David Lamkins picked up his first guitar a long time ago. As best he can recall the year was 1967: the year of the Summer of Love. Four decades later David has conjured up an amalgam of folk, rock and jazz solo guitar music for the occasional intimate Portland audience.
location: Portland, OR USA

Facets: amplifiers, comparison, digital, technology, @musings info

Modelers vs. Tube Amps (2)

This is the second in a series of three articles comparing tube amps to modelers from various viewpoints.

Let's be fair... Not every tube amp is a stellar example of the technology. Compared to the number of digital modelers on the market, the availability of tube amps is staggering. And don't forget that the typical price of a tube amp is some multiple of that of a modeler.

I'm not going to argue that tube amps have something that you can't get from a modeler. I've recently switched to running a digital rig (from a couple of very nice tube amps) despite believing that the digital rig will never reproduce what I can get from my tube rig. However, I can adapt my playing to the digital rig so that I don't give up anything in terms of expressiveness or musicality. And why not? I use the same set of skills, after all, to adapt to the differences between one tube amp and the next (or even to the same tube amp under different conditions).

Some tube gear holds its value quite well. Some vintage amps have even kept up (or exceeded) inflation. But a lot haven't.

Yes, digital gear becomes obsolete rapidly. I often say "'Digital' means 'no resale value'". That's one way of looking at it. Another perspective, though, is that next year's gear gives you the option to buy more functionality at about the same price point. Let's face it: next year's tube amp is going to be some minor variation on all the tube amps you've ever seen.

As I pointed out earlier, the cost of entry is a lot lower for digital gear. Maybe you'll only get ten or twenty cents on the dollar at resale, but you won't have had a whole lot of money invested compared to what you would have put into the "vintage" technology. In fact, when you flip a tube amp - especially if you buy new - you're probably going to lose as much on the resale as you would have in buying the next-generation digital gear.

Consistency comes into play, too... I have two Vibro-Kings, and have played a half-dozen others. They're great-sounding amps - my personal favorite, in fact. But if I ever have to replace one, I'm going to end up with what is essentially a different amp in terms of its sound and feel. Similar, yes. But not the same. On the other hand, my GT-8 is absolutely consistent from day to day. (And I like it, so let's dispense with comments along the lines of "yah, but it's not a Vibro-King"... I've already acknowledged that.) If I ever have to replace the GT-8 I can download my patches into a new unit and it will sound and behave exactly the same as the one I have now.

Even the word "obsolete" is interesting in this context. One definition (from the Oxford American dictionary on my Mac) is "no longer produced or used; out of date". Are NOS tubes obsolete? They're no longer produced, but they are still used by enthusiasts of the technology. Tubes are almost certainly out of date: there has been no advancement of the technology since the 1970s (and the subset used by guitar amps dates back to the 1940s or 1950s).

On the other hand, if Line6 comes out with a new modeler next year, does it really "obsolete" the one you bought this year? Presumably you buy something because it meets your needs today, not because you don't think something better will come along in the future. There's a big difference between the desire to possess the latest product and the obsolescence of the product that you already own.

May 05 2007 01:59:43 GMT