What is the Brown Sound?

There are a lot of misconceptions out there among guitarists regarding the "Brown Sound." If you perform a Google search you will find all kinds of crazy shit -- pun intended.

Eddie van Halen described his sound as being "brown" and it was achieved by lowering the operating voltage on his amp by incorporating a variac (AC transformer voltage controller).

The brown sound is not, contrary to myth, achieved by raising voltages. For a while EVH misled interviewers when he claimed to be operating his amps a higher voltages when, in fact, it was the reverse. He recanted those claims and apologized for destroying many amps.

The brown sound is not achieved by swapping out your speakers.

The brown sound is not achieved by putting an EQ pedal in your signal chain.

The brown sound is not achieved by lowering your amp's bias and running it 'colder.'

The brown sound is not achieved with an attenuator or power soak.

The brown sound is not some mythical note somewhere between 5 and 7Hz that will make you involuntarily poop your pants.

The brown sound does not require any particular guitar, e.g., one with humbuckers.

The brown sound is all about a non-master-volume tube amp (the prime example being a Marshall 100 watt Plexi Super Lead) operated at the loudest volume levels possible with lowered voltage.

EVH's particular sound was, of course, the combination of a lot of factors and if you want to nail that exact, specific sound then you'd need the correct guitar, pedals, amp, variac, dummy load, cabs, but, more importantly, you'd have to be EVH (in combination with his material and personnel resources), and you're not, so just stop worrying about it and don't go out and buy a ton of gear.

The most reasonable way to achieve this 'brown sound' is to do it with modeling software in your DAW.

Line6 Pod Farm, for example, already has a model of a Plexi + variac so you're already close -- and Axe-FX II enables the lowering of voltages in their Plexi model.

If you read the above link you'll see that EVH ran his Plexi head into a dummy load and, basically, used his whole amp as a preamp that would run into effects and another power amp.

So, in your virtual signal chain place the Marshall Plexi model first, crank everything to '10, except for the presence knob, load in your effects after the amp, then insert a cabinet simulation, and then the mic simulation.

If you can't use Pod Farm or the thing from Fractal Audio (or some other alternative that models lower voltages hitting the mains) then the next best thing is to use a real boost pedal (not overdrive or distortion but clean boost like a EHX Soul Food or Klon Centaur....yeah, right) into your interface  It's not the same but in some ways it can mimic some aspects of that 'brown sound.' How? Because the 'brown sound' is as much about "touch sensitivity" as it is about tube distortion characteristics. Obviously, they are linked but if you cannot lower the voltages then a clean boost will have some determination on touch sensitivity, in most cases.

If you had a real amp and voltage regulator how low should you set the voltage? Turn it down until it sounds fantastic. If it starts to sound terrible turn it back up. See what this guy has to say.