Real tube amps versus digital modelling

Aug 01, 2019

It has been a while since ex Oberheim designers, Marcus Ryle and Michel Doldic started Line 6 in 1996 with the release of the world’s first modelling amp, the original Flextone, followed within months by the AxSys 212.

Pros and cons

In the early 2000’s the Pod was released. This was a revolutionary way of processing electric guitar for live and studio and the technology has been improving ever since with great new products like Kemper, Line 6 Helix, Fractal Axe FX and Universal Audio not to mention a whole heap of software based modelling plug ins for DAW’s. As processing power becomes cheaper and the algorithms become more complex these amp modellers are going to come closer and closer to the real thing and certainly cheaper than buying a rake of vintage amps, pedals, mics, a good sounding room and enough storage room to house your collection.

Now, anyone reading this that has had the experience of playing big, loud valve amps through 4x12 cabs such as Marshall JTM45 or Plexi heads, Hiwatt Custom 100, Park, Orange, Fender Bassman etc will know what I mean when I talk about that punch in the chest you get from the transient of a struck chord.

These things move a lot of air and there is no experience quite like letting rip in front of a dimed double stack. At the other end you have all the little tube combos like Fender Princeton, Fender Deluxe, Vox AC15 and AC30 (Not really that little!) These are great for small gigs and recording as you can wind these things up full without blowing the windows or drowning out the singer’s monitors on a live show. The responsiveness of these amps is second to none with tonal changes via picking dynamics making the amp and guitar into a single entity of expression.

Now one thing I hear a lot is that Modelling amps don’t feel the same to play through as real ones or that they don’t sound like being in the room with the real thing. Now I would have to agree that modelling amps do not feel the same to play through. To me they feel stiff and unresponsive. I find they actually change the way I play and I end up using a lighter touch rather than digging in like I would with a nice tube amp. I think this is due in part to the fact that the human brain is very adept at making order out of chaos.

A modelling amp which is crunching zero's and ones will produce identical results if you feed a re-amped note into it multiple times in succession but a tube amp (or solid state for that matter) will give a slightly different result every time. This appeals to our chaos hungry brains and I feel this is why we covet the tube amp so. Tube amps are very power hungry when it comes to mains whereas modelling amps are much more conservative in their consumption so on an environmental footing the modelling amp would win hands down.

As for them not sounding like being in the room with the real thing, I would argue that once you mic your pristine 1963 AC30 Top Boost up with your Shure SM57 and Royer RM-121 you will find that sitting in the control room listening to it will also not sound the same as being in the room with it. From an audience perspective a real amp or modelling amp would make no difference to their listening experience especially in a live situation. Big shows are all run on in ear monitors these days and sound engineers don’t like massive wafts of air being disturbed by big amps causing the sound to leak down the on stage mics.

Modelling amps are ideally suited to these situations and it definitely looks like everything is moving further in that direction on the whole. Guitarist magazine did an amp review a few years back where they put 4 amps in a room, all mic’d up with an SM57 and carried out the review tests blind listening only through studio monitors. One of the tests was to listen to someone else playing and score the amps from best to worst. This part of the review had to be abandoned due to the fact that on listening to another player they couldn’t tell the difference between the amps at all!

The amps in question were a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe, Line 6 Spider III 75, maybe a Blackstar Club 40 and a boutique class a combo costing around £2000, the name of which I can’t recall.

Guitarists tend to work an amp to pull a sound as close as possible to the one in their head. The guitarist will essentially try and make each amp sound the same. This would explain why the listener could not easily distinguish between amps even despite a more than healthy knowledge of how differing amps would sound.


My conclusion would be that neither are better or worse but one or other would be more practical or desirable for certain situations and applications. With quantum computing just around the corner it looks like the modelling amp will be here to stay and soon it may be hard to even feel the difference when playing through it. As real amps become less and less commonly seen on stage at live shows they will all probably end up in studios, private collections and eventually museums.  We all love 'em but most of us can’t afford them or at least not many of them. Will real amps endure the test of time or will there eventually come a time when you will only be able to get hold of these inspiring and iconic creations as Impulse Responses? Only time will tell!



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