Assuming you read last week's feature, you're pretty much sorted on the distinction between valve and solid-state amps. At least, I hope you are, because in this edition, we're going to muddy the waters with hybrids, modelers and valve-modeling hybrids!
While the valve vs. solid-state debate was the be-all-end-all amplifier discussion back in the day, the past 20 years have seen the whole market blown wide open with new technological innovations that have combined transistor and tube technologies, making the distinctions less clear cut. In the last decade, we've also seen the addition of the digital emulation of guitar amplifiers - otherwise known as modeling - that has changed the game even further.
But what do these technologies mean to you, the budding guitar god, and which of these new amp types is best suited to your playing needs? Read on and we'll explore the myriad options.
In the last edition, I looked at the distinction between tube and solid-state amps. But, that distinction has been somewhat eroded by the introduction and popularization of the hybrid amp in the past 20-25 years.
What is a hybrid amp? As the name suggests, it's an amp that uses both valve and solid-state circuits. Hybrids have a tube in the pre-amp section, while using solid-state transistor tech in the power amp to drive the speakers. The principle is that the tubes retain the clarity of tone in the pre-amp section - arguably where it's most important to the sound, while the solid state circuitry in the power amp brings a level of reliability.
There are a couple of high profile hybrid amps on the market that you might already recognize, such as the Orange Micro Terror, the Micro Dark and the VOX AC15VR Valve Reactor Amps. Their sound comes from a combination of high quality solid-state electronics and valves.
What are the advantages to using a hybrid amp? Well, for one, the use of solid-state transistor tech in the pre-amp means they're a lot lighter than a full-on tube amp, which is especially useful if you're using them for gigging and they need to be carried around a lot. They also offer a tube-like tone at a fraction of the price of their pure valve brethren. And, while some purists will claim that hybrid amps can't beat the sound of a proper tube set-up, they come pretty damn close for my money.
Perhaps the greatest advantage of hybrid amps to aspiring guitar players though is that, thanks to the solid-state technology in the power amp, they don't need to be cranked to get the a good tone. In this sense, they're much more versatile than a valve amp proper, functional for bedroom practice as well as a full band-set up. Granted, the tone you get from a Marshall Plexi or a VOX AC30 is going to be beautiful. But, blowing out the windows of your house and pissing off the neighbors to get it is not. In that respect then, a hybrid amp comes pretty close to giving you the best of both worlds.
Amp Modeling Software
Do you even need an amp? Ten years ago, my answer to this question would have been a definite "yes." But, thanks to a number of significant developments in amp modeling, things aren't as clear-cut these days.
For the uninitiated, amp modeling (sometimes called amp emulation) is the process of digitally emulating a guitar amplifier. Amp modeling generally comes in the form of software, and is also sometimes comes built into standalone amplifiers (we'll come on to that in a minute).
When it was first introduced back in the day, amp modeling was somewhat underwhelming, with attempts at simulation sounding discernibly inferior to the real thing. Nowadays though, the quality is a lot better, with many sims on the market going toe-to-toe with the amps that they emulate. So much so, in fact, that a number of high profile bands have started using amp modeling in the studio, and sometimes even live.
While you used to need a Digital Audio Workstation like ProTools to run amp-modeling software, there are plenty of standalone options on the market today such as Positive Grid's Bias and IK Multimedia's Amplitube. And, many of them run on smartphones and tablets, requiring only an interface to plug your guitar into. Sound is output, either to speakers or headphones.
There are several advantages to using modeling. Firstly, it's relatively inexpensive. Modeling apps can cost as little as a couple of dollars, and there are even limited, free versions of some software options out there. You can pick-up a decent basic interface, meanwhile, for around $30.
Secondly, it's ridiculously portable. Amps are generally big, heavy and take up room. With amp modeling, all you need is your phone, guitar, interface and headphones and you're good to go.
Finally, modeling gives you a lot of tonal options. Modeling apps usually have several different kinds of popular amplifier sounds built in, as well as a range of pedals, with plenty more available as add-on purchases. That allows you to explore a variety of sounds, without needing to spend big money (not to mention take up loads of space) buying different gear.
As the name suggests, a modeling amp is simply an amplifier that uses modeling software to generate sounds. Popular examples of amps with built-in modeling devices on the market include the Peavey Vypyr, Roland Cube, Fender Mustang and Line 6 Spider series.
Modeling amps bring with them the varied tonal advantages of modeling software. In one box, you've got multiple amp and pedal presets, which are typically adjustable and customizable, any many use USB technology to allow you to further manipulate sounds and add new elements.
While modeling software is great for studio work or home practice, there aren't really the provisions for using it while playing live in smaller venues (because modeling software doesn't provide a speaker cabinet, you'd need onstage monitors to hear yourself, something that you often won't get at pub or club gigs). Modeling amps get around that problem, and larger units give you the grunt that you need to play a show.
Further adding the to hybridization of amplifiers that was discussed in the first part of this article, high-end modeling amps such as the Vox Valvetronics and 60/120 watt version of the Peavey Vypyr combine digital modeling with tube technology in the pre-amp. The blend of old and new technology is one that takes modeling tone even closer to that of classic valve amps and again, does so at a fraction of the price.
So what's the best amp for you? It all depends on your needs. Hybrid amps are affordable, reliable and get pretty close to classic valve tone for a fraction of the price of a full tube amp. They don't have the endless tonal versatility that you get with modeling software, but that might be an advantage to players overwhelmed by the range of options that modeling brings.
Modeling software is brilliant for studio applications and home practice. But, you probably can't rely on it for gigging, given the limited monitoring provisions in smaller venues. If you're set on modeling and want to use it for gigging, a modeling amp could be the option for you, with higher-end models combining using valve-driven pre-amps to get you even closer to vintage tube sounds.
That's it for this week's edition, and rounds off the summary of the different types of amp technology on the market today. We're not done yet though! The final edition of this series is yet to come and in it, we'll be exploring the differences between practice amps, combo amps and stacks, working out which one is the right option for you.