The future of tubes?
What is the future of tubes and tube amps? Will recent improvements in digital modelers (specifically, the highly-regarded Axe-Fx by Fractal Audio Systems) convince so many guitarists to switch that tube-amp production will decline? Will a reduction in demand for tubes for guitar amplifiers cause the eventual cessation of tube manufacturing? Will vacuum-tube guitar amplifiers become a curiosity seen only in museums?
I don't think any of those scenarios will come to pass during the next few decades. Although one technology may achieve dominance, it is unlikely to completely supplant another technology.
Look back to the 1970s when solid-state amplifiers started to replace tube amplifiers. Reliability (once amp designers learned how to keep solid-state output stages from burning up under normal abuse) became the motivation behind the switch. Tube amps were notoriously unreliable, as was all tube-based consumer electronic gear. It's true that one could pull all the tubes, toss them in a bag, test them at the corner market, buy a replacement for the one that tested bad, put them all back in their sockets and maybe have the gear start working again.
It's also true that sometimes the test-and-replace regimen didn't work. You have to keep in mind that a failure often meant a trip to the local service technician. These techs fixed all kinds of equipment. Their shops were full of radios, televisions and stereo components. Your amp waited in the queue for as long as it took, which was often a considerable length of time.
When the then-new solid-state products offered the promise of greater longevity and fewer trips to the repair shop, consumers - including guitarists - jumped at the chance to have a reliable piece of gear.
Despite the mass shift in consumer behavior, tube amps never went away. Solid-state became the dominant paradigm for construction of consumer electronics. Reliability and smaller size drove more consumers to buy new TVs, radios and hi-fi gear, which in turn drove down costs through economies of scale. The introduction of printed-circuit boards (believe it or not, some of the earliest solid-state products were still hand-wired) further reduced costs by reducing labor. Guitar amps have never been a driving factor in technology. They came along for the ride.
Tube production eventually stopped in the US. Stockpiles remained dormant for decades, eventually to reemerge as NOS. Prices went up as reserves declined, prompting entrepeneurs seek other sources of production, which led them to first repurpose tubes originating in eastern bloc countries. This led to a revival of manufacturing.
Keep in mind that guitarists aren't the only ones using vacuum tubes. Hi-fi enthusiasts also consume tubes and will probably be willing to pay much more for new tubes than guitarists will. That said, the machines are getting old and the expertise is held by a (literally) dying breed. At some point (and I'm not expecting it to be any time soon) it won't be worth anyone's while to continue manufacturing (or using) tubes.
I think that something will eventually supplant tubes. At some point - not soon, but dependent upon how reslient the tube-amp market is to price increases - it will no longer make good economic sense for anyone to produce the necessary components.
I suspect that the analog and digital modelers will compete for mind- and market share. (BTW, some people make a big deal about the exact definition of a modeler. They might call the analog circuits something else. Or they might exclude a device that doesn't purport to model specific "real" amplifiers. I find it easier to call them all modelers regardless of implementation or target tones.)
Analog modelers aren't getting a lot of attention nowadays. They are easier (and probably less expensive) to build. I didn't think that analog modelers (e.g. the SansAmps) were very good ten years ago.
A couple of recent experiences have changed my tune about analog modeling.
I like the Tech21 Character Series Blonde a lot. It produces a fantastic range of Fender-ish sounds covering the various eras and lots of in-between territory, then continuing right on through to hot-rodded tones reminiscent of the Boogie Mark-series amps.
They're actually positioning the Character Series as a modeler rather than a distortion stomp that "sounds like" whatever the particular series member suggests. (The different pedals cover Fender, Boogie, Vox, Marshall and SVT.) The pedal has a non-defeatable cabinet emulation; it's intended to go in front of a powered speaker, a DI, or a recording console.
The First Act V-Stack amp blew me away. First Act is blowing out these amps at $99 (which is probably close to cost). My friend Stephen bought one of these. I only had about 20 minutes to play with it, but he had put it through its paces and identified the weak and strong points. I was amazed by one of the tones he dialed in: it had the most incredible sag I've ever hear outside of a pushed tweed-era amp.
I envision three schools of thought regarding amplification (or more precisely, tone generation and modification) in the future:
- The traditionalists will stick with tubes until the bitter end. (Whether that end actually arrives during our lifetimes, I won't attempt to guess...) To these people, that last unquantifiable bit of chaotic magic in a real tube circuit will more than justify the cost and logistics of owning the real thing.
- An increasing number of players will migrate toward digital devices as the products continue to improve and the decade-old stigma fades. These people will be driven to the digital products by the benefits of lower cost and high flexibility. A lot of this will be kind of a Swiss Army Knife syndrome: "I don't know what I'll do with all these features, but it can't hurt to have them."
- I think that analog modelers will remain a niche market for the foreseeable future. The people driven to these devices may have some residual anti-digital bias, although they'll probably still use digital where it has a marked performance advantage, such as in reverb and echo units. These people will gladly introduce complexity (e.g. switching matrices) if they feel that they need flexibility or programmability. A lot of the analog market will continue to be driven by those who absolutely must optimize each component separately through evaluation and selection of the alternatives.