Tube amps and modeling amps are two of the most popular amplifier styles, but they have very different uses. Tube amps have been around a lot longer than modeling amps, making them the go-to for guitar purists. However, modeling amps are more than worth trying out.
The difference between tube amps and modeling amps is that tube amps use valves that heat up and produce sound from a guitar pickup, whereas modeling amps use two electric terminals that convert sound waves into digital signals. Modeling amps have many more effects to mimic other amps, too.
Throughout this post, I’ll show you all of the differences between tube amps and modeling amps, as well as a list of pros and cons to help you find out which one you should get.
Differences Between Tube Amps and Modeling Amps
Tube amps and modeling amps use different methods to amplify your guitar. They look dissimilar and they don’t sound the same, even to an untrained listener. Everything from the way they function to the available adjustments can affect which one is right for your guitar setup.
So, what kind of differences should you expect?
Perhaps the biggest difference between modeling amps and tube amps is the way they work. Modeling amps have two terminals (a positive and a negative). The terminals charge a wire that’s connected to the guitar amp. The received signals are converted into binary code, letting you adjust the settings via the internal computer.
On the other hand, a tube amp is connected to the pickup via a wire that heats and illuminates the filament inside of a series of valves. One valve is a preamp and the other is a power amp valve. Every time the strings vibrate, the filaments heat up and send signals through the amp’s speakers.
Effects and Pedals
Another major difference is that modeling amps have onboard effects. You can change the chorus, reverb and more. However, you need to use pedals if you want any of these effects on a tube amp. Both amps are compatible with digital audio workstations, allowing you to add more effects and adjustments on your computer.
Modeling amps are often referred to as digital amps because they use digital signals and codes. However, they also sound very digital. It’s hard to explain without listening to an actual modeling amp live, but they can sound like an artificial version of the real thing. That being said, tube amps are the real thing, so they sound natural and rounded.
Tube amps are often used for live performances. While they used to be played during practice sessions, most guitarists use modeling amps when they’re trying new chord progressions. This is because modeling amps are ready to use right away, but tube amps have to heat up before you can play them.
Keep in mind that tube amps aren’t the only alternative to modeling amps. You can also compare modeling amps and solid-state amps if you want modern equipment without too much maintenance.
Pros and Cons of Tube Amps
Tube amps have been used for several decades, and they’ll likely be used for many more. There’s no doubt that their pros outweigh their cons. That being said, it’s important to know all of the advantages and disadvantages because tube amps aren’t like most other amplifiers. Let’s discuss everything that you should know below.
Pros of Tube Amps
- Gear News explains that tube amps sound better at higher volumes. They don’t show their full potential until you crank up the volume a bit. This means they’re excellent for live performances, especially in outdoor venues (which is one of the many reasons they’ve been used by professionals for so long).
- Tube amps sound natural and smooth. They don’t have very much distortion with regular strumming and fingerpicking. They only amplify the sound signals going into the vacuum bulbs. You won’t have any special effects unless you want to use pedals, audio interfaces, or digital audio workstations.
- They sound crisp and clear compared to digital amplifiers. There’s no cheap, digital sound like you might get with modeling amps or low-end pickups. Choosing a tube amp can highlight a pickup’s unique tones without altering it at all. They also let you monitor the gain and volume for optimal balance.
- You can influence a tube amp with your play style. If you strum or pick harder, you’ll introduce distortion. This process allows you to customize the sound of your amp without needing extra effects (you can still use pedals, though). These amps are great for guitarists who want to highlight their unique methods.
Cons of Tube Amps
- Tube amps require valve replacements every 6 to 12 months. Not only is this a tedious process, but it adds to the long-term expenses of tube amps. The valves are also fragile, so they might break and need to be replaced before the aforementioned timeframe. The valves are exclusive to specific amps, too.
- Pro Audio Land shows that tube amps have to be warm for about 30 minutes before playing the guitar. This downside is usually the biggest issue for musicians with these tube amps. Imagine having a perfect song in mind, then having to wait for half an hour to start playing it. Inspiration fades, which can make a tube amp not worth it.
Pros and Cons of Modeling Amps
Modeling amps used to be forgettable in the professional music world. However, they’ve come a long way. These amps were originally designed to sound like high-end tube amps and solid-state amps. Although they’re very impressive and versatile, modeling amps have their fair share of pros and cons that I’ll break down below.
Pros of Modeling Amps
- Modeling amps are typically more affordable than tube amps. If you don’t want to fork out tons of money on your first amp, a modeling amp takes the cake. It’s also cheaper than most traditional solid-state amps (modeling amps are technically solid-state amps, but they have digital effects and functions).
- Most modeling amps are compatible with almost every pedal on the market. You can use the onboard effects with new pedals, making your amp’s potential nearly limitless. Feel free to swap your pedals with ones you’ve used on another amp, too. You can plug them into the inputs or through the effects loops.
- They come with a wide variety of effects. Most modeling amps let you adjust various options, such as tone, chorus, reverb, ambiance, and more. All of these settings let you customize the entire musical experience, which is why musicians of all experience levels choose modeling amps in many scenarios.
- Modeling amps can be used seamlessly with digital audio workstations. You can make so many adjustments that you don’t have to change too many settings on the DAW. You’ll be able to edit and produce music much quicker if you have a modeling amp. Additionally, you can mute some of the onboard effects and override them with a DAW.
Cons of Modeling Amps
- According to Tone Island, modeling amps can sound too artificial. These digital sounds might not be too problematic for new-age pop, hip-hop, and other styles. However, it’s an issue for people who want to produce classic rock, smooth jazz, and other clean, natural-sounding music.
- Modeling amps have a lot of effects that can be overwhelming to beginners. Almost every amp has gain and volume adjustments. However, modeling amps can be loaded with 5 to 10 effects (or more). It can be a bit too much to deal with for people who want a plug-and-play style of music production.
Do Modeling Amps Last Longer Than Tube Amps?
Modeling amps last longer than tube amps because they don’t need valve replacements, not to mention the fact that they’re much more durable. However, a high-end tube amp will last longer than a modeling amp if it’s taken care of properly. Regular maintenance often determines how long either amp lasts.
These factors affect whether a modeling amp or a tube amp will last longer:
- Changing your tube amp’s valves on time will prevent them from overheating and damaging the amp’s internal parts. The filaments can break or corrode, which severely alters the amp’s sound quality. The bulbs should never feel too hot to touch, but they definitely get hotter during heavy guitar sessions.
- Both amps should be played and stored upright, but tube amps can break if they’re unlevel for too long. You can break the valves within seconds because they’re extremely fragile. Bumping them on the ground or dropping the amp can shatter the valves, making them very difficult to remove or replace.
- You need to turn off a tube amp when you’re not using it (or rest in the middle of long guitar sessions), but the same issue doesn’t apply to modeling amps. Tube amps can overheat if they’re left on when you’re not using them. The valves will overheat, not to mention the damage to each of the filaments.
- Some modeling amps get outdated by technology advancements. Modeling amps are based on current terminals, effects, and parts. If better components are available, older modeling amps immediately lose their value. Tube amps use the same old-school valves that they always have, so their value and usefulness remain.
Should a Beginner Choose a Tube Amp or a Modeling Amp?
A beginner should choose a tube amp if they don’t want too many effects, but a modeling amp is better for people who don’t yet know their preferred style. Additionally, modeling amps are better for beginners who don’t want to deal with too much maintenance, valve adjustments, or fragile components.
There’s a case for both amps. Let’s dive into why a beginner might prefer a modeling amp or a tube amp in the following sections.
A beginner might want to go with a modeling amp because it lets you change all sorts of effects with the flip of a switch (or by turning a knob). These amplifiers are great because you can play soft, smooth jazz, or heavily-distorted hard rock within a couple of seconds of each other. Additionally, modeling amps are ready to go right when you plug them in.
Another reason modeling amps are ideal for beginners is that they have a low entry price. It’s no secret that guitar equipment can get pricey very quickly. You can focus your efforts on getting a high-quality guitar rather than worrying about sinking too much into an amp if you get this style.
A tube amp is good for any beginner who doesn’t want to deal with added effects. If you want the true, natural sound of your guitar, nothing beats a high-quality tube amp. They’re also great because you can use pedals if you decide that you want to change anything. You’re not tied to the onboard settings with a tube amp.
Additionally, tube amplifiers teach you about the basics of guitar equipment. Their valve maintenance shows you how they work, which helps you when you’re swapping pickups, audio interfaces, and other parts with similar electronic components.
It’s a good idea to try both amps. Neither is always better for any type of guitarist. I highly recommend getting a mid-level modeling amp for practice sessions. A tube amp will help you further your progress as a musician, but everyone can benefit from a modeling amp.
Do Professionals Use Modeling Amps or Tube Amps?
Most professionals use tube amps, but there are a handful of bands that prefer modeling amps for larger gigs. Modeling amps allow bands to use less equipment for a similar sound. Additionally, they don’t have to worry about damaging their equipment during a long-term tour since modeling amps are very durable.
In fact, Bobby Owsinski reports that Metallica often uses digital modeling amps for a lot of their gigs. They can preset everything on the amplifier before heading to a venue, making modeling amps a much easier set of equipment to work with. Metallica also prides itself on its distorted hardcore sound, which is perfect for digital amps.
Tube amps are much more popular for bands who play with high-end equipment with lots of solos. They’re very common among jazz musicians, 50s rock guitarists, and more.
Should You Choose a Tube Amp or a Modeling Amp?
You should choose a tube amp if you prefer nostalgia, professionalism, and smooth music. On the other hand, you could go with a modeling amp if you’re on a budget or you want to be able to change your sound effects without using pedals. You can also get a modeling amp that emulates a tube amp.
Here’s a list of questions to help you find out which amp style you should choose:
- Do you have limited time to make music? If so, a modeling amp is the better choice for you. Modeling amps are ready to go right when you plug them in. However, tube amps need to heat up for at least 20 to 30 minutes. Playing a tube amp too early can cause massive sound quality and clarity reduction.
- What kind of sound do you prefer? If you prefer old-school, classic, or vintage music, tube amplifiers are undoubtedly the best route for your guitar setup. They’re rounded and as realistic as they come. A high-end amp can sound exactly the same as the music you put into it. There’s no digital buzz, unwanted distortion, and so on.
- Do you enjoy changing your effects regularly? If so, a modeling amp is the way to go. You can use pedals with tube amps, but they don’t allow for nearly as many effects and loops as modeling amps. Additionally, you can use a modeling amp’s effects without adding extra software or changing your pickup.
- Will you be performing gigs? If you’re always touring, a modeling amp is a great choice because it can take a beating. However, large venues highlight the unique, true sounds of tube amps. Small venues accommodate modeling amps. It all depends on your gigging frequency and the size of the places you play at.
- What’s your budget? Modeling amps are almost always cheaper than tube amps. If you know your play style and you have over $500 to spend, a tube amplifier can be your new go-to equipment. This is one of the main reasons that I recommend modeling amps for beginners who want to divide a limited budget.
If you only want to choose one amp and you’re just starting out, I’d suggest going with a modeling amp. You can mimic a tube amp until you decide if you want to upgrade. Also, modeling amps can mimic traditional solid-state amps, so you can mix up your sound and play style whenever you want to.
Modeling amps might not be as professional as tube amps these days, but that’s not to say they’re not worth adding to your equipment list. Also, modeling amps are constantly improving. Someday, they might catch up to the sound quality and clarity of tube amps and traditional solid-state amps.