Are Tubes for Rubes?

I had a lot of fun putting together an article for Premier Guitar on using non-tube distortion. It features a smorgasbord of digital tones guaranteed to horrify tube purists. (It’s certainly horrifying a few commentators on PG‘s Facebook page.)

iZotope's Trash 2 — like version 1, only trashier!

iZotope’s Trash 2 — like version 1, only trashier!

It was also a chance for me to explore iZotope’s Trash 2, on the recombination of my ol’ pal Jeff Cross, who is one of the most super-genius of the super-genius audio guys I’ve worked with at Apple. I was a fan of the first version of Trash, though I didn’t have the opportunity to use it a lot. This generation is even cooler, and seems to focus less energy on conventional amp modeling than on being a wild and open-ended distortion-designing tool. I’ll definitely be spending some more time with this! I also enjoyed playing with FXpansion’s Maul, which covers much similar territory.

Have any of you guys played with some of these digital distortion-designer tools? Any observations?  

14 comments to Are Tubes for Rubes?

  • Jeremy

    Sorry to go tangential on you so soon, but maybe you’ll soon be able to have the authentic tube sound without having to deal with the reliative fragility and size of the real thing….

    Now back to the programme…

  • Oinkus

    Woah ! That is just too cool Jeremy.I have high hopes for anything that is some form of progress in the world of gear and/or equipment for making better sounds.Back to your scheduled program.

  • smgear

    that mini tube is cool. I hope it makes it to the production stage….. in under 10 years. 🙂

    Good article Joe! I don’t mean this as any kind of a sleight at all, but do you think we’re about out of the digital vs. analogue debate era? I think most of us have used both options enough to recognize the relative merits and it generally just comes down to creative and economic considerations for most people, doesn’t it? What’s interesting to me is that the cost of plugins can occasionally swing the value proposition back into the hardware side, regardless of quality. Sure, any individual plugin may only cost a couple hundred bucks, but assembling a full stable of itb ‘versatile modeling’ gear quickly adds up to a couple thousand dollars, and even higher if you add custom processing modules. At that point, if you are a solo-ish home producer who is chasing a particular sound, then it might be a lot cheaper and less hassle to just buy the gear you want and then you have it all in your live kit too.

    Of course it’s a personal decision, but at the macro-theoretical level, I have trouble finding a lot of support for the argument that unlimited options and work-flow configurations have taken the market into any new sonic or creative frontiers. If anything, the market sounds samier than ever because people are able to chase a sound that they heard once rather than chase what’s in their head. Seasoned studio veterans like you know how to configure your chain appropriate to the sound you’re going for – either digitally or analog, and you know how to focus on the handful of characteristics that are sonically important once the track is set into the mix.

    So if can make some suggestions like the pompous windbag I occasionally am, I’d love for you to do some PG features focusing on some of the workflow/creative decisions involved in your own (or other session/solo producers) work. So..

    – what’s your default workflow. What are the main factors you consider when you decide between full analogue, itb, or combinations of the two
    – what tools/gear do you use for session/sound modeling work where you are creating/recreating familiar sounds (ie. what gets the job done quickly and satisfactorily) vs. when you are focusing on creating original tones/textures (ie. where do you look for new stuff).
    – how quickly do you lock yourself into a narrow path to avoid endless experimentation/modification
    – If you had to chose, what 5 pieces of gear (hardware or software) would let you accomplish the majority of your production tasks.

    I know they’re complicated questions and there are lots of other variables involved, but they’re topics that I wish were addressed more often rather than the glut of press devoted to ‘look what you can do with X’. Guys like you and the ubiquitous Pete Thorn can make nearly anything sound good in a demo, but what do you actually use for your work. The answers probably don’t sell advertising, but I’d love to hear the responses from session players.

    Just a thought 🙂

    • joe

      Thanks for some great column ideas, smgear. You asked:

      do you think we’re about out of the digital vs. analogue debate era?

      Well, on this site we are.

      But we’re a community of geeks, obsessives, and anyone else patient enough to read my stuff. (You think you’re a pompous windbag? Pah — amateur!) The PG audience isn’t just far bigger, but also far broader, encompassing many styles and skill levels. And as much as I like to assume we’re past the era of unbending tube dogma, it just ain’t so. Check out the responses when my article was announced on PG‘s Facebook page.

      It’s interesting to me that metal players are leading the rebellion against tube orthodoxy.

      • smgear

        haha, haters gonna hate. My only consolation for those guys is that no one is forcing digital on them – there’s more tube options then ever out there and the simplicity and availability of the ‘classic’ schematics ensure that they’ll be recreated for years to come.

        I’ve noticed that about the metal players, but it kinda makes sense. The main tone profile there is a pretty balanced crisp-crunchiness that early filtering and bit-crushing rendered pretty authentically….. AND most of the hardcore fans and players have serious hearing loss anyways….. 🙂

        Modeling something like the spongy/splurty t-bone burnett chain of fully dimed everything-vintage is still pretty tough to replicate digitally, although I’m not sure anyone would want to. His last few productions have sounded to me like he was pushing the analog to it’s limits just to make a statement, and in doing so vastly overshot the sweet spots of that gear. The results are great performances that are really hard to listen to through the thick blanket of ‘tone’ he covers it up with.

        Anyways, suffice it to say that I love the range of options we have today. The challenge for me (and I imagine for some others too) is merely to mentally define the desired sound and parameters before I track anything so that I don’t get lost in an endless process of auditioning and experimentation. After all, a lot of great recordings have been made on tascam 4 tracks…

  • What gets me is how just how many distortion pedals / plugins can be sold! After all a clipped signal is a clipped signal and there are only so many ways you can fool around with the gain structure and filter the signal before and after clipping. But then perhaps my ears have not been blessed by the magical Tone Gods.

  • Oinkus

    I have to say that a lot of metal is done with SS amps. Dimebag used them to great effect. The Ampeg VH140C is a SS amp that I have experience with and is sought after by Black/Death metal players for its fantastic gain.Most everyone has both analog and digital effects on their boards now even if they don’t know it.The overall world of music is in pretty sad shape in my opinion but it is not from the lack of affordable gear.

  • Jermaine Eyum

    I got a pretty cool tone last night running an aliaser, one channel split off to a tracking resonant lowpass filter, while the main aliased signal went to a fast tremolo. Doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard before.

  • I’m guessing a common element of haters hating is that they did not adopt new workflows when they tried the new tech. If you’re used to smashing the heck out of your tube amp’s input with a booster, well, the modeling amp might not take kindly to that because the designer didn’t have that in mind. Heck, the designers of the early tube amps didn’t have that in mind, either–it just happened to work. When mixing and matching tech, unity gain tends to be the safest starting point, and some gear that worked very situationally (e.g. early treble boosters for early tube amp inputs) maybe won’t fly.

    Then, from a safeish zone of combining harmonic, dynamic, and frequency components separately produced, you can stretch out a bit. Maybe the analog circuitry before the analog to digital converter likes being pushed. My vintage Delta Labs delay has a brick-wall limiter that sounds cool when pushes. And Brian Eno reportedly loves distorting the analog inputs of the old Eventide H3000 Harmonizer. You might find similar surprises with your more modern gear.

  • Mat

    Hi Joe, loved the PG article! As someone who started on cheap solid states amps, moved to digital and then onto tube amps I’ve found it slightly depressing (having spent a fortune on gear) to find I often prefer the digital or ss sounds! I now know why! The audio examples were a great illustration of just how alive digital can sound (let alone the endless sonic possibilities). The debate is certainly alive and kicking and I often see people look ashamed when they compliment a guitar tone only to find it was made digitally!! Keep up the good fight for judging tone on merit rather than the gear used to produce it!

  • Roberto

    Hi Joe,
    The sound of a real tube amp is irreplaceable. Having a big twin reverb-like Music Man is my joy, but the monster is big and heavy, and I cannot bring it to all the gigs. I’m considering to get a smaller amp for gigs, but still, sometimes I can’t bring even an small amp because I don’t own a car.
    I got a Palmer Pocket Amp, which is a pre amp pedal with amp modeling. All analog. I haven’t used yet on any gig, but at home it sounds fairly good.
    Do you have any suggestion for the without-a-car guitarist that has been forced to connect directly to a PA?
    any experience with Pods and other simulators?
    Kinda off topic, but somehow related.

  • Roberto

    Going beyond Z… going beyond topic.
    When digging the surface of Japanese language, my western alphabet seemed so poor: 26 characters versus 46 Hiragana, doubled by its Katakana mirror alphabet, plus the uncertain number of Kanji, the Chinese characters, that seems to be like the universe, there’s going to be always another new character beyond your knowledge.
    Digital dirt is like new characters, opening to different ways of thinking. The guitars sound like a synth on your examples. Awesome!

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