670: Spinal Tap Amps

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Spinal Tap Amps
Wow, that's less than $200 per... uh... that's a good deal!
Title text: Wow, that's less than $200 per... uh... that's a good deal!


This comic is in reference to the 1984 mock documentary This Is Spın̈al Tap about the tour of the fictional rock band Spın̈al Tap. Here we see lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel (a character portrayed in the movie by Christopher Guest) explaining to Cueball how the volume dial on his amp goes all the way up to eleven. This is impressive to Nigel since guitar amplifiers generally only have ten as the maximum setting. This leads him to believe his amp is "one" louder than other amplifiers.

In reality, the loudness of an amplifier is largely dependent on how much power is supplied to its electronics. Markings on the volume dial are merely an aspect of appearance and has no influence on the maximum achievable loudness. The highest mark could just as easily be labelled 'Maximum', which would then accurately describe the meaning of that setting. Thus, the phrase "goes to eleven" is often used sarcastically to mock people or statements that rely on arbitrary numbers without comparable units or context.

The comic then extends the joke by presenting three types of reactions from different people:

  • The normal guy understands that using eleven is silly, and wants to know what is wrong with the usual way of numbering from one to ten -- the question that is raised in the original film.
  • The engineer is desperate to explain to Nigel the fallacy in his thinking, but his jargon just sends Nigel to sleep. He remains unenlightened.
  • The smart engineer sees an opportunity: it doesn't cost any more to number the volume dial differently, but Nigel places a real value on higher numbers. The smart engineer offers to sell him an amp that goes to twelve, but at a hefty premium.

The title text further plays on the fact that the amp's levels are on an arbitrary scale. Many products are sold at a certain price per unit weight, volume, etc. (e.g., $2.99/lb for grapes). Nigel calculates that the $2000 cost for going up to 12 would equal to $2000 / 12, or less than $200 per unit of something, but he is unable to articulate what that "something" is, confirming the third panel observation of the normal engineer. Also, he already has an amplifier that goes up to eleven, so the one additional unit would cost him $2,000 unless he sells the old amplifier. However, he decides that it's a good deal anyway, and it looks like the smart engineer has made a sale.


[Nigel Tufnel of Spın̈al Tap is showing off his amplifier to Cueball.]
Nigel: These amps go to 11.
Cueball: Is that louder?
Nigel: It's one louder.
Normal Person:
Cueball: Why not make 10 louder and make 10 the highest?
Cueball: But 11 doesn't have any units. It's an arbitrary scale mapping outputs—
Nigel: Zzzz
Smart Engineer:
Cueball: For $2,000 I'll build you one that goes to 12.

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Specifically, it's $166.66 recurring per unit of loud. Thokling (talk) 22:49, 29 September 2013 (UTC)

I vote we start using "units of loud" instead of "decibels" (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Aye! BK201 (talk) 16:52, 12 December 2013 (UTC)BK201
Aye! Danish (talk) 00:27, 8 January 2021 (UTC)
Aye! Beanie (talk) 11:16, 21 April 2021 (UTC)
Aye! Eebop (talk) 20:07, 26 August 2021 (UTC)
Aye! PoolloverNathan[talk]UTSc 16:23, 30 August 2021 (UTC)
Nay! GcGYSF(asterisk)P(vertical line)e (talk) 23:38, 11 November 2021 (UTC)
Decibel-whats? Decibels are just relative logarithmic values; "100 dB" doesn't actually mean anything more than "11" does. Calling decibel-watts and decibel-milliwatts, which are units of radio signal strength, not of audio volume, "units of loud" wouldn't be correct. You could technically measure speed in decibel furlongs per fortnight. The speed limit on the highway near our house is 51.7 dB fur./fortn. (/me is now thinking of putting a speed limit sign marked in dB fur./fortn. in his driveway) 14:13, 29 April 2022 (UTC)
Aye! Char Latte (talk) 23:42, 7 September 2022 (UTC)
I vote we abolish decibels and start using regular bels. The difference isn't too much, it's faster to say (twenty decibels vs two bels), and "deci-" is too insignificant of a prefix. Trogdor147 (talk) 22:40, 9 June 2023 (UTC)

I read somewhere that the amps used to have settings up to 10, but then people found ways to turn the knob past 10. It became culturally known as the 11 setting. In response, manufacturers made amps that went to 11, and this predated the movie. The movie just greatly increased the popularity of the idea. Can't find it anymore though. Maybe it was only urban legend Cflare (talk) 17:14, 16 June 2014 (UTC)

Most likely something to do with the fact that guitarists were still lighting up in the national grid into the 1980's. Check out the health and safety at music festivals act 198011.
OK most musicians die of heart attacks or cerebral haemorrhage but there is an history of electrical malfunctions at music gigs.

I used Google News BEFORE it was clickbait (talk) 01:17, 28 January 2015 (UTC)

Is it possible this story is a bit like the stories of the left-handed hammer that newbies on construction sites get sent to retrieve? 04:33, 10 March 2016 (UTC)
Replying to I actually own a real right-handed hammer that I bought in a Miami Home Depot shortly after Hurricane Andrew. At the time, they were also stocking some left-handed versions of the same hammer. And, yes, before you ask, there was a difference—in the way the grip was moulded. 18:41, 23 May 2017 (UTC)