Choosing the right tube amp is no walk in the park. However, unless you know exactly what kind of sound you want to achieve, there are no wrong answers. Each tube amp has a character of its own, which may or may not contribute to crafting your unique sound. One day the amp might feel really good to play, you may also love the loudness blasting through its speakers but you may also change your opinion the very next morning.
To help you make an informed shopping decision, we have made our mission to show you all the essentials, facts, and trivia behind tube amps. This one goes out especially to all y’all amp newbies so we recommend you pay close attention before handing over the dough to your amp dealer.
Here are our basic step-by-step guidelines to aid you in the pursuit of your ideal amp tube sound:
Tube tech may be considered state-of-the-art when it comes to sound but modern solid-state and digital amps can also create an amazing tone for fewer bucks and maintenance stunts. Valve tone is considered the quality standard for many top players but, still, be open for every option available before settling your eye on the prize. Let your ears do the judging.
It all depends on where and how you plan on using your tube amp. A 100-watt stack can be overkill if used solely for apartment practice or home recording. Simultaneously, a 10-watt combo will be deplorably inadequate if you plan on playing stadiums or next to a power drummer. The middle ground is somewhere around 30-watts for live rock bands but smaller amps can produce monumental sounds in studios – just ask Jimmy Page or Tom Morello if you need proof.
Distortion can be generated by three sources: the power amp, preamp or the speakers. Players often overlook the foremost option when trying an amp but the power amp distortion can give the sound its low-end punch and balls. Turn down the gain knob and let loose the master volume. Quality valve amps should be able to produce a lively sound with a crisp attack that can shake your pants off
Play with the preamp or gain to make an impressive-sounding distortion. However, don’t go dialing everything up to eleven immediately. First off, crank up the master volume to the level which suits you and then try to mix in the gain until the sound is as distorted as you want it to be without compromising the character of tone. The balance between the two knobs can make or break your sound because if done inappropriately, it can create a sound which is too compressed and sizzling at the treble range.
Speakers in overdrive create a little thing called crunch. The best way to test this distortion characteristic is to dial the clean volume way up. Speakers with low-wattage break up at lower volumes but have a tendency to become mushy at excessive volume levels, whereas high-wattage typically won’t break up at all. The speakers should produce a lively sound, which is well-defined and harmonically rich at the level of distortion and volume you normally play at.
Another thing to look out for is the size of your speakers. It is, after all, the bridge between the electronic “labyrinth” inside the amp and your ears. Each size has specific tonal characteristics – smaller ones sound tighter, whereas big ones produce a more powerful lower end. Like pants and a shirt, some cabinets come with both so you can shape the entire frequency scope with better precision. Work on your acoustics!
Some amps come with multiple channels so you can shift from a good clean sound to a heavily distorted scream with just one press of a button. There are also valve amps that come with three or more channels so you can play with various tones and styles to suit your arrangements. Separate EQ controls can also greatly contribute to your sound transformation if you feel the need for such playing prospects.
Never forget to dial all knobs all the way up and down to hear the scope and range of your amp. Adjust the tone controls and see how they interact with each other. If you feel it is hard to craft a decent tone in the store, chances are you won’t be able to accomplish the same at home or onstage.
Finally, once you determine the most important factors – tone and volume – it is now time to check those extra features. Built-in effects, external effect pedals, processors, loops, delays, reverbs, stomp boxes: all these additions can greatly contribute to your tone and character. Play with it, see what can you conjure up. Ultimately, if there are features you do not plan on using, it is not worth paying extra.