Modelers vs. Tube Amps (1)
This is the first in a series of three articles comparing tube amps to modelers from various viewpoints.
I bought my GT-8 and a portable PA a few months ago because I finally got fed up with lugging close to a hundred pounds of tube amp and pedals. I picked the GT-8 over the competition for a lot of reasons that I won't go into here because that's not really the point of this article.
I spent about 20 years away from the guitar; I got back into playing in the spring of 1999. As you might guess, I'm old enough to have a "career" that's not related to music. I've been programming computers for over thirty years, and I'm pretty good at it.
When I got back into music I made a vow that I wasn't going to mix music with computers. Before I bought my studio gear in 2000 I talked to a lot of local musicians who had set up their own PC-based home studios. They'd spend five minutes telling me how "powerful" their DAWs are, then the next half-hour reciting all the flaws they uncovered and hoops they had to jump through in order to create a usable system.
I went out and bought semi-pro recording hardware: I didn't want to spend my free time debugging computer systems instead of making music. That was the right decision for me. That studio gear is still working perfectly. I haven't lost any time at all debugging, and haven't put a cent into studio upgrades aside from a new microphone every now and then.
I took a similar attitude toward modelers. I wanted real knobs controlling real circuitry. I didn't want to spend my time programming patches - I wanted to play! Sure I owned (and sold) a few modelers along the way. Each one confirmed that I had made the right decision to stick with "non-virtual" gear. It wasn't so much the sound (which was usable, but never really "good"), or even the feel... It was the programming.
I have a problem dealing with the concept of patches. I wanted a familiar "stomp-box plus amp" arrangement and all the modelers forced me to design patches such that each had some useful combination of effects. When you have combinations of four or five favorite effects and just four patches without bank switching, that kind of ties your hands... I might remember to change banks between songs. I don't want to have to think while I'm playing, especially about things like "What bank is the next patch on...? Is that up or down from the current bank...? Do i have time to switch...? Can I play something to cover up the fact that I have to think about this...?"
Yes, it's true that I could have bought a bigger floorboard for my Line6 amp or my Fender cyber amp, but the thought of spending a significant fraction of the amp's cost for a footswitch really rubbed me the wrong way.
As you might surmise, I'm a big fan of the GT-8's manual mode. I've set up my GT-8 so that it is always in manual mode except when changing patches, which I can only do when the expression pedal is heel-down. I really like the fact that I was able to program the necessary control behaviors into the GT-8. I never have to bend down to make adjustments, and don't need to carry any external pedals or switches.
The really interesting thing is that I don't spend a lot of time programming the GT-8. By the time I climbed the learning curve (it took me about ten hours to figure out just about everything) I had my GT-8 set up exactly the way I want. I just play. And if I get an odd "what-if" kind of thought I can program it in a couple of minutes because all of the potential things that I could do with the GT-8 are just waiting for me hit a few buttons.
I realized that this last bit - the unexplored (by me) potential of the GT-8 - is its greatest benefit and biggest win over using my tube-amp-plus-pedals rig. With my tube rig every "new sound" meant some change to the hardware. I'd get a great idea, figure out how to implement it, do my research, audition new products, comparison shop, buy the gear (or order it and wait for delivery), hook things up, deal with the undesired alterations of the behavior of the rest of the system, and on and on... The whole process could take days or even months. And I thought I was saving time by avoiding programming...
There's one more thing... Tube amps are fickle creatures. They use low-tolerance components, so the behavior changes from unit to unit. In fact, the behavior changes a little bit whenever you change a tube, which you must do because they wear out. Most of the circuitry runs open-loop, so the behavior changes with the voltage available at the wall, which tends to vary depending upon season and time of day. The speakers are not strictly sound reproducers but rather tone-generators in their own right. The amount of moisture in the air can have a dramatic effect upon the behavior of a speaker.
I like tube amps. They may be fickle, but they can also - for the very same reasons - be surprising. Playing a good tube amp cranked up on a good (for the amp) day is a thing of wonder. But good tube amps seem to be the ones that "live on the edge". You have to coax the great sounds out of them. And that, unless you get really lucky, takes time and patience and lots of experimentation. Not that much different from a modeler, really...
The difference is that the modeler is consistent. Not just from day to day, but from unit to unit. I have two Fender Vibro-Kings. Both of them are bone-stock. And they sound totally different. One works better with single-coil guitars; the other works best with humbuckers. On the other hand I can save my GT-8 patches, go buy another one, reload my patches and it's going to sound exactly the same. Just like it's going to sound the same whether or not all the air conditioners in the neighborhood are running. And that's a good thing...
The playing field is, in a very real sense, leveled by a good modeler. What comes out depends exactly upon what you put in, both in terms of programming and playing your guitar. You don't have to even think about things like NOS tubes and speaker swaps and cabinet material and transformer brand and true bypass and all those other things that a committed tube-amp player worries about. You just plug in and play. And isn't that the way it should be?