What is it about vacuum tubes? Why would so many of us pay so much for for gear that has electronics that are modeled after 1940s-era technology? Though it seems odd and outdated, most guitar players will swear that tube amps are superior to solid state. Is it hype, or for real? Maybe it's a little of both. Regardless, here are my arguments for why I'm sold on them:
- When vacuum tubes are overdriven, they begin to behave non-linearly, which distorts the signal, adding harmonics to the tone of your guitar. Those harmonics fatten up the sound.
- Tubes compress the sound of your instrument when they are pushed hard, lowering the dynamic range somewhat, but in a good way; another phenomenon that thickens up the sound.
- Solid state amps also distort the signal, but in a way that is (best case) not quite the same, and (worst case) pretty awful. Think of the tone of a cheap solid state amp as being similar to the sound of a wasp in a coke bottle, amplified; the sonic equivalent of an icepick in the forehead.
- Amps with tubes, especially with tubes in the output section, are WAY louder for a given wattage. Those who say that it just 'seems' louder, and that "watts are watts", may not realize that volume and loudness are not necessarily the same thing. Plug the same guitar into a 50 watt solid state amp and then a 50 watt tube amp and there's a clear difference. Audio streaming services and producers of TV commercials figured this whole 'loudness' thing out a long time ago, though they do it with studio techniques; compression, limiting, EQ, slapback echo, etc.
- Vacuum tubes simply look cool, glowing in the back of your amp. And coolness has always been a part of rock and roll, right? Many amp manufacturers have perforated panels in the front and rear of their amps, because the tubes give off lots of heat. I'll bet it's also because that orange glow looks great behind a flat-black grille. It's that Mad Scientist Lab retro look.
- The thought of trillions of electrons boiling off of a negatively charged cathode plate as you hit that open E chord just makes it seem all the more awesome; at least to me it does.
Nowadays, smart solid state amp and effects pedal builders use things like Impulse Response curves, Amp Sims and other tools to emulate what tube amps already do naturally. They're getting pretty good at this. To be honest, I hope they never truly nail it.
The mystique about vacuum tubes is a strange mix of hype, nostalgia and factual electronic theory. But any way you want to justify them, tubes are here to stay. Brah.