Direct Recording Tube Amps

This is my situation and I bet a lot of other old school guitarists share it: Over the years I've acquired a few favorite tube amps. Tube amps are Eisenhower era technology, but they are the machines on which the sound of rock and roll was invented! There is really nothing quite like a vacuum tube pushed beyond its operational specifications. I love my amps and they have come to represent my idea of what "great guitar tone" is supposed to be.

I'm also a recording nerd. I have my modest little home studio where I try my best to get professional quality recordings.

You'd think that with the nice amps I have (in addition to decent mics, preamps, and digital audio interface) that always having a great guitar sound would be a slam dunk. But it's not.

Oh, I can get nice sound alright. If I take a good, properly functioning tube amp, put even a lowly SM57 in front of it, and turn up the amp, I'm going to get something at least usable. If I take some time, really dial it in, and get the mic placement just right, I will get a genuinely great sound. The issue is not one of equipment or personal ability.

The issue is one of pragmatics: I record mostly at night because... family guy! My tube amps must be played loud to get that glorious sound out of them. But I'm recording at home, in close proximity to family and neighbors that need, and are entitled to, peace and quiet in their homes. At my old studio, this wasn't an issue because we built it with extra thick insulated walls and staggered studs, so I could turn it up and the neighbors could barely hear it. (Lord, I miss that room!) But my current studio is in an attic with normal walls so the neighbors get to hear everything.

So when I can't crank my amps to record them, which is most of the time, my solution has been digital modeling. In particular, I use my trusty old, version 1, Line 6 POD. (Holy crap! The POD is closing in on 20 years old!) It's a remarkable device and I've gotten a lot of solid demos out of it. But from a guitar tone standpoint, it's definitely a compromise. If you've ever played through a good, cranked-up, vintage Marshall, Fender, Vox, or Hiwatt, you know what I'm talking about.

Over the last several years I've become more and more dissatisfied with this situation. Of course there are other options of widely varying cost and effectiveness. I've considered using isolation speaker cabinets and various other DI recording techniques. But digital modeling still seemed like the best compromise considering the extra effort involved with those other approaches weighed against the incremental improvement in tone that I would receive. The payoff didn't seem big enough to merit upgrading.

Until I saw the video above.

If you're not already familiar with him, the guy who created the video is Pete Thorn – a Canadian-born session/sideman guitarist (Don Henley, Chris Cornell, Jewel, Alicia Keys, Pink, Melissa Etheridge) now living in LA. A lot of session/sideman musicians live in relative anonymity, but Pete has become very well-known on YouTube for his guitar gear reviews and demos. He's a natural for video demos/reviews because he's a brilliant and knowledgeable player with a great ear for tone, and he's a very organized and eloquent speaker. He's basically a natural for this. He also seems like a decent fellow.

Of course, I was aware of load boxes (I have an amp attenuator, which is similar) and of IR-based cabinet simulators. But I had no clue just how effective they are! I never pursued them because 1) I didn't want to spend the money on a load box since I already had an attenuator; and 2) I assumed an IR-based cabinet simulator wouldn't be much better than other analog simulators I've tried, which are okay but not great.

The sound Pete is getting with a reactive load box and his custom IR cabinet simulator is extremely close to the sound of his miked amp. Astonishingly close!. And the sound comparisons that he did between various kinds of load boxes made an open-and-shut case for reactive load boxes.

My two main takeaways from this video:
  • If you have a nice tube amp that you love, but recording it is impractical due to volume constraints, the load box/IR-based cab sim is the way to go. And it's a long way to 2nd place.
  • It's amazing the difference that a reactive load box makes in the guitar tone. Especially since in the demo, the load box isn't even in the signal path of the recorded sound! Frankly, the difference blew me away.
And yet more good news: I did some follow-up pricing research and it's actually pretty cheap to get into this!
  • Two Notes and Suhr both make reasonably priced reactive load boxes ($350 and $400 respectively).
  • The Two Notes Torpedo Wall of Sound IR cabinet simulator plug-in is extremely reasonably priced: 8 EUR for each virtual cabinet. Personally, I couldn't see buying more than, say, a half dozen of them. I just wouldn't want yet another thing to add option anxiety during recording. I'm thinking just a few well-executed classics is all I'd need – a good vintage Marshall 4x12, a vintage Twin Reverb with Jensen or Utah speakers, a Vox 2x12 with Celestion alnicos, and maybe a couple others. I believe that would be all that I'd need or want.
  • The Two Notes BlendIR software for creating your own custom IRs is free. I could see not actually needing this if you really loved the purchased IRs. But it would be nice to create IRs for you own cabinets just to replicate your sound as closely as possible, as Pete did in his video. And you certainly can't beat the price.
So one could get into this for under $400, which seems quite reasonable to me.

Frankly, I'm stoked! More than I've been about any guitar gear in a long time.