The Future of Solid-State Technology

One of the most controversial topics creating an insane amount of buzz within the guitar community is solid-state amplification. Some favor solid-state/digital guitar amplifiers for their cost-effectiveness, portability, and flexibility, while some guitarists despise them for their sterile, inorganic tones - it’s no surprise that in some forums, debates over solid-state technology have become explosive. But what do these changes in amplifier technology mean for the future of the industry?

The Future of Solid-State Technology
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One of the most controversial topics creating an insane amount of buzz within the guitar community is solid-state amplification. Since the introduction of the solid-state amplifier, solid-state technology has become increasingly more advanced and begun to attract a larger audience of guitarists. Some favor solid-state/digital guitar amplifiers for their cost-effectiveness, portability, and flexibility, while some guitarists despise them for their sterile, inorganic tones - it's no surprise that in some forums, debates over solid-state technology have become explosive. But what do these changes in amplifier technology mean for the future of the industry?

What Is Solid-State?

Solid-state amplifiers employ solid-state electronics such as solid-state transistors, for example, in place of vacuum tubes used in more traditional and high-end amps. In almost any other application, solid-state electronics serve exactly the same purpose as their predecessors, and in many cases, do so even more efficiently. Vacuum tubes are incredibly inefficient and can be very costly because they frequently have to be replaced. It was this characteristic of vacuum tube technology that drove the popularization of solid-state electronics in almost every other industry.

What Are Some of the Advantages of Solid-State Amplification?

Cost

In general, solid-state amplifiers are relatively inexpensive when compared to their tube-powered big brothers. While tube amplifiers run anywhere from $500 to $10,000 (or even more in some cases), solid-state amps can be purchased for less than $100. Even the most expensive solid-state amplifiers, such as the Kemper Profiler and the Fractal Axe FX, only cost about $2000 to $2500.

Portability

For many guitarists, portability makes a piece of gear that much more attractive. Solid-state amplifiers are usually much lighter than tube amps. While some solid-state combos can weigh less than twenty pounds, tube heads alone can weigh upwards of forty and fifty pounds. Many amplifier companies also make headphone/speaker-emulated outputs more readily available on their solid-state models. Though many musicians prefer to mic their amplifier, these headphone/emulated outputs provide a good alternative when space, house gear, or an experienced sound staff is unavailable.

Maintenance

While most guitar players would argue that tube amplifiers sound much better, most would also agree that they can be a pain in the butt. Tube replacement alone can be frustrating and costly, but beyond basic tube maintenance, tube amplifiers require a more intensive amount of upkeep and are much more susceptible to break-down. Solid-state amplifiers generally require no or very little servicing such as biasing or cleaning, and in many cases, they're much more durable than tube amplifiers.

Flexibility

Most importantly for a lot of players, solid-state amplifiers provide a level of flexibility unmatched by their tube-bearing counterparts. Digital modeling has become very popular within the last ten years, and products such as the Fractal Axe FX and Kemper Profiling Amplifier have convinced many guitarists to rethink their opinion about solid-state. At any rate, many guitarists have sacrificed what they perceive to be a superior sound for a more flexible, convenient modeling unit. This is especially appealing for the gigging musician that needs a piece of gear that can nail almost anything along the tonal spectrum, as well as provide studio-quality effects.

What Are Some of the Disadvantages of Solid-State Amplification?

Tone Quality

The disadvantages of a solid-state amplifier are largely subjective based on individual taste and other such variables, but many guitarists agree that for the most part, solid-state amplifiers just don't sound as good as tube amps. There are some exceptions to this rule, as is the case with the Roland Jazz Chorus line of amplifiers. Some jazz guitarists swear by these amplifiers because they refuse to break up and offer some of the tightest squeaky-cleans of any amplifier on the market. Usually, however, the guitarists that favor solid-state amplifiers over tube amps comprise a minority. Vacuum tubes offer a warmer and deeper sound, and many musicians favor the overdrive that can be achieved with a tube amplifier as opposed to diode-clipping, which is used primarily in solid-state amplification.

Feel

As solid-state technology moves forward, the sound continues to improve. Admittedly, I can barely tell the difference between some high-quality digital modeling amps and the amplifiers they're supposed to emulate. Even so, I still prefer tube amplifiers for one big reason: they feel much better. Tube amplifiers have a bit of a saggy response and are far more sensitive to things like pick-attack and volume roll-offs.

What Does the Future Look Like for Solid-State Amplification?

Solid-state technology has come a long way. We're finally emerging from the awkward, teenage years of solid-state amplification and seeing many new and exciting products like the Axe FX, Kemper Profiling Amplifier, Orange Crush series, and Roland Cube. These have begun to demonstrate that solid-state amplification is no longer just for the guitar player seeking a cost-effective option or bedroom practice amp. Even as the guitar community begins to embrace solid-state technology, there are still many questions that remain unanswered. One of which is this: how will solid-state technology affect the future of amplification?

Attitude

I think one of the most noticeable changes to be seen will be the attitude toward solid-state technology. Digital modeling has an incredible amount of potential, but with its introduction, the expectation toward solid-state amplification shifted drastically. Suddenly, people began to judge the quality of a solid-state amplifier by its similarity to a tube amp. Amplifiers like the Roland JC were popular simply because they sounded different; they offered unadulterated cleans that were simply unattainable by any other means. That's not to say that the JC had a better clean sound, but a different one.

It's for this reason that I get so excited about the Orange Crush series of solid-state amplifiers. Instead of building a solid-state amplifier that aims to sound just like a tube amp, Orange decided to build a solid-state amp that sounds just like a solid-state amp. Hopefully as solid-state technology continues to improve, we'll begin to see other companies follow suit.

Digital Modeling

We'll also see digital modeling technology continue to improve. So far, products like the Axe FX, Kemper, and Helix by Line 6 have demonstrated that modeling has come a long way in only a few years. I can only see this trend continuing as new products and technologies become readily available.

Cost

One exciting characteristic about the Helix by Line 6 is that we're beginning to see a little bit of competition in the world of high-end solid-state/modeling amplifiers. For the longest time, the Axe FX held a monopoly in this industry, but with the release of the Kemper Profiling Amplifier and the Line 6 Helix, prices began to become more competitive. The Helix is available for $1499, and while this still isn't "cheap" by any means, it's much less expensive than purchasing an Axe FX.

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    henrihell
    The problem for me with modelling amps is that they try to emulate certain amps. People might buy an amp because you "can get both the JCM800 and a 5150 in one amp". More often than not, these models sound like crap, unless you are in the thousands price range. For me, the game changer is the Blackstar ID-series. Their aim is not to emulate certain amps, it's to produce new exciting sounds to the world, and with the TVP, emulating different tubes instead of amps, and the ISF (British to American tone) control you can get pretty much the sound you want out of it. In other words, it is in essence a blackstar amp, not an amp that tries to be a peavey, vox and marshall all at the same time, while still saying Blackstar on the grill.
    K33nbl4d3
    The future is solid state. Now, I just spent a fair sum on a Reissue Twin Reverb, because I love the sound of it, so let's be clear that I have as much love for thermionic mojo as anyone, but it's an inevitability that in the coming decades tubes will be eclipsed by transistor/digital technology. What's held these things back is that the vast majority of good amps from major manufacturers simply are tube amps (dspellman, a regular on the forums, with whom I have no reason to disagree, connects this with the renewed abundance of tubes following the opening of the Soviet Bloc towards the end of the century), but high-end builders have already proven that there's just as much potential for great tone in transistors as in vacuum tubes. The tide of modelling in recent years just demonstrates: The technology's all there. I believe ZZ Top are currently running Valvestates. Before long, tube amps will complete the transition from expectation to affectation. I don't doubt that I'll hold on to all 30kg (~65lb) of my Twin, but the time will come when, confronted with a set of stairs, I will think without a hint of irony: "Why didn't I buy a fucking Line 6?".
    badfish_lewis
    I disagree that changing tubes is a pain, costly yes but it takes 10 minutes to switch tubes.
    TheLiberation
    I don't think it can really be agreed that tube amps sound significantly better than high-quality modellers - look at for example Periphery or Meshuggah, who use modellers for pretty much everything if I'm correct, and have an incredible tone both live and in the studio. In most price tiers the same price can probably get you a better-sounding tube amp than a modeller so it's a case of versatility over quality of a specific tone, but I've never heard a reason to believe an Axe-FX is in any disadvantage compared to any tube amp.
    Leather Sleeves
    I also think that the technology is already there. Someone needs to find the right combination of features and quality to offer a SS/digital that's affordable AND good. Maybe such an amp exists, if so, the rest is just a matter of attitudes. Many musicians still believe that nothing can surpass tube, so they don't even bother looking.
    Arby911
    While I do agree that eventually modelers will eclipse tube amps, at this point I can buy most good tube amps cheaper than a good modeler. Why would I buy something that's trying to be a tube amp for more money when I can buy the real thing for less? The "frequent replacement" tube nonsense is just that, nonsense. It means nothing without context. I've one tube amp with tubes that are over 30 years old (likely older, but I can't be certain) and others that are several years old. Tubes, like strings, are simply maintenance items, but they are neither difficult to replace nor expensive when amortized over time. If I was gigging hard regularly I might have to replace them more often, but if that's the case the expense probably isn't a primary concern.