Snake Oil! (part 4, tubes/valves)

Is there anything, in the world of musical equipment, more hyped than tubes?  Every catalog and every gear website is laden with chatter about the warmth, fatness, and “vintage tone” you’ll get from their tube pedals, preamps, amps, rack processors, and gadgets of every type.  The ads for some effects boxes say they’ll give you all the rich, creamy tones of a classic tube amp, even if there’s just one tube stuck in there with no clear function.  And sellers of tubes will go on at length about the amazing tone, clarity, frequency range, smoothness, and “depth of sound stage” that their special tubes will provide.

It’s not all lies, exactly, but there is an awful lot of empty and meaningless hot air in there.  Here’s why:

The classic/vintage designs of tube equipment include preamp tubes, an output transformer, large filter capacitors, and (in the case of a tube amp) a bank of power tubes—and all of those elements have a cumulative impact on the sound.  Additionally they are designed so their tubes are supplied with ideal amounts of voltage and current for optimal performance.

Compare all that against a typical preamp or pedal marketed as having “a real tube” for warmth and fat vintage tone: it will have one or maybe two preamp tubes, but none of the rest of those other components and qualities.  Often the voltage and current are just barely enough to operate the tube, with no regard for whether the performance of the tube is even any good, let alone having the tone qualities they advertised.  Sometimes the tube has no perceptible effect on the sound; sometimes all it does is add noise; and sometimes the “vintage” tone it gives is just a mushy, inarticulate degradation of the signal.  Among people who understand the difference, these products are called “toob” effects/amps, to mock the bogus use of a tube for marketing purposes.

To be clear, not all preamp-tube devices are bogus.  A skillful engineer, using design principles for optimal performance rather than convenience or low cost, can get amazingly good tones out of a single preamp tube.  But the unfortunate majority of musical equipment products on the market were made with convenience and low cost, the bottom line, as their primary design goals.  Even reputable brands fall into this trap: one of their engineers may come up with a great new product, but then the marketing and accounting departments tell them “the retail price will be too expensive, and the parts are costly and hard to source, and we don’t have assembly/repair workers trained in handling high voltages.  So make it cheaper, with fewer parts, use a standard 12AX7 tube, and make it run on low power.”

To make the accountants and executives happy, a lot of the time these engineers (under pressure for both cost and delivery time) just borrow an existing prefab simple low-voltage 12AX7 gain stage design, and stuff it into whatever preamp or effects pedal the brand is making.  So now the brand doesn’t have just a delay pedal, they have a TUBE delay pedal, with thick, warm tones just like the greatest classic-rock guitar solos!  Or instead of a bland amp with no great features, now they have a super-versatile dual-function preamp that can give you everything from crisp modern tones to rich, fat vintage tones, at the flip of a switch!  Sometimes those proclamations are just hyperbole, where there is a tonal effect but it’s not that great; but too often those claims are outright mealy-mouthed lies.  And their whole purpose is to gull you into buying another new product, even if it can’t deliver what it promises.  And you know what—they can get away with it, because claims of tone are subjective; so as long as there is “a real tube” in the circuit, the manufacturer is not violating any truth-in-advertising laws.

To complicate matters more, all of these tone descriptions—whether legitimate or bogus—are totally relative.  What sounds “amazingly rich and detailed” to one person may be far too subtle for another person to even notice.  Imagine you hear someone describing a car they just test-drove, and they say it had terrific handling, impressive acceleration, and better fuel efficiency compared to another car they tested; how do we know their frame of reference?  Are they describing the difference between a new Honda Accord and an old Dodge Ram Wagon–or the difference between an Accord sedan DX and an Accord sedan LX?  There’s no exaggeration in that analogy—sometimes one product really does sound remarkably different from another, but very often when people describe the difference between tubes, they are describing qualities that the average listener just would not perceive unless they were told to listen for it.

That of course leads straight into the problems of biased perception, that I have mentioned in previous posts.  We see and hear what we expect (or hope) to see and hear, almost universally.  It is very difficult to avoid these distortions our brains and ears impose on the objective, testable reality.  When people “roll” tubes (swapping various different tubes into one piece of music gear), there is almost no way to prevent hearing some very biased and distorted version of the truth—no matter how perceptive and well-intentioned the listener is.  When you are just listening for your own benefit, there is no problem with those perceptions, they are as good as reality; the problem arises when you read other peoples’ opinions and claims.

But wait—there’s more!  In addition to the real or perceived differences between tubes, and in addition to the question of appropriate voltage and current supply, the fact is any tube gets a large part of its tonal qualities from the rest of the entire circuit it’s built into.  Some preamps (for example) are designed in such a way that a Telefunken ECC83 will sound very different from a JAN GE 12AX7 or a modern Chinese generic; while other preamps will sound pretty much exactly the same regardless of what tube you use.  Sometimes a careful tube designer will actually choose a specific Chinese or Russian generic 12AX7 and design their preamp around the performance characteristics of that tube, such that “upgrading” to an expensive vintage tube could actually downgrade the performance of that preamp–or at least not result in the positive tone change you hoped for.  Also, there’s no one correct understanding of what “tube sound” is anyway—tubes can provide mild grit, subtle warmth, raging fuzz, and even sterile cleanliness!  Some of the most high-fidelity sound reproduction systems use tubes.  It all depends on the circuit design; so when looking at gear to buy, you have to ask this question: what is this specific product designed to sound like?  Just because it has tubes doesn’t mean anything, so is it intended to sound even remotely like what you want?

Bottom line, you can’t make assumptions.  Some of the variables are hidden; some of the language is wide open for interpretation; and some of the sellers are liars.  Always listen for yourself, and never trust the hype.

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  1. Garry L. Todd said,

    July 19, 2010 @ 7:26 am

    Wow, finally! I’m a bassist with okay ears who’s always been a solid-state guy when it comes to my amps, and to MY ears, nothing has ever reproduced the sound of my bass as well as my little/ancient 7-lb. Gallien-Krueger 400RB head, which I run through a Zoom pedal into a Peavey 4×10 TX cab with the tweeter always off.This combo produces some noise, because my Conklin bass is active, but in the context of live rock in a dive bar, it’s just fine.

    I have a friend/fellow bassist who plays a Sadowsky jazz bass, through a mammoth Aguilar all-tube head, with a Sansamp and an Empiricial Labs Distressor, plus several other high-end/high-dollar pieces of gear, through Aguilar cabinets. He gets good tone, but it’s not $20000 better than my $1300 total rig (incl. the bass). Plus, he has to get help hauling all of that crap around due to a bad back, AND he’s taking all of that to semi-dangerous dive bars to play 3 hours for $75 per man. My rig fits into my Nissan pickup’s cab, and I can be ready to play anywhere in 10 minutes.

    In short, I’m proud my pal has the cash to buy that stuff and use it, but sound-wise, I don’t hear that much difference–when he plays my bass through my rig, he still sounds like himself. Like you said, I think he’s buying into the tube hype vs. trusting his ears.

    I’ve never particularly understood the fetishism of tubes, especially in the world of bass amps. I do remember playing a standard passive bass through an old Fender Bassman amp, and get nothing but distortion past about 1 or 2. That distortion might be the Holy Grail to some, but I prefer to hear distortion as an effect, and not as a result of poor sound conveyance/reproduction. My fave distorted bass tone belongs to Billy Sheehan, and he uses solid-state Pearce preamps to get that tone. So, I agree with what you said, though some people look at me like I have three heads, but tubes are not always the way to get the best sound.

    I have another friend who plays acoustic guitar in a variety of formats, but most often solo, with a heavy right hand picking attack. He’s currently using a Takamine acoustic with a tube preamp (“to warm up the sound”, as he says), but for the way he plays, the tube preamp makes the faster, harder-picked stuff just a bunch of indiscriminate mush. The best guitar he ever played, sound-wise for his style of music, was an old Washburn that sounded crystal-clear regardless of how fast or slow he played…and I’m pretty sure it had no tube. I guess I thought he could hear the difference I hear, but maybe not. Regardless, I think he bought into the tube hype, and I’m glad it’s not just me who thinks tubes are not the be-all and end-all.

    Excellent blog, keep up the good work, and LOVE those compressor reviews. Now, how about reviewing other bass-specific pieces of gear, like new/vintage preamps?

  2. Brian said,

    August 4, 2010 @ 11:35 am

    And how about the pedal and amp makers who have to put the tube(s) in a little display cage or behind a grill with a lamp or led to light the tube for dramatic effect. It’s as if to say SEE! we’re not lying, there really is a tube, a tube so hot it’s GLOWING!
    I imagine some solid state amp or pedal with a tube and a small flashlight shining on it duct taped to the its side.

    That being said I recently built a bass pre amp, copying an Ampeg B15 schematic exactly, hoping to capture at least some of the B15 mojo. I used the same voltages as the original and 6SL7 tubes. I thought that I could just use the first tube with 2 stages of gain. It sounded like dry cardboard. However when I connected the output to one side of the phase inverter – WOW – sticky finger lickin’ greasy goodness. So I wound up using 1 and 1/2 6SL7’s.
    The point is , yes one tube isn’t always the answer. But I also have an EBS Valvedrive pedal with one 12AX7 that is pretty damn good. And it is in a pedal.
    I admit I used to be a tube snob, but these days some of the technology is changing my old way of thinking. The VT Bass for instance.
    Bottom line: These I try to use my ears without prejudice either way.
    Hi. My name is Brian and I’m a recovering tubaholic.

  3. marc said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 5:47 am

    Note from blog author/owner: I have heavily edited this reader’s comment. It was full of hostile insults. I would have just deleted it, except I feel like addressing a couple of his points. My responses are in bold.
    Marc said:
    First of all, if your a bass player, probably you arent into tube equiptment anyway, because its strengths are not in Bass guitar amplification.

    Ignoring that the most popular bass amp among touring pros is the Ampeg SVT, and the B15N is revered as one of the best amps for recording bass.

    …”discovering” that the kind of garbage low voltage “tube” equiptment (stomp boxes and cheap chinese made amplifier heads) you were fond of dont really sound that good-well that not much of a revelation..And here the point > They are NOT ACTUALLY what an honest and reasonably well informed person would call ‘”tube circuits”,…

    Not all stomp boxes or Chinese-made amps run at low voltage. And a “bad” tube circuit is still honestly a tube circuit—it’s just not a good one.

    BTW the reviewer clearly detests the only actualy “tube compressor” – stomp box he ever reviewed

    Huh? Which one is that? Are we talking “actually tube comp” as in high voltage, like the Effectrode or the Retrospec which I reviewed very positively? Or “actually tube comp” as in it uses a vari-mu design, like the Markbass which I reviewed very positively? Or are you one of the people I offended by not giving a very positive review to the Summit TLA-50 (which of course isn’t a stomp box)?

    …and recommends the phoney fakey low voltage gimmicks…obviously he loves low voltage circuits. Nothing wrong with that its all personal taste..but explain the difference between a Tube compressor that operates at 250-300 volts and uses an optical circuit and the kind of 9 volt “tube compressor” you apparently prefer

    I have given both positive and negative reviews to all types and voltage levels; my reviews are based on actual performance, and absolutely do not fall along any pattern of liking low voltage or anything of that sort. I suspect you have only skimmed a couple of my reviews, and have not actually read many of them fully.

    …and then explain why you whine and complain about noise in comparison to a tube circuit operating at 300 volts. The”LA2A” and “UREI” and BA6A and Fairchild 600’s and gates STA LEVELS – with all that point to point wiring and big high voltage iron and all those old Octal tubes and gas voltage regulators – are also much noisier that the low volt,low current signal produced by that little orange box with the tiny chip covered with a thin film of wave soldered, surface mounted scum. And of course they sound infinitely better too, and cost 1500 times more.

    I “complain” about noise when it exists. That’s part of how reviewing works, I tell people what to expect. Look at my reviews of the ADK CLA-1 and Urei 1176LN for examples where I make it clear that their tone more than makes up for their noise.

    Its a shame, because SOOOOOOO so much wonderful music was produced with actual tube circuitry…so much we cant even begin to quantify it…and sadly that equiptment wont be around forever..greed always triumphs over taste….but the cheap-n-sleazy consumer electronics industry will go on till the lights go out…

    Well, I agree with you there!

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