Plenty of tags get chucked around under the modelling amp moniker, but what do they mean, what makes them different, and why should you care?
Until fairly recently, guitar amps only really offered two different technologies to create their tone: Solid State and Valve. When modelling came along, it allowed manufacturers to pack a tonne of digital recreations of vintage and modern amp models into a single unit. Not only does it expand the tonal possibilities available to the guitarist, but it poses a significant saving compared to buying all the amps separately. Arguable downsides were that the recreations didn’t sound quite as good as the originals.
However, modelling technology has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years with Blackstar, Fender, Laney, Line 6, Marshall, Vox and countless others all vying for pole position. If you’re new to playing the guitar, you might wonder what is the difference between modelling amps and other types? Here’s a mini guide, starting at the very beginning…
Valve Amps / Tube Amps
Valve (or Tube) amps are so called because they use vacuum tubes (thermionic valves as they’re known in the UK, hence why they’re also called valve amps). Tubes are actually pretty ancient technology, but they are so beloved because the sound they produce is so good.
At its simplest (a diode), a tube is pretty much like a filament light bulb, which allows a current to flow across a filament in a vacuum and causes electrons to flow to an electrode. This can be used to convert an alternating current to a direct current, which made valves a key component of most early electrical devices. Triodes were a later development and could be used to amplify audio signals.
The first guitar amps were packed to the hilt with tubes, making them heavy, occasionally unreliable, and dependent on maintenance.
So, why are they still made, and why are they so sought after? Put simply, it’s all down to tone.
Valve amps have very warm, very dynamic and responsive tone. When valves are driven, they start to compress very, which results in a very pleasing tone. When they’re driven harder, they start to break up and distort (overdrive). This is essentially how overdrive became a common guitar effect. Valve overdrive is very difficult to recreate convincingly.
When it comes to great valve amps, we’re not short on manufacturers to choose from, each with their own coveted and unique models that are the stuff dreams are made of. If you haven’t already then, we’re pretty sure you’ll soon become intimately acquainted with: Fender, Marshall, Blackstar, Orange, and Vox.
- Tone – arguably the most satisfying experience you’ll get as a guitarist
- Dynamics – control of the highest order for those who crave it
- Natural, ‘organic’ break-up and overdrive when cranked hard
- Did I mention Tone?
- Can be heavy and unpleasant to lug around when gigging
- Occasionally unreliable – if a valve goes it goes at the worst possible time too
- Requires maintenance – find an engineer or tech that you trust and never, EVER, let them go
Solid State Amps
Solid State technology began to replace valve technology in the ‘50s. Solid-state amplifiers use circuits that use semi-conductors, such that the electric current never leaves the solid materials (as it does in a tube). This is done via compact components that switch and amplify electrical currents, such as semiconductor diodes and capacitors.
In some circles the term Solid State used to come with its fair share of derisory remarks. Even today “purists” would have some believe that digital amp technology hasn’t come far enough to merit being used for anything other than witty bants. A primary focus of their argument lies in the fact that they simply don’t produce the same warmth or dynamic response as valve amps.
Pfft. Crowbar legend Kirk Windstein uses an Orange Crush CR120H when gigging and he is louder than a jet engine*
*Jet engines are technically louder, don’t sue.
However, Solid-state amps have some major advantages over tube amps. Firstly, they’re much lighter. They’re also much more reliable, and don’t require regular maintenance. Finally, they don’t have the same power-stage distortions as valve amps, which is great for bass amps and some guitar styles.
- Very light and much less of a pain in the posterior when gigging
- Very reliable – another plus for gigging musicians
- Inexpensive – a plus for everyone quite frankly, who wants to pay more than they have to?
- Low power-stage distortion- great for clean tones and also playing laid back licks
- Tone not as warm as valve amps (there’s always got to be one)
Modelling amps aim to provide a ‘best of both worlds’ solution. To do it, they employ computer technology. To generate their tone, they use computer programs, which feature meticulously calibrated algorithms to replicate the effect that every component of a real amplifier has on a guitar signal. So, it takes a dry guitar sound in at one end, runs a lot of sums, and a tone that sounds like it has been run through a guitar amp comes out of the other end.
Because, essentially, the amps are just running a program, it means that many different amplifier tones can be recreated in a single amp. Often, recreations of classic amps are modelled, so that, at the turn of a dial, the player can cycle through many classic and desirable tones. As modelling amps are based around electronics and computer chips, they are very light, but still offer a flavour of valve tone.
- Lightweight and easy on the auld back when loading in/out for gigs
- Reliable as they come – simply plug in, switch on and play
- Relatively inexpensive (depending on the model, of course)
- Huge range of tones and features – more than you could shake a stick at!
- Still, not quite valve tone… (can we get rid of that guy now?)
- In some cases the amp models don’t quite cut it against the originals (but with huge advances in technology they are getting closer and closer every time)
For some they don’t cut the mustard when it comes to side-by-side comparisons with the original amps, but for those dipping their toes into the waters of tonal exploration they can provide a solid basis on which to build on. Unless you plan on dropping hefty wedges of money building an amp arsenal to rival Joe Barresi (if you’re a gear head, take to time to look him up, he’s got a collection most can only dream of!), then modelling amps provide an affordable, space-saving option that is not to be sniffed at.
Top Modelling Amps
BOSS/Roland are no strangers when it comes to Modelling Amp models and Effects, with considerable experience in the game. However, we were blown away by the awesome power of their Nextone Series amps. Featuring proprietary Tube Logic tone, they feature four analogue Class AB power amp circuits that can switch between 6V6, 6L6, EL84 and EL34 settings with ease. The range of tones available is ramped up by the ability to customize internal amp parameters with the Nextone Editor for Mac/Windows, enabling you to tailor the amp to suit your demands (effectively negating the need for a tech as you can adjust settings like tone stack type, EQ, sag, bias, effects, system settings and so much more).
Marshall’s CODE series doesn’t just give you classic Marshall tone, it gives you access to a huge range of classic and contemporary Marshall amps via their Marshall-Softube (MST) modelling software. From bedroom practise to stadium stage, you can unlock preamp settings, power amps, speaker cab emulation, effects, footswitch connectivity and even wireless connectivity via iOS and Android devices. Recording is as simple as can be and every setting can be saved and recalled whenever you wish.
Fender’s Mustang series has been knocking out the good stuff for a while now, but their Mustang models take things to a whole new level. Bursting with amp models and FX to play with (with updates coming through all the time), you don’t just have access to classic and contemporary Fender amp models, but they’ve also been canny enough to emulate other manufacturer’s too. For less than it cost me to buy my first acoustic nearly 20 years ago (seriously, where has the time gone???) you can get an amp that’ll tie together a huge selection of amps and effects to play with, easy recording capabilities, thoroughly enjoyable gigging experiences, and a partner for life should you wish.
Today’s youngsters don’t know how good they’ve got it!
Get in touch
You can find a full range of guitar amps in our online store here, or for more information, call our customer service team (01925 582420)
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If scaled-down dimensions and portability is more your thing, check out Laney’s Mini Bluetooth modelling amps.
Joe is a contributor for the Dawsons Music blog. Specialising in product reviews and crafting content to help and inspire musicians of all musical backgrounds.