How does it compare using a distorting amp - say an Orange AD30 or similar - to a clean amp with separate distortion/overdrive/etc effects?

I generally prefer an amp with a little "bite" to it but frequently go from a rocky kind of sound to something far more tranquil and I don't see how I'd do that with (say) an AD30. I use amp modelling so have the freedom to switch amp but wondered if these are comparable philosophies or give a totally different sound?

4 Answers 4


To answer one of the sub-questions:

The way you'd do it with an AD30, or other 2-channel amp, is to set one of the channels as distorted, the other as clean and then use the foot switch to toggle between them. One of the aspects that you have to finesse in this approach is achieving the desired relative overall volume between the two channels while obtaining the desired degree of distortion from the distortion channel.

This approach is not incompatible with using distortion effects as well: e.g. clean channel, distortion effect + clean channel, distortion channel, (different?) distortion effect+distortion channel -- gives quite a range in tonal characteristics.

  • I guess I miss that detail in my software modelled setup - amps are all single-channel and don't generally have clean/distorted toggle. Although I'm not sure every real amp is 2-channel?
    – Mr. Boy
    Jan 12, 2015 at 15:02
  • Just for completeness, this is what my modelled AD30 looks like: musicappblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/…
    – Mr. Boy
    Jan 12, 2015 at 15:06
  • @Mr.Boy: The AD30 comes in both one and two channel versions. Seems they chose to model the one channel version. Hence the seeming confusion in some of the answers. Jan 13, 2015 at 19:21
  • If it's software modelled, surely you can set up a MIDI footswitch to switch between any combinations of amps, effects and settings?
    – slim
    Jan 13, 2015 at 19:23
  • @slim I don't know anything about MIDI but I think in principle you're right; the company who make the app do their own foot-switch. But I can easily enough toggle presets in the app anyway - it just feels like cheating to change amps somehow!
    – Mr. Boy
    Jan 13, 2015 at 21:01

a lot of amps have two channels where you can set one for rhythm, and the other for lead, with a foot switch to flip between the two. It looks like the AD30 has that setup ?

How you set the channels is up to you, of course.

However there are other factors. Let's say you have your rhythm amp sound as clean with a little bit of 'crunch', and your lead sound with more distortion and slightly higher in volume so it pokes through. Pretty standard setup.

What if you want a really clean sound halfway through a song ? You can often turn the volume knob on the guitar down a smidge, which normally reduces the 'crunch' and only slightly takes the volume down (less drive to the amp = less overdrive [crunch]).

But it you want a fully clean sound in the middle of the song, then maybe you're stuck.

Some amps I've played through at jams have a "Clean" setting on the footswitch as well (kind of a notional channel) so you have channels :

  • Clean (no settings - or at least no overdrive)
  • Rhythm
  • Lead

this would help, obviously.

As the amp itself is doing the distortion, and this is one part that manufactrers concentrate on, it's likely that it'll have a good sound, and importantly, will be the sound that you heard when you tried the amp in the shop.

The alternative is to have separate effects boards where you switch on each effect as you see fit. This is my preference, but my hand is forced because my amp only has a clean channel, so I have to use effctes for overdrive etc.

  • Clean : No effects.
  • Rhythm: Use the overdrive pedal.
  • Lead: Activate a compressor whcih gives a chunky sound & is a little louder than rhythm.

That way I can switch from crunch to clean instantly and push lead in as I see fit. Note that the effects are individual, as opposed to a bank of effects saved to memory.

This works really well but the possible downside is that not all distortion / overdrive pedals sound that great, and it's sometimes a stroke of luck to find one that sounds good with your amp (as opposed to the amp in the shop). That's using individual effcts- one on/off footswitch per pedal.

The alternative is to have a multi effects board with all this built-in, with banks of memorised 'patches' that you've defined already eg you could define a patch for clean, rhythm and lead. As some songs nee da bit more of this or less of that, you could define further patches with effects amended accordingly.

Some of the more flexible units still allow you to switch parts of the patch in/out - eg you might like a certain patch but want to take the overdrive out. Other (normally cheaper) ones just allow you to set the patch up and use it as-is. To change the soud you have to switch between patches.

I guess the most flexible would be to use effects and a multi channel amp meaning you can choose between the effects overdrive or the amp's. Not sure why that would be better though, plus a rule emerges in music : the more knobs there are, the more chance there is of getting it wrong.

  • "my amp only has a clean channel, so I have to use effctes for overdrive" - do you find this limiting, or do you find effects give you all you want without needing a distorting amp?
    – Mr. Boy
    Jan 12, 2015 at 15:08
  • Good question ! I don't find it limiting in that I can get all sorts of sounds out of it. My amp is a 1969-ish Marshall (no gain controls back then - just volume) with a lovely warm sound so it's worth using that and adding pedals for overdrive. I would think that 'nice sound' advantage is less pronounced if you have decent amp with gain control for setting amp overdrive. Jan 12, 2015 at 16:57
  • I guess this is just about the overdrive really- the rest of the effects can be added however your amp is set up. The main difference I've noticed is that some overdrive pedals behave oddly when you turn the volume on the guitar down: some seem to go all mushy. But most decent amps seem to behave on say 7/10 volume as if you'd hit the strings more lightly- ie: less drive but still with plenty of feel. My effects overdrive (Boss BE-5) also behaves well, otherwise I would probably say it's not such a good setup. I've just been lucky in that respect though. No real skill on my part lol Jan 12, 2015 at 16:58

Firstly, a pedal is nothing more than a preamplifier. A guitar amplifier also has a preamplifier. Both can produce distortion, and, at low volumes, this distortion is amplified more or less cleanly by the amplifier's power amp.

The difference is that the pedal doesn't have the same tone as the pre-amp in the guitar amp.

Furthermore, most pedals are simply nowhere in the same class a a good guitar amp pre-amp.

The reason is that a decent amp's pre-amp runs at some 200 to 300 volts, and contains some some two, three or even four vacuum tubes whose job it is to create the distorted tone. Most things that can still be called distortion pedals do not have anything like this. (There are a few that have a couple of tubes which can produce a decent tone; and, conversely, if you have an inexpensive amplifier whose distortion pre-amp is the equivalent of a cheap pedal, you may be better off with one of these pedals.)

In other words, we have to consider the quality and nature of the pre-amps we are comparing: what is the pre-amp in your amplifier like compared to the pre-amp which is lying on the floor inside your pedal.

Another big difference between "pedal + clean amp" versus "amp distortion" is that in some cases "distortion from amp" actually means "distortion from the power amplifier and possibly speaker".

Let's use 50W as an example.

No modeling or preamp can reproduce the sound of a 50W power amplifier and/or its speaker "breaking up". That is to say, no signal processing can reproduce the sound of a particular such an amplifier, using only 50W worth of amplification hardware as a back end.

To accurately model the same sound as what comes from a given 50W amplifier cranked up into its matching speaker, you would need not only the right signal processing, but also a much more powerful sound system (probably well into the thousands of Watts).

Every 50W system, cranked to its maximum (and beyond), will just sound "like itself" and not like any other 50W system, and the noise coming from those different systems can only be emulated in one box if that box has much more power, so that it achieves the control in order to move the air in all those different ways.

So, when you crank your amp to the point that you're getting distortion from the power amp and speaker, you're at that point doing something that can only be approximated if you plug the modeling signal processor directly into a big "house" sound system.

  • Interesting even if I didn't follow it all (I might have to re-read more slowly!) I do run directly from my modelled amp (via DI) to the desk for the main house sound but I wouldn't say it's very loud.
    – Mr. Boy
    Jan 13, 2015 at 22:12

Uau Distortion from a 50W power tube at home or studio you probably gonna be deaf. The difference volume between 100W amp and 50W is only 3db, almost imperceptible. There is no right answer. It depends of your references. I just can tell you that almost all rock guitarist use distortion pedal. But there have been some famous player who used POWER TUBE DISTORTION. Almost no one use pre tube distortion alone.

  • 3dB is not imperceptible. It is a huge difference. It is a doubling of sound energy (which is not a doubling in volume - that would be 10dB - but is significant)
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Sep 6, 2017 at 6:51
  • Your post doesn't really answer the question either, which is around the sound differences.
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Sep 6, 2017 at 6:52

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