Technology has made this recording lark easy. These days, pretty much every guitarist has his or her own home studio, and, thanks to the growing affordability of usable digital modelling gear, we’re now all able to churn out some fairly decent sounds without having to worry about where our next meal is coming from.
But is fairly decent really enough? There’s a whole other school of guitar players, including the vast majority of pros in certain genres, who use tube amps – and only tube amps, thank you very much – to lay down their six-string sounds. So, with that in mind, we sat down and pondered whether you really do need a tube amp to achieve the best recorded guitar tones…
There’s no doubt that tube amps are seen as old fashioned in some circles. They can be big and cumbersome, often need cranking to massive volume levels if you want them to sound their best, and can break. Tubes, after all, are sensitive things, and vintage amps in particular can suffer from reliability issues.
In recent years, though, something of a tube amp renaissance has taken place. Today’s guitarist can choose from a wealth of new tube-based options – including tube-digital hybrid models, which offer the player a bit of both worlds – and, thanks to technological advances, devices like the power soak and the increasingly popular ‘lunchbox’ amp generation are able to offer fully saturated tube overdrive tones at bedroom levels.
Digital amps, on the other hand, are naturally at home with Virtual Studio Technology, plugins and computer-based recording setups, with many directly compatible with DAW programs – from the free GarageBand to the pro-level Pro Tools. But despite this seemingly overwhelming advantage, at least when it comes to recording, many guitarists still love to go all-tube.
Why do certain players insist on tube amps for recording, then? There are many answers, and the vast majority are completely subjective. Perhaps one of the biggest reasons is that tube amps have been used – throughout the history of electric guitar-based music – on the vast majority of the greatest records ever. Actually, that’s one point that’s not subjective at all: regardless of genre, player or decade, if you investigate your favorite records and the players behind them, you’re very likely to find that tube amps were the main – if not the only – weapon of choice in the studio.
In many industries, history is not important. Take computers as an example: we’re always looking for the next new model to hit the streets, the next update to make our machines run that little bit faster, the next innovation to make our lives that little bit easier. Not so with guitarists. We can be pretty conservative types at times, and as well as forging ahead with new sounds and techniques, we also want to be able to play the classics that our heroes before us immortalized in vinyl. Whether or not that’s a Luddite attitude is moot.
Perhaps the killer point, though, is that – for many players, at least – nothing beats the feel and power of a cranked tube amp. There’s something unexplainable about the way they move the air, how they respond to every nuance in your playing… heck, they’re the real deal! These are factors that can, and do, influence how guitarists play, and the results can be extremely powerful in a live or recorded context.
Of course, we’re all aware of the small print that comes with a tube amp, and yes, you will need to find one that suits your recording style the best. If you’re in a home studio, you’ll need a lunchbox amp, or a bigger one with a power soak function, so you can crank those levels without blowing your eardrums. You’ll also have to worry about miking your amp up, unless it comes with a built-in DI output. Now, you may call us lazy for saying that, but it can be a genuine issue for some players – especially those who love the ease of all-digital solutions.
Digital modelling amps do not suffer from any of these tube-related foibles. Indeed, with a modelling amp, you’ll probably be recording in the time it takes a set of tubes to get cooking properly! But despite the ease of use, things are clearly not all peaches and cream in the world of the modelling amp. Otherwise, everyone would be using them, wouldn’t they?
The reason many pros don’t want to go digital is because they don’t feel a modelled tone can match a real one, made by pushing tubes to their limits. That said, we’ve played all sorts of different amps of all varieties, and it’s definitely becoming a lot more difficult to distinguish between tubes and digital modelling. In fact, we’d go so far to say that in some cases, it’s impossible to confidently make that call.
Digital modelling technology has really come on in leaps and bounds over the years, it really has. We’re certainly a long way from the ‘wasp in a jam jar’ digital distortion tones of yore, and it speaks volumes that top bands like Trivium are prepared to play exclusively live using modeling amps.
But Trivium’s case provides the KO punch for the tube amp in our eyes. Why? Because the band use their modelling amps to recreate their studio tube sounds as closely as possible for the road! And, come to think of it, don’t most modelling amps like to boast that they’re as close to ‘the real thing’ (i.e. a proper tube amp) as possible? If you’re going to talk like that, why not just got for the real thing in the first place?
If you’re not familiar with Trivium – and if you’re not, check ‘em out! – their aggressive, distorted guitar tones are fat and mega-saturated. These work very well with modelling amps, as they’re less about tonal subtleties and more about pure power. Should you be recording any other type of music, a tube amp is almost certainly going to respond more dynamically to your touch. Don’t forget, tone is very much in the fingers too, and this is something modelling amps have been trying to recreate – with varied levels of success – over the years.
The reliability and flexibility of modern digital modelling amps certainly offer much to today’s guitarist, particularly those who are on tight budgets and live in built-up areas with a lot of neighbors! They sound good, they’re useful for many different guitar applications, and they’re definitely the more modern option in most instances.
But they’re not the real thing. If you’re a player who’s serious about getting the best recorded sounds out of your setup, a tube amp’s got to be at the top of your ‘to try’ list.
Trust us, your tone will most likely thank you for it.
First published: August 01 2014. Most recent update: February 18 2016.