Why Tube Amps Still Matter - A Discussion Thread

László

Too Many Notes
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First, a disclaimer:

I love this place because we have great discussions. This thread isn't designed to be prescriptive; that is, I didn't start it to tell anyone what they should or should not do, or even what I'd recommend for them. Instead, I would like to talk about why tube amp technology still matters (and I mean especially why it matters to me), and initiate a civil discussion about the topic.

I'd also like to say that this topic isn't a "mine's better or worse than yours" topic. Whatever works for the individual works, and I'm not attacking anyone's preferences. I'm merely starting this discussion off by putting forth a few ideas I've been thinking about, and tying together some of the loose ends I've been working out in other threads. But everyone's opinion is welcome, just do me a favor and cool down before jumping in with angry comments.

In the Beginning...

I'm going to start by talking about the piano. I know, this is a guitar forum, but I promise that talking about the piano will make sense in a few moments. A grand piano was an extremely complex instrument when it was invented, and is today still an assemblage of relatively complex systems. This is reflected in the fact that no two pianos, even from the same maker and the same model, sound alike. Yes, there is a family resemblance between two pianos from the same maker and the same model, but there are differences that are immediately audible. Why?

To make a piano takes several hundred pounds of wood for the case, that is bent with steam and pressure around a form. There is a wooden soundboard that is created from several pieces of wood (Spruce in most cases). Upon the soundboard rests a heavy bronze cast harp shaped piece to which the strings are attached. Each key and hammer mechanism is a complicated little piece of wood and metalwork, and each hammer is capped with felt that is puffed up to a greater or lesser degree with small rubber inflator bladders with needles on the end that are inserted into the felt to create a harder or softer strike sound. The action of the hammers themselves is infinitely adjustable. The strings' frequencies beat against each other in various ways, there are tons of harmonic overtones because each note consists of several strings that the hammers strike at once, and the lowest strings are about 8 feet long on a concert grand. Tuning a piano takes a trained professional. No two tuners work a piano in the same way, and the good ones use tuning forks and tune by ear, not digital tuners or analog strobes. No one changes the strings on a piano unless they are completely restoring it.

Every day, a piano sounds a little different. Its woods and strings react to the dryness or humidity in the environment. As soon as it is tuned, a piano starts to drift out of tune, so that on any given day, its response to a player is going to be a little different. Its system of sound generation is therefore immensely complex, and in part this is what gives each instrument its unique sound. And the player "learns" how the piano is responding every single day, because it does change. In fact, concert halls have the piano tuned before every single performance, and great pianists travel with their own pianos if they aren't in love with the pianos in a given concert hall.

Here's where guitars and pianos intersect: on a smaller scale, guitars are like pianos. No two sound exactly alike, though the differences between two large pianos are often easier to hear than the smaller differences that exist between two guitars. No guitar responds in exactly the same way as it did the day before. The strings change subtly by the hour (most session players have had the experience of having to change strings on a single session). The action changes subtly with change in the humidity. Every single day the player is confronted with tiny, subtle differences, or at times, large ones.

For either a pianist or a guitarist, the brain and hands take into account these subtle changes, and vary the playing technique. We all know this - we've all had days when we couldn't quite figure out why everything sounds different, for better or for worse! I call them "bad tone days." YMMV on whether this is good or bad, of course.

But here's where I think it gets interesting -- I believe that creative guitarists and creative pianists are actually inspired by these tiny day to day differences in the tone of the instrument to try out different ideas. One thing we know: every day will be different. Some days, however, will be wonderful.

When we turn to the topic of the traditional, hand-wired tube amplifier, of course we are confronted with different variables than we are with the piano or the guitar. But in terms of concept, there are still these variables that make it kind of "alive" in a way, if you will forgive the loose way I think of the word "alive." Even such circuit board gurus as Randall Smith of Mesa admit that hand wiring adds a set of variables to a circuit that affects tone. In Smith's case, he feels that this makes the circuit too unpredictable for mass production, and wants his amps to sound as alike as possible. On a personal level, I like the way each hand wired amp is a little different from the next one, but that's another matter.

Because whether one has a hand wired amp preference, or a circuit board consistency preference, there is the matter of the tubes themselves: they all sound a little different. And like strings, they wear out. Every day to a tiny degree they sound different. They have a working life. As they wear, the tone of the amp changes just a little until it reaches the point that the tone becomes unacceptable, and the tubes need to be changed.

More so, changing a tube isn't exactly predictable to the tone outcome; not only do different makers' tubes sound quite a bit different, but there isn't 100% consistency in tube production, so two different batches or even two tubes from the same batch can have an individual personality.

Then there is the whole issue of transformers with their layers of windings and different methods and various layers, and each one can be a little different even with machines winding them.

I don't know about you, but for me there are times when my amps sound different than yesterday, and more than that, our speakers respond differently each day as the temperature and humidity varies, since they are generally paper cones that absorb or release moisture as any wood product does. On a dry day, they are physically lighter, and the air molecules aren't laden with as many water molecules.

I had two 50 Watt HXDAs. There was good consistency between them, but the two amps did not sound identical to one another. It was more like two very good pianos of the same model from the same maker that sounded a lot alike, but also sounded a little bit different.

Currently I have a 30 Watt version, and it. too, sounds and responds very differently from the 50s. as you would imagine.

So, is this variability or instability a good or bad thing?

Well, I'd prefer to believe that slight instability is more natural sounding, and gives life to the music. I think our ears crave nonlinearity and distortion of pure tones, and the generation of various harmonics that are a little bit chaotic. As a species, I do believe we respond to that in various ways.

But put another way, if your significant other surprised you with a new food dish, or a different sexual position, would that unpredictability be a good thing, or a bad thing?

The answer is going to be a little different for each of us. I liked both of my HXDA 50 watt amps, each for different reasons. I thought it was cool that they each had a distinct personality and vibe. Many of us on this forum have had, or currently have, different examples of the same make and model of guitar, and like each one for different reasons.

And now, transistor and modeling amps...

The transistor amp was invented to solve the "problems" inherent in the 1930s radio amplifier technology that tube amps are based on. They are more consistent sounding and more predictable than a tube amp. They need a little less maintenance and attention. Modeling amps are another step in solving the tube amp "problems" - they are incredibly consistent and predictable, and they offer the owner a variety of built in amplifier sounds.

However, as I've expounded at length in different threads, I think that some sonic integrity is missing with both of these types (this of course will be improved as technology improves) but as of today, I don't find them inspiring to play through. Why?

This is a very bad way of explaining it, nonetheless, I'll give it a shot: they give less "life" to the music. For me. YMMV.

But why all this talk recently of synthesizers and studio stuff in your other threads?

I've been inspired by listening to various new and old works in several ways. Also, I'm an active sound designer and synthesist, and for me, the guitar and amp are just a different way of synthesizing sound. And I've been on my own journey of rediscovery of traditional and classic tools, like single channel amps and real tape echo machines, etc.

Tonight I found this video from Moog, and found it interesting, because it includes interviews by one of the designers of the Moog Modular synth, as well as various synthesizer pioneers. I think it's a cool video, even if it is something of an ad for Moog. For the studio musician, or the person interested in electronic music and audio reproduction, I think it's worth watching and in a way helps explain in the broadest terms what I've been thinking about:

 
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....... if your significant other surprised you with...... a different sexual position, would that unpredictability be a good thing, or a bad thing?

It makes me suspicious of who or where my amp or significant other learned that sh!t from.
 
Les, that is a very thorough (and astute) observation, and I can't say as I specifically disagree with much of what you say. I love my tube amps, although other than a couple old Fenders, my main amps have always been PCB. I have the same complaints about modeled sound as you do, although I have been known to use amp models occasionally in my recordings. I just find the models lack the feel of the real thing and don't do a very good job preserving the character of the guitar's tone. I have not, however spent much time with the nicer (Fractal/Kemper) modelers, mainly Line 6 and various plugins.
I would say that the inconsistencies you describe are a double edged sword, and I think the inspiration of magic tone days is probably outweighed by the malaise of bad tone days. I want the tone, feel and response that my tube amps give on all but the worst days, and if I can get it every day, inspiration will be served when it chooses to show up. If I find something that works for me, I'll use it whether it's analog, digital, hardware, software, tube, solid state, blah blah blah blah........
Of course, if the next great thing appears to be a technology that I'm biased against, will I be able to overcome my prejudices and give it a fair try?

Sorry if this is incoherent babbling.

Tom
 
Of course, if the next great thing appears to be a technology that I'm biased against, will I be able to overcome my prejudices and give it a fair try?

Based on your response, I'm sure you'll have no trouble trying new things as they come along, since you've already demonstrated a willingness to do that.

It makes me suspicious of who or where my amp or significant other learned that sh!t from.

Maybe your significant other read about it in a book. But you'll never know for sure how the unpredictable thing came to be. Maybe the S.O. had a little adventure. Maybe it will grind your azz for the rest of your days not knowing. Maybe you need an S.O. that's a little more predictable. Or maybe the thing the S.O. learned was so cool you don't mind.

This is exactly my point. We're all different. One person's good thing can be a thorn in another person's side.

On the other hand, I have no idea where amps learn things, so jealousy never comes into play. ;)

In any case, did you enjoy the video? I am currently trying to figure out which limbs I can sell to get one of those big Modular Moogs.
 
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In any case, did you enjoy the video? I am currently trying to figure out which limbs I can sell to get one of those big Modular Moogs.

Yeah, it was a great video! Makes me feel nostalgic for my MiniMoog, which is still too big for the limited amount of space I presently have. :bawling: One of those modular beasts would be so dope, but I think there are a ton of features I would rarely touch, like the step sequencer...
 
Yeah, it was a great video! Makes me feel nostalgic for my MiniMoog, which is still too big for the limited amount of space I presently have. :bawling: One of those modular beasts would be so dope, but I think there are a ton of features I would rarely touch, like the step sequencer...

I was thinking about the step sequencer last night, and pulled up my Moog V soft synth just to putz around with the idea (obviously the sound would be a bit different). I probably wouldn't use it all that often, but there are times it might be awfully interesting and fun to work with.

You can buy the System 35 Modular without the step sequencer, and I think it'd save you $8500. Of course, you'd still be out the 22 grand base price...

They have a smaller package for around ten grand, but I'm not sure it has enough oscillators for a really good time. ;)

Frankly a Minimoog, Sub 37, or Prophet 6 or 8 would be all the analog synth I'd need, however I would LOVE to walk into a room with one of those big modulars and have at it; U of Michigan had one in the early 70s when I was an undergrad, but there was literally a waiting list to get to use it, so I never really got to do much more than gawk at the thing.

Now that I have the DSI P12, I'm leaning in the minimoog direction, as their larger version also has some basic modular patching capacity. Moog equipment is generally very high quality stuff, as you know, and there's something about that sound that makes me smile.
 
I would LOVE to walk into a room with one of those big modulars and have at it; U of Michigan had one in the early 70s when I was an undergrad, but there was literally a waiting list to get to use it, so I never really got to do much more than gawk at the thing.

I've never seen one in real life, only in books and pictures... I have a buddy in Chicago that makes modular synth modules, right under that studio I gave you a link to, that does nice work if you ever want custom.
 
It never oucoured to me instill recently that I should try other amps , I would give something different a try one and awhile but ALWAYS have used my old Boogie as #1
I have always had the good day bad day thing as I don't practice like I should.
In the last few years I have worked harder on my tone first by changing guitars ( the PRS thing just bit me :) ) and then by making my ODs and now it seams I am moving on to Amps all started with wanting something lighter and to have a backup in case mold faithful had an issue someday so I picked up my Egnater Tweaker 15 , then I started swapping tubes , doors started to open so on to more jamming with friends spending time with there gear ( more opening of doors )
Cool how different guitars work with different amps and then there are different CABs
Went I got my CU24 a few months ago it really spoke in the distortion channel on my Boogie and the Vox channel on my Egnater and with this Marshall there is something really special about the CU24 and my 408 standard
these amps are changing my playing and guitar choices on a given day so much fun :)

 
Went I got my CU24 a few months ago it really spoke in the distortion channel on my Boogie and the Vox channel on my Egnater and with this Marshall there is something really special about the CU24 and my 408 standard
these amps are changing my playing and guitar choices on a given day so much fun :)

Awesome! Looks like a pretty cool setup.
 
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