May 09, 2017
It goes without saying that there’s nothing quite like an all-tube guitar amp cranked up to its sweet spot. In fact, many tone aficionados will tell you that this setup is the only way to go if you’re serious about your guitar tone. However, weight and portability are often a factor with all-tube amps (with the exception of smaller, more compact designs like the V3M). And if you’re in a position where you’re downsizing your transportation to save on gas or just do not want to lug a heavy amp to the gig, you may find yourself wondering if there’s something else that can come close to the sound of an all-tube amp. And while nothing will sound exactly like it, there are a few options that may prove to be worthy substitutes.
Dirtying it Up With Effects Pedals
Many musicians add effects pedals to their arsenal to give them a juiced up overdrive in the same way as cranking the gain on a tube amp. A common setup is placing an overdrive or distortion pedal in front of an amp set for clean or slightly dirty tone. This also allows you to get a nice crunch at practically any volume, since you can use the pedal’s controls to shape your tone before it hits your amp.
While they may sound similar at lower volumes, the gap between a cranked tube amp and an overdrive pedal tends to widen at higher volumes. Generally speaking, tube amps tend to have a more gradual, organic compression and a more natural, less harsh clipping than solid state effects pedals. This is not to say that all tube amps are sonically superior to pedals, in fact, if you are looking for a more compressed guitar sound a pedal may be the ticket. But tube amps tend to have a fuller, more musical and organic nature to their overdrive tones.
Tube-Driven Preamps with Overdrive
Using a high-quality preamp in place of an all-tube head can provide sweet tone without all the weight. If it is tube tone you’re after, a preamp unit with tubes built-in can help you take tube tone on the go. These are much easier to transport, as they are often much smaller than tube heads, commonly seen in rack and pedalboard-friendly designs. You can use these in conjunction with an amp that needs an extra push or to help shape your tone. Many tube preamps can be fed directly to a power amp or PA system, so you can just show up, dial in your tone, and play through the PA.
Carvin Audio’s VLD1 Legacy Drive Pedal for instance, gives you the tone and features of the Steve Vai Legacy 3 tube amp at your fingertips (or rather, your feet). This pedal uses the full preamp circuit from the Steve Vai Legacy head, right down to the two 12AX7 tube four gain stages, and the full equalization section tone controls. Because it uses tubes, this unit will yield a much more natural overdrive sound than most pedals while weighing only slightly more. You can also dial in a shimmering clean tone on the clean channel and access it at the flip of a switch.
The VLD1 Legacy Drive Pedal gives you the tone and features of the Legacy 3 Tube Amp
A “best of both worlds” approach is to use a tube preamp in conjunction with a tube amp, giving you access to a whole new tonal palette. If portability is an issue, or if you hop often from stage to studio and want tube tone in a compact package that will fit in your gig bag or backpack, then a tube preamp is a very good choice.
Remember, tone is subjective, and an all-tube amp isn’t necessarily better than an overdrive pedal or tube preamp. Furthermore, you don’t have to stick to just one! What setup do you prefer? Tell us in the comments.
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