Perhaps it is because music is passed down from one generation to the next via personal instruction and anecdotal knowledge, but whatever the reason, a great deal of what the average musician knows about their craft is hearsay as much as fact. And while all those legends we pick up may be useful in our quest to acquire a broad understanding of music, at some point we need to reexamine the wives' tales we've built our art upon to be sure they are worthy of our reliance. So with no further ado, let us endeavor to blast some of the most pervasive myths about amps and sound!
Tube amps have more power than solid-state ones.
Assuming both amps had the same output specifications, this legend suggested that tube amps somehow were simply more powerful than solid-state designs. But the truth was more bureaucratic than mystical. In order to arrive at a standard for comparison between different models, the industry adopted loose guidelines for equipment ratings. Amplifiers were often rated by their maximum output before exceeding a specified level of Total Harmonic Distortion (THD). It is for this reason that most tube amplifiers were designed with a lot of headroom in order to achieve the desired output without distortion. The solid-state designs didn't need nearly as much headroom to get the same rating. But when guitarists used the tube amps they didn't mind the distortion, in fact they soon began to consider it essential.
Gold-plated cables have "better tone."
Setting aside the rational objection that what "sounds better" is a purely subjective determination, are there advantages to boutique features like gold-plated connectors? Gold generally conducts better than other types of connector plating, but considering that none of the jacks you're plugging into are probably gold-plated, it isn't likely to matter much. And being a much softer metal, the thin plating will wear away very quickly. Not too many of us use a brand new cord every time we plug in. Are you still skeptical? Just remember that every hit song in the 20th Century was recorded with many standard cables and very little, if any, gold-plated connectors.
Even though humans can't hear beyond 20kHz, audio equipment needs to be able to reproduce higher frequencies to insure clarity.
A common misconception is that audio equipment designed to reproduce frequencies beyond human hearing will sound better in the audible range. But there is little evidence to suggest lack of inaudible high frequency response impacts the range of human hearing. The best designs may well be capable of reproducing sound beyond perception, but it is not essential.
The best amps are made with expensive "boutique" parts.
Choosing quality parts can be important to maintain reliability and consistency, but musical instrument amps are seldom made with the most expensive parts, and the most popular designs in history were made with parts that simply met the manufacturer's minimum specifications. One of the most famous evolutions in guitar pickups happened because the auto maker that supplied the pole-pieces had a completely different kind of windshield-wiper motor magnet on hand than it did when the guitar factory called the time before. This is also why randomly "upgrading" parts in your guitar amp won't necessarily improve your tone. In fact, often the individual character which sets one amp apart from the rest is due to the selection of compromises the manufacturer made on the model in question. Next time you see the word 'boutique' in reference to a particular part, try replacing it with 'trendy.'
Part of the mystery and excitement of music is trying to sleuth out the secrets of the ultimate tone or finding that one special instrument that 'just feels right.' Musicians are a creative lot, so a little imagination and embellishment doesn't hurt anything. Inspiration can come from many places. Just make sure you're responding to inspiration rather than marketing.
Which amp myths have you heard? Have you ever put them to the test?
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