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.
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location: Portland, OR USA

Facets: amplifiers, technology, @musings info

Do I miss my amps?

I'm coming up on four years without a "real" guitar amp (i.e. an amp with tubes). I have to say that I haven't missed my amps. Not in the least.

I had some nice amps: a collection of Mesa/Boogie amps - just about all of the non-diamondplate series up through 2003, two Fender Vibro-Kings, a Fender brown Pro, a Fender tweed hi-powered Twin, and lots of others... When I switched to using a modeler in January 2004, I put the last of my tube amps into storage because I knew I'd eventually "come to my senses". I did an A/B comparison later that year between my modeler and my tube amps; the modeler won. Yah, I was surprised.

Ten years ago I was one of the folks arguing vehemently that a modeler couldn't capture all of the nuances of a tube amp. That was probably true, then. Modeling technology achieved parity with "real" tube amps sometime around five or six years ago.

I know that some of you think that's pure nonsense. You may believe that there will always be some elusive, indefinable aspect of playing a tube amp that a modeler will never capture. You may be right. Perhaps you have way better ears than I do. Or maybe you just can't stand the thought that the DSP geeks have found a way to model a dozen or so very simple physical processes - processes that have been well-understood for over a century - in real-time using a hundred bucks (or less) worth of commodity silicon. I think that'd annoy me, too, if I was convinced of the "magic" of tubes.

I know there's no "magic" in a tube amp. There are lots of interacting aspects of the circuit and components that affect the end result; those can all be described, dissected, analyzed and - yes - converted into an algorithm. Not too long ago, the DSP guys learned enough about how tube amps really work and the silicon became cost-effective enough that it was possible to create a very good model of a tube amp.

Along the way, other things changed. One of the biggest contributions of the early Axe-FX adopters was the realization that they had to have a quality sound-reproduction system to get the most out of their gear. Before the Axe-FX, no one talked about FRFR systems. If you had a modeler, you plugged it into your guitar amp. If you were really sophisticated, you plugged your modeler into the FX return in order to bypass the tonal coloration of your guitar amp's preamp. The results you got sounded - unsurprisingly - like a cartoon of an amp being poorly mic'd and played through your guitar cabinet. It's no wonder modelers got a bad reputation.

Now, it's practically canon that you plug a great modeler into an accurate, neutral-sounding reproducer. (Yes, there are some who still insist on using a tube power section and a guitar cab; these folks get the sound they want at the expense of losing some of the flexibility of the modeler, e.g. by disabling power-amp and cab sims.)

Anyhow, I think modelers have arrived. The remaining tube nuances that aren't modeled are things that I don't particularly want to hear. Things like microphonics and popcorn noise in tubes. Or a gradual degradation of performance as the tubes age. Or inconsistent tones that vary with line voltage. Those things are all part of the tube amp experience; they're things that I fought and struggled with as an owner of tube amps.

Speaking of which: Tube amps are not uniformly "great". Neither are modelers. Or guitarists. Point is: You can't simply say "toobs rule and digital drools". You have to be specific. It should go without saying that details matter, but I see far too many sweeping generalizations regarding the relative merits of darned near everything that guitarists choose to compare. Just because you found something that works for you doesn't mean that's the end of the line for everyone. We're all seeking the holy grail, but it's a different grail for each of us.

In the end, it all comes down to preference and to what you can wring out of your gear. "Feel", especially, is completely and utterly unquantifiable because you are in the loop; your cognitive and motor skills and musical judgement are irreproducible. What "feels" great to you may be complete and utter garbage in another player's hands.

That said, there's one aspect of the "feel" of a tube amp that boils down to the visceral experience of playing loud, moving quite a bit of air, and running up against some well-understood physiological effects: the perception of relative loudness at different frequencies as observed by Fletcher and Munson, and the threshold shift that our ears engage in response to loud sounds. Neither of these effects are the sole province of tube amps; all it takes to get the same "feel" from a modeler is proper EQ and sufficient volume.

While on the subject of "feel", I should note that the "great" guitar players seem to be able to adapt their playing to the rig. They recognize that the "tone" of their rig is only facilitated by the gear. They get out of the rig what they put into it - no more; no less. Lesser players haven't yet learned to nuance their playing to express themselves through the gear at hand; they consequently spend an inordinate amount of time and money trying to assemble a rig that optimizes the end result of their unvarying approach to the instrument.

Modelers have been good enough to respond to player nuances for a while now. I got fantastic results out of a Boss GT-8 set for some edge-of-breakup sounds; that hardware and firmware dates back to 2005. I'm not saying that's the be-all and end-all in terms of nuanced responses, but it was better for me at the time than many of amps I listed above.

My Eleven Rack raised the bar with its emulation of the Fender tweed Deluxe. That's one of my favorite amps; the 11R's emulation completely nails the way I expect that amp to behave. To my surprise (after having ditched a large collection of M/B amps for the Fender sound), the 11R's Mark IIC lead channel is incredible! Much better, in fact, than any of the M/B amps I owned (none of which included a IIC).

One of big wins of playing a modeler - as opposed to a traditional tube/cab rig - is convenience. I can count on a venue having sound reinforcement at least as good as what I use at home, and usually better. I dial in my patches using a powerful, clean, flat PA; when I play out, I only need to bring my guitar and my modeler to get the sound I'm used to hearing.

Recording is also much easier with a modeler. Mic choice and placement is virtualized, and bleed is a concern of the past.

Amps? I've got my amps. They're in a little box with XLR outputs.

November 29 2010 06:09:05 GMT