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I see rack mounted power amps and preamps, mainly for large venues. But I don't know exactly what they do.

I know a preamp can be used to boost a microphone signal for a soundcard, but I don't know what a preamp does in the signal chain of the average rock guitarist.

Likewise, how is a rack mounted amplifier different than a combo or a head?

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Technically, any head or combo has both a preamp and a poweramp. They're just words to describe particular types of electronic circuits.

The preamp's job is to amplify your guitar's signal to a level strong enough to drive an output circuit. Generally this means amplifying the signal's voltage. They typically also have tone stacks to control bass/mid/treble, and will most often have some type of overdrive circuit to create overdrive/distortion (depending on the amp).

The poweramp's job is to amplify the signal from the preamp enough for it to drive a speaker. Because the speaker is a low-impedance load the poweramp needs to amplify current, as there's going to be a fair amount of it flowing in the circuit. Some of them have tone stacks (might be labelled "presence" or "brilliance").

In many cases a head/combo's effects loop is just a couple of connectors in between the preamp and poweramp. In some they're not, e.g., the Custom Audio Amplifiers' OD100 the effects loop has a tube driver stage.

Now, why do people use these instead of a head or a combo? I would conjecture that it is for either of two reasons:

  1. Sound
  2. Flexibility

I'm not going to argue that a combo or head sounds better or worse than having a separate preamp and poweramp. It might sound different, but if it sounds good it is good. Some players, myself included, get their favourite sounds from having a separate preamp and poweramp.

Flexibility can also be a reason for choosing to have them separate. Some of the rigs used on tour, and quite a few also for studio use, are really complex. They might have a number of pedals in front of the amp, as well as some between the preamp & poweramp (aka "the effects loop"), and switching circuitry to go from one sound to a completely different one by touching one button. They allow you to change just one piece of the system should you wish to do so (e.g. your preamp manufacturer came out with a new model that has more sound options). Also, if everything is in a rack it's easy to move from venue to venue.

If some of this was confusing, let me know and I'll do my best to clarify.

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Ah, so rack preamp, rack power amp + a speaker cab is just all the components of what most people call an 'amp'. Then a head is just the preamp and power amp in one box. Add a speaker to the box, its an 'amp' or a combo. –  todd Apr 9 '12 at 17:00
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I can see how this would make things easier to mix and match. You could take a Mesa preamp and run it into a Marshall power amp, which, you could not do with a combo or head, because those are all assembled by their respective manufacturers. And also have many different types of sound in one rack. Fender, Marshall, all right there. Thanks! –  todd Apr 9 '12 at 17:06
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You've got it all absolutely right! It's also what I see when people post pictures of their rigs in online forums, they're mixing and matching to look for their sound. Happy I could help you out, cheers! –  morten Apr 10 '12 at 1:26
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