Bottled_Bravery.mp3While reading this week's Valley Advocate insert about the Institute for Musical Arts in Goshen, most people probably thought "Isn't that nice that they're teaching girls to rock!" or maybe " It's about time Women banded together to teach girls to rock!"...or maybe "Look at the little girls in the pictures rocking...isn't that cute?"....me being me, the reaction was totally different. Was I the only one thinking "Are those solid-state guitar amps they gave those girls?" "How they gonna 'Rock like the guys' with solid state guitar amps!!!!! What are they teaching those poor misguided girls?"....But I digress....is it digressing if it's right at the start?....oh, never mind.
Right off the bat, let me admit that one of the few things in the music business that NEVER gets old: Showing up at a faraway jam where they don't know me, walking in with my battered Supro Thunderbolt (and battered Tele), and watching the reaction....."Who is this loser....and WHAT is that thing?" Thanks to the intraweb, occasionally now a kid will recognize the ancient amp..."That's a Supro Thunderbolt! Jimmy Page used those on the first two Led Zeppelin albums!!"...I tell him "Relax, kid, I bought it in a used furniture store for $90" But the real fun begins when they HEAR it! Question is, why do we like older tube amps sound so much?
Let's zip through the science : that growling,roaring sound that makes electric guitar so unlike acoustic or classical guitar, we call that distortion, right? HARMONIC distortion!! In addition to the original tone, something in the amplification circuit is producing a sympathetic vibration...similar to a chord...it's like each note has the Mormon Tabernacle Choir adding some complexity to it. But what's the big deal about older tube amps? Can't a solid state amp distort if we turn it up? Well, yes it can, and scientific treatises have been written tracking what frequencies and how much of each. I love this part: the scientists concluded that, although the tube amps produced similar amounts of 3rds, 5ths and 7ths to solid states, they produced more even numbered harmonics....but, in the big picture, not enough more to be noticeable to the human ear...and I'm hereby advising you to be very, very wary when anybody tells you what you can and can't hear....but, interestingly, even the scientists admitted that the odd harmonics seemed harsher, the even ones, smoothed out the sound....and, get this : when we listened to the complete amplifier comparison (not just the output of the tubes.....the scientists....yes, even the scientists... could tell that the tube amps sounded better! WTF, you say (I bet the scientists said that...if scientists say that). The speakers were the same (you can get speakers to distort, but not usually without them getting quickly damaged)...what else was different. Well, it turns out there's another component that, when overdriven, produces harmonic distortion....lots of EVEN numbered harmonic distortion....and that's the output transformer. But wait, solid state amps don't have those! Exactly!
If output transformers make the key difference, then perhaps lesser output transformers might actually be more, so to speak. That would bring us to amps that , while having the same tubes as "Name" brands, might try to "cheap out" on transformers....which would bring us to the prized Silvertones (Sears)and, of course...Supros. English amps have always used slightly different tube combinations, matched a little differently to their output transformers, and have their own devotees.
Now, why can't we simulate these sounds with a computer based technology? Well, the short answer is: we can....and some day, when I'm in the nursing home, my great grandson will tell me they finally got that perfected (I'll probably be too deaf to argue...."No, No, sonny-boy, they been tellin' that lie my whole life...get a tube amp, by cracky!"). The modeling amps I've seen can be tweaked (by someone young) to sound pretty darn good.....but then you decide they're set too loud or too soft for the band you're in, you'll start tweaking all over...as you will with amps with a million analog knobs....ear fatigue sets in, you think you sound great...then you hear a recording the next day and say.....Wish I had a Supro Thunderbolt (Or a Jennings A-15, look that one up in your Funk and Wagnalls)