Amp modelling vs Tube Amps: Has ‘digital’ won the guitar tone war?
Are valve amps overrated?
Recently, the “tube amps versus modelling” debate has heated up online. Products like Line 6’s Helix, Fractal Audio’s FM3, Hotone’s Ampera and, of course, the Kemper Profiler are getting closer and closer to the sounds of real classic valve amps. Recently, players like John Mayer and even Mark Knopfler have used guitar modellers live during concerts, instead of valve amps. Do we still need them?
In a recent video, YouTuber intheblues put it this way: “Is there’s any reason for tube amps to still exist other than nostalgia?” Shane’s answer gratifyingly aligns with my own opinions on these hotly debated questions.
Here’s his take:
“Yeah, absolutely. There’s something to be said for all the technology that makes studio recording easier even doing gigs. You know, like taking a Kemper or a Helix to a show and plugging straight into the PA system.
But then there’s the feeling that just comes from playing through a tube amp, that most solid-state modelling amps or transistor amps can’t really get that same sort of vibe.
Just, it’s a fact. I’ve played so many great solid-state amps over the years and I’m a huge fan of many of them, but there’s really something special about cranking up, say, a Marshall DSL 40 and having that sound in the room. It’s amazing, it’s great.
As the player, it gives you a response and a feel that just plugging straight into the PA is not going to give you. It’s almost replicated and that could be a much easier thing for a touring musician but if you’re playing at a pub and you can bring your amp in or whatever, then it’s a great feeling.
And I think they’ll never go away. As great as technology will get, the valve amp guys and the tube amp guys will still want that sound. I’ll still want that feel that responds in a certain way with pedals, all that kind of good stuff.
So yeah, I think they’ll be around for the long haul. I don’t see them ever going away.”
Can you tell the difference?
A little while ago I wrote an article where we asked you to spot the difference between Valve and Solid State amps. Even that had many players not sure what they were hearing. So can modern day DSP go even further and sound more like tubes than we might think?In fact, can the human ear actually perceive any real differences between the two anyway given the capabilities of current technology?
Tubes vs DSP
My question is: if modelling is becoming so efficient and convenient, why do we still use tube amps? DSP is great for when you need a variety of tones and amp models or you want to take your guitar sound in new directions and experiment. It also helps if you want to keep your budget under control. Buying and servicing tube amps is a pricey business. Plus, modelling systems are lighter and far less bulky! My Bad Cat 2×12 combo in its flight case weighs a metric ton, whereas my Helix LT will fit in a rucksack, for example.
Where the valve amp wins for personally if that when I crank it up at a gig or rehearsal it becomes symbiotic with my guitar. Together at volume they pretty much become one. I can feed off the volume and ride it with my guitar’s controls. The experience is so much more alive and visceral.
Pure Valve Tone?
As a kid, my favourite album of the ’80s was The Cult’s Electric. I cannot imagine Billy Duffy making that album on a Line 6 Helix! The band had recorded the album in full at The Manor Studios with lots of effects on the guitars. That version (now available as The Manor Sessions) was ditched in favour of a stripped-back sound.
For me, what makes Electric so good is its pure guitar tone, with Marshall crunch and great riffs propelling it forward throughout. And all because producer Rick Rubin made Billy Duffy put away the effects pedals and run straight into a Marshall with his Les Paul. You know what it? It sounds great!
I suspect that for the majority of us guitar players, valves/tubes will always be a large part of our sound and so I cannot see them being relegated to history in my lifetime.
- Line 6 Helix LT multi effects and amp simulation: Line 6
- Laney Tony Iommi LA100BL amp and TI-Boost pedal: http://www.blackcountrycustoms.co.uk
My friend owns a Kemper with Dumble tones and he brought it to my house to compare to my Bludodrive High Plate Skyline amp using the same speaker. Even though the Kemper has a huge range on tonal possibilities it sounded flat compared to the 3D tone from the Bludo. Huge difference IMO.
I’d agree with you as I have a Friedman and a Bad Cat as my main two amps and my Helix LT doesn’t compare. However, the Helix can cover a lot of different bases and weighs a lot less than the amps/cabs.
I can understand the weight issue. But if it doesn’t have the TONE it doesn’t really matter that much. I’ll take the weight and inconvenience to get a truly inspiring tone.
What does a “3D tone” mean anyway?!
Sounds like a bunch of boomers trying to defend the overpriced toys they fawn over. Sorry guys, I love me the DSL as well and I’ll always have a nice physical amp but the digital amp is the way to go. Way more convenience and honestly the tone change is probably in your head as the listener likely won’t know if you’re playing on a real Diezel or a Program
I’m Gen X, and I’m considering building a Hiwatt clone or buying the Hughes & Kettner head I’ve been watching. Presence is an issue, and modelers in my price range don’t have it. Latency is another issue, especially with complex DSP simulators. If you grew up after the advent of the MP3, your auditory discrimination is likely flavored by that. Digital audio is like Zeno’s Paradox. You can keep increasing the sampling rate, but it will never be an analog waveform and part of sustain and guitar quality is its density and interplay with the amp or monitor. Theoretically, you don’t need any real talent, just record the notes on a Squier Tele, run it through a DI box to an audio interface, tweak the speed, erase the mistakes, apply DSP and VST filters, auto tune the vocals, use digital drum tracks. an octaver to record a bass track, and voila. You’re a rock god. Me, I plug one end of the cable into my custom Carvin or my PRS, the other end into my 5w tube Champ clone or 15w Princeton Reverb clone and go to work, with a mic on a tripod stand. With tube amps, you tend to get what you pay for, but the modern tube amps are far more reliable than the amps of yesterday. Make music the way you like, but there’s a reason valve amps have gone from endangered to a Renaissance, and it isn’t just nostalgia.
I don’t PLAY for the audience, I play to hear the sound, screw the audience. It has to sound GREAT to me before I EVER want the audience to hear it.
I own a bunch of tube amps: ’64 Princeton, ’92 Marshall 6100 Anniversary, Fuchs OD 50 and for home use, a Kemper. I’ve profiled the Marshall and during the profiling process, aurally, in my home studio, playing through studio monitors, I could not tell the difference. I love the Kemper. For recording, the Kemper nails it and is far more versatile than a tube amp. One thing though, pedals don’t sound the same through the Kemper. But for playing live, I’ll take the Marshall. Or the Princeton. Or the Fuchs. I am not sorry I bought the Kemper, but as great as it sounds, it can’t replace tubes and speakers for me. You ought to hear that Fuchs through a Creamback. OUTSTANDING
I used to love modelers but that was until I played a tube amp.In particular, those power tubes give you a warm FEEL and tone that a ss amp cant. in fact, i can pick out a ss amp right away and its usually quite cold flat and ice picky.