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Pros and cons and tradeoffs of various approaches to cranked tube amp tone

Traditional tube amp

You have to turn up the amp a hundred times louder
than you often want, to get power tube saturation and speaker
roundness. There are especially many drawbacks and limitations to
plugging straight into many small, stripped-down tube amps. These are
elegant and simple, but not without their disadvantages:

o Produces room noise as loud as a trumpet, to get good power tube
and speaker tone.

Also typically:
o Lacks tone controls before power tubes or post-power-tube
eq-compensation for the tiny cabinet.
o Lacks preamp distortion.
o Lacks channel switching.

You can selectively use various devices to get power tube saturation.
All electric guitarists need to be informed about these options and their

Power attenuators

A good idea, but the more you attenuate, the worse
the tone. Good for pulling the sound level down from the level of a
heavy drum kit to the level of a trumpet. At least a speaker is involved --
but speakers need to be driven hard, to produce rounding.

Inductive loads

Some of them sound fizzy and electronic, few if any
sound speaker-like. They are more convenient than using a speaker,
because they are light and silent. Inductive loads produce tone quality
halfway between raw preamp tone and traditional amp tone. They
cannot provide speaker rounding, which is half as important as power
tube saturation.

Low-wattage power tubes

These can probably go pretty low while still
putting out good tone. But is the speaker being driven hard enough?
Can the power tubes be directly connected with a hard-driven speaker
to get a finished tone with complex speaker dynamics? Currently there
are only a few low-wattage power tube products, and low-wattage
guitar speakers have to be special-ordered. This very promising area is
unexplored -- scaled-down tube power amps, guitar speakers, and
guitar speaker cabinets.

Speaker isolation cabinets

They leak low bass, slightly audible in the
next room, but basically work. They have no room reverberation, but it
can be added via post-speaker effects. A speaker isolation cabinet is a
good compromise between room noise level and tone: very little room
noise, and very good tone. Speaker isolation cabinets have certain
disadvantages: they get between you and the speaker, and they require
a full set of complementary gear similar to a PA system: a mic, an
equalizer, a final power amp, and a full-range monitor speaker. Option:
Midnight muffler box (2nd, larger box) -- you can currently get this
custom-made by guitar speaker cabinet companies such as Demeter.

Low-pass filters

These combine well with inductive loads and power
tubes. But if there are no power tubes, using a low-pass filter is barely
any improvement over listening to raw distortion with eq. A low pass
filter is not sufficient by any means. One way or another, you should
have a power tube involved -- and hopefully, a speaker, too.

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