Distortion Is Awesome: Part II
Vacuum Tubes by Marcin Wichary via flickrIf you were fortunate enough to read my last piece, you already have begun to learn about distortion and it’s awesome-ness. If you haven’t, get back over there in fill yourself in…
But since you watch and read everything on the ‘Step, I’ll just continue.
We left off with the knowledge nugget that basically, turning stuff up too much makes things get distorted. But, things aren’t quite that simple, particularly if you want good distortion.
Wait, good distortion? I thought that when you turn something up, the sound wave gets clipped, and that’s that?
Well, it turns out that it really matters what kind of amp you turn up too loud if you want the best sounding distortion you can get.
Tube Amps Vs. Solid-State Amps, or, Soft Clipping Vs. Hard Clipping
Generally, there’s two kinds of amp designs out there, one of which every product falls in to: Tube amps and Solid-State amps (note: sometimes Tubes are called Valves, particularly if you’re over in that England-y area). Both of these designs distort, but the behavior is considerably different.
Basically, without going in to the history of amp manufacturing (since Mason has already done a comparison of these amp designs here), when amps were first built, one of the necessary components was the vacuum tube. They were used in electronics of all kinds, even the first computers. But as decades passed and technology improved, the vacuum tube became obsolete, and fell to the newer, cheaper, and lighter transistor, which is what solid-state amplifiers use.
Both of these designs distort as you turn them up too loud, but the behavior and nature of the distortion is considerably different.
Tube amps, when cranked up, clip the sound wave as discussed in the first part of this piece. When tubes begin to clip the sound, the clipping is described as “soft clipping”. This is because it is the nature of tubes to subtly compress the sound wave, which creates a very natural and responsive kind of distortion.
However, when the transistors of a solid-state amp are pushed too hard and begin distorting, they exhibit a “hard clipped” sound. Hard clipping is a much more drastic distortion of the sound, where the peaks and valleys of the sound wave are literally “chopped” of, creating a more “buzzy” sound.
So what’s it all mean? What’s the answer? What do I want? What’s better?
A small diagram illustrating the difference between soft clipping and hard clipping. Taken from this lovely site about amp and pedal designs and how they create different styles of distortion. A great read.Know The Difference, Make A Choice
The short answer any guitar store douchebag will give you is “Tubes are better”. I don’t know if this makes me a douchebag, but I would agree. Fact is, they really do just sound better.
But, I would temper my answer with the following… both types of amps create sounds, and when it comes to creating art with sound (better known as music), there’s no such thing as a “bad” sound. As a matter of fact, I’ve noticed that very often in genres of music that rely primarily on computer generated/sample-based sounds (particularly hip-hop and other electronic music), solid-state “digital” styles of distortion seem to be preferred. It’s certainly not a rule, but there is something about the “digital” sounding guitars sitting well with the other “digital” instruments.
So, just know the difference between the amps, listen carefully to the differences, and make the choice. Tube amps are more expensive and usually heavier, which may be a factor if you gig a lot and don’t have roadies, but solid-state amps can sound brittle and thin, and often times don’t soar above the band as well. At the same time, solid-state amps are cheaper and easier to maintain (as the tubes don’t need replacing, because they aren’t there), and if you’re a working musician, having an light manageable amp might outweigh the tonal drawbacks.
One Last Note On Power
This final morsel of knowledge may be the most useful in this article, so listen up.
The battle of tube vs. solid state is a well-documented one, but I seldom see this pointer brought up. When choosing an amp, be sure to consider the power of the amp, which is typically measured in watts.
Why? Because when it comes to turning your amp up too loud for killer distortion sounds, the power of the amp is going to determine whether you’re loud, really loud, or killing people. If you play small clubs, a 100 watt guitar amp turned all the way up is going to be unnecessarily deafening. However, if you try to play the Staples center with a 5 watt amp, you’re gonna wish you had more juice.
Bottom line is, if you don’t rely on distortion pedals for your distortion, and instead rely on turning your gear up, make sure the power level of the amp you’re using is suitable for the gig you’re playing. I’ve found that for most small and medium sized gigs, anything between 15-50 watts is desirable.
Wait wait wait wait wait… distortion pedal?
Yeah, that’s part 3…