Are tubes good enough for the future of guitar music?
Every rig has its tradeoffs. If the mere presence of tubes was enough to get that "grail tone", none of us would have gone through multiple iterations of a tube-amp rig before converging on "the one" that worked. (Only to go on another quest a few months or years later, but that's another matter entirely...)
Modeling has been with us now for ten years. Technologically we're well past the teething stage. Whatever shortcomings may have been apparent in early digital devices have been long since dealt with by cost/performance improvements made possible by the fact that the the computer and consumer electronics industries are giving the modeling guys better raw materials all the time.
There are still some growing pains with respect to system designs as executed by end-users. I'm starting to believe that the "sounds digital" epithet really only has a few root causes:
- A/D converters and digital audio algorithms are very unforgiving in their overload behavior. Gain staging is a concept that your typical guitar-playing consumer doesn't grok. In the pre-digital world, running a signal "too hot" almost always produced a musically-useful result. Not so in the digital world.
- All digital processors have latency. This doesn't matter a bit insofar as player response is concerned. A few milliseconds' delay is equivalent to standing three feet further away from your amp. Where the latency does matter is when you combine it with a parallel signal path (e.g. the parallel FX loop on some amps) to get an unanticipated and undesired comb filter. This will become a less common occurrence as hybrid rigs find less use.
- Let's face it: the presets on most modelers are designed to sell hardware. If you want a patch that sounds appropriate for your musical style and playing technique, then you're going to have to put in some time and effort on programming. This is a completely different discipline than twisting a few knobs to get the sound you want. User interfaces on modelers are still designed to minimize cost. This is true even on high-end modelers. Personally, I don't see the marketplace demanding easier-to-use modelers any more than I see personal-computer purchasers demanding simplicity. So get used to reading manuals...
- Playing a modeler through a guitar amp is a losing proposition. There's nothing wrong with turning off the amp and speaker sims and just using the modeler's effects, if that's what you want. But running a Dual Recto sound through a Hot Rod Deluxe - whether or not there's a modeler involved - just isn't going to work. Your best bet to get good sounds out of your modeler and have it be portable from venue to venue (where you may not get to specify the amp) is to run your modeler through a PA or keyboard amp.
So the digital technology has barriers to entry, most notably a fairly steep learning curve. But tubes have some problems of their own. Five years ago I would have argued adamantly that there will always be a place for tubes in guitar amplification. Now I'm not so certain. My reasons:
- Tubes have reliability issues. Yes, they are field replaceable units (FRUs), but a lot of tube-amp users don't understand the basic troubleshooting techniques that they'd use to isolate and fix tube problems by themselves. This results in a perception of increased downtime and cost.
- Tube amps made for sale in the EU keep the tubes in enclosed cages. They're taking the position that tubes are not a FRU. This will further drive the perception that tube amps are unreliable and costly to maintain. I don't believe that the USA has (or will be introducing soon) comparable legislation. However, any manufacturer designing amps to be exported to the EU (and most large manufacturers in the USA find themselves in this position) will have to deal with the EU rules. It may be more cost-effective to build one product to the most restrictive tstandards than to build two products.
- Modern tubes are not made to exacting tolerances. Mesa/Boogie and Groove Tubes have done their bit by "grading" power tubes so you can reasonably exchange them without invoking a bias measurement. But most tube amp user's don't understand the issues, and will not change tubes without taking their amp to a tech. Again, there's the perception of inconvenience and cost.
- Tubes do not perform consistently. They age and get dull- or weak-sounding. They rattle. Tube amps behave differently depending upon how much voltage is present at the wall outlet - a quantity that varies with location, season, and time of day.
- Tube amps are heavy. This makes a difference when you have to pay by the pound to ship. It's not surprising that the EU, which has long had fuel costs much higher than in the US, has companies that focus on lightweight amplification.
- The days of filling a venue with sound from the backline are rapidly disappearing thanks to cost/performance improvements in sound reinforcement gear. At many venues there's already an expectation that the talent will play nicely with the sound guy's desire to control everything from the FOH. Modelers (programmed properly) make sound guys smile.