Sometimes the simplest of tools can have a significant impact on one’s creative output. One such tool for me has been a guitar amp attenuator — a.k.a. a “hotplate” — which I’ve used in a variety of recording and live music scenarios. So, when my trusty but well-used attenuator bit the dust, I knew I would have to replace it ASAP, as it had become a constantly utilized tool within my recording studio. As chance would have it, I subsequently had the privilege of attending a guitar workshop with tonmeister David Torn [Tape Op #49], who came well-armed with his guitar rig and a wall full of creamy-sounding Fryette amps. Tethered onto a few of the amps was Fryette’s own version of an attenuator, which they call the Power Station Integrated Reactance Amplifier. Over the course of a music-filled weekend, I discovered that the Power Station is much more than a run-of-the-mill attenuator.
Steven Fryette is probably best known for his high-end, high-gain guitar amps, but his take on an attenuator is also known as a high-performance option for those who want to up their game when it comes to sonics and functionality. As the name implies, an attenuator is primarily designed to reduce the sound pressure level of a guitar or bass amp by inserting it between the amp head and speaker cabinet. This is especially useful with older high-wattage amps that were built before the advent of master volume controls. It allows you to produce that “high watt” tone and desired harmonic distortion, but without the high output volumes that would drive even the most tolerant neighbor crazy.
The Fryette PS-2 Power Station takes the time-tested attenuator concept quite a bit further and adds a 50 W all-tube power amp and an effects loop. The term Integrated Reactance Amplifier, refers to the reactive load that drops the signal coming out of the amplifier down to line-level, internally re-amping the signal through the 50 W tube power amp section. Inserting a reverb or delay in the effects loop results in a great sounding setup that is flexible in live and recording environments alike.
The rear panel has two impedance selection switches — one for the input from the amp, and another for the outputs to the speaker cabinets — allowing you to choose 2/4, 8, or 16 Ω separately for matching the amplifier and cabinets. The effects loop section has a send and return, along with a level switch that allows users to optimize the loop for guitar pedals or line-level rack gear. There is a transformer-isolated, balanced XLR output, and an unbalanced 1/4’’ output with a switchable low-pass filter that smooths out the high end for direct recording or for sending a signal direct to FOH or in-ear monitors. This filter also affects the signal coming out of the speaker outputs. The tone at the reactive load is controlled via a pair of 3-pole voicing switches that affect the top end and low end. The front-panel controls include rotary chicken-head knobs for Volume, Presence, and Depth, as well as a switch for Hi/Lo input level. You can also use the power amp section only, by using the 1/4’’ Line In.
With the PS-2, all of the basic attenuator features are there, but you also get a 50 W tube amp and the effects loop. The amp is driven by two 6L6 tubes, which are readily available. (For replacement tubes, you can get matched, tested sets directly from Fryette.) The unit can be used to power guitar preamps, floor preamps, and modeling preamps. You can also use it to add 50 W of tube power to a low-wattage mini guitar amp, which is more than enough power to make it cut in a gig. Plus, the Power Station is a de facto DI box that works well as a standalone desktop power amp for adding tube power to direct recordings.
A typical use for an attenuator is to max out your amp so as to induce some break-up and distortion. In this regard, the Power Station sounds much better than my previous attenuator. The “tone-suck” is gone, and instead, I am able to retain the feel, response, and tone of the attenuated amp and speaker. The tone is preserved at any volume setting, all the way down to whisper level. My notoriously loud, early ‘70s Fender Twin, that has benefitted over the years from using an attenuator, has been brought up several notches with the upgrade to a Power Station, and gaining a pristine-sounding effects loop is even more icing on the cake. It’s easy to dial in a responsive “reactivated” chunky sound from the amp, along with a clean effects signal driving a reverb or delay floating above, so to speak.
For my work as a guitar-based musician and composer, I have been working in-the-box with modeled amp simulators for years. My ongoing effort to make virtual amp tracks sound less “digital” and sterile has led me to become a serial re-amper when it comes to treating guitars and bass (and just about anything else) at the recording or pre-mix stage. Re-amping is pretty hard to beat when it comes to adding some air and depth that amp modeling software tends to lack, IMHO. In this scenario, the PS-2, with its two speaker outputs — combined with my dedicated Little Labs PCP Instrument Distro re-amp box [Tape Op #22], along with a few cabinets and microphones — gives me a setup that can provide a wide range of tonal and spatial possibilities.
Over the course of a couple of months, I tested the Power Station with various amps and cabinet rigs belonging to musicians I play with on a weekly and regular basis. We would primarily try to tweak the tone and distortion on the amp with a high gain setting attenuated and “reactivated” by the Power Station, and the results included some of the most otherworldly and musical distortion I’ve ever heard come out of a small combo. At the other end of the spectrum, we took a bloated sounding late ‘60s Sunn bass amp — which was originally built for use in stadiums and large halls — and quickly brought it down to a more focused and balanced tone within the confines of a small rehearsal space. So ultimately, you can either turn down the heat or crank it up.
Steven Fryette has a well-deserved reputation for designing great-sounding amplifiers, and the PS-2 Power Station is no exception. The price point — at $699 including shipping — is at the high-end compared to other attenuators; but when you factor in the 50 W tube power amp, the effects loop, and the overall amazing sound, it all adds up to a whole lot of functionality and tone for the money. My use of the unit is primarily in a recording environment, and so I’ve only touched on its capabilities. There are numerous live performance and home studio applications that are suggested in the manual, which is well written with a variety of routing examples clearly diagrammed.
And so, yes, I’ve got my attenuator situation all taken care of. Now, if only I can get the money together for a Fryette Aether combo and one of those Ronin guitars, life would be really good.