Amp wars: Tube vs solid state/Digital

Sawyers Introduction

Hey guys and gals, you all know me. I’m the guy who writes all of the History Of Gear articles. This week we are indroducing a new series of articles called, Gear Wars. Here’s the story of how I got the idea for this new series.


 A couple of months ago this cheeky fellow from England emailed us about writing an article for the website. I tried reading a couple of his articles. After I woke up I thought, The parts I was awake for weren’t that bad, I guess. So I gave him a call. That’s when things started heating up. We didn’t agree on anything! I said black, he said white. That’s when it hit me, we should do a series of articles where we debate our different view points. Then, give the Know Your Gear Community the opportunity to choose a winner. Of course, you will all side with me, and Mr Matt Blades will know once and for all, that I‘m right, and he‘s wrong. Sorry Matt.


In this first Gear War, we debate the values of tube vs solid state amps. So sit back and enjoy the ride.

Who The Heck Is Blades?

Hey everyone! I guess it’s only polite for me to introduce myself before I totally embarrass M. Sawyer here. I'm a writer from the UK (the true home of rock). I’ve been a fan and subscriber to Phil’s channel for a long time now and was really excited to hear that there were articles appearing on the website. Imagine my disappointment when I found the ‘History of Gear’ series. I mean, the guy’s read a lot of Wikipedia I guess, but still. Don’t get me wrong – having played guitar since I was eight years old and being a complete gear nerd, there’s nothing I love more than learning about guitars, amps, and anything tone related. But something needed to be done. 


To keep a long story short, I got in touch with M. Sawyer and I’m afraid to say it’s even worse than I thought. I’ve heard that across the pond they don’t always develop their hearing the same as ours, something to do with hormones in the burgers they eat. Maybe that explains it. Either way, I love the channel and the community that Phil has built over the last few years, and I’m sorry that my way of introducing myself is to brutally take apart one man’s rambling. But he literally called me and asked for it!

Sawyers Smatterings

First of all, the tittle of this section IS NOT supposed to be “Sawyers Smatterings!” Who gave Blades access to the website?! I know it was you!


Anyway, on to the topic at hand.


The transistor was introduced to the world in 1947. It was revolutionary. Every product that used tubes such as TVs and radios, eventually  switched to transistors. The purchasing public accepted these changes in all of their products except for one, guitar amps. 


The first solid state amp was introduced in 1962. As the years passed, several companies hoped to cash in on the solid state market. The problem is, no one bought them! Why not?


The answer is simple. They sucked! 

Take that Blades!


In the late nineties the most hideous creation known to man was introduced to the gear world. It was the digital amp modeler. 


So Blades, you really like those things?! Maybe there’s something wrong your hearing. You should get that checked out.


Here’s the bottom line. Tube amplifiers are warmer, smoother, and more responsive than the junk Blades likes. Tube amps feel better to play through. They respond to the dynamics in your picking. Even techniques such as pinch harmonics and finger tapping sound so much better through a tube amp.


A guitarist who has never played through a tube amp before, will immediately notice a boost in their abilities. This is due to the wonderful reactive nature of tube amps.


I’m certain that one of my oppositions‘ arguments will be that amp modelers offer several different amp choices to the player. However, that makes absolutely no sense! I mean, what would you rather have? 35 modeled, thin, tinty amps that sound like absolute garbage? Or, one amp, with soft glowing tubes emanating sounds that roar, and bring your playing to life? 

I’ll take the tube amp any day, everyday.


Finally, tube amps are like a fine wine. Amp modelers on the other hand, are more like a stale bottle of Guinness beer that’s been out in the hot sun for days. Yuck!


All right Blades, let’s see what you’ve got.

Blades’ Blatherings

I didn’t name these sections! Alliteration is really more of a grade school technique…


Whether talking about transistors or more recent digital technologies, there are a couple of tube amp problems they have already solved. Tube amps are renowned for being unreliable and require servicing and the replacing of parts. For a beginner this is a nightmare, for those gigging a potential embarrassment, and for genuine pros a liability. You don’t just have to know your gear, you have to trust it too. 


It’s worth mentioning versatility and convenience. Digital technology can offer almost every sound imaginable in something a quarter of the size and weight of a tube amp. Again, players of all levels can benefit from this: the beginner can find their sound; cover bands and those at jam nights can manage every style without breaking a sweat; and professionals can go through their entire back catalogue with ease. The idea that tubes are for pros and digital for beginners looks more and more like a marketing concept rather than a truth about tone. So M. Sawyer might be wrong? Well, at least he’s consistent. 


Now that those points are out of the way, let’s move onto the most important issue: sound. Sawyer isn’t alone on this – even some people with good taste think the tube amp delivers better sound every time. But I disagree. Other pro audio and music communities obsess about sound quality at least as much as guitarists. So seeing as they have almost entirely abandoned tube technology, the alternatives must be able to compete at the highest professional levels. And professional guitarists are starting to follow suit on this.


Seeing as M. Sawyer refuses to leave the past, I guess I should talk about the present and future. Even at an early stage, new digital technology is already starting to squeeze tube amps out at the highest level. Almost every Rig Rundown these days has someone using Axe FX or similar. These are some of the best musicians in the world, and tone is absolutely prioritized over convenience and cost. Those factors still apply, but these guys are endorsed by the biggest brands and have teams of people to handle their equipment. If they got the best results from tube amps they would use them, but they don’t. So many of the world’s best artists are using digital amp technology that it’s almost boring! Kind of like how it’s almost boring beating Sawyer in these arguments again and again.


What we might be starting to see is a strange reversal of the amp world. The best digital technology is very expensive, whereas there are plentiful tube amps in the mid-to-high price range that smaller gigging musicians can afford. So if I go and watch a friend perform live covers of A Perfect Circle using his Marshall, I am actually watching someone trying to emulate digital technology (Axe FX) using a cheaper tube amp. Explain that one Sawyer!


If you consider how different digital and tube technologies are at their core, their different future trajectories become even clearer. Tubes are a relatively unchanging and old technology, whereas digital is evolving so quickly it is impossible to keep up. This means that the best possible tube amp in the world has probably already been made, but the best digital amp hasn’t even been conceived.


Their development will follow the likes of mobile phones and home computers, and what these technologies can achieve ten years from now may be unimaginable. Beating the tube amp will just be a step along the way. They might be so much better that even Sawyer will hear the difference, but maybe I’m in the world of fantasy now.  

Sawyers Rebuttal

Hey Blades, you made some good arguments. Gee, I think I’m going to switch to modelers. NOT!!! I used to play through modelers exclusively. One day I had the opportunity to play through a real amp. You know, a tube amp. It was an epiphanal moment for me. The clouds were lifted and heavenly hosts began singing. Trumpets of celebration were blaring. It was an awakening. 


So, I bought my first tube amp, a used Marshall JVM 205H. That was three years ago. Guess what? I’ve done no maintenance to it whatsoever. The dribble Blades said about tube amps breaking down all the time, is a myth. Yes, from time to time, you have to replace the tubes. However, with a little maintenance every once in a great while, your amp will last you, not only your lifetime, but it will still be there for your children, and their children to enjoy. 


Let me ask you a question Blades. When you’re mobile phone stops working, do you get it repaired and continue making calls? No! You pitch it and buy a new one. Your beloved digital modelers are nothing more than overpriced cell phones. When they suddenly stop working, and they will stop working, you’ll have to pitch it and shell out another $2000 to $3000 for yet another lifeless monstrosity, that will also, eventually break. I thought you British folks were supposed to be smarter than us. I guess that’s a myth too.


Now I will acquiesce to Blades on a couple of his points. Yes, digital amps are lighter and easier to use for touring, or jamming with friends. Yes, artists such as Metallica now tour with digital modelers. However, here’s the most important point that Blades failed to mention. When in the studio, all of those same artists go back to using tube amps to record with. Now why is that Blades? Because the sound and playability a of tube anp is far superior. When playing live who cares how it sounds. At those loud decibels your ears can no longer differentiate between what sounds good, and what sounds bad. Gee Blades, I bet you could have looked that up on Wikipedia! Which for the record I do not use as a source for my articles thank you very much! 


Going to a rock concert isn’t like going to the symphony. No one cares about the quality of sound at a rock concert! Your there to have a few drinks, and have some fun. If you want good tone, you buy the album. Where they used real tube amps!


Blades also mentions that other pro audio communities have happily accepted digital junk. Well surprise surprise, he’s wrong once again. Perhaps if you’d read my articles as you purported, you would have discovered that there has recently been a huge resurgence in tube preamps within the audiophile community. They are selling like hot cakes. Why? Because once again, they sound better!


Lets deliver the final blow. A tube amp vs a digital modeler, is like an electric car vs a Ford Mustang GT. The electric car, like the digital modeler, is lifeless. It has no soul. It’s just a tool. Like a wrench. However, the Mustang has soul. It’s powerful, responsive, and the roar of its engine pounds in your chest. Driving the Mustang is thrilling, and makes you feel alive. Tube amps breathe that same power and life into the hands of the guitarist. 


Face it Blades, you lost!!!

Blades’ Rebuttal

Fair enough Sawyer, I’ll agree that the way tube amps respond to dynamics in guitar playing is fantastic, but there’s still something skewed here. Again, I think some of these points are about market perception rather than actual tone. Solid state and digital were first developed to be low cost alternatives to tube amps, and at times it seemed brands were racing to make the cheapest amp possible, not the best. I think we should discount the less-than-impressive history of solid state amps, as it’s only very recently that companies have focused real time and money on making the best amps possible with these technologies. But I guess if you’re stuck listing dates from the past you might struggle to see that, huh Sawyer?

 

Following that, transistors may have been around longer, but relatively speaking a lot of digital amp technologies are still in their infancy, and it’s these technologies – not transistors – that are delivering the best results.


And even if we don’t want to discount non-tube history, Sawyer has still generalised a little too far. It hasn’t been all bad for these amps. When Peavey released the Bandit at NAMM in 1995, industry professionals of all kinds failed to tell the Bandit apart from a tube amp in a blind test. So even older transistor amps can fool the best of the best when they’re made to a high standard, with proper R&D and higher grade components. 


But maybe I’ve been listening to Sawyer too long, because I’m starting to fall into his way of thinking. He’s framing this argument like so many do, making tube amp sound the standard for good sound and equating the two. In this way, you’re already declaring tube amps the winner. At least for the present – in ten years, I bet no one will be able to tell the difference between tube and non-tube. But beyond that, we need to reframe this whole issue. It is about what sounds good, not what sounds similar to what.

 

Currently good tone means ‘sounds like a tube amp’, but the power of digital may be to open up new sonic possibilities and completely rewire our whole concept of good tone, and ‘like a tube amp’ will only be one part of that. When you buy an ESP Eclipse with EMGs you don’t complain that it doesn’t sound like a Les Paul. It’s a totally different approach to tone that reforms the entire definition of what ‘good tone’ even means. Although another reliable definition of ‘good tone’ might be ‘whatever Sawyer says is bad’. 

In Closing

Well Blades, it’s been a real joy kicking your butt. I just wish it weren’t so easy!


Trying to get the last word in without me noticing, Sawyer? Typical! I'm not sure what article you were reading to come to that conclusion. How about we let the good people of the Know Your Gear community decide the winner?


Hey Blades, for once you have a great idea. Below is a contact form available so you can share your opinions on this, our first Gear War. You can also choose a winner in the “Who won?” Section. 


So who will it be? Sawyer, or Blades? The winner will be announced next Friday on the home page.


As always, thank you for your time, and know your gear.


Contributed by: M. Sawyer and Matt Blades

Gear Wars