Virtual Amplifiers and Effects

Recording real guitar amplifiers can be a big hassle. If you’ve got a studio and you are making an important record, I’m sure it is the way to go. Until fairly recently, it was the only thing you could do if you wanted to record electric guitar. Well, you could go directly into the mixing board like John Lennon did on “Revolution.” The only reason that track doesn’t sound sterile is because Lennon overdrove the board, turning it into one very big and expensive fuzztone box and freaking out the engineers.

For home recordists micing electric guitars is tough because you have to get the right mic in the right place, and you have to crank the amp up to get good tone. Cranking the amp up causes potential disharmony with wives, children, and neighbors. To get the track right the home recordist might have to do take after take, the backing tracks in the headphones, lost to the world, oblivious to the pounding on the door, the shouting in the front yard, the police sirens wailing. Yes, micing electric guitars is tough.

However, now we have virtual amplifiers, speaker cabinets and microphones that exist as 1’s and 0’s in the virtual space of computer memory. An engineer takes a classic amplifier like a Vox AC-30, a Fender Deluxe Reverb, or a Marshall Plexi, and creates a model of it by analyzing the difference between the signal going in and the signal going out under various control settings and playing conditions. The recordist no longer has to crank up the volume because it has already been cranked and turned into an algorithm. The blazing fury of a Marshall stack on 10 takes place in the mental space between the earcups of the headphones rather than devastating the household and neighborhood.

One of the first and best products of this kind is the SimulAnalog Guitar Suite, which is free. This collection includes various stomp box effects and two amplifiers–a 1969 Fender Twin Reverb and a Marshall JCM900. The models are inserted into the recording software as VSTs, a plugin standard developed by Steinberg, the maker of Cubase. Generally, the guitar signal is recorded direct, without effects or models, and the amplifier model is placed afterward into the effects chain. This means that it is possible to change amplifiers or other effects after the part has been recorded. Here’s a link:

SimulAnalog Guitar Suite

The Simulanalog suite does not have a graphical user interface, which means that the recording software must supply generic controls, making the user experience rather scientific in feel. Some recordists feel that a proper user interface is essential to the recording experience, so commercial products generally have sophisticated graphics that mimic the look and feel of the actual equipment. Amplitube LE, a “light” version of the full product that came with my EMU 0404 audio interface, looks like an amplifier head. I was able to get a nice Santana-like slightly overdriven sound out of it, and some of the bass models were useful.  Not bad at all.

However, I recently purchased a Line 6 Gearbox Silver Edition, which came with a Toneport DI, a USB audio interface with one guitar input and three outputs. Line 6 was blowing these out through a lot of online retailers because a new product, PodFarm, was coming out. This Silver Bundle came with a free upgrade to the “Gold” bundle, and a free upgrade to PodFarm when it came out, all for $99. This was a great deal.  It is basically a software version of the Pod XT.

The Gold Bundle has 78 amp models, 24 cabinet models, and 80 effects models.  Playing through Line 6 Gearbox is like having a whole music store at your command, with every piece of gear available at the click of a mouse.  In addition to the guitar amps, it has models of famous vocal preamps and other esoteric gear.  You can switch cabinets and microphones, and even move the microphone closer or nearer, on axis or off.  It’s an artist’s palette of sounds for any style of music.

One of the banes of computer recording is latency.  Even though electrons move at the speed of light, it takes time and computer cycles to process information.  Amp models and effects take computer power, and can introduce several milliseconds of delay.  This means that with lots of effect in the signal, the recorded guitar track might lag behind the backing tracks, making the guitarist sound really lame and incompetent.  The general solution is to record  dry, without effects, and then introduce the effects afterwords.  If you do that, however, the sound you hear while playing will be sterile and uninspiring.

Line 6 has solved that problem by writing drivers for the Toneport DI that bypass most of the Microsoft Windows audio processing.  The resulting “Tone Direct Monitoring” is amazing.  I sound like a much better guitar player because my timing is now spot on.

The Gearbox interface is whimsical and cartoonish.  It’s fun.  The new PodFarm interface is more realistic and professional looking, but it leaves me cold.  The preset browser is better, but the VST plugin version doesn’t work in Reaper, my recording software.   I have been using PodFarm because of the easier access to presets, but I prefer Gearbox, and if I want to record dry and insert the processing as an effect, I have to use Gearbox.  I think PodFarm was released prematurely.

This package allows me to find any guitar tone I hear in my head or hear on a record.  I can play and record all night without waking up my wife or the neighbors.  Does it sound good?  For the most part, yes.  Do the models sound like real amps and effects.  For the most part, yes.  Is it the same as playing a cranked tube amp?  No.  What you miss is the physical interaction between the sound waves and the guitar, and the sense that the sound is coming right out of your fingers.  Playing live is great fun.  However, for the singer/songwriter computer recordist/hobbyist musician with a day job, this thing is great.

About guitarsophist

I'm a guitar-playing rhetorician professor.
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