End of my year long experiment

Digital Larry

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Almost a year ago I decided I needed to see what these tubes were all about. I thought I'd never owned a tube amp, then I found a photo proving that I did. I must not have used it very much, too bad.

So I got a Mesa/Boogie and a Captor-X so I can record it and attenuate it and also an HX Effects so's I can have effects too!

The idea was to see whether this was somehow "better" than the Avid Eleven Rack (10+ year old modeler that I'd been using).

In some ways it was better.
a) Given the smaller number of basic tonal options available on the Boogie, I developed some anticipation of how the various preamp channels and options sounded. I don't consciously feel the need for MORE guitar sounds.
b) It made me feel cool, somewhat tempered by the fact that nobody else ever saw it who would care. Which is why I brought it up every other time I said something here.
c) I didn't have to worry about whether it was as good as tubes because it obviously was!

In some ways it was not better.
a) Given that I attached it to a couple of too-many-features digital products, I did not make life any simpler than it had been before. In fact, due to a few issues of level matching I'd say it was actually more complicated to use than the 11R.
b) Even though I sometimes played the head through a real speaker in the room, again just to make sure I wasn't missing anything, most of the time I listened to it on headphones or through my mixing speakers. So I wasn't getting the benefit that most people who talk about such things mention.
c) I didn't see much point in using the graphic EQ sliders or preset knobs (mostly duplicated by the Captor-X's "Voicing" knob).
d) 2 preamp channels is fine, with two modes for each now makes it more complicated because you tend to switch back and forth between just two settings using the footswitch, so now I have to decide. Also, there are 3 power stage settings for each preamp channel! I can't turn things up loud enough to witness the glory of power amp distortion, and even using the attenuator, I couldn't really sense much tonal difference between the three modes. Maybe the 5 watt setting is more compressed?
e) More room taken up. My recording space is very small. Now anticipating being able to open up another 6 square feet of floor space has incredible ramifications, like having a space for another person or a mic "booth".
f) I only ever used a few settings/features on the Captor-X and HX Effects. The Captor-X especially struck me as way too much attention spent on something that should just have a few simple answers. 30,000 mic positions! I have to try each one! What if there's ONE in the middle which is just AWESOME????? That kind of stuff. However, simpler cab sim/attenuators such as Mesa/Boogie's offerings are even more expensive!
g) I really DON'T like the master volume on the Boogie's clean channel. For some reason this is a linear control and you hardly get any change for the last 50% of rotation.

As far as sounds go,
1) My hearing is pretty bad, so maybe there's something going on that I can't perceive.
2) I can get great sounds IMO either way
3) It seems easier to get nice sounds, especially clean sounds, with the modeler.
4) I can't decide whether managing the core amp sound separately from the effects is a good thing or not. One of the things about modeler-land that I don't like is the tendency to save a preset every time I come up with a good sound, and then not being able to weed through them or organize them properly. Maybe some modeler company will offer a "feature" which is to LIMIT you to only x-many presets.... 4 or 8 or whatever.

Yesterday I put the Captor-X and HX Effects up on Reverb and sold both of them within a couple hours. With the proceeds, I've already purchased a Headrush MX-5 (I was already used to the 11R and it is very similar) and a MIDI footpedal thing for controlling the DAW.

I'm going to take the Boogie down to the local shop and see about putting it up on consignment. That should help offset that Jazz Bass I'm GAS'ing for.

TL;DR conclusion.

This process of discovery has been going on for awhile, so this was no surprise. I actually cannot take advantage of all the bells and whistles available to the recording guitarist today. It's not really a matter of being intimidated by technology, but realizing that BECAUSE I DO MY OWN ENGINEERING WHILE TRYING TO RECORD SONGS, that I get bogged down in all the technical issues and the songs and creative part suffers. It's as simple as that.

I do like being able to fine tune sounds but there's always some tradeoff here and it's hard to know where the right point is. When I actually get down to recording things I use fewer effects than when I'm just goofing around and I haven't really done much "composing with effects". I usually start with more straightforward guitar and bass sounds.

Fortunately, the things we have today are so much better than what I was using 25 years ago! In the 90s I had a Johnson J-Station.

I'm still keeping my Laney L5 Studio which is the heart of my bedroom setup at the moment.

I halfway want to get a Nextone Stage (the smaller 40 watt model), just to have another small guitar amp here with a couple decent sounds, which I can plug into and works, don't have to worry about changing tubes, etc. GC used has 'em all day for around $350. I like that they are more basic. Even though many people mention using the editor, I did not like that aspect of the Katana and I don't think I would like it any better on the Nextone.
 
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Festofish

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I think technology has caught up. I’ve gone to the digital side with the Boss MD,DD and OD from their 200 series and they’re fantastic. Also a Cusack Resound digital reverb which is also fantastic. I wouldn’t be opposed to a modeler in the future. I can’t seem to find one without built in effects. I’m sure they’ve gotten better as well but have always left me flat in the past.
 

fender4life

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Unlike u i not only have had tube amps but have had nothing BUT tube amps since the 70's and gigged then ill i stopped gigging about 15 years ago. At a little after that point i bought a modeler. I was amazed by so many things about it, but it wasn't exactly like tubes. Pretty close, but the top end didn't sound quite right or quite extended enough. Still fun and usable at home, but even after i stopped gigging i have been playing parties and jams 5-10 times a year. I had issues with it in a bad context because of the top end and because it sounded thin and harsh loud and while some say that amp, a mustang MIII sounds great live, like anything it depends on the sounds u like and use and for me it was not great. I eventually was able to get it better using outboard EQ and some other tricks. But before i had a chance to use it like that a handful of times the new mustang GT arrived and i bought one. It had issues but i could hear the top end had been worked on and was much better. And at some point a update came out in i believe sept 2018 which at that point had me feeling modeling is now equal to tubes.

After a short time the latest mustang, the GTX came out and again i bought. That this amp has absolutely 100% captured real tube sound and feel like the GT after that 9/2018 update but took it even further with a better speaker and cab and and more update features and improvements. The GT did too once it got the v3 update. I can't stop thinking how i wish i could have had this during my gigging years. It is IMO overall the best amp i have owned, and i've probably owned 80-100 tube amps. Not saying it sounds better then all those tube amps, but it sounds and feel s as real as tube, sounds better then many of them, and while a few may have sounded better at theior best, tube amps tend to have bad nites just like guitar players do and some of the most amazing ones i have owned sounded no where near as good as my modeler when they had a bad nite. But my GTX modeler NEVER has a bad nite. It is consistent nite after nite. And it's one of those pieces of gear that i am so happy with tonally that i can't see any reason not to use it the rest of my life barring a better version of it. Even then it would not be a necessity but i'd likely go for it knowing it's the same goodness but even better features or whatever. But no need for tubes to get what i loved about them and a lot more in a 20 Lb combo that does everything including effects and a tuner !

I can't speak for the million other modelers but i have to think that with the lower cost fender being this good many others are too, especially considering many of them are much more expensive. So take it from someone who's got a lifetime of tube amps under his belt....get a good one and the old tube vs modeling debate is not longer and issue. But issues like that never die a quick death, so u will hear a lot of it still, maybe in part because some of them still suck but more likely because this issue will not die regardless of how good modeling now is because thats just what happens. Things like this turn to myth and go on for years after they are no longer valid. Reminds me of peavey who's amps in the 70s were so bad i can honestly say one of them i had was the worse amp i have ever experienced. They gained a rep as having amps that were horribly bad to mediocre at best and at some point they started coming out with some very good amps. But that rep dogged them for many years after they were making good stuff. So be prepared for the modeling debate to linger for years even tho the state of modeling has caught up with tubes already which it IMO already has. I could discuss reasons why some will still cite tubes as better no matter how good modeling is, but why bother. You just need to trust your own ears and do NOT be influenced by those people.
 

Obsessed

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In the end, it is what inspires you that matters, not the type of tools you use. You bring up very important introspection of wiping away biases or preconceptions. Everyone has a different sonic journey and sharing yours is important for everyone to reflect in their own journeys. Thank you.
 

Digital Larry

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After a short time the latest mustang, the GTX came out and again i bought. That this amp has absolutely 100% captured real tube sound and feel like the GT after that 9/2018 update but took it even further with a better speaker and cab and and more update features and improvements. The GT did too once it got the v3 update. I can't stop thinking how i wish i could have had this during my gigging years. It is IMO overall the best amp i have owned, and i've probably owned 80-100 tube amps.
I have also been looking at the GTX-50. Hmmm.... LOL
 

marc2211

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Thanks for the overview! I went on a similar voyage about 2 years ago. I sold my Marshall tube head and went for an Orange Micro Terror, and most recently a Vox mv50 Clean.

I still have a small 5w Supro, but for the most part I use and love the hybrid lunch box amps which both give great ‘tube’ tones.
 

Digital Larry

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Here's my latest strategy.

Move the Laney L5 Studio from the bedroom back into the "studio" and connect it to the 112 speaker that is looking sad and unwanted. The Laney is actually a REALLY nice two channel tube amp with low gain aspirations. It has 5W and 0.5 outputs, USB audio and an analog cab sim XLR out, so I might as well take advantage of all that.

Get something like a Hotone amp for the bedroom pedalboard. Take the synth pedal off that, to make room. So it would be just the Zoom MS-50G (a great little pedal btw), the Hotone, and the Boss RC-5 looper (which I use when I come up with a gnarly riff don'tcha know).

Move the Boss SY-1 synth pedal back to the studio and put it in the FX loop of the Laney along with the Pigtronix looper (which I had planned on getting rid of otherwise). The Pigtronix is another excessively complex piece of gear, but I do know how to use it now, and it does have two independent loops which most other loopers below $200 do not. The synth pedal at this time is just a goof. I turn it on sometimes but haven't yet used it in a recording.

I really like having a looper at each guitar "station" because while I sit around and play familiar tunes and riffs a lot, every now and then something unexpected comes out, and I like to capture those and sometimes even do something with them!
 
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Bill

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After a short time the latest mustang, the GTX came out and again i bought. That this amp has absolutely 100% captured real tube sound and feel like the GT after that 9/2018 update but took it even further with a better speaker and cab and and more update features and improvements.

The one thing I've noticed on the few modellers I've used is that they sound like a recording of the amp, not the live version of the amp.

For instance, I have an original '66 Deluxe Reverb and a Mustang III version 2. The Deluxe Reverb model on the Mustang sounds lovely, but it sounds like a recorded, slightly compressed and levelled and EQ'd version of my Deluxe Reverb. It does not sound like a live amp to me, regardless of how I tweak the bias, sag, etc.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. There are plenty of times I'd just as soon have that recorded/engineered sound. But I do wonder why (in my limited experience) the modellers seem to go that pre-recorded, sweetened sound.

A whole other issue is the lack of liveliness/sensitivity/dynamics on some (most?) modellers. They feel like there's some kind of compression or something going on. Luckily, I can dial most of that out by using my Blackstone MOSFET Overdrive, which--although it adds some gain, depending on the setting--restores a sufficient level of "feel" to my Mustang III so that I feel more connected to the amp.

Anyways, not a knock on modelling amps. They are amazing. I'm just curious why as a rule they have gone for a recorded-amp rather than a live-amp sound.
 

chris m.

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I will stipulate that for recording, digital modeling can work great, whether it be VSTs, an old kidney POD, whatever. It really does the job amazingly well.

Where modeling falls down for me is in live applications at stage volume, not bedroom volume. So far I am not impressed, not for gain tones, anyway. As an example, not even talking tubes here, I think pure analog dirt pedals still sound better than COSM (digital modeling) dirt pedals. I'll take transistor clipping over digitally modeled clipping any day....

I am interested in some of the pure analog, non-tube options, for live applications. Orange Super Crush 100, Quilter Superblock US, etc. I have a Superblock US on back order that I'm still waiting for....

I haven't tried a Mustang GT. I am probably going to buy my 12 year old son a low-cost practice amp and something like a Mustang is definitely on my radar. Katana is also on my potential list. For bedroom practice I think these amps work just fine.
 
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chris m.

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The one thing I've noticed on the few modellers I've used is that they sound like a recording of the amp, not the live version of the amp.

For instance, I have an original '66 Deluxe Reverb and a Mustang III version 2. The Deluxe Reverb model on the Mustang sounds lovely, but it sounds like a recorded, slightly compressed and levelled and EQ'd version of my Deluxe Reverb. It does not sound like a live amp to me.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. There are plenty of times I'd just as soon have that recorded/engineered sound. But I do wonder why (in my limited experience) the modellers seem to go that pre-recorded, sweetened sound.

A whole other issue is the lack of liveliness/sensitivity/dynamics on some (most?) modellers. They feel like there's some kind of compression or something going on. Luckily, I can dial list out by using my Blackstone MOSFET Overdrive, which--although it adds some gain, depending on the setting--restores a sufficient level of "feel" to my Mustang III so that I feel more connected to the amp.

Anyways, not a knock on modelling amps. They are amazing. I'm just curious why as a rule they have gone for a recorded-amp rather than a live-amp sound.

Think about how they do the modelling. They have to stick some kind of microphone up to the speaker, and then measure what comes out of the speaker at different amp settings. But everything they measure is affected by the fact that the thing that is listening to the output is a microphone, not a human ear. So even if they emulate that output perfectly, they are emulating what a microphone hears, not what a human ear hears. I suppose they could somehow employ a conversion algorithm that attempts to compensate EQ and dynamics to be more like how a human ear hears sound coming out of a guitar speaker, but if they are trying to do that I don't think they've succeeded.
 

JL_LI

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That’s quite a detailed story of a journey to amplification consciousness. Mine’s a lot simpler. I couldn’t find my tone in a SuperChamp XD but found a Mesa Boogie Express 5:25 to love. I’ve had it 9 or 10 years and keep finding things I must have missed along the way. I use only the two clean channels and now mostly at 5 watts. I use a BOSS EQ-200 as a tone shaper and a Fender Mirror Image Delay in place of the reverb. I’m not saying do what I do. I’m saying finding what works can be liberating and inspiring.
 

Digital Larry

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Think about how they do the modelling. They have to stick some kind of microphone up to the speaker, and then measure what comes out of the speaker at different amp settings. But everything they measure is affected by the fact that the thing that is listening to the output is a microphone, not a human ear. So even if they emulate that output perfectly, they are emulating what a microphone hears, not what a human ear hears. I suppose they could somehow employ a conversion algorithm that attempts to compensate EQ and dynamics to be more like how a human ear hears sound coming out of a guitar speaker, but if they are trying to do that I don't think they've succeeded.

At one level of modelling, all anyone is apparently doing is entering a schematic into a computer which "computes" what that circuit would do when given a signal. You don't have to measure a real amp to make this happen. Now I never worked on any guitar modeling stuff directly so I'm not 100% sure which approach is used in all the various boxes out there. Far from it, in fact. But if people are doing modeling by schematic, that does not require interpretation by anyone with musical sensibility in order to operate at a basic level.

I don't know "why" there is any perceived discrepancy, but if there is, IMO it is due to some shortcoming in this process, such as the accuracy of the tube models, or the interpolation or aliasing, or dithering, or whatever. Some known aspect of DSP systems in general. Unfortunately I also lack the recent experience of playing a guitar amplifier live and also LOUD, and I'm not likely to do it without earplugs given my hearing issues, so for me anyway it doesn't matter - that's not an experience I am missing. I'm just doing recording mostly.

I keep thinking that some of the "recorded tone" comments stem from the fact that you RARELY hear just the amp and a little reverb in a modeler preset. It's always got at least some compression chorus and delay on it. Even if you like modelers and also like basic amp tones it's hard not to add that glop on there. Then there's the fact that when I play the guitar amp, it's down on the floor and has a 12" speaker, while through the modeler, it's going through my Tannoys at ear level. When I route the signal that would have been going to the guitar speaker through the monitors, does it sound different? er... yeah, most likely... Does it affect how I play? I don't think so. If it does, it's not at a level that I find problematic.

Note, there have been times when recording that I was hearing latency, which IS problematic, don't get me wrong... so generally speaking I monitor an analog signal from the mixer rather than the DAW monitor if I notice anything.

Another possibility is that there's something going on that nobody wants to acknowledge, such as my Katana would not clip on clean even at full tilt (on the 1/2 watt setting), so it MUST have some sort of over-all limiter in there, but they never mention it.
 
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Digital Larry

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That’s quite a detailed story of a journey to amplification consciousness. Mine’s a lot simpler. I couldn’t find my tone in a SuperChamp XD but found a Mesa Boogie Express 5:25 to love. I’ve had it 9 or 10 years and keep finding things I must have missed along the way. I use only the two clean channels and now mostly at 5 watts. I use a BOSS EQ-200 as a tone shaper and a Fender Mirror Image Delay in place of the reverb. I’m not saying do what I do. I’m saying finding what works can be liberating and inspiring.
I'm glad you got it to work, it's a great amp! I just plugged mine into a cab and played through all the channels and it sounded great. It just didn't work out for me and given my space constraints I'm going to try downsizing a number of things to open up a little more floor space. Probably also going to finally get rid of the Eleven Rack. That turned out to be a very useful piece of gear and a great value. I got mine a couple years back for $200, now they are pulling $300 or more on average. I know the rack format isn't as popular, but it worked great for me.
 
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chris m.

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I'm glad you got it to work, it's a great amp! I just plugged mine into a cab and played through all the channels and it sounded great. It just didn't work out for me and given my space constraints I'm going to try downsizing a number of things to open up a little more floor space.

I am glad that companies are working hard to make tubes obsolete. I love my four tube amps, but I don't love replacing tubes, and if something more complicated goes wrong then I need to take it to my amp guy. He's great, but the day he stops repairing amps is the day I sell my tube amps. Because the next closest good tube amp repairman is about a 45 minute drive away.
 

Digital Larry

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I appreciate how you took the debate off the internet and into your studio to vet your preference. Nice work!
Maybe, but I brought it back to the internet anyway!
In all of this I am interested in the WHY as much as anything. For example, I am interested to know WHY the capabilities of 99% of modelers exceed the needs of the customer by about 1000%? This needless clutter does not come without a price! The only one that went the other way so far IMO is Fender's Tone Masters.

e.g. WHAT WOULD HAPPEN if someone made the bold move to market a modeler WITHOUT METAL amps? Would a bunch of people like me who really don't know how to or want to use metal settings all of a sudden say, "hmmmm"... The Yamaha THR-10C was a step in this direction. And they had a THR-10X that was a step in the other direction. In a way it makes no sense... take features out to create a new product? At this stage it's pure marketing... so who's to say what makes sense?

My wanting to get rid of the Boogie is in no way an indictment of an entire type of product. In fact it's about at the top of tube amp complexity to begin with, then in order to use it the way I wanted, I added these other ridiculous things that made it too much of a hassle.
 
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