Chasing Tone

If you talk to people who produce music, there’s this whole culture obsessed with tone.

As a guitarist, and as someone interested in the recording and production process, I seem to sit in the midst of two of the most heavily tone obsessed groups out there. These are the people who cling to, admittedly, archaic technologies, in an attempt to get the exact sound they have in their head to come out through the speakers.

I should start this with my motivation for writing this. I think it was all born out of discussing Ian’s post about analog versus digital music formats with a couple of my coworkers. One of those coworkers was laughing at how people still seek out amplifiers equipped with vacuum tubes to produce their sounds, instead of using the more accurate modern silicon transistor based amplifiers. I mean, pretty much everything has moved away from using tubes to the more power conservative and accurate transistors. Everything, that is, except guitar amplifiers, high end microphone pre-amps, and audiophile quality stereo receivers.

Now taking this at face value, I can definitely see his point. Transistor based technology breaks down far less, uses far less power, and preserves the signal being sent through the circuit much better than any vacuum tube based circuit could hope to achieve. If you want your accuracy and you want low cost, this is definitely the way to go.

However, I don’t think taste has to be based on objectivity or accuracy.

Ask any person who has spent a lot of time playing with different guitar amps, and they will tell you that tube amps and solid state (transistor) amps behave very differently. Most will then go on to tell you why one technology is utter shit, and the other is incredibly awesome. You’ll hear, “solid-state amps just don’t have any SOUL” or “tube amps break down all the time, and my solid state can model 37 different amplifiers and 150 different effects and cure cancer using half the power.”

My other coworker, at one time, was a professional musician, who has since retired, but continues to play locally for fun. He has over 15 years of experience with chasing tone and recording and other such things. He played through tube amps for years, and currently uses a solid state. When he plays guitar, I can tell it’s him, and it sounds incredible, no matter what he’s playing through. He’s looking to move back to a tube amp from his currently solid state amp because it gives him a tone he likes more than what he’s currently getting.

If you want my opinion on this whole kerfuffle:

  • Solid state is reliable, cost-effective, durable, and sounds great. It produces pristine cleans through extreme high gain distortion, and is capable of both at much lower volumes.
  • Tube amps produce cleans which are much sweeter and less harsh, and distortion that is both of these things and which also breaks up in a very specific way (mostly due to the fact that tubes clip signals asymmetrically and inconsistently). I’ve never heard an accurate recreation of it using other means. It does require you to play at obscene volumes though to really hear the tubes do their thing when it comes to distortion. Tubes break down, and need replaced, and need much more care than their solid state counterparts. This makes tube amps much more expensive to maintain.

Looking at this, I think most modern people would go, “why would you ever buy a tube amp?”

Well, I don’t think I will be buying another solid-state amp for a long time. I know that running tubes is more expensive. So what? I have the means to buy and maintain them. I know it means the signal loses accuracy in the amp, but why is that a bad thing? Why is accuracy so prized? Distortion has been a fixture of rock and roll for a long time, and distortion is specifically the loss of signal accuracy through boosting the signal so much that the peaks are lost and clipped.

When I sit down and play through a solid state amp, everything sounds too perfect. Everything sounds digital and flawless. It is a remarkable testament to the evolution of technology that we are capable of this. I just don’t like it. I like the character of a tube amp. I like the small inaccuracies. I think it adds something to what I’m going for. We’re not talking about “well through this amp my notes all sound half a step off.” The differences here are tiny, but to me, they mean the world. They allow me to hear through my ears what I hear in my head. The way the tubes shape my sound are sweet and mellow in ways I can’t get a solid state amp to recreate, and tube distortion is to die for. I want other people to hear what I’m playing, and this is the best way to get it out of my head and in to theirs.

Both technologies have trade offs in my books, but I also think both can sound incredible, and have their place in music.

At the end of the day, whenever I hear people going on about whether one technology is objectively better than another for music, I sort of sit back and ignore the whole conversation. The Rolling Stones recorded some of their most famous and interesting guitar parts by overloading a tape recorder by playing an acoustic guitar too close to it, and then playing that back through an extension cab in a studio to put it in the mix. Tone is whatever you want it to be.

Everything has its place in music.

Chasing tone has nothing to do with arguing with other people about what gives you the best tone. It has everything to do with taking all of the technology available to you and experimenting with it. It’s about seeing what causes the sound you hear in your head to come out through the speakers.

The Edge uses more effects than I ever want to think about owning. His signal is so processed you almost can’t hear the original guitar signal in it. His tone is godly, though.

Jack White uses bent and broken guitars made out of all manner of material, through budget amps and screwed up speakers. His tone is also godly.

There is no right, and there is no wrong here. All there is what hits your ear in a pleasing way, and no one will ever really agree about that.

So let’s all take a step back, take a deep breath, and stop judging people for disagreeing with us. In tone their is no right and no wrong, there is only like and dislike. Having a conversation about why we like and dislike different thing can be fun. It’s certainly helped me to grow in my understanding and appreciation of sound and music. Just stop taking it so personally.


– B

2 thoughts on “Chasing Tone

Add yours

  1. Really interesting! As someone who knows almost nothing about this, I’d really appreciate a pair of examples to illustrate (maybe same guitarist, same piece, different amp types).


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