to damage the amp. A proper amp switcher will apply a dummy load to the amps not in current use thus saving them from damage.
The next problem an amp switcher needs to solve is what I call Thump, or the sound you get when you cut the signal to an amp. Don’t try this at home, but I bet at some time you have heard the sound when someone pulls the jack out of the guitar without putting the amp into standby, this is Thump and needs to be addressed by a good amp switcher.
The final issue, once all these hurdles have been cleared is the switcher should impart no colour or tone to the guitar signal being routed. They should be sonically invisible and I think I have found two such units that fit the bill.
KHE Audio Electronics & Kahayan Pro Audio Amp Switchers
KHE Audio Electronics of Switzerland make 2 units. The ACS4x2 which can switch between 4 amps and 2 cabs and the ACS8x4 which can switch between 8 amps and 4 cabs. Functionally they are the same. If you have more than 4 amps you need the ACS8x4. I don’t so I have been trying the ACS4x2.
The other amp switched I have been trying is the Spanish made Kahayan 8x4 Amp/Speaker Selector. This unit also comes in 2 flavours. The unit I have is the manual version but there is also a MIDI controllable relay switching version, for live use where you want to switch amps with a MIDI foot controller.
Getting Set Up
Both units are set up in exactly the same way. You connect the output of your guitar or effects pedals to the Instrument Input. The KHE also has an input on the back if you want to keep the cables really tidy. There are then outputs which feed the guitar signal off to the input of the amp and input which take the feed from the amps speaker or power amp output stage. Finally connect your speakers to the speaker or cabinet outputs. The KHE also has a tuner output to save any extra faffing which is a nice touch and it is MIDI switchable but this is not a feature I’ll be using right now. And that’s it. You off and running.
If the job of the switcher is to allow you to get creative and keep the flow of a session up, then both these units win me over. They do exactly what they say on the tin. I don’t have that many amps right now, but I’m always on the look out for a deal so who knows. Even so, I can see the benefits of having an amp switcher in the studio. I plug into one device and that allows me to access all my guitar goodies. I also have it plugged into the Eleven Rack so I can route signals to it, if I want to, without messing with moving jack cables. The switchers don’t care that there is no amp or speaker attached they just think I’m plugging into a combo amp which has its own speaker.
Sonically I hear no difference between plugging directly into the amp or routing via either the KHE or the Kahayan with no pops or thumps when I change amps or speakers. What ever switching witchcraft is going on inside these boxes is not effecting the tone. If you are the curious type and want to know what is going on under the hood, the KHE website does have a very good section of the hows and whys of the dummy load. I am however quite happy to accept that it works and is not going to do my amps any damage.
The Swiss made KHE is built like a solid little tank. The switching is all very positive and the status LED really help you see what you are playing through at a glance. Yes it does have a “built by a man in a shed” look about it, but KHE are not a big company. They make 2 products and they make them very well.
The Kahayan is well made but the rack chassis does feel a little flimsy. The 2 main control pots feel fine but the knobs could do with a good tighten. If I go to switch the pots the wrong way the knobs do turn on the shaft, it’s not going to happen every day but it’s a little off putting which the knob does not line up with the markings on the unit.
As you may be able to tell I am slightly more taken with the KHE over the Kahayan and the KHE is the one I have decided to spend my money on. I don’t have 8 amps or 4 speakers so I feel the Kahayan would be overkill in my studio and I just feel that the KHE is the slightly better unit.
This is of course reflected in the cost of the units. The 8x4 manual version of the Kahayan is £749 excluding UK VAT, while the 8x4 version of the KHE is £782 excluding UK VAT and shipping. Also remember that the KHE is coming from a non EU country so there will be import taxes to add to the price and these can be as high as an extra 15% on top of the VAT for any EU resident. Residents in other countries may be charged import duties too so its best to do your research before you receive an additional unexpected bill.
The truth of the matter is that both these units will help you be more productive in the studio when you are playing guitar through real amps and cabs. It’s just nice to be able to flick quickly between different amps and cabs and produce different tones and not get bogged down with questions like “Is this amp connected"?