Cage Match: Tubes vs. Solid State & Modeling
You had to know something like this was coming. This debate has gone on since solid state amps were marketed to unsuspecting guitarists in the 60’s. This article will consider the conventional wisdom is that tube amps are always better. Thirty years ago, I might agree, but now it isn’t so simple. Solid State (or transistor) devices have really improved and with the advent of cheap memory and processor prices. Digital amplification is valid too, and probably more common than tubes in current music these days. The roles of tubes and solid state are changing, and this article should question conventional wisdoms of both technologies. Before these two duke it out though, first we must start with a little history.
The vacuum tube was developed in the early part of the 20th century before electricity had spread to much of the world. Essentially, a tube is used to control the flow of electrons from one component to another. Guitar amps use tubes to convert AC power to DC, and take a very low-level signal from a guitar pickup and amplify it much, much louder. Tubes were used in many devices in the past, from radios, to televisions, to mixing consoles and early effects. Anywhere a signal of any type had to be amplified, there were tubes available to do the job. Thing is, tubes didn’t amplify things perfectly. They were not perfect, and always added some distortion to the signal. While this mattered a lot to the kids trying to see and hear what Howdy Doody was singing on their tube-powered TV, guitar players loved it. Tube amps didn’t have master volume controls then, so when you turned it up (loud!) it distorted. Tubes had a drawback, though. They dissipated the energy they created as heat. And with heat, things break down- most likely, the tubes themselves, not to mention other components near them. As a result, anything using tubes needs regular service to perform its best.
While solid state (literally meaning, using solid components) was invented in the early part of the 1900s, it wasn’t until the transistor radio came out in the early 1950s that the technology really took off. Now, you kids might not know this, but back then, a simple radio was a piece of furniture in your house. A transistor radio was small enough to fit in your pocket, and with it, you could listen to glorious mono AM stations broadcasting the new sounds of Rock & Roll anywhere you wanted without your parents yelling at you to turn it down. With solid state, heat isn’t an issue, so parts don’t have to be maintained or replaced. It is lighter, and smaller. Everything from car radios, TVs, and early computers switched to this new technology. It amplified signals without imparting any additional signals, so pictures were clearer, computing devices could be smaller and more accurate, and guitars plugged into solid state amps would have a more direct signal amplified because as guitarists, that must be what we want, right?
Started in the last part of the 20th century, guitarists frustrated with the fiddly nature of recording an amp (a good studio, good microphones, and a good engineer), turned to small devices to make this job easier. The first such device was the SansAmp, by Tech21. They delivered, through an all analog signal path, a small device which mimicked the response and sound of tube amps without tubes, weight, and need for an expensive studio bill. Thousands of recordings were released using this technology at the time. It sounded great, and it was easy to get a great sound. The Line6 POD did this as well, and suddenly, with the advent of good computer recording, it was possible to make an album of great guitar sounds for on the cheap. Modeling devices, either analog or digital, are made with solid state technology. This is why I grouped them together.
So What Happened All Those Years Ago To Make Guitarists Hate Solid State Amps?
Once tubes were being replaced by transistors in every electronic device, the same started happening to guitar amps. Tube amps were expensive to produce, so cheaper solid state amps were marketed to beginning guitarists at first. They were cheap, small and light. Perfect for under the Christmas tree. Problem was, when these wide-eyed kids turned them up, they sounded like a guitar plugged into their AM radio. Flat, lifeless, and nothing like Clapton, Beck or Harrison. The guitarists who stuck with it and became their generation’s rock stars eventually gave interviews in guitar magazines. They recalled how solid state amps were terrible. This influenced the kids that read the interviews, and it is a problem all manufacturers have to overcome. Even though this was before my time, I have tried solid state amps from the late 60s and throughout the 70s and 80s. Yeah, they were terrible. I mean, like really bad. I understand the bad reputation.
When Leo Fender sold the company to CBS, this wasn’t a loving group of tone freaks. This was a corporation that used the Fender name to move product, no matter how bad the product is. It also wasn’t the internet era of company engagement with their customers, either. Despite the bad reputation, Fender’s innovations were not met with unanimous praise. CBS eventually sold Fender to a handful of tone freaks that build amps that happily compete with those from its past.
Fender wasn’t alone here, though. Solid state is cheaper to produce, lighter to carry, didn’t break as often, and made more money in the end. Many companies jumped on the bandwagon, from Gibson to Peavey and Sunn. If people bought this stuff, it was successful, right? The stigma of solid state amps is still here, to this day. Not fair, I say.
Tube Amps Sound Best, Right?
Hold on, tiger. The reverse happened later on. By the 80s, the solid state stigma had guitarists looking for old tube amps. Since manufacturers didn’t make money off of used amps, they started cranking out anything with tubes. Cheaper tube amps with mostly solid state components were popular, and the buzzwords ‘tube-like’ tone and ‘real tube feel’ littered the marketing campaigns from all sorts of companies. Tube amps with a master volume knob (to get that distorted sound at lower volumes) ruled the day, and tight preamp distortion became more popular than the round, warm and sometimes flubby power amp distortion that older guitarist favored. Pure tube amps still sell well, but many combine the technologies. Tubes were stuck everywhere, and this blurred the lines a lot. Now it isn’t so clear. Talk to any guitarist who is up on current technology- there are great tube amps out there, and many, many bad ones. Sound familiar?
I’m Confused. Which is it?
Well, it gets worse. Nowadays many companies are in the modeling arena, from iOS software to rack devices costing thousands of dollars. The top-of-the line modeling devices can mimic an entire signal chain, from guitar types (even guitar tunings), amps, speakers, and microphones. They can store 1000s of sounds, and you can share them online. And get this, they sound and feel amazing. Yeah, this costs a lot, but like any technology, the price will go down as memory and processors get faster and cheaper. Digital modeling is probably used on more major album releases than old tube amps these days, and guitarists couldn’t be happier.
This is because we are learning. If it sounds good, it is good. There will always be tube snobs who will hate anything new. There are young, terrifyingly good guitarists that never played a real 60s Deluxe. And what they play would be terrible on that amp, anyway. Music and technology is evolving, and as someone who loves tube amps and uses them as much as my modeling devices, great-sounding amps will never go out of style.
So, the verdict?
It depends on the era. Tube amps win everything up till about 15 years ago, despite lots of bad tube amps that were produced. Nowadays, when I am comparing modern mass produced tube amps versus anything solid state, including software? Sorry, I gotta go with solid state. The technology is really good these days, and the options available in recording and performing tips the scales for me. The key words here are ‘for me’. I know every guitarist’s needs are different. As far as putting that old Deluxe up against my modeling rig? Different tools for different jobs. If I am doing a blues festival, give me the Deluxe. If I am recording ambient/freaky/doesn’t-even-sound-like-a-guitar music, give me the solid state. So I win, either way. I am not one of those people that dismisses anything non-tube right away. In the 70s, I could understand. Nowadays, it just sounds like old man ranting. Tubes are getting harder to find, and less people know how to maintain tube amps properly. Tubes aren’t done yet, but in 50 years? Probably. Or they will at least be really expensive.