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4 Reasons You Should Ditch Tube Amps

Three warm vacuum tubes

It's time to replace your tubes again! After months of increased muddiness, your guitar amp now sounds like it's breathing.

Tubes were once the prized gem of the guitar community, renown for their smooth compression and distortion. But with the marked improvement of digital modeling amps over the past three decades and the advent of solid state recitifiers, vacuum tube technology is quickly becoming obsolete.

Along with the tonal benefits come several significant drawbacks that can hurt your performance and your wallet. Here are 4 reasons you need to ditch tube amps, and what you should be looking at instead.

1. Tubes Waste Power

The first major drawback of tube amps is their energy consumption. Tube amplifiers use vacuum tubes to translate your guitar signal into a conditioned, line level signal in the preamp phase and another set to power that line level signal with enough energy to move the magnet on a speaker cone.

The problem is that tubes get hot. Not can get hot. They do this as a consequence of shooting electricity around the glass globes comprising most of the vacuum tube.

As your tubes heat up, your tone will change, getting more compressed as more and more electricity is lost to heat. The same wattage entering a solid state transistor, the main competitor to vacuum tube technology, will deliver more power to the final signal than a vacuum tube because unlike a tube, transistors do not lose electricity to heat.

2. Tubes Can't Be Recycled

Maybe you don't care about the environment. Maybe you see the great Pacific garbage patch, raging wildfires and punishing floods across the world, freak weather episodes, shifting jet streams, and rising global temperatures and think, "No big deal."

Well some people can't be convinced.

For the rest of you who probably stumbled on this blog post because you know something about my music, you probably care about reducing the waste you create on this planet.

And it's not just that they can't be thrown away. It's that new ones must constantly be manufactured to sate the wasteful needs of tube amp users, requiring more extraction of metals and silicates.

3. Tubes Are Unreliable

But if you don't care about your power bill or the environment, maybe you care about your tone? Now, tube are prized for their tone, and that's kind of beyond debate.

However these tonal benefits accrue for a limited time only. When you first get your tubes, they are perfectly clean, which gives a brighter tone than most guitarists are looking for.

As the tubes are repeatedly heated and cooled, carbon sediment forms on the inside of the tubes, disrupting the flow of electricity across them. This mellows out the tone, giving something most guitarists are more interested in.

However, as yet more carbon sediment accrues inside your tubes, your tone becomes muddy. Eventually, the amp will start to sound like it's breathing, with the volume fading in and out.

4. Tubes Lose Fidelity at Low Volumes

But even when your tubes are at their peak, you will still run into tone issues. When you change the volume of your amp, your tone will not change in proportion. This is why you often find tube amp owners playing at inappropriately loud volumes.

This is because your amp's volume is determined by the voltage hitting the speakers. This is changed by changing the power going through your tubes.

But when you play on lower volumes, your tubes don't get as hot, thinning out your sound, and cutting down on desirable distortion.

Replacing Your Tube Amp

There are a few things you can do to replace tubes. If you already have a tube amp, you can get solid state rectifiers to fit your tube sockets. These translate the signal designed to go in and out of your tubes to something that can be used by transistors.

Users of these systems report a preference for the tone of the solid state system. On top of that, they almost never need to be replaced, and will deliver the same sound for years after you get them.

If you're in the market for a new amp, I strongly suggest getting a good digital modeling amp. Digital modeling amps tend to get a bad rap because of how crappy the technology was even just a decade ago.

But the technology has come a long way, allowing you to have control over several different amp models, engineered to faithfully reproduce the same tone at any volume. No more fighting with the neighbors and the sound tech.


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