Know the difference between amps before you take one home
When choosing amplifiers, not only will you have a huge variety of brands to consider, but you’ll also have to choose between a solid state or valve amp, with the added confusion of modelling amps and hybrids thrown in. But what do these labels mean, and which one should you choose?
Fear not, we’re here to help you on your way with a little friendly advice. Choosing an amp is a fun experience, but it’s important to understand a few of the key differences between the main options.
Let’s look at the different types of amps and explain what they do. Then we can get into choosing the right amp for you!
Valve amps, or tube amps as they’re also commonly known, use vacuum tubes to amplify the signal from your guitar, whereas a solid state does not – fairly simple explanation, right?
When you ‘saturate’ these tubes, for example by turning the volume up, it sends more power to the tubes and forces them to create an overdriven sound or “break up”, which provides a natural distortion of the guitar sound. In addition, when you “dig in” or play harder, the valves will respond, creating a more unique sound to your playing.
Here are some great examples of valve amps:
Solid state amps on the other hand do not use valves, but rather a combination of transistors to get their sound.
“Solid State” actually refers to the semiconductor units used – the solid state electronics don’t burn out and require replacement like valves, hence they are “solid” in their state.
When you turn up a solid state amp you do get distortion, but it’s more of an overloaded or ‘clippy’ sound that you get rather than the warm, even distortion of the valve amps.
Here are a couple of examples of solid state amps:
Both types of amp have their differences, advantages and disadvantages, which we will discuss now. However, remember that neither is ‘better’ than the other and it all comes down to your personal preference and the needs you have.
Pros for valve amps
- Valve amps have that coveted analogue sound and can change sonically the warmer the tubes are; if you leave the amp on for an hour before playing it for example.
- If something goes wrong, say for example a tube dies, it’s easy to just pop another in and replace it.
- The smooth, warm distortion attained by saturating the tubes is one of the main reasons, if not the main reason guitarists choose valve amps over solid state.
Cons for Valve amps
- High operating voltage is required to get the sound you want.
- Due to the amount of power used, there is a lot of wasted energy and heat.
- For a distorted sound you have to really crank up the volume which can mean the need for a power break.
- Valve amps can be quite bulky and heavy due to the room needed for valves and heavy transformers used.
- Valves will need to be replaced between every 1-3 years depending on use.
- Low quality valves can be fragile and break when being transported.
- You have to wait a little while for them to sound their best after switching them on.
- When replacing a tube in some amps, you need to ensure the bias is correct – which is best left to a professional.
Pros for solid state amps
- Quite often solid state amps cost a lot less than valve amps due to the fact there are no tubes involved and they can be mass produced relatively easily, but that doesn’t mean they’re not high quality!
- Solid state amps will also run cooler than valve amps as they do not need the same amount of energy to get the sound you want.
- As soon as you switch them on they’re good to go and can instantly give you the distorted or clean sound you need.
- No valves will need to be replaced, only a fuse from time to time, the same you would with an iron or other electronic device – which is almost never!
- A lot lighter than Valve amps so often easier to carry and transport.
- A lot more robust than valve amps as there are no fragile glass tubes
- Will sound exactly the same every time.
Cons for solid state amps
- Solid state amps can subjectively sound less warm and more piercing compared to valve amps, especially when driven.
- Although solid state amps have come on in leaps and bounds over the years, they can sound a little thinner and somewhat digital to some ears, but again this is totally subjective. You might find you like that sound – which is fine!
- When distorted, they will start clipping, whereas a valve amp will smooth itself out.
- They can be hard to maintain or fix yourself if something does go wrong, whereas replacing a tube is fairly simple in some valve amps.
- Less dynamic and musically responsive.
But wait there’s more!
So now that we’ve discussed the top level differences between solid state and valve amps, it’s time to talk modelling amps and hybrid amps. Modelling and hybrid amps can be a combination of the two previous amps, using the best components from each type of amplifier to create a more versatile product.
What are Modelling amplifiers?
Modelling amps are so called because they model their sound on different amps, and these can also come with a host of different effects like reverb, flange, chorus, phase and delay.
Modelling amplifiers such as the VOX VT20X series and the Marshall CODE amps replicate the sounds of a variety of classic amplifiers giving you the option to switch between coveted sounds such as “tweed amps” (for example the Fender Blues Deluxe) British 60’s styles and a whole lot more without having to buy each and every amp separately. They can even offer different styles of cabinet too, ranging from a 1×10 to a full 4×12 stack!
What are Hybrid Amplifiers?
Hybrid amps use both a valve and solid state circuits. Hybrid amps use a tube in the pre-amp section and solid state technology in the power amp to drive the speakers. It essentially uses the tube to retain clarity of tone where it’s most important whilst the solid state circuitry adds the reliability and versatility.
Hybrid amps such as the Orange Micro Terror, Micro Dark and VOX AC15VR Valve Reactor amp use both valves as well as high quality solid state electronics to get their sound, offering the best of both worlds at a fraction of the weight (and price).
Both modelling and hybrid amps give you the option to get a valve sound without really having to drive the amp, and both will offer you that valve sound you really want without blowing the windows out of your front room. You just have to ask yourself “Do I want an amp that sounds like a valve amp?” Or “Do I want a valve amp” – both have their selling points and there’s no right or wrong answer.
So which one is right for me?
The thing with amps, or music for that matter, is it’s all subjective and beauty is in the eye, or ear, of the beholder. The greatest sounding amplifier to you might sound different to someone else, so the best thing to do is try as many as you can and find out how to get the sound that you want. Try everything in your local store, watch videos and read reviews before you purchase your amp because you want the best sound for you.
Is a valve amp right for me?
If you have a little more cash to spend, love a pure valve sound and want to crank the amp and really let it sing on stage or in the practice room, then this could be your best bet.
Is a solid state amp right for me?
If you want an amp to sound good, require almost zero maintenance, but don’t really notice the difference between valve and solid state tone, or prefer the more digital sound, then a solid state might be right for you.
Is a modelling amp right for me?
If you want the option of switching between a variety of sounds and amps convincingly and want a host of on board effects, then this could be the amp for you.
Is a hybrid amp right for me?
If you want the best of both a valve and solid state, need versatility as well as a lighter option when loading the van, then consider a hybrid.
Purists will say that they will only play with valve amps, but cranking a 30 watt AC30 up in your bedroom to get that much needed warm tube sound isn’t really the best idea when a modelling amp can play the same thing at a lower volume level without waking the neighbours. A solid state amp will offer you a variety of tones, but some might say they’re too digital, even though they’re more reliable and far easier to load into the van when touring. Whether you want reliability, pure tone or the option of switching between sounds at any given moment, you’ll find the right amp for you when you put a little time into research.