Consider the direction amp companies are going today. Digital amps are really popular, and for a reason. To keep this discussion down to a reasonable length (I could go on and on about this stuff!), I’ll try to give you what I think are benefits and drawbacks to each category of amp – tube, solid state and digital.
First let’s talk tube. The good news for us consumers is that there are more and more amazing amp companies coming out these days. Every year at the NAMM show I walk the floor and I see and hear more and more fantastic amps every year. If you want that warm, rich distortion and bold clean tones, then a tube amp is for you. Well known tube amps include the likes of the Marshall plexi, Marshall JCM 800, Fender Twin, Fender Blackface, Mesa Boogie, Vox AC 30 as well as many boutique amps like Soldano, Bogner, Deizel, and more. Tube amps generate their big rich tones from the heat of the tubes. This makes them slightly more fragile than solid state or digital amps. They also require a little more maintenance, but if you ask me it’s well worth it!
Solid state amps tend to offer sizzling saturated distortions and sharp clean tones. They are a little more physically stable than tube amps since you don’t run the risk of damaging any glass tubes. Dimebag Darrell from Pantera was well known for using solid state amps to get his trademark tone.
Digital Amps. Now that discussion could go on for a long time! I think they rate high on the “bang-for-the-buck” scale. Many of them can “model” or imitate many classic and modern amp tones. You even have many onboard effects to enhance your tone. Many of them offer onboard reverb, delay, phase or flange, and other standard effects. They are great for recording. You can plug direct into a board or interface and you’re done with your set up. No fumbling with trying to find a good mic placement. No need to crank your amp up to 10 just to get a good tone out of it. Of course the purists reject the idea of modeling an amp through digital technology and say that the modeled sounds don’t sound like the real amps. Here’s my angle on this view. I agree. They don’t sound exactly like the amps they are trying to model. But they come pretty close. How close? Say 75%? 80%? Now let’s do a little math. If a digital amp offers 16 or more amps that are modeled and they sound about 75 – 80% like the real thing, they have onboard digital effects and is programmable, that sounds pretty good to me.
As for my gear, I love my Line 6 Flextone 2×12 amp. I use it for recording, performing and when working with clients and students. But don’t get me wrong, my main amp is my Bogner Ecstasy 20th Anniversary head. I love my Marshall JCM 800 and wouldn’t trade it or sell it for anything. Some of my friends sold their JCM 800’s when the rack mount pre-amp phase hit. Now they regret that decision. There’s nothing like the sound of a JCM 800 or any other great tube amp for that matter. I also have a Laney HD 100. The Bogner, Marshall and Laney are great rigs, but they are big. When I want variety of sounds and effects in a compact package, I use the Line 6.
It’s a great time that we are in. There are lots of choices, maybe too many! I think that it makes it better for us, the end user. We have many options to choose from. Think of what is most important to you. Is it versatility? Is it pure rich tones? Built in effects? Easy to use when recording? Keep these factors in mind when shopping for a new amp and please, play as many different amps as you can. You’ll be amazed at the sounds that are out there!