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A Guide To Amplifiers Part One: Tube Amps Versus Digital Amps

A Guide To Amplifiers Part One: Tube Amps Versus Digital Amps

Although there are a lot of factors that go into determining what amplifier is right for you, there is one specific element that arguably makes as much of a difference as all of the others combined. Is it a tube amp, or is it digital? This will affect the amp’s tone, capabilities, all-around convenience, and often price. In this piece, we’re going to go over the differences between tube amplifiers and digital amplifiers so you can figure out which one is best for you. 

Tube Amps

Tube amplifiers, also known as valve amplifiers, are the original kind of guitar amplifier. Tube amplifiers use vacuum tube analog technology to create warm, rich guitar tones that are just about impossible to replicate digitally. Additionally, when turned up loud enough tube amplifiers can create a sweet-sounding, natural overdrive tone that some players prefer to anything that they can get out of a pedal. The richer tones of tube amplifiers are still generally regarded as superior to the colder tones of digital amps, although there are many out there who would passionately disagree with that statement, and have thus remained the standard choice in amplifiers among most working professionals. Tube amps are, however, still not without their drawbacks. 

Among many, the main concern with tube amplifiers is their lack of ability to be played at a considerate volume. Due to their analog technology, the lowest audible volume tube amps can produce is often still rather loud. Additionally, tube amplifiers often produce different quality tones at different volumes, and need to be turned up pretty high in order to realize their full sonic potential. This issue is particularly prevalent among Fender-brand tube amps. This can make them inconvenient as practice amps, especially among people who live with others or in urban areas, as they can impede one’s ability to practice while amplified at odd hours or to play at low volumes in general. 

Additionally, tube amplifiers are fragile, heavy, can require difficult and often expensive maintenance, and are often more expensive than their digital counterparts. While tube amplifiers have a great sound that digital amps are still unable to authentically reproduce, they are ultimately the less convenient option. Personally, I’d recommend a digital amplifier for live performances, recording, and other professional-oriented uses, but they can be a bit of a hassle for a bedroom/practice amp. 


Digital Amps

Digital amplifiers, more commonly referred to as solid-state amplifiers, became a serious challenger to tube amplifiers in the mid-1970s. Their circuit-oriented construct allows them to generate the same quality tone at all volume levels, and their crisp, cold tone allows for great note clarity, which has made them a favorite among many jazz and metal players alike. Additionally, many digital amplifiers come equipped with built-in effect options, which allows players to explore different sonic qualities without necessarily having to buy any effect pedals (although it is worth noting that the quality of built-in amplifier effects typically pales when compared to a decent pedal of the same type). Furthermore, digital amplifiers tend to be sturdy, easy to travel with, and are relatively low cost

However, as previously alluded to, digital amplifiers have a thinner, less defined tone than tube amplifiers, which is why many guitarists still prefer the original. For all the perks and improved convenience that come with digital amps, at the end of the day, the main purpose of carefully selecting what gear you buy is to produce the best sound possible and for many players, the sound of digital amplifiers simply doesn’t cut it. The convenience of digital amplifiers makes them generally ideal for practice amps where function is more important than tone, and if you’re in the minority of players who happen to prefer the sound of digital amps to tube amps, then choosing to go digital should be a no-brainer. 

While most amplifiers currently on the market can be classified as either tube or digital, it is worth noting that hybrids do exist. These hybrids exist in different forms, but generally either involve a tube-based preamp feeding into a circuit based output, or a circuit-based preamp feeding into a tube-powered output. Hybrid amplifiers manage to combine the best of both worlds without quite managing to consistently pull off either extreme, which positions them as an odd middle-ground. Generally speaking, a good hybrid amplifier will capture some of the gusto of a tube amp and some of the convenience of a digital amp, which makes them a great choice for those who really feel torn between the two. 

Stay tuned for more blogs about amplifiers and choosing the right one for you!

Ben Fitts is a musician, writer, and instructor at New York City Guitar School. He is the guitarist of the indie rock band War Honey, the author of numerous works including the short story collection My Birth And Other Regrets, and a former NYC Guitar School student himself.


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