I have guitar, a multi-effects processor, and a public announcement (PA) system. When I perform I use an in-ear monitoring system. I want the warm, rich tone and dynamics that come from having a tube amp and am thinking about what to buy. Will both of these work equally well or is one better than the other?

a) Guitar > Multi-Effects Processor > Tube Amp Head > PA

b) Guitar > Multi-Effects Processor > Tube Amp Head + Cabinet > Microphone > PA

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    There exist a multitude of type of cabs. Have you considered just investing in a small one? – Neil Meyer Apr 12 '16 at 7:19

It's not easy to say which is "better", but they will definitely be different.

First, if you go straight from a tube head to the PA, you'll need some way to match the output of the head to one of the PA's inputs, and you'll want to simulate the sound of a guitar speaker cabinet. A good way to do this for a tube head is with a speaker simulator and a passive load box. The speaker simulator shapes the speaker output sound from the head so that it sounds like it has been run through a speaker cabinet and miked up, and most speaker simulators have an XLR output which is good for running to the PA. The passive load box is to provide the correct amount of resistance to the tube power output. Without that, the head can easily supply too much current which can damage the head.

Advantages of Speaker Sim with Load Box:

  • Reduced stage noise
  • Consistent sound
  • Light weight (no cabinet to carry!)
  • Less expensive than some cabinets
  • No mic bleed

Disadvantages of Speaker Sim with Load Box:

  • Power supply or phantom power usually needed for speaker sim
  • The sound is not quite authentic
  • Good monitoring must be available to hear what you're playing
  • "Good" guitar feedback may be more difficult or impossible to get
  • Ground loops are possible
  • Mix/Monitor engineers may not like the setup as much as their favorite mic in front of a cab
  • You'll need some kind of monitoring setup for band practice, which will likely sound different from the live shows

Obviously, the advantages and disadvantages of going with a miked speaker cabinet are pretty much those two lists reversed. Personally, I prefer either a small head and cabinet or a combo amp. I make it so the amp is pointed at my ears, instead of my knees, so that I'm getting the loudest and most direct guitar sound. I set up the same way at practice as I do at gigs so I can keep my sound and feel consistent and also play with feedback in a more consistent way. Using a smaller, lower powered amp helps with reduced stage volume and bleed into vocal mics, saves my back (smaller amps are lighter), and makes sound engineers happier.

I do own two great speaker sims and two different kinds of load boxes, but I just can't handle the difference in sound and feel. I use them mainly for doing scratch takes when recording or for playing along with a drummer when laying down drum tracks, so there's no guitar bleed into the drum mikes.

As a sound engineer, I usually actually prefer to mike up sources, rather than DI. I do bring a lot of DIs to a gig but I don't bring speaker sims. A guitarist rolling with their own speaker sim would be a pain, IMHO, since it would be directly connecting gear that I have no expectation of function or reliability. With a mic, you know there are no ground loops and you know what the mic is going to give you, because it's your mic. It's almost the same with a good DI, although a lot of direct sources require a lot more processing (compression and EQ) than miked sources.

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  • Well I was counting on you to do this one justice and you did not disappoint +1 for a job well done! Do you have any experience with any of the newer micro tube amps with cab simulated output jacks designed for outputting to a recording interface - plugging in to a PA instead of recording interface? – Rockin Cowboy Apr 12 '16 at 0:34
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    There is just something about how a cabinet moves air that makes the sound it produces wonderful. I have heard certain cab sims that are OK, but still there is something magical about a real cabinet. – Neil Meyer Apr 12 '16 at 7:17

If you go with no cab you probably want a speaker simulation method in addition to having a line out and a load box to compensate for no load on the head.

I personally prefer the actual tone of a cabinet over a sim, mostly because of the warmth and compression. I would try both out, especially since there are great options both ways. Since you mentioned warmth, try a few cabs. I suggest a 1x10 or 1x12 for balance of size/weight vs tone. YMMV

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