I hope you've read the previous solid state vs tube amp article and the amplifier tubes article where I covered tube characteristics as well as some tricks to get better tone. There are some situations where solid state amps really shine through. Towards the end of the article I'll give you a little trick to try with your amp to see if you can get better sound. These days its almost impossible to not find solid state circuits even in our favorite tube amps. If you have a boost button on your tube amp that's a huge indicator for a solid state circuit. I've added small circuits to amps to boost the signal - sometimes depending on the amp this can create more of a crunch sound - generally this gives you a nice boost without a lot of distortion. Turn up the gain and you get lots more distortion when this circuit is active.
Why Solid State?
If you read the previous two articles you'll see I'm a fan of tube amps. But I'm also a big fan of solid state technology. I'm not talking late 60's up to 80's solid state amps. I'm talking modern amps that have features that are hard to beat. Newer amps have modeling technology - basically the audio engineers have tried to capture the sound of a certain amp and model it with their solid state technology. Bear in mind it all depends on what you have in front of and behind the amp that makes the difference if it sounds right. Hook it up to a great speaker cabinet and man you are soaring. Hook it up to a cabinet with crappy speakers and well you get the picture.
Modeling makes all the difference in the world. You may not get that exact sound promised but what you get is unique enough that you can play with it by putting different pedals in front of it. I can get very close to Eddie Van Halen's 'Brown Sound' by using my Boss GS10 preamp set to Gary Moore, a little overdrive pedal in front of it, tone knobbed turned full on with the volume knob also maxed. To get that sound Eddie used an attenuator to drop the voltage in his amp (Marshal Plexi by most accounts) and two different cabinets. A lot of people have tried this setup and yes they get the sound but consider I can get there with a combo amp with my preamp and one pedal. Delete the overdrive pedal from the equation and raise the output of the preamp and you are still there. The pedal gives me the capability to soften the sound for rhythm on the fly.
Also consider that all recording these days that the pros do have lots of digital technology involved. Autotuned vocals, added reverb, backing vocals which are pitch shifted to make four parts. This all would have been very tedious using reel to reel and a sound board - now people can do this at home with software on their computer.
Bass - Solid State Will Always Be Here
Here's one area where solid state really shines. Live when you have two guitarists and a mic'd drum set its hard for the bass to cut through and be heard. Here's where having more power really helps. Bass amps can have ratings of 400 watts or even higher. Imagine a tube amp with that much output. You'd have to have tubes designed for that with huge transformers. You can create the sound - plenty of power amps had tubes and high ratings - but would it give a pleasurable sound? It can certainly be done but there is always the difficulty of reliability with a tube setup. For big shows ideally you'd want to setup a day early to test every component to make sure there were no equipment failures. With solid state you show up the day of the show and setup. The more power you ask of a tube setup the less reliable it can become.
The argument that tube will always sound better is subjective. Its what your ears like that makes a difference. I've found I can get plenty of good sounds with a solid state bass amp - loose or tight - from smooth all the way to wall shaking rumble. Very few bass players are playing tube amps on the road these days since they can get the sound they need with more reliability. Also - there is a cost issue to consider. Tube amps are inherently more expensive. Cheap tube amps sound like that - cheap. The really good sounding amps can go for astronomical prices. $2500 for a tube combo amp isn't unheard of.
Again this brings up the using the right tool for the job analogy. If you really love your tube amp's sound but need a lot more output? Mic it and use a PA system to boost it up. Guess what that PA system is - your right, its solid state. So you are mixing your tube sound with solid state amplification. Even when recording you are using your nice tube amp but at that point unless you are lucky enough to be in a studio with an old mixing board your going to be back in solid state technology and that's a good thing. Its all about the sound. Use the tools at your disposal and work at it.
If you don't like modeling amps and tube amp reliability is an issue here is another tool that could help. Marshall likes to put a tube in the preamp. You get that nice distortion a tube makes - smoother than diode produced distortion. There are other variations though. Vox likes to put a preamp tube in the power section. This is supposed to produce nice overtones like a tube amp driven hard. One benefit is that preamp tubes are more reliable than power amp tubes and it isn't hard to carry one extra tube in case of a failure.
I played with a Line6 head recently that has an all tube preamp and power section but the digital Line6 preamp also. Select your general sound and then tweak it. Keep raising the volume and you have tube sound all the way. It was an interesting design - and the Bogner part of it was very nice. You can see that Mr. Bogner basically said your preamp stuff is good but what it needs is a real tube preamp to interface with and a tube power section. He's right. It sounds great. Plus you have Line6 effects built in - tremolo, reverb, chorus, etc. It's a cool amp and now they have a second generation design I'd like to check out. My only complaint is that at its 100 watt rating its too loud - hard to get that beautiful power section sound without being incredibly loud. Drop this design down to 30 or 50 watts and man you'd have something.
Even on tube amps I've found one trick for better sound is to put a patch cable in the effects loop. Just put one end in the effect out and the other in the effect in. You might find even your tube amp has a solid state circuit that gets activated boosting the sound a little and changing its sound. I find this on almost every amp with an effects loop - better sound with a simple patch cable. Usually this seems to boost the treble a little and raise the signal - about a 6 db boost on most designs.
Solid state is everywhere in the audio world. To put your nose up and demand tube only amplification might be a little snobby these days. Solid state is plenty capable of producing good sound - try it. You may find the distortion is harsh - have you tried a hybrid amp? Most amps these days that are all tube sometimes sneak a diode in for distortion and spring reverb is disappearing on a lot of amp designs - replaced by solid state components. This isn't bad in my way of looking at it. The goal is to achieve a sound - if we can do it and get some reliability in trade I'm all for it.
One thing you have to keep in mind is that solid state amplification isn't comparable to tube in volume terms. I find that generally you have to double a solid state amps rating to get the same perceived volume. That is, a 400 watt bass amp sounds as loud as a 200 watt tube amp. This is an effect of how our ears perceive volume.
In the end its your money. Get the sound you want at a price you are comfortable with. When it comes to recording I'm all for high end small tube amps. After that it really comes down to your preferences. Use drop tuning? A solid state amp handles it a little better. Amplification and effects are about 50% of the sound - the rest comes from the musician.