- September 21st, 2013
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Quite often on this blog I write about digital guitar technology, whether it is my iOS Strat, an app like Ampkit for my iPad, or something to do with Logic Pro on my iMac, my musical life as a guitarist and bassist really seems to revolve around digital technology. As a bass player, I could not have ever been bothered with tube amps. Give me solid state over tubes any day of the week. And honestly, as a bassist, that is still my mantra. However on the guitar side of things, that mantra changed.
On Facebook and twitter I have been writing a lot about the documentary “Sound City” that Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters and Nirvana on the L.A. Studio where Nirvana recorded “Nevermind”, the record that set the blueprint for the 90's. Being a gear head I have watched the movie a few times now due to the fact that it centers around the Neve console that was the heart of the studio. The movie actually does a good job of showcasing the sound of the Neve console and how it made so many great sounding records, but it also focuses of the fact that to make music, good music, you need people to perform so it can be captured by this mythical gear. There were a few times in the film where I felt they tried to unfairly vilify the digital age, but I completely agree that music should be “performed” vs. “fabricated” or pieced together.
So how do those two completely unrelated paragraphs tie together? Well, between watching the “Sound City” and playing with the Ampkit app on my iPad, I found myself longing for the sound of a real, analog amplifier. The real irony is that what really drove my quest for a tube amp was playing through the modeled version of the Peavey Classic 30 in the Ampkit app. It sounded great, unlike any other modeled amps I had used before, so I started looking for a small tube amp.
I have two small 30 watt guitar amps, both are modeling amps. One is the Fender G-DEC 3 and the other is the Vox AD30-VT. Both are loaded with effects and amp models, but the Vox always had something that set it apart, a tube pre-amp. Something about that amp just sounded better and I figured it had to be the 12AX7 tube. So as you can guess after playing around with the Vox, Ampkit, and watching Sound City over and over, I decided that I needed a real tube amp.
Going back to my opening statements, this desire for tube tones obviously led me into very unfamiliar territory. Since I had no idea what I was doing or even what I was really looking for, I headed down to Pittsburgh Guitars to get some guidance. One thing that I really appreciate about Pittsburgh guitars is that they stay true to who they are and what they like. Meaning that they only sell things that they themselves would use. Over the course of two visits I tried out a Vox AC4 and a Fender Blues Junior. The two amps were similar in size and build, but sounded vastly different. When I asked why, John simply replied “it's a different circuit”. The blues junior had a stronger low end and reminded me of the classic late 60's early 70's tones. As I tried two of the different Vox AC4 amps out, I asked about the circuit in the blue one. I had read about the the circuit being modeled after the AC15, just lowered wattage. This time it was Scott the repair guy who answered my question. His reply? “I'm not sure about the circuit, but what do your ears tell you?”.
That was a very powerful statement. I had shown up that day with two of favorite pedals, my own cables and my Fender Pawnshop '51. Obviously I wanted to know how these amps sounded with my own gear, and Scott reminded me of that. With that one simple statement he also reminded that as much as I enjoy all the technology that goes into the gear, what really matters is the sound that comes out. So I focused on that sound. I really listened to those three amplifiers I was playing. My decision was this: the Fender blues jr really had the low end I wanted, but it was just too loud for what I need right now, but it's on the wish list. The “Blue” AC4 sounded great, but didn't give me the sound I wanted at low volumes. So that leaves the AC4-TV. I loved the clarity of the high end, but it was lacking in low end. That said, when set to 1/4 watt, I could turn everything up full and really drive the amp to get the tones I wanted.
To tie this all back to my opening paragraphs, the technology of the iPad drove me to seek out real tube amps. Watching “Sound City” drove me to record real amps and made me realize that a real tube amp would sound better then the modeling amps I was using. Those two factors drove me to get a tube amp and I now have better guitar tones than I could have imagined, and I am able to get them at a volume that makes my family happy. I am now completely sold on tube amps for guitars and you can bet there will be more “tone” posts in the future.