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.
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Just out of curiosity, do you prefer the realness of using a type writer or would you prefer to use the digital version?
Actually we wrote this article on a slate using a piece of chalk and had a local company digitize it for us 😉 Computers scare us!
It’s definitely true that tube amps still rule the roost and their sound is the Holy Grail. But modelling amps are so close to the Grail nowadays (5/14/2017) that a decent guitarist can a very good sound out of them. And recorded in a song I defy you to pick out a professionally modelled amp as lacking in tone and beauty.
The cons of a tube amp have been stated in this article and if you’ve owned one you can relate. Die hard tube fans will eventually have to concede. The future of guitar amplification is digital.
You’re absolutely right Jack, and we’re sure you could embarrass us in a blind test of tube amps versus digital amps in some recordings 😉 But like we said though, we reckon that there will always be some market for tube amps (and not just because we make them!) – there are players who want that smooth sound that only a tube amp can give – at the time of writing – and they also want the response and playing dynamics of tube amps too. That’s one area where digital is still a long way off – feel.
That said, the way digital is going, maybe in 10 years’ time we will have to change our minds again 😉 One thing is for sure though – there has never been a better time to be a guitar player! There are so many options out there for all budgets and abilities that sounding great is now within the reach of everyone who’s prepared to put in the playing time 🙂
I know that a lot of people dont have the experience of using tube amps to its fullest. I on the other hand, have learned from preamping from solid state amps from line level out or headphones out. When trying to get the best tone out of your tube amp, it can be turned around to not having to crack it to get the tone you like. When using a preamp from say like, the solid state amp of a practice amp like a Fender Mustang I. It has a clean tone setting I use to boost the tube amp with out cranking it the tube amp. i line my processors into the Mustang I, and the Mustang I into the tube amp. It makes the tube amp sound professional, and your at really low decibels.
With a choice of one or the other for the uninspired, or on budget alone solid state is the clear winner. It’s durability and ability to replicate (not really imo) existing tones and cabinet modelling make it clear that this is the easiest most effective way of getting what you need.
However, on the other hand if your intention is making a new sound that hasn’t been heard, you can not replicate the quantum variations that will happen inside the tubes. There is simply not enough real estate inside a microchip to allow the ionic turbulence of the uncertainty principle to inspire our ears and creativity.
Interesting points Rob, and we agree! While digital technology still can’t truly replicate that mysterious tube goodness 100%, it’s coming very close indeed. BUt tube is still king there. Having said that, in a full band mix recording, it’s hard to tell what amp/gear exactly has been used (assuming a decent recording, etc.).
That’s another reason why we think the new Red Box AE that’s on the GrandMeister Deluxe and TubeMeister Deluxe models is awesome – with the flick of one switch you can go from recording the full-on sounds of the amp, to simply removing the AE Ambience Emulation and recording the pure power amp tube tone signal for future reamping and cab/mic modeling purposes. That’s the best of both worlds.
Just have one of each and you can play whenever or whatever there are no rules saying you can’t have the best of both worlds
Yep, this is actually a good point Dave. If you only had the money for one, though, which would you choose or recommend? That’s a tougher question 😉
I feel like the best option for most of us would be to not only find a great tube amp that suits you, but also find a solid state that does the same. This way you will have better options for both the studio, and for any live situations you might encounter along the way.
In particular, this could give you even more sonic possibilities in the studio. Imagine combining those two different beasts together on a track, or perhaps even many tracks. Different guitars, different amps, and different effects together will help to expand and broaden your sound greatly.
Always give yourself plenty of options instead of not enough. After all, once you lay it down and release it to the entire world there is no turning back. It is there forever!
These are some good points, Lance, so thanks for sharing. Like some others here have said, solid state amps can come into their own for clean sounds, for example. Plus we’re with you that having the extra options always gives us more chances to come up with a better guitar sound! And once the record’s out there, it’s out there 😉
Triamp mk1 – celestion V30 – H.S. Pr 30 !!!! Perfect !!!!
Sounds good to us! \m/
I play guitar since almost 40 years now, except of my very first amp, I mostly had tube amps so far. You won’t believe, but my first modelling amp was a H&K Zenamp, which I still use … hahaha. I bought it when I moved from Germany to Brazil in 2003 just because it was more convenient for traveling.
Here in Brazil we have the problem with the enormous costs of importet equipment. It is normally the double of the price that it would cost in Europe or US, not to forget that the incomes HERE are in the average a tenth of the incomes in Europe or US.
So sometimes it’s simply a matter of costs too. Most of the musicians here cannot afford a good tube amp, that’s why the plugins and modelling amps/pedals are very popular here.
So for me, for example, having my own home studio, where I also record local bands, it totally makes sense to use a Kemper Profiler, where I can simulate quite well almost any tube and solid state amp you can imagine. I prefer to have a 90-95% match than paying for each single tube head the prize or even much more than a Kemper costs. Actually my favoriote amp would be the H&K Triamp Mk3, but for the prize of more than 25000 Brazilian Reais (converted in US$ it is $6000) it is simply not affordable! That’s it about the real deal …
Thanks for your honest feedback Herby! Firstly, we’re surprised to hear you’re still rocking a zenAmp – but we believe you because they were/are awesome 😉
We do understand that for many people digital is the only option, be it for cost reasons or whatever. And, you can get amazing sounds out of digital kit, and they’re getting better every year too! Many casual music fans (and indeed many guitarists!) couldn’t tell the difference between recorded tubes and recorded digital tones… Even many guitarists who use tubes live and for important recordings use modeler amps at home – they’re often easier to use, especially at lower volumes, and you can get so many good sounds out of them 🙂
We say, the more choice we have as guitarists, the better music we can make 🙂 Thanks for reading the blog, we hope you continue to enjoy it!
I recently read that Megadeth is on the road using Axe Fractal exclusively, they have ditched the wall of marshalls for gigantic screens to show videos.
That’s interesting Cristian, we didn’t know that! Would be a big development for them, that’s for sure…
When you think about it, the greatest tube amps made going all the way back to the 1950’s have laid down some of the most iconic music in rock and roll and existed side by side with the artists that essentially created this genera of music together with the engineers that made the tube amps. Now we have digital technology that will model these great amps so modern artists are going to be playing a modeled version of a technology that existed 50 years ago. So it’s almost like Hollywood running out of ideas and remaking all these iconic movies. Did they really need to remake King Kong and Planet of the Apes? That means they are running out of ideas and trying to exist in the past. It’s plastic. It’s phony. It’s uncreative and stagnant. It plain and simply isn’t real. What are they going to model in another 50 years? Will there be a model of the 2015 Line 6 model?
Good points and well made! Some newer modeling amps are certainly like plastic Hollywood remakes, which just take the original and reboot them without any of the substance or style that made the original so great. But in 50 years, maybe we will look back on some of them with rose-tinted spectacles. Doubtful perhaps, but you never know 😉
And yes, ultimately it comes down to this: why bother with something that’s just attempting to sound like ‘the real thing’ when you could just have the real thing? Doesn’t make too much sense to us, especially as you can now get tube amps that are as flexible and affordable as lots of modelers, and can be used at lower volumes than ever thanks to inventions like the power soak. And yes, some modelers are mighty close to emulating that tube sound authentically, but they’re not there yet, especially for live use.
This is a debate that will run and run though, and more power to it! 🙂
I think that tube amps are lucky that vst’s and modelling amps manufacturers, and the musicians that have been trying to switch to modelling amps, have not yet targeted a good “loud” FRFR system that emulates, the speakers tube amps have, which is the true reason that tube amps have not lost to them. In order for a modelling amp to be versatile the speaker needs to be crossed over with a horn/ tweeter, at a certain frequency point in order to be versatile, which basically takes the tube amp experience speaker’s dynamic equalization, air pushing mojo, and transforms it into something more Hi Fi, which can be something very difficult to move away from, when you play at loud volumes, for most musicians. I know i have tried, but i still keep coming back to my tube amp.
Thanks for these interesting comments Jeff. We’re with you on FRFR, which is definitely going to only get bigger in future. In fact, our newest TriAmp (the Mark 3) has it (in conjunction with the Red Box DI output) and we’re sure – without wanting to give anything away too soon 😉 – we’ll be making use of the technology again in future.
One of the biggest criticisms we hear about modellers is that they sound amazing, like a top quality recording of a great tube amp. It’s the feel, the dynamic response while you’re actually playing, that a lot of guitarists still only get from tubes! As you say, until the modellers of this world find a way round that (and they’re certainly getting better and better all the time) tubes will always be the number one option for many guitarists.
I have to agree – there has to be a reason why some of the greatest musicians still use a tube amp for recording. But unless you have an excellent tracking engineer, recording an amp at home can be challenging. This is where I believe amp simulation can work well. It’s definitely a different response/sound, but whether or not it sounds “worse” is up to you to decide.
Dean, you’re absolutely right. Like you say, there are positives and negatives to both ways of doing it, but will the listener be bothered, or notice any difference? Extremely unlikely. We always say that if it sounds good to you, use it!
Personally I believe that recordings are one dimensional in relation to a real world scenario. What does that mean? That amp simulators simply don’t project as well at high volumes. So for recording, yes. For live, no.
The home user may even end up with better results with something like an Axe-Fx as opposed to miking a tube amp. Check out my list of top amp sims on my blog: http://www.playguitarlive.com/best-guitar-amp-simulator/
Interesting ideas Dean. We’ve not gone down the iPad route live yet, but we’ve heard that it can feel a little odd – the idea of not having an amp physically on stage, and the reaction being slightly delayed, not to mention the different under-the-fingers feel. There’s just a different response when you play tubes. Whether this affects the sound the crowd hears is a different story, of course, as is the whole recording thing…
Watch this video about tone:
This article tries to have it both ways – claiming to be rational, but ultimately diving right into an irrational conclusion.
“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.”
“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.”
Umm…how would you know they’re not the real thing? You just said you can’t confidently make the call.
Guitarists should grow a set of balls and stop worrying about whether they’re going it like dad did it.
Very valid points Matt. The thing is, our conclusion is that we’re still not entirely sure what’s best, or even if there is a best. With some digital amps, you can tell they’re not tubes straight away. With some, it’s almost impossible, especially if you’re hearing them recorded in a full band context.
Like you say, the important thing is that you choose an amp that sounds best to you. Don’t just go with tradition for the sake of it. But if you’re like us, tubes win the day thanks to their smoothness and dynamic response. We’ve yet to play a digital amp that can match tubes in these departments…
Modeling amps/software are designed to do two things. 1) to get usable sounds for recording and 2) offer many different usable sounds in one package. I dare say that if we listen to a guitar in a music track, most of use would be hard pressed to be able to really say whether it was a real tube amp or model. If the sound is happening, it really does not matter the source. For years I have plugged a strat straight into the recording console. It used to be my go-to clean sound. I can’t tell you how many guitarists commented on my recorded guitar tones. Go figure.
Most guitarist who swear by their tube amp sound usually have the amp pretty loud and a bunch of pedals etc. etc. Then you have to ask what mic or mics to use to capture that elusive sound, mic placement, isolation from neighbors and so forth.
I have used modeling sounds on at least 95% of all my recordings in the last five years. I do a lot of recording.
I have tube amps, but the models sound so good and are so fast and inspiring that with few exceptions (hard to beat that real spring reverb for surf) the choices offered with models actually inspire me to play more/different… In a good way.
The biggest hurdle is allowing your mind to get over preconceived notions about guitar sounds. If it sound good, it is good.
Remember, it’s all in the fingers anyway!
Chad, we couldn’t agree more with what you’re saying here. A lot of it is all in the mind, and the rest… it’s in the fingers! These days, we reckon most guitarists would struggle to tell the difference between recorded tube sounds and recorded digital sounds.
Only over the last maybe year and a half have I been happy with Digital Amp Modeling. Before that it was just kind of.. eh. Just to do scratch guitars until I could get into the studio and lay down tracks with real amps. I don’t really need to do that anymore unless I have a lot of extra energy. The truth is no one is going to know unless you tell them it’s not a real tube amp. I really can’t even fathom how much better it is going to get in the next 2 years.. but I know it will be exciting as hell, and sound amazing.
I suppose if we’re all inspired from the amps we use, there’s no ‘better’ or ‘worse’. And we agree about quality levels – in the blog we mentioned how it’s getting harder and harder to differentiate between tubes and digital amps. In fact, it’s often nigh-on impossible… We’re looking forward to the next couple of years too!
If you’re going to talk like that, why not just got for the real thing in the first place?
For some guitarists price is a main factor as well! Great article debates like these will go on forever. Tube vs solid state. Tape vs digital recording. Etc… still fun too read though.
Yes trrigeminy_henry, and with prices going down across the board on decent amps and digital kit, there will be even more debates like this to come! Thanks for reading…
There’s mileage in everything, horses for courses as they say. I myself am a tube fanatic but have used solid state live in anger and enjoyed it, some modelling but mainly recording. I think an often overlooked point is that I days of old tonal variation was very limited…. you either accepted what you could get tonally and made the notes work or you let a manufacturer do the work for you by changing brand or product if you were lucky enough to. Most amps had some small range of equalisation, maybe a bright switch, and whatever you can do with the guitar or pedals. Now the variation available in one single product is massive… so much that is possible to get too far away from centre, or make poorly informed choices. As a result many people get sucked into a confusing vortex away from the actual sound and the notes they are playing. A lot of people end up using bad tones just because they can as the option is there. Bad is obviously a matter of taste but you catch my drift. The best modelling gear has clear defined limits for those less in the know. It’s like administrator priorities on a computer. Limitation inspires creation. Maybe selectable levels of depth would be the next way forward. I think the effects sections on your recent models are a perfect example of just enough variation of the right stuff. Great work, Great post and good food for thought!
Thanks Pj, and you’ve made some really great points here. These days, we definitely all have too many tools and options available that actually stop us practicing, writing and performing to our best. “Limitation inspires creation” – we shall use that from now on! 😉
Of course an amp simulator can’t “beat the sound” of a room full of tube amps. I’m sure in the 30’s people were saying this new electrified gizmo could never beat the sound of a “real” guitar. Music (unless you’re in a talent show) is not a competition. If are creating something original and you and your fans like the sound that you make then that’s all that matters to me. Amp sims are not meant to be plug and play in my opinion. The presets are there for the uninspired and those “cover bands” out there.
We agree, Nick. The song is what’s king, and what your fans will remember you by – not what amp you used. And yes, tube amps are not the most forward-thinking bits of technology! Perhaps we should do a bit about covers bands, as they’re always a contentious issue…
At the end of the day it’s really about the song. U can have the best tone ever but if the song ain’t happening ?
Also true, Kyle – the song is ultimately what artists will be judged on in the end. But what about if you have a great song and ruin it with terrible tone? 😉
Personally for me, while I wouldnt turn down having a tube amp, as a metal guitarist I am yet to hear an amp that sounds better (in my opinion) than my solid state Marshall through a Blackstar 212… its like a tube amp except I get less feedback, dont have to worry about bashing it and busting a tube and it was really cheap for a 120 watt head.
Yep, and we’ve had a few others singing the praises of solid state too. Perhaps we should also write about that topic becuase you’re right, there are certain advantages to that setup! Interesting point about the feedback too… thanks Scott!
I wire up my Tubemeister 18 with the “4 cable” method to my Pod HD500 and get the best of both worlds. I can inject effects either before or after the H&K’s preamp or use the Pods preamp models with e H&K power section. You still get the tube sound with all the bells and whistles. Cool stuff.
Cool ideas Sam – nothing wrong with the best of both worlds…
I started this twice so with out going into exact amp models, I have been playing guitar over 45 years and going back and forth between tube and solid state (modeling ) I currently own the Hughes and Kettner Tubemeister 36 hooked up to an enclosed 12″ celestion cabinet. I get the sound I want and mike it in my home studio when I record. I love the function that lets me take 2 out of 4 of the tubes out and knock down the output to 18, 5 or 1 watt. I love it and could not be happier. (The blue backlighting and visual tubes is a plus!) Thank you Hughes & Kettner ! One Great amp !!!
Great comments John, thanks! Yes, we’re sort of coming to the conclusion that whatever works for each player is best, and these days, there are just so many cool options to explore. Let’s embrace technology and the classics together! Enjoy your H&K…
I enjoyed your article ! That being said, they’re really should’nt be any issue about “what sounds better” than a tube amp. I agree %100 with you that builders of modern Guitar amps, digital multi-processors , Modeling, etc, should NOT say “Its like the real thing” Because, it is not ! However, I personally, prefer solid state. And have for years. But that is a matter of taste. One is not “better” than the other, just different. The modern modeling amps I absolutely love (Line 6 Spiders) But as I stated, Its what I prefer, and works for me. Sly Stone said it best : “Different strokes,for different folks”.
And who are we to disagree with Sly Stallone? You’re right Mickey, whatever works for each player is best, and we didn’t even have time to get into the solid state debate 😉
I have digital amps plugins and tube amps ,nothing can beat the sound of a tube Amp they just react in a different way .
We would have to agree, Mark. At the moment, digital modelling just can’t replicate that authentic feel a cranked tube amp gives! It’s all in the subtleties and playing dynamics… Keep rocking the tubes!
I’m on the fence. I love my H&K tube amp. But I live in a small house with neighbors close enough I can hear their conversations with the windows open in summertime. Very seldom do I have the luxury of playing loud. At lower volumes, I can’t tell the difference between what comes out of my amp vs what comes out of my computer/stereo using software. And the ease of “dialing up” any combination of effects, amp models, cabinets, and mic’ing positions often encourages me to play new things.
Hmm, we have to agree, and interesting point about digital giving more creativity! They can certainly give a lot of tonal flexibility, and at any volume level…