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A Totally Integrated and Programmable Tube Amp System

General Design Spec

1. Summary
2. Programming around a Traditional Tube Amp -- How to make any tube amp programmable
3. Packaging approaches, and specific components and prices
4. Additional System Packaging Options
5. Additional Custom Options and Separately Priced Components
6. Notes
7. Benefits of a recording studio over an integrated speaker isolation cabinet system
8. System Failure
9. Site to Promote Distinctly Cranked-Tube-Amp Tone and put raw preamp tone and simulators in their place

1. Summary

Here is a new, more open and flexible model of combining cranked tube amps, effects, and guitar speaker cabinets.

Now, the dominant model of a guitar rig is:

My "dual fx + spk iso cab" approach adds gear to provide more control integrated with convenient, programmable, and flexible cranked tube amp tone:

Many guitarists already have most of the gear to set up such a system. Studios have all the gear already.

2. Programming around a Traditional Tube Amp -- How to make any tube amp programmable

Put a programmable effects unit before and after the amp. Concentrate on programming the eq and level for a variety of genuine tube amp tones in both effects units, not just the effects settings.

Ignore the amp's controls, and tweak your program settings using the eq and level controls within the programmable effects units. This enables you to instantly toggle between various complex and diverse cranked actual tube amp tones and effects tones, even while the tape is rolling. Just set the amp's controls to send a clean tone straight to the power tubes at a fairly high level. Or go in through the amp's effects return loop, bypassing the amp's entire preamp.

If you play live already, you don't need to use a speaker isolation cabinet to meet my spec. The only thing you will need to buy to meet my spec is a MIDI-controlled effects unit or two, and a foot controller. My special interest lies with speaker isolation cabinets. Any power you gain by learning to use and program around speaker isolation cabinets, you can easily apply to a traditional amp with open-front cabinet. You can always disconnect the speaker isolation cabinet and insert a vintage amp with controls set to a standard position. Then program around it. Program your eq and level before the amp using effects unit A, and program your eq and level after the cranked vintage amp using effects unit B. Carefully test and select whether you want effects to go before or after the amp, or both. Mic the open-front speaker cabinet. Or use the vintage amp to drive the speaker isolation cabinet. Any combination you want, as long as you match all the levels.

Use open-front cabinets when in the isolation room of a studio. This produces the best tone of all, with room reverberation, a mix of mics, multiple speakers, multiple amps. In fact, the normal procedure in the studio is not to use an isolation cabinet and low-wattage tube amp, but rather, to use the framework of this system *other* than the internal power amp and speaker. Use effects A before one of the studio's big guitar amps. Use effects B after the big guitar amp. You can even put effects B after several mics are mixed. Or apply effects B later. The key is to think in terms of level/eq/fx *before* the cranked amp and level/eq/fx *after* the cranked tube amp (or amps).

You can get far out tones along these lines in the studio by using all your existing gear. Any studio today has all the items I've listed for a top-notch setup for this approach, "programmable effects, programmable cranked tube amp, and programmable effects".

I've introduced the idea of a programmable amp as an *approach* to effects and amps that you can implement with any pair of effects units and any tube amp. Instead of putting a programmable effects unit in front of the amp only, add one afterwards as well, whose purpose is to switch *post-mic* eq and level as well as apply post-amp effects such as reverb, echo, and experimental time-delay effects. This can easily produce an extremely psychedelic variety of pure amp tones and warping of those tones that sounds strikngly intense, physically very present and yet altered unnaturally. Echo *after* a cranked tube amp and speaker sounds entirely different than echo *before* a cranked tube amp and speaker. Time-effects after a cranked tube amp and speaker is "underutilized", as Guitar Player said about the Digitech 2101's unique and useful Modulated Delay effect. Programmable tone and level after a tube amp is relatively unheard of, but it's just as powerful as pre-amp programmability of eq and level. The real power comes in when you program the eq and level (and effects) both before and after the tube amp and mic'd speaker.

The complete cranked tube amp "engine":

The whole car:

This "cranked tube amp engine" subsystem must include speaker and microphone. It's only a simulation of an engine if it uses an inductive load. You just have to have a real speaker for it to trip people out enough to buy it. We're not in this for "close" tone, for merely a "convincing approximation". You have to think of the speaker as half of the engine... the engine box has power tubes and speaker, connected through the transformer. You have brains and a workhorse engine. The programmable effects units are the brains. A real electric guitarist has to have a real speaker shaking about. It's got to sound physical. It's got to blow up sometimes, or it's not real. Remember Toffler: "High tech, high touch".

3. Packaging approaches, and specific components and prices

Option A. A coordinated effort among the gear companies

...spearheaded by Fender, Digitech, and Demeter. They could offer the following package:

* Effects stage B or unit B offers programmable eq, level, effects, and global eq for when you change guitar speaker cabinets or switch to using an inductive load rather than a speaker.

Assembling a dual-effects and speaker isolation cabinet system using currently available gear:

Option B. High-end model using existing equipment

Effects A: Digitech 2112 $900
Foot controller: $150
Tube amp: Fender Pro Jr. $350
Speaker isolation cabinet: Demeter $500
Speaker: Celestion Greenback $100
Mic: Shure SM57 (plus cable, adapter) $150
Effects B: Digitech 2101 $900
100 watt per channel solid state power amp $200?
2 full-range monitor speakers $600?
Rack $200?
Cables $75
Total $4125

Option C. Cheap model using existing equipment

Buy the cheap, stripped down, or used model of all components:

Effects A: $300
Foot controller: cheap model, discounted $100
Tube amp: Fender Pro Jr. $200
Speaker isolation cabinet: Demeter $500
Speaker: Celestion Greenback $80
Mic: $75
Effects B: $300
2x50 watt power amp $150?
2 full-range monitor speakers $200
Rack $100
Cables $50
Total $2055

I should be able to walk into any music store and buy a $1000 complete guitar processing system with perfect presets, so that I can turn it on and step through genuine cranked tube amp tones at low volumes, with well-placed and natural sounding effects both before and after the cranked tube amp and speaker. It's easy to make this system cheaper.

Option D: Repackage subsystems manufactured by other companies

Cost for the system integrator:

cheap MIDI effects stage optimized for pre-amp placement $200
cheap small-scale tube power amp (15 watt 6V6 or EL84) $70
cheap speaker isolation cabinet $200
MIDI foot controller $80
cheap guitar speaker $35
cheap microphone $40
cheap MIDI effects stage optimized for post-amp placement $200
cheap 2x50 watt solid state power amp $50
cheap pair of full-range 50 watt speakers $100
custom chassis for both fx stages and for both amps $25
total $1000

Of course, you could also put together a high-end system for $5,000-10,000. It's exactly the same range as a personal computer.

Do they give an award for "best programmable guitar rig"? Mine would win over today's systems even if I assemble it from separate components. But I would like companies compete to see who can design the best sounding, most ergonomical rigs by integrating the packaging.

In the super cheap model, leave out the rack, 2x50 watt power amp, and monitors.

Option E. Joe Average System Conversion

Here is Joe Average's current guitar processing inventory and what he needs to buy to meet my minimal spec:

Current inventory:

Joe must buy:

Joe Average's basic hookup order to meet my spec (without vintage effects or foot controller listed):

Joe Average's makeshift hookup with vintage effects and foot controller listed:

This makeshift system meets my spec for an fx-->tube amp-->fx guitar rig.

4. Additional System Packaging Options

Different Models for Packaging the Dual-Effects Plus

The Rack Model - To help with upgrading, which will constantly happen, Like a Wintel computer, this system is modular.

The Compact Model - The compact version is not so upgradeable.

The Small Model - Scaled-down effects, scaled-down speaker cabinet, 5 watt tube amp, single-box packaging.

The Golden Ears "Yet More Tubey" model - The final, monitor amp is a tube amp rather than solid-state.

The Barbarian - 100 watt tube power amp driving a massive cabinet containing 10", 12", and 15" speakers. Oversized caps and transformers.

The Compact Stereo Model - Dual-compartment speaker isolation cabinet.

The Deluxe Stereo Model - Two standard mono cabinets. All effects are 2-channel or stereo.

The Jekyll and Hyde - Special outboard power tube unit supports MIDI-controlled switching between 18 different power tubes and biasing configurations.

The Control Freak Model - Every parameter and signal path is controllable.

The Propellerhead Model - C++ and Assembly experience required. Courses available.

The Stealth Model or Walkamp - Ultracompact. 2" speaker fully enclosed in a closed box. 1/2 watt power tube. Uses special folded bass port to get thundering low bass. Rechargeable.

The Stack in a Pedal - Includes a radically scaled-down Marshall full stack with Celestion 1" guitar speakers (Microback Vintage 1/2 watt speakers), and condenser microphone. We recommend an eq pedal before this pedal and another one after it. A blind A/B test of guitar amp experts reveals no difference in tone between the output of this pedal and a well-mic'd traditional non-master-volume Marshall stack.

All models support rapid replacement of power tubes and speakers.

5. Additional Custom Options and Separately Priced Components

Eventually you could add a computer interface to this system. You could have your sequencer change effects settings and easily write incredible sonic landscapes with complex changes. Effects would be so easy to use and genuine cranked amp tones would be so easy to get, you could spend long hours sculpting blends of genuine cranked tube amp tones and effects, without ever bothering anyone.

6. Notes

I would not advise skipping Effects B (post-amp), which gives you several key components required to produce the basic range of tones I have in mind. You really have to have EQ and level control after the mic'd speaker, and placing effects there adds a whole vista of clear effects fed by intense, physical tube amp and speaker tones. That unit also is needed to produce stereo output, if you are only using a single speaker isolation cabinet.

Consider buying a full-featured backup amp as a complete, self-contained backup unit (and mic, stand, and cable), in case your rig fails. When playing live, be prepared to switch to the backup amp in the middle of a song. This will also make people think you are authentic, plugging into a traditional amp with no effects, and blaring away for some songs. Show you've mastered both traditional tube amp tone and the complicated new tube amp isolation systems.

This system design is like the Melotron or Leslie organ -- cumbersome, complicated, but heavenly sounding. It emphasizes combining ergonomics and integration with genuine, no-nonsense cranked-amp tone. What mosts guitarists want is a black box with programmable sounds and truly useful presets, regardless of the speaker arrangement (spk iso cab! plus full-range monitor! and number of amps (2!)). It could be made to look cool, despite its clumsy complexity. If it's a single unit, it could raise the controls high enough to access.

There will be more money from selling components than whole systems. Like a computer company, you want to make some components yourself and outsource others, or license them from other companies. Fender or Digitech could both offer complete systems by cross-licensing. Demeter could do it too. It's not hard to get your hands on these technologies, once you know what the goal is: to marry effects, tube amps, and speaker isolation cabinets. This will be just like computer systems -- some companies sell whole integrated systems, others sell components that can work with all other systems. Other companies can coordinate to offer competitive whole systems or components. Does Demeter have a patent on the speaker isolation cabinet concept? Like computer systems, the fastest improvements come with modularity, interchangeable components from a variety of companies. This keeps the cost down. This market will first grow by selling individual parts, particularly the isolation cabinet, final amp, and monitor. Shure will also do well.

Many people will be putting together such a system, because they already have most of the separate parts, in one form or another. If you have many of these components or their equivalent, then you only need to buy 1 or 2 parts: particularly the speaker isolation cabinet. Almost everyone will need to buy a speaker isolation cabinet. Many will need to buy a rack.

This system is weird? Some people think the electric pickup was an odd, complicated idea. The system is weird but you can't argue with its output signal.

The year-2010 integrated dual-effects plus spk iso cab rig will have an engine box you can look into. You will see the burning power tubes inside the brains compartment, along with preamp distortion tubes. A fan blows sweet tube air out. Like with car audio shows, you will open up the door to the engine box and see the

In Jeff Beck's 80s album "Guitar Shop", all his guitar shop talk mumbling is about guitars, isn't it? I'm talking Amp Shop (rig shop actually).

Studio people: stop making the mistake of using speaker simulators and inductive loads and attenuators. Use real tube amps and cabinets, and try EQ'ing them both before and after, and adding effects after the mic'd amp. You have the gear to make more far out sounds.

Home people: get a speaker isolation cab and do the programming to tie together effects unit A and B. The studio rats have the advantage of the isolation room, but you can out-program them.

At home and in the studio and live, you can use the full combination of cranked amps and so on in your artilliary.

The harder you work to set up equipment in the studio, the better tones you can get. But it takes time between takes to adjust all the distributed around the studio.

Eliminating the speaker blaring helps you concentrate on sculpting tones and accompanying riffs. And when you want to blare, simply use a traditional open-front speaker cabinet, and a big tube amp.

I don't know whether a 15 watt tube amp can drive a 4x12 cabinet hard enough to sound really good. 60 watts would be a better match. The speakers probably need to be driven hard before you get the real "physical" tone which includes two-way grappling between straining speaker and straining tubes.

You could start a successful company if you implemented this idea. The larger companies could implement this quickly. You know, this is *just* the sort of thing Japan would like. This system is a little weird and a lot awesome. It's a trippy system, and sounds very trippy. It's expensive, but there are ways to keep the cost down, by integrating parts of it and by offering separates. Most people have most of these components already, and they only need to buy one or two of these separates.

Multiple speaker isolation cabinets would enable you to sound like two players playing the same thing through completely different guitar rigs. You could have different tube amp tones in either channel, like Tony Iommi did so well in Cornucopia on Volume 4 from Black Sabbath -- crusty downramp-eq tone settings on one amp, squishy upramp-eq tone settings on the other.

You could play a Fender power amp and 10" speaker in one channel, and a Marshall power amp and 12" speaker in the other.

You could generate any loud amp tone available in a studio, but quietly and much more conveniently. It would be like having a studio full of guitar gear and hookup power, an isolation room and control room placed at your fingertips. The multieffects companies wish they could achieve convincing cranked tube amp tone without using a speaker, but evidently they can't. I've given up trying to skip the speaker, and I'm concentrating productively on incorporating a power tube and speaker more tightly into a guitar processing approach than has ever been done.

To get a more studio sound using a spk iso cab, you have to fake the room acoustics and turn up the monitor volume to get feedback.

My "dual fx + spk iso cab" system concept is built around the idea of "convenience is power" and "convenience begets innovation". We could manually set up any sound that my system obtains by using traditional separate pieces of gear in a typical studio, and using the mixing board to add in post-amp eq, level control, and effects. But this would be *very* time consuming and involved, and difficult to reproduce quickly. You've got to use two effects units tied together by MIDI. It's the only way to go to get the degree of control that complete system programmability offers. By using MIDI, my system offers *programmability* and integration that elude the studio-separates approach.

The world's most power system is when you put my pre&post amp programming system around a traditional amp and cabinet in the isolation room of a recording studio. You get all the benefits of the studio, plus all the benefits of programmability.

7. Benefits of a recording studio over an integrated speaker isolation cabinet system

multiple guitar amps
multiple speakers
multiple mics

room reverberation
sound isolation

high-watt amps pushing speakers hard, against open air

mixing and remixing ability
studio atmosphere and resources

8. System Failure

Be prepared to blow speakers and replace or recone them. A blown Greenback is valuable. A market could inadvertantly develop for discounted blown speakers. And a lot more speaker knowledge is going to circulate, such as eq curves for speakers and all types of guitar speaker cabinets.

If we could make a tube power amp and speaker isolation cabinet for $200, you could use it like an effects pedal. You could have several speaker isolation cabinets pushed by several different amps. You could chain them and experiment with them just like with multiple effects units. A "module" would be a tube power amp and a separate spk iso cab.

The Fender Blues Jr. costs more than the Pro Jr., but has enough features so that it's a practical backup amp in case any part of your system fails. It's only 15 watts. A 50 watt amp might be better. It would allow you to play as loud as the drums even without a PA system.

9. Site to Promote Distinctly Cranked-Tube-Amp Tone and put raw preamp tone and simulators in their place

We need a web site containing A/B demos of the tone of this approach versus classic samples of good tube amp tone.

We need a site that gives awards for the best guitar tone in various categories.

A Best tone from straight-into-the-amp using a traditional amp
B Best tone without using speakers
C Best tone using a speaker isolation cabinet
A, with effects
B, with effects
C, with effects

This site supports voting, and the poll results are posted. Cast your vote for the best tube sounds! The winning tones win the coveted "Most Tubular" award.

Challenge 1: Contribute a sample of a genuine tube amp tone that is most difficult to emulate using a guitar preamp with no power tubes [or, with power tubes but no speaker].

Challenge 2: Using a guitar preamp with no power tubes [or, with power tubes but no speaker], most closely emulate the tone from Challenge 1.

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