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Tube/ valve head... Do I need one?


uk_lefty

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Obviously the answer is No. However, boredom, lockdown and being in here daily is making me want a tube amp or some kind of hybrid tube/ solid state. 

I currently run an RM500 in to 1x15 and 2x10 RM cabs. I also have a Line 6 Helix Stomp with all its amp sims. I like the simplicity of the RM500 and it has never let me down. I play in a rock covers band that does everything from pubs to festivals to weddings and dinner dances, and I've got an 80s covers band starting up because the rock covers band won't do enough 80s tunes for my liking! 

I feel I'm missing something by not having a valve powered amp. I realise I'm probably not. But. 

What would a tube amp give me that I don't already have? More weight? One more thing to go wrong? More maintenance costs? A natural gritty drive tone that cannot be emulated by either the RM or the Helix? A warmth akin to a hot ovaltine while wrapped in a tartan rug atop a Scottish lighthouse in the bleakest of winters? 

If you had a few quid spare and an addiction to ebay, what would you go for? Ashdown ABM, Marshall Bass State or DBS? Mark bass tube hybrid amp? Something else? 

Is it all just nonsense? Or should I go totally the other way and get a Trace Elliot again for 80s-ness?

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If you can afford one go for it. 

You could probably move it on for what you paid for it. I have one, hardly use it anymore (heavy) but now and again it comes out for what I hope is a possible special gig/venue. I had the same curiosity over the valve ownership/experience as you and I'm glad I took the plunge but it can be expensive to service, especially a re-valve. If I was going to do it again, I'd go lighter so something like a Handbox would be my suggestion.

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I had a similar thing too.  Owning a tube amp was an itch I wanted to scratch, chasing 'that' elusive sparkle.  I wanted as light as possible, too, so I ended up buying a Mesa Boogie Four:88 which, even secondhand, cost as much as a family holiday.  It sounded great and there were gasps of admiration all round when I took it out of the tool box I toted it around in.  Started it up and people swooned at the interior blue lights.  On it's first gig one of the valves blew at sound check taking with it half the pcb and it cost more than the purchase price of my old Trace Elliot Ah300 to fix.  I persevered with it once I got it back from the menders but, truth be told, I actually preferred the tone of the Trace Elliot.  However - it needed to be done.

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1 hour ago, uk_lefty said:

What would a tube amp give me that I don't already have? More weight? One more thing to go wrong? More maintenance costs? A natural gritty drive tone that cannot be emulated by either the RM or the Helix?

Yes. 😄

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The Helix is supposed to be pretty damn good at squishy tubiness.

I guess you need to try some tube amps to see if you can do better without regretting the extra cartage.

Ime the cartage tips me over into leaving them at home mostly. For all the compliments I get on my solid state tones, the je ne sais quoi little jus that real tubes bring isn't enough motivation. Ymmv.

Maintenance isn't so bad so long as it's not a lemon you're buying.

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3 minutes ago, wateroftyne said:

Consider this Handbox WB-100.

 

Wowzers. I know they're good but that's a lot of money. I'm thinking more along the lines of a Marshall Bass State or DBS, second hand for a few hundred or less. 90s technology but that's when I started playing and I drooled over these. Even had the Bass State B150 but there was something wrong with it and even if there hadn't been I didn't have the experience to get the best out of it, sadly. 

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I can only comment on the hybrid tube/ss option as i've never had a full tube amp. What i can contribute is that not all hybrids are created equally. In my experience the class D hybrids just don't float my boat - I've had a Genz Shuttle 9.2 and a GK Fusion500 - but the solid state ones all bring some special sauce to the party. I think the power amp contributes as much to the sound as the valves do. I don't really do old school fuzzy distortion and prefer a clear sound so cant really comment on the drive properties of any of them. 

The ones that i have owned for a decent length of time are the Ashdown ABM600 and ABM500,  EBS TD650 and 660 and a Handbox R400. The valve front end added something different in each one and with the Ashdown and EBS ones you could switch the valve in so you really could hear the difference that it made.

The Ashdown ABM600 gave it a depth and thickness but retained a glassy sparkle if required (it can sound 'bottley' I suppose) - it's a fabulous flexible amp and i would have another in a heartbeat. The ABM500 couldn't do the sparkle and i couldn't dial out the woolliness in it. 

The EBS mainly thickened it up. Both the 650 and 660 had a natural clarity inherent in the amp and the valve warmed it up a bit. I preferred the 650 personally although they were very similar. The 660 sounded a bit drier, the 650 sounded bigger.

The Handbox sounds quite different to all of the above (although i could get the Ashdown ABM600 pretty close). The valve is built in to the front end so i'm not sure how much other components are contributing to the basic sound. It has a sparkle and presence built in and just sounds really alive. It emphasises harmonics to the point that you have to be pretty tidy when you play as everything really seems to come to the front of the sound. Bearing in mind it only has a bass and treble tone control  and a contour dial it's a pretty middy sounding amp with everything set flat and the contour off which probably contributes to that. The contour really helps to dial it back and effectively works as the mid reduction control. I like a pretty big clear upfront and defined sound in general with a bit of top end and the Handbox is the only amp i've ever had which i have to dial this out of rather than in to.

My personal faves would be the Handbox and the ABM600 - i would be happy with either. Looking at your budget comments you should be able to find either for about £400/500 but the Ashdown will be more common.

 

 

Edited by Mudpup
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1 minute ago, uk_lefty said:

Wowzers. I know they're good but that's a lot of money. I'm thinking more along the lines of a Marshall Bass State or DBS, second hand for a few hundred or less. 90s technology but that's when I started playing and I drooled over these. Even had the Bass State B150 but there was something wrong with it and even if there hadn't been I didn't have the experience to get the best out of it, sadly. 

A tube amp for a few hundred or less..? Good luck with that 🙂

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My experience is , it was something I didn’t need but I liked the look of them , and there’s something about glowing valves that’s quite magical, but my ones went  back to the shop 3 times for repair , so I’d be prepared for a bit of maintenance and my LB30 needs to go back again, I might just have been unlucky,  the markbass tube is a great amp, I would definitely have another, I now use the RM500 and love it , I’ll probably try the Handbox WB100 at some point though 🙂

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3 minutes ago, uk_lefty said:

Wowzers. I know they're good but that's a lot of money. I'm thinking more along the lines of a Marshall Bass State or DBS, second hand for a few hundred or less. 90s technology but that's when I started playing and I drooled over these. Even had the Bass State B150 but there was something wrong with it and even if there hadn't been I didn't have the experience to get the best out of it, sadly. 

Lefty, given the number of bassists with a high-end 20Kg all-valve amp sitting on a shelf somewhere gathering dust, why don't you just borrow one for a month or two?

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3 minutes ago, uk_lefty said:

Wowzers. I know they're good but that's a lot of money. I'm thinking more along the lines of a Marshall Bass State or DBS, second hand for a few hundred or less. 90s technology but that's when I started playing and I drooled over these. Even had the Bass State B150 but there was something wrong with it and even if there hadn't been I didn't have the experience to get the best out of it, sadly. 

I picked up a 90's Peavey Alphabass which is a 160w all valve bass amp, for about £320ish.  You'll struggle for anything cheaper than that which is all valve.  Deals do come up on the big iron amps though if you're prepared to wait.  I got an Ampeg SVT-II non-pro for 650 a couple of years back.  It seems that big valve amps come in and out of favour every few years and people offload them cheaply when the gigs dry up. 

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Mudpup has described the ABM600 really well, and that amp would be my recommendation. The RM sounds very close to it but there is just “something extra” in the sound of the ABM. It’s my fave amp that I’ve ever had, I foolishly sold mine last year when I left my band then realised my folly and bought another. Plus they’re not too heavy which is always a consideration with tubes.

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7 minutes ago, umcoo said:

I picked up a 90's Peavey Alphabass which is a 160w all valve bass amp, for about £320ish.  You'll struggle for anything cheaper than that which is all valve.  Deals do come up on the big iron amps though if you're prepared to wait.  I got an Ampeg SVT-II non-pro for 650 a couple of years back.  It seems that big valve amps come in and out of favour every few years and people offload them cheaply when the gigs dry up. 

Hmmm all valve or hybrid, maybe that's the question? 

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If money and weight are not an object, Mesa 400+. If one or another is, Zvex/Hotone nano amp.

There are many small tube amps with power up to 30 W, even kits, that you can try. I might opt for rental, like @Happy Jack said. Surely the cheapest option.

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I started out my bass playing journey in the late 70s with a Marshall Super Bass 100. I can't say I miss the weight, size or wondering whether it would work at a gig or just pack up on me with no warning. (or electrocute me on one memorable occasion)

I quite like a preamp valve, but I'd not go anywhere near a full valve amp, even a modern one.

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22 hours ago, Rothko said:

I had a HiWatt Custom 100 through a Trace Elliot 4x10 back in the day. Nothing at the time ever came remotely close to the sound.

I think that is the situation in two sentances. My HiWatt 120 was  my pride and joy, then it was stolen back in the 70s.

I began working for EMI on the electronics side in 1968, the only devices that looked or worked anything like a valve/tube were the magnetrons used radar (this was well before microwave ovens). Working in electronics, I knew valves were obsolescent so never bought another valve amp. Nowadays there is no reseaech into  thermionic valves/vacuum tubes. All the big makers have gone, RCA/GE/Mullard/Telefunken have either gone completely or moved with the times. As far as I know now all the new valves (and the vast amount of NOS) are made on the original machines that are older than me (69 and counting) either in China or Russia*. I have no idea how close these  are to the original specs but I suspect many woukd have been out of spec when produced. Neeless to say I have not changed my mind.

* Having done more research, it seems that ,JJ Valves are made in the Slovak republic.

Edited by Chienmortbb
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There's a Peavey VB3 on ebay which might be worth a look depending on where you're based.

I went with the VB2 when I scratched the all-valve itch, but I had the option of the VB3 at the same time and thought it was a great sounding amp. As well as being a little more powerful and having more modern features, it was actually also lighter than the VB2 and I think it even had a fan so it maybe wouldn't feel as much like loading out with a collapsed star that hadn't been allowed to fully cool... but it just didn't look like my old 6505 guitar head, and that's what I really wanted, so that's what I got! If all I'd wanted was the tone, the VB3 could easily have won the head-to-head.

I generally take the VB2 out to a rehearsal just for my own amusement a couple of times a year, but I practice near-silently at home with a good preamp/mixer/headphones, and I gig with the smallest, lightest head I can find at the time which is capable of the sound I want at the volume I need. For some, that may well still be an all-valve amp, but for me it's a Markbass nano 300 and my back is duly grateful 🙂 

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Nobody *needs* one these days, but it can be a fun and satisfying thing to spend some time with one and get some firsthand experience of what they do rather than just hearing others talk about it. The Helix is probably going to emulate it well enough to satisfy from a listeners point of view - there are just some subtle player experience aspects that are worth trying out for yourself. 

I'm using an Ampeg PF50T for pretty much everything I do with electric bass. It's loud enough for my band, not too bad to move around and while I could probably get a similar sound with a modelling setup, using the Ampeg is a fairly simple and direct way to get there. I think we've got to allow ourselves to view instrument and gear choice as a creative decision in an artistic field, rather than an entirely utilitarian choice of functional tools, so sometimes the less tangible properties do count for something.

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I wouldn't be without one. There's something magical about them that you just can't get with solid state. I have a Laney Nexus Tube 400 that is an absolute peach, very versatile and was my default gigging amp. It's heavy but it does everything well and has great EQ. You can pick them up for about £500 but they don't come up often. 

My Mesa 400+ gets to go out occasionally, it's lighter, uses caps to give big transients and is probably the lightest even though it sits in a custom case made by Matamp. It's also the one that does the cleanest sounds although the EQ is not intuitive and the DI out will upset most soundmen... it's a Mesa. 

I also have a custom MJW 200 which is like a Matamp. It's the bedroom amp of the 3 as it has clever power switching options and can be switched down to about 40w so you can rag it at home without affecting the structural integrity of the neighbourhood. 

I also have a hybrid Mesa Walkabout Scout, it's good but it's like a toy compared to the valve amps. 

In Summary, they're all very different and all have their pluses and minuses. If you're serious, try out different ones before you push the button. One thing they have in common, though, especially the big ones like the Laney and say a Marshall 400, is the cost of revalving, servicing. Mesa 400+ servicing needs to be done by someone that knows those amps but most of the others can be done by any good amp tech. 

Give one a go, you won't regret it. 

 

Edited by Sean
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My Ashdown CTM300 makes me grin every time I switch it on. I bought it at the end of the first lockdown last year so I've not been able to get close to it's full potential sound wise. But even at low volumes it's lovely!

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Valve pre and Solid State power amp?

I had an Ampeg SVP-Pro pre which I used with a QSC PLX1202 power amp.

That was quite a good combination, but both together in a 4u case with a rackmount tuner and cables was neither small nor light. 

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