Modeling amps and solid-state amps are some of the most popular types of guitar amplifiers used today. They both offer incredible value and versatility whether you’re a beginner on a budget, or a pro playing gigs.
However, the technology used in these amplifiers is vastly different, which can have a significant impact on your overall experience depending on your specific needs as a player.
A modeling amp uses digital technology to simulate the sound of different types of amplifiers, effects pedals, and speaker cabinets. This allows the player to access a wide range of sounds and styles with a single amplifier. Modeling amps often include presets for specific genres or songs, making it easy for the player to dial in the right tone quickly.
On the other hand, a solid-state amp uses analog technology to amplify the guitar signal. Solid-state amps are known for their reliability, durability, and affordability. They are often used for practice or for playing in smaller venues.
In this post, I’ll dive into the pros, cons, and differences between solid-state amps and modeling amps. I’ll also provide you with all of the info you need to decide which type of amp is best for you.
Differences Between Modeling Amps and Solid-State Amps
Modeling amps and solid-state amps have a lot of similarities, including the fact that they can be purchased as combo amps or amp stacks. However, their numerous differences will inevitably change the way your guitar sounds. You wouldn’t want to end up with the wrong amp, so let’s jump into the details and differences below.
Solid-state amps and modeling amps convert audio signals much differently. Modeling amps receive digital signals from a guitar pickup. The signal transmits into binary code, which allows a built-in computer to modify the sound (which is where all of the effects are implemented).
Once the computer finishes its work, the code converts into audio waves that go through the speaker.
On the other hand, solid-state amps receive signals from the pickup, then send them through a series of transistors.
While the receiving method is the same as modeling amps, solid-state amps don’t have built-in computers. The signal converts into an audio wave and goes through the output. The whole process uses a transistor circuit, which is why they’re sometimes called transistor amps.
Solid-state amps are used for all sorts of guitars, and they’ve been around for multiple decades. They were popularized in the 80s and 90s, which is why they’re often tied to pop, rock, and similar modern genres.
Most solid-state amps have a slightly digital sound. It’s distinct from tube amps, but it’s quite similar to the sound produced by modeling amps.
Modeling amplifiers are designed to copy the sound coming from tube amps and solid-state amps. They often have presets to emulate the sounds you’d expect from much higher-quality equipment.
In fact, some modeling amps are named after the amps they’re supposed to mimic, including amplifiers from Fender and Yamaha.
Solid-state amps and modeling amps can both receive and produce effects, but they do so in very different ways.
Modeling amps have onboard effects loops. These loops let you toggle switches and knobs for sound adjustments, including chorus, ambiance, reverb, and more. Every modeling amp has different effects to check out.
That being said, solid-state amps need pedals to change their effects. While most solid-state amps have knobs for volume, gain, bass, and treble, you’ll need to plug pedals into the amp’s input or pedal ports.
All of the controls can be adjusted on the pedals, which saves space in the front of the amplifier.
Modeling amps and solid-state amps both sound very digital, which is often seen as an issue for vintage musicians. The good news is that a lot of new-age modeling amps include settings that mimic tube amplifiers.
You can get close to the same rounded, natural audio waves that you’d hear from tube amps made in the 60s and 70s.
Solid-state amps are great because you can adjust the distortion with a knob, not by changing your play style. However, it doesn’t change the digital tones that some people dislike.
There’s no doubt that most solid-state amps sound much more modern, which ends up being a matter of personal preference.
Pros and Cons of Modeling Amps
Modeling amps are getting increasingly better as technology advances. They used to be disregarded by serious musicians, but now they’re often seen in almost any guitarist’s equipment list.
However, there are a handful of issues that you should know about before you decide to get a modeling amp instead of a solid-state amp.
Pros of Modeling Amps
- Fender explains that modeling amps are capable of a lot more sounds. You can use onboard knobs and switches to adjust every part of the amp’s sound waves. These settings allow you to make your music sound exactly how you want it. It also lets you record your music with the same settings via USB compatibility.
- Modeling amps typically weigh less than solid-state amps. They don’t have as many heavy-duty components, but they’re still extremely durable. These combined traits lead a lot of new bands to get modeling amps instead of other styles. They’re extremely portable and compact, so you can fit these amps in any room.
- Most modeling amps are relatively affordable. They’re great entry amps for guitarists who are unsure of which style they prefer. You don’t need to spend too much cash to get one of these handy amplifiers that sound a lot like other amps that can cost two or three times as much.
- Modeling amps are usually much more compatible with computers. They’re designed for the digital age, which means they have USB ports, MIDI ports, and other outputs. Some modeling amps can connect to USB audio interfaces for better audio clarity and additional adjustments before recording them.
Cons of Modeling Amps
- These amps can be a bit too confusing for some beginners. There are so many bells and whistles that it could be too complicated for someone who doesn’t know a lot about music production. It’s like having a solid-state amp that’s loaded with pedals that you’re forced to monitor and adjust.
- You can’t swap out the effects loops on modeling amps. Once you get a modeling amplifier, you’re stuck with what you have. You can get extra pedals, but you won’t be able to remove or upgrade the built-in options. These amps can become outdated as tech moves on, especially when it comes to USB updates (i.e., USB 3.0 to USB C).
Pros and Cons of Solid-State Amps
Solid-state amps are the choices of classic musicians who want a digital upgrade. They’re not as fragile as tube amps, but they still produce high-quality audio waves. Unfortunately, they have several issues that lead some potential buyers to modeling amps or hybrid amps.
I’ll cover the advantages and disadvantages below.
Pros of Solid-State Amps
- Solid-state amps don’t require a lot of maintenance. You don’t have to worry about overheated valves, failing computer parts, and other issues that you might encounter with most other amps. They’re a set-it-and-forget-it way for people to enjoy music production rather than music equipment upkeep.
- You can swap pedals from other amps very quickly. Solid-state amps can use universal pedals that allow you to change sound effects whenever you want. Additionally, you don’t have to worry about the pedals conflicting with built-in effect loops (like you would if you had a modeling amp).
- Solid-state amps are very durable. You can tip over a solid-state amp without too many issues, but the same can’t be said for tube amps and hybrid amps. If you’re always on the move or you’re worried about breaking your equipment, a solid-state amp is nearly a surefire way to prevent unwanted damage.
- They’re easier for beginners to understand and work with. Plug in the amp, connect it to your guitar, and you can start playing right away. The minimal amount of onboard knobs and switches simplifies the process. Grab a few pedals along the way and slowly progress as you shape the way your music sounds.
Cons of Solid-State Amps
- According to Masterclass, solid-state amps aren’t very versatile. They never come with more than a few standard settings that you’d find on any other amplifier. While you can modify them with pedals, the process adds money to your equipment total. This also means that a hard rock solid-state amp can’t sound like a jazz transistor amp.
- Solid-state amps cost a bit more than most modeling amps. They’re considered the ‘real deal’ that modeling amps try to mimic. Getting the real thing is always going to cost more money. As mentioned above, the price gets even higher when you add pedals, so transistor amps are noticeably costlier.
Are Modeling Amps Solid-State?
Modeling amps are solid-state amplifiers. The only main difference is that modeling amps have computers in them (and they’re often connected to computers, too). You won’t find any modeling amps with tubes or valves because they require transistors to convert the input signals to binary code.
NOLA School of Music claims that all modeling amps are solid-state, but not all solid-state amps are digital (modeling amps are also known as digital amps). They also look very similar, which leads to a lot of confusion.
The best way to know the difference is to check if it has built-in effects loops or USB connections (both of which indicate that it’s a modeling amp).
Note: All modeling amps are also known as digital amps. They use digital signals during the aforementioned computer process. If they don’t have digital signals or computers, they can still use transistors that send signals to the output. You can connect an audio interface to the amp’s output to adjust digital settings on a computer.
What To Consider Before Getting Modeling or Solid-State Amps
There’s a lot to consider before getting modeling amps or solid-state amps, including how you’ll be recording your equipment, what kind of music you want to play, and the sound output you prefer.
Modeling amps are closing in on the sound quality of solid-state amps, but there are definite audio wave dissimilarities that you should think about.
Here’s an in-depth look at these considerations:
If you’re always changing music styles (or you’re unsure which one you want to commit to), a modeling amp is the better choice. You can swap all of the effects, allowing your guitar to sound vintage and modern with a few knob turns.
If you’re looking for old-school music or a specific style unique to your preferred solid-state amp, a transistor amp is the top option.
If you want to plug your amp into an audio interface or a computer, a modeling amp should be your first choice. On the other hand, a solid-state amp is great with high-quality external speakers.
You can use modeling amps with speakers, but it usually doesn’t sound the same as most professional studio recordings.
Solid-state amps almost always sound a bit better than modeling amps. Modeling amps are trying to copy the sound of high-quality solid-state amps, which means they simply don’t compare.
However, a high-end modeling amp will sound better than a low-quality solid-state amp (though the difference is often negligible).
Most modeling amps are combo amps, which means they have built-in speakers. On the other hand, there’s a fairly even split of combo speakers and stack speakers when it comes to solid-state amps.
Some people use their amps as speakers by cranking up the gain and volume after plugging anything with a ¼” (6.4mm) cable into the input.
The remaining considerations include factors you’d go through for any amp, such as its max volume, extra settings, dimensions, weight, number of inputs/outputs, etc. Remember, the type of amplifier you get is only one part of the amp selection process.
Which Amp Type Is Better for Beginners?
Solid-state amps are typically better for beginners who’ve never used any music equipment. However, people who’ve used digital audio workstations or audio interfaces will be more accustomed to the adjustments on modeling amps.
A modeling amp can help you discover what kind of music you want to play.
In the long run, solid-state amps and modeling amps are both ideal for beginner musicians who want to make music for the foreseeable future. Make sure you choose one that has the desired number of inputs, outputs, and effects, though.
Another reason you might want to get a modeling amp is that they’re often the cheaper solution. Beginners rarely want to shell out tons of cash to get all of their gear together. A low-budget modeling amp still has a fair amount of effects to play around with.
Should You Get a Modeling Amp or a Solid-State Amp?
You should get a modeling amp if you want to change the way your music sounds with onboard effects. They’re much easier to work with than solid-state amp pedals if you’re an experienced musician, not to mention the fact that they’re all-in-one, compact boxes.
Ask yourself the following questions to know if a solid-state amp or a modeling amp is right for your music setup:
- Do you know what music genre you want to play? If you’re locked on one type of music, get a solid-state amp that matches the sound you’re looking for. If you bounce between music genres or you don’t know what kind of music you want to make, a modeling amp is your go-to equipment.
- Do you already have all the pedals for the effects that you want to use? If so, you don’t have to worry about getting a modeling amp. The whole purpose of a modeling amp is to mimic a sound. If you already have the tools needed to make the sound, a solid-state amp’s quality will outshine that of a modeling amplifier.
- Will you be recording your music with a USB cable via a computer or an audio interface? Modeling amps usually come with a lot more modern outputs. Check if yours has a USB-C or USB 3.0 port, then connect it to your computer to access it on your DAW (digital audio workstation).
- Are you a music purist? If you prefer making music as it’s been recorded for several decades, you’ll have to get a solid-state amp (or a tube amp). If you want to copy those sounds but you don’t care about nostalgia or sticking to the roots of music, you’d be shocked by the quality of post-2010 modeling amps.
- Do you like the sound of tube amps? If you prefer tube amps but you don’t want to spend the money, a modeling amp will be better for you. Solid-state amps never sound like tube amps, but there are plenty of modeling amps that are designed to sound like tube amps.
If you’re still on the fence, I’d honestly suggest going with a modeling amp simply because you can make it sound close to the same as a solid-state amp.
Another option is a hybrid amp, which combines the vintage natural sounds of tube amps with the modernized sounds coming from a solid-state amplifier.
Modeling amps and solid-state amps work very similarly, but the added computer in a modeling amp makes it more versatile. Both amps are worth trying since they have plenty to offer.
Remember, quality and noise output are equally as important as the type of amp you hook up to your guitar.