The Doors of Perception: Making Peace with a Solid State amp.

Vacuum tubes are a romantic concept, in addition to being electrical circuits.    There is a lot of near mystical pseudo-science surrounding them.   For many people, they are left-overs from another era: when it became common knowledge in the 1970’s that Russian military aircraft were still using vacuum tube technology it was taken as proof they were behind the USA in technology.

rig3In most arenas, transistor technology rapidly replaced tube technology during the late 60’s/early 70’s era with two notable exceptions: high end audio and guitar amplifiers.    Google “Tube VS Solid State” and you will busy for eternity sorting through 11 million entries.

I’m not going to attempt to sort all this out here, as it would go on for pages, but for the guitar world at large, (even if it is a couple years out of date) this is a good primer on the basics of the history of the conflict:  Tube vs Solid State

Reading the comments will tell you this is a controversy that won’t be settled soon.

Unless one is in a band that becomes famous, spending thousands for a guitar rig is beyond the reach of working musicians, yet there is an entire cottage industry of “boutique” amp builders who are building  $2,000 to $3,000 amps to power handbuilt $5,000 “Custom Shop” replicas of guitars were built by hourly workers in a factory.

Fender also makes fairly close replicas of most of the famous amps from it’s past, some of them are even hand wired, and costing up to around $3,000.

On the face of it, this sounds like a snarky comment, but I’m just trying to make a point.     These trends are driven by mostly baby boomers who played in garage bands when they were kids and have turned their guitar playing into a hobby of sorts and play at home for their own pleasure or have regular jam sessions with friends.   A lot of them now have the money to buy the guitars and amps they lusted after as kids..   (And not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Working musicians tended to use much less exotic fare and some of them mock the “cork sniffing” that goes on amongst victims of “Gear Acquisition Syndrome”, otherwise known as “GAS”.

Part of this hobby is the instruments themselves:  pride of ownership and that sort of thing: a little bit of your identity .  (A little like Hi-Fi people who derive as much pleasure from owning the equipment as listening to music on it)  I used to host a jam session in a local tavern, and for some people the jam session was also a place to show off one’s pride and joy.

Guitar playing became a “hobby” for me (as I wasn’t in a band) during the 80’s, and I had a wonderful little Fender “Super Champ” and also a Yamaha Rex 50 effects unit.   I had managed to retain two of the guitars from my youth: a 1963 Fender Telecaster Custom and a Les Paul Goldtop on which I’d installed a Leo Quan Badass bridge so I could damp the strings and set intonation.   (Both of these guitars are “players” rather than mint examples of the breed, I’d refinished the Tele when I was a teenager.  I still have both of them. )

I started playing out again in the late 80’s and have always used tube amps.   And I’ve owned bunches of them.     Of all types and sizes.    And nearly all of them had at least one or two amazing sounds in them and I’ve enjoyed nights where all the stars were in alignment and I could hit the amp’s “sweet spot” where it sounded the best.    Tube amps are also temperamental, one night they sound great and the next, well——-

I’ve been through the “quest for the perfect tone” for years.     For the last 3 or 4 years I’ve used the same basic amp: a Magic Valve clone of a Tweed Fender Deluxe, circa 1957.    For the last couple of years I’ve used the amp along with a Badcat Unleash, and attenuator/re-amp device that I’ve reviewed on these pages:

The reason for the Unleash is to provide scalability.    I finally managed to be able to hit the amp’s “Sweet Spot” and then adjust the volume to what was required in a particular venue.   I could get the rig to sound the same at rehearsal, a small bar, an outdoor gig, or a birthday party on someone’s patio.   No small feat, that.    I’ve got to the point where I’ve taken this ability for granted and really didn’t give much thought to my equipment and for the first time concentrated on playing guitar,  not being on a “Quest for Tone”.

A recent injury (a fall on ice while walking my dog) forced me to re-think about the hassle involved with my current rig, which mainly is the time it takes to set it all up, making connections, finding ways to get AC power to three different places, running wires on stage and making sure I don’t trip over them, ensuring it all works, and doing all this in a hurry while others are tearing down on a dark stage and my bandmates are setting up their stuff.    And then quickly tearing it all down and carting it off.   Many of our gigs are in venues featuring acts doing original material and there are usually multiple acts on the bill doing one set each.  A couple times I’ve had to schlep stuff for several blocks in questionable neighborhoods due to lack of parking.   (One of the reasons I use inexpensive “parts guitars” to gig with.)

The above photo (at the start of this post) shows my current stage rig.   The large black box with the white knobs on the left of my pedalboard is a Quilter 101.    It is capable of 100 watts of power and it’s a class D amplifier.   It doesn’t sound like a typical solid state amp and responds to your touch in a satisfying manner.   It is totally scalable and can make great sounds at any volume I’m ever going to need and the longer I have it, the more useful sounds I’m discovering.

Does it sound exactly like a tube amp?   No.    Does that matter to me?   Not really.   It does make all sorts of useful sounds that fit in with the tunes and styles my band plays.  It does some things better than any amp I’ve played through.  It also responds well to all of my overdrive-boost and distortion pedals.    I’ve had many moments where I find myself thinking: “Damn, this thing sounds good!”   Yesterday at band practice my drummer said to me: “You really are enjoying your new rig aren’t you?” while laughing at my childlike glee.  (He also plays guitar in another band, and has since purchased a Quilter.)

It’s really added a layer of fun to playing guitar and I think I sound better than I ever have.   And there’s not a single tube anywhere to be found.

The bottom line:    You should try one, take the time to learn how the controls work, and make up your mind for yourself.   The amp costs $300 and from my standpoint worth the risk of buying it without hearing it first.  (chances are you already have a speaker to try it with)    There are plenty of examples on you tube of people using one, if you place any credence in that sort of thing,  (which I really don’t) and lots of testimonials from people you might assume have “drank the cool-aid” after reading what they have to say.  It’s replacing about $1,100 worth of gear in my former rig, and it’s more versatile to boot.

My pedalboard weighs 18 pounds as you see it in the photo.   And the Ear Candy Cab with the Texas Heat ($250 total investment for cab and speaker) inside it weighs in at 22 pounds.   All I need to do to set it up is get AC power to one spot, run a speaker cord to the Cab and plug my guitar in.    (The Ear Candy cab sounds wonderful and sonically fits the Texas Heat perfectly and that’s another story altogether.)

If you’ve been doing this for a while, you’ve probably come across some solid state amp at some point in time that sounded good to you, a Roland JC120 or a Lab Series amp, but those usually rivaled tube amps in price and usually were associated with players who tended towards the clean end of the amp spectrum.    The fact that Quilter can do this in a small package that costs less than $300 is a true breakthrough.    Quilter has an entire line-up of amps, most of them more elaborate than the 101.  They just might be worth taking a look at.