It’s both a wonderful and shite time to be a musician!
Technology has opened up a world of opportunity for creating in the home while at the same time the music industry devaluing the end product so much that artists receive virtually nothing for their work (but that’s another story for another time). At the forefront of the good times is the controversial ‘amp sim’ This is a digital recreation of the circuits and tubes of a guitar or bass amplifier and are created using schematics of the real amps themselves for similar colour.
There is an almighty stigma around amp sims and not just from purists either but the products are often lumped in to one category which is quite unfair as if you dig deeper the results are actually quite astonishing!
Amp simulation has been around since the late 90’s when Line 6 released their flagship product, the Red bean shaped POD 1.0 in 1997. Multiple different amps based on brand names such as Mesa Boogie and Marshall classics all within one tiny unit and it came with a shitload of effects and the ability to ‘download’ and share tones from a huge bank on the internet.
Sounds fucking amazing!!!
Well, sort of. The IDEA was amazing and the old PODs were great at shimmery clean tones with some nice delay and chorus effects but…..not much else.
I started my amp simulation journey with the POD 2.0 in 1999 and indeed I found the clean tones on it to be beautiful and the options of the bean were many and straightforward. It’s problem was that being a rock and metal guy the high gain tones were absolute bullshit! Most if not all of them were mid range thin and very, VERY fizzy. This was ok when put through a PA but when trying to record a direct out or use through an amp it was a hairy turd and no mistake. In 2004 I upgraded to the POD XT, a new bean with some new features and the ability to angle the microphone on the virtual cab with an off axis option. Within 5 minutes I found a great chunky tone which was quality for recording and live but almost seemed like a fluke as there were still not many useable tones on the product for the almighty heav!
When the home recording revolution started people were really getting into using plug ins within their recording software and so third party amp sims became a thing. Again the idea was amazing. You record down your raw guitar track by plugging straight into the mixing desk/audio interface and on your audio channel within your software you plug amp sims and cabs into the inserts of that channel therefore giving you your tone. The beauty of this is that all the amps, effects and cabs can be changed AFTER you have recorded, and you can do this as many times as you want too.
WOW, so why are people still fannying about with real amps and microphones then?
Well becasue most of it still sounds like shit!
When people think of amp sims they tend to think of the commercial products like Guitar Rig, Realver or even the latest next gen amp sim Bias, all of which offer stunning options to tweak your tone with none actually being very good either. Being at the forefront of what people see and with the prices they charge for their product combined with the fizzy, scratchy tones it’s easy to see why some have a distaste for amp sims.
The problem is that in these commercial packages there are so many models of amp sim that it’s impossible for the developers to get it all right and so they just create general amp sims that are ‘sort of’ similar to the tones of the real deal and then slap a not so clever name on them which points to that real world model.
Step in a few guys Called Poulin, Nick Crow and Onquel. Three guys who started making high gain metal amp sims not only for fun but for FREE and quite frankly they blow the competition out of the water!
Poulin or Lepou is famous for his amazing Lecto and Le456 amp sim heads which emulate a Mesa Boogie Duel Rectifier and Engl Fireball really quite well. Others in the range include the Legion which is not based on any real world amp sim and Lextac a sim based on the Bognor Uberschall amp head. Poulin also does a series of Impulse loaders, the LeCab and LeCab2.
Nick Crow entered the field with two sims the 8505 and 7170, both of which are based on the legendary Peavey 5150 amp head
And finally there’s Onquel the head of ‘The Serina Experiment’. The TSE range is fantastic and includes a Tube screamer pedal (The TSE808) which should be used in front of ANY amp sim and his most famous product the TSE x50 which is also based on a Peavey 5150. The TSEX50 is now up to V.2.4 and is available for purchase from the TSE site but I personally prefer the earlier beta version the TSEX50B3
The real trouble with amp sims isn’t the sim at all, it’s the mic and cab impulse and the loader that’s used. Even the best amp sims can sound like total bell cheese if you put the wrong cab impulse after it and even worse if you put the IR (Impulse response) in a shitey loader too. There are many cab loaders out there but be careful to chose one that doesn’t slice the IR if it’s too long or you won’t end up with an accurate representation of what it sounds like. KeFIR cab loader is fantastic although it only allows for one IR to be loaded but it preserves the sound quality to it’s fullest and is highly recommended. Other tricks such as adding room convolution reverb to the end of the chain and notching out frequencies using EQ can help a lot too but the basic setup of virtual pedal>amp>cab along with some high and low pass filters should be plenty to get a decent tone and the tones are there. In fact noted band Periphery’s first album was done completely with amp sims.
As for actual IR responses I highly recommend the Recabinet 2.0 selection which isn’t free (well it can be…) but offers a good range with only a few shanners in there.
For all you low enders out there it’s a LOT easier. The AmpegSVX is a quality simulator as is some of the Amplitube bass sims (the guitars ones are boak though!). Becasue a bass is clean it’s far easire to simulate a good tone plus making bass distort well in a simulation environment is FAR easier than getting a guitar to if you so choose to.
So what of real amps then? if these sims sound so good then what’s the point?
The point is that these amps need to be around for the sims to have something to base themselves on. Plus the fact that using a combination of all that’s available to you is never a bad things. I have a real Peavey 6505 head (or 5150…same thing) and a Marshall 9100 power amp but I primarily use amp sims.
Also while the sims are amazing there ARE slight differences. Let’s be clear on this the difference aren’t better or worse. With the old sims like the POD there was a clear difference in the quality of the tone but at this stage they are different but on an even keel and it’s simply down to the discretion of the user. Even the modern Kemper tone matching amp has slight differences to the model it captures but is still fantastic so just becasue it doesn’t sound identical does NOT mean it’s bad.
It works in reverse too. If you put a Mesa Duel Rectifier up against Guitar Rig then the amp sim is going to fail miserably , but if you put a Poulin sim with a great impulse up against some shitty Marshall solid state head or Line 6 Spider (technically a hybrid) then the amp sim is going to win. I’ve actually heard demos and albums from bedroom guys made with amp sims that sound far better than ones recorded professionally with real amps so in that case it’s all down to the mix engineer. As for live……really, no-one gives a shit what you are playing through and will probably be too pished to even care.
Purists, hipsters (and amp manufacturers) will never accept amp sims and that’s up to them but personally I embrace them for their monumental convenience factor as well as their outstanding quality in recent years.
With Poulin currently working on new and updated models of his sims and the bar constantly being pushed by the independent developers it can only get better!
KeFIR Cab Loader –