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electronic MUSICIAN

High-Tech Guitar Effects

By Craig Anderton | August 1, 2011

Hit Rewind. More than 22 years ago, Tech 21 had an interesting product idea: something that would let guitar players obtain the sound of various cranked tube guitar amps, yet feed directly into a P.A. or tape recorder—and SansAmp was born. Then in 1998, Line 6 introduced Amp Farm for Pro Tools TDM, which popularized stuffing guitar amps into computers. But, new ways to process and amplify guitars didn''t end there. . . .

Hit Fast Forward. Today, Tech21 and Line 6 continue to evolve. IK Multimedia parlayed the success of the first native amp simulator into a complete line, Native Instruments formed a separate division just for guitarists, Waves teamed up with Paul Reed Smith on the G|T|R plug-ins, Peavey added soft amps to their hardware versions, Avid fed their Eleven plug-in steroids and turned it into a rack computer interface and stage multi-effects, while plenty of smaller companies—Studio Devil, Softube, Scuffham, iZotope, and others—have joined the quest for the ultimate software amp. What''s more, programs like Cubase, Sonar, Logic, Digital Performer, Samplitude, Mixcraft, and others now bundle software amp sims with their DAWs. And that''s just the tip of the iceberg.

Hit Record. Today''s advanced computers can handle complex, detailed amp and effects simulations in near-real time. And as many guitarists have learned, not only can software amps create sounds you''ve never heard before, but work with conventional amps or effects to give the best of both worlds.

Hit Play! The argument over whether amp sims are as “satisfying” as a real amp will persist, but there''s no question that sims have made tremendous strides in fidelity, ease of use, and efficiency. Even the skeptics admit that when listening back to a recorded track, it''s difficult (and sometimes impossible) to tell the difference between the model and the “real thing.”

Yes, we''ve come a long way—now let''s find out what''s taking us further.

The Budda SuperDrive 18 Series II is one of the latest ReValver amp models. Note the new VC/L-2 Compressor/Limiter emulation.

The Budda SuperDrive 18 Series II is one of the latest ReValver amp models. Note the new VC/L-2 Compressor/Limiter emulation.

Amp/effect modeler gets multiple new models

The latest version of Peavey''s flagship amp sim offers 12 preamps, 21 amp heads, 9 power amps, 12 “studio” effects (EQ, dynamics, reverb, an outstanding emulation of their VC/L-2 compressor/limiter, etc.), 21 stomp boxes, two speaker options (convolution and modeled), and a set of tools—like insertable level control, signal splitter, tone stack, single tube stage, polyphonic tuner, chromatic tuner, and more. Although Peavey amps are well-represented, you''ll find other classics too—ReValver III.V subscribes to the “more is more” credo.

ReValver III.V uses the rack paradigm—insert modules, then drag into the desired order. But what distinguishes ReValver III.V from all other modelers is the multiple “levels,” almost like a videogame. You can simply load presets, or go further and modify existing presets, create new ones, or dive down to the component level and literally tweak individual components. Want a 500V plate voltage? Or 50V? Change the plate load, or cathode resistor? Or a different power supply, or output transformer, or tone stack, or. . . ? You can even see the results of your tweaks as they apply to a sine wave, transient response, transfer characteristics, or Bode plot frequency response.

The only bummer: You need to apply changes before you can hear the results, even including modules like the Speaker Construction Set. After a while, though, you''ll get a sense of how various changes affect the sound.

The good news: You can make just about any sound you want, and the distortion can be “smoother” than average. The bad news: With this many options, you have the freedom to make bad sounds, too.

I preferred the modeled speakers over the convolution ones—until I used EQ to add some notches to the convolution cabinets, which I felt improved the sound. And there are surprises: Eliminating the “Marshall” EL34 output stage, and using a different cabinet from the default, gave a unique sound I haven''t obtained with other sims.

The presets are okay, but I don''t think they fully represent the exceptional sounds you can get from this sim. With almost all of them, though, one or two simple tweaks (usually EQ output shaping) can transform them into standouts. Sometimes just calling up a basic amp/speaker combo, and making a few edits, is all you need.

RTAS performance is now on a par with VST/AU, and the VST hosting—which is technically difficult to do—is more robust. Although stable, III.V is relatively new and still has a few glitches regarding Windows 7 permissions; however these are minor fixes, not structural problems.

This is a truly remarkable piece of software. It''s the polar opposite of the Softube approach: Rather than limiting you to known, good sounds, ReValver III.V lets the inmates run the asylum. No other amp sim gives you this degree of control over the sound, and if you have the patience to really learn what it''s about, you''ll be amply rewarded.

The SVT emulation adds a useful new element for bass players . . . but there''s lots more.

The SVT emulation adds a useful new element for bass players . . . but there''s lots more.

New amps, cabs, and effects for studio and stage

I think Eleven Rack''s success surprised even Avid, but it makes sense: Eleven Rack is one of those pieces of gear where all the pieces fit together like the stones in a Mayan temple. From the readable display and large front-panel typeface (yes, this matters), to the obvious workflow, to the sounds themselves—and of course, the dual identity as audio interface/stage multi-effects—Eleven Rack hits the high points.

But the Expansion Pack takes it to, well, twelve. There are 13 new amp emulations, eight new cabs, and six new effects: two distortion, MultiChorus, sophisticated stereo delay (ducking, EQ, panning, cross delay, etc.), studio compressor, and four-band parametric EQ.

Of the new amps, I immediately took to the Marshall JTM45 emulation—its big, beefy sounds, with a smooth distortion character, make it a natural for hard-rock power chords. The Super Reverb model is another winner, with the right degree of sparkle. I''ve always liked the Eleven Rack Custom amps, but the Modern Super Overdrive delivers truly satisfying high-gain sounds. These are just some highlights . . . check out the emulation of all three Bogner Ecstasy 101b channels, and also, the Eleven plug-in''s speaker breakup feature is now included.

But aside from the new cabs, the “channel strip” parametric EQ can really make the amps sing—you can tweak amp/cab combinations to slide into a track as if they had been sprayed with WD-40. Sure, you could always insert an EQ plug-in within Pro Tools, but now you can take that tweaked sound on stage. An unexpected bonus is lowpass and highpass filtering with 6, 12, and 24dB slope options—but as you can add resonance, it''s possible to (for example) pull down the very highest frequencies to rein in the brightness, while adding a peak around 4–5kHz to add definition. Thumbs up.

Also thumbs up: a channel strip-style compressor. Add that to the EQ, and you have a useful vocal-processing setup.

I also had good luck feeding the distortion stompboxes into cabs (no amps) and using the EQ to tweak that as well. Arguably, though, the new effects'' star is the Dynamic Stereo Delay—thicken and layer your sound with delays; think Edge-type vibes. You can sync to tempo, and thankfully, this includes my favorite dance track staple—dotted half-notes.

If you have an Eleven Rack, the price is right. Even if you use only half of the new features, it''s still a great deal—the new amps alone are welcome. I hesitate to use the term “no-brainer” because in these tough times, $99 isn''t a trivial expense. But there''s no doubt you get value received.

If you don''t have an Eleven Rack, this just might put it on your Gear Acquisition Syndrome radar, especially if the “stage and studio” split personality interests you. Eleven was something special before the expansion pack appeared, but now it''s gone up another notch.

Scuffham''s S-Gear amp suite is economical, but nonetheless includes dual convolution engines and three amp models.

Scuffham''s S-Gear amp suite is economical, but nonetheless includes dual convolution engines and three amp models.

Three amps plus delay and convolution It seems every time I do one of these roundups, there''s a new, “dark horse” amp sim maker; this year, it''s Scuffham. S-Gear is the least expensive of the sims reviewed here, but nonetheless features three amp models, a sweet delay module, dual convolution cabinets (with seven impulses and four filters, as well as two virtual mics with four positions each), natural-sounding noise gate, and solid preset management.

The three amps have different characters. They''re intended not to model specific amps, but create their own sounds from the ground up. I appreciate this approach; it''s not always necessary to sound just like, say, a Marshall JCM800 or Vox AC30, as long as you capture the spirit that would make an amp iconic.

The effective complement of controls allows squeezing multiple sounds out of the models. The delay does long delays, chorusing, chorus/delay, and offers two different timbres (including analog bucket-brigade delay emulation). A power-amp config module lets you emulate sag, perform a high-frequency cut, and set the presence frequency. Nice.

Initially, although I liked the clean and crunchy sounds, I found the high-gain/distortion sounds harsh, due to nasty digital artifacts, and the controls unresponsive. After a “WTF”? email exchange with the designer (who had designed Marshall''s JMP-1, so he knows his stuff), it turned out that my style of playing (hard pick, heavy strings, and highly percussive), coupled with very high-output pickups, was generating initial transients that were much stronger than the average signal level—these were slamming the input, but because they were so short, they weren''t showing up on the amp''s input level meters.

The solution was simple: I lowered the pickups a few millimeters. This reduced the ratio of transient strength to signal level, the artifacts went away, the controls worked as expected, and the high-gain sounds became rich, warm, and responsive—it was definitely an ugly-duckling-transforms-into-swan experience. (As a bonus, this fixed some artifacts I had been getting with a couple POD Farm amps, too . . . so I''m leaving the pickups where they are.)

The dual convolution speaker cabs are a big deal, as you can pan them and create true stereo images, while choosing different impulses for the two speakers so their sounds complement each other. (You can load other impulses, too—you''re not locked into the 56 included impulses.) In some ways, I preferred the filter speaker responses; regardless, if you choose your “virtual mics” and positioning carefully, you can get some huge—yet authentic—sounds.

Download the fully functional 15-day demo, and check out Scuffham''s amps for yourself. They definitely have their own sound, and even if you already have several amp sims, they provide an excellent complement because they''re not trying to sound like some specific amp. This is one dark horse that I predict will still be around for next year''s roundup.

That''s not a Photoshop trick—POD Farm is actually working with a non-Line 6 USB interface.

That''s not a Photoshop trick—POD Farm is actually working with a non-Line 6 USB interface.

Hardware independence and 64-bit support

Version 2.5 isn''t about more amps and effects, but system integration. POD Farm is now hardware-independent—it no longer requires a Line 6 audio interface. (That said, Line 6 still makes the only interfaces with their “ToneDirect” technology that slashes latency.) The package now includes license manager software that can authorize POD Farm 2.5 for a certain number of Line 6 hardware devices or computers; iLok authorization remains available too.

Furthermore, there are now native 64-bit versions of not only their plug-ins, but the “elements” introduced in POD Farm 2.0 that allow using specific processors, such as reverbs or preamps, without having to instantiate an entire POD Farm. POD Farm has always been good for more than just guitar, bass, and synths (I''m a fan of using it on vocals and drums); the elements underscore that ability. I tested the 64-bit plug-ins in 64-bit versions of Cakewalk Sonar X1 and Sony Vegas, and they worked flawlessly.

One more cool addition: POD Farm 2.5 can now work standalone without restrictions (V2.0 could do standalone, but only with the TonePort or POD studio interfaces). So if you want to stuff one heckuva guitar setup in a laptop, be my guest.

There''s not much else to add, except that 2.5 is a free update to registered 2.0 users . . . so if you''re a POD Farmer, fire up your browser and start the download. And if you''re not, there''s a free trial that works without functional or time limits, although there''s only a limited number of models. It''s a useful program in its own right, and if you like what you hear, you can always get a license for the full version.

Line 6 has been incrementally upgrading their software over the last few generations, so if you haven''t tried the latest and greatest, you might want to hear what you''ve been missing—even the free version has some great tones.

The Amp aisle from the Custom Shop; note the just-purchased T-Rex Mudhoney and Nu-Tron III poking out from behind.

The Amp aisle from the Custom Shop; note the just-purchased T-Rex Mudhoney and Nu-Tron III poking out from behind.

Build your rig, one model at a time

IK Multimedia doesn''t just have new models, but a web-only Custom Shop that sells all IK models—amps, cabs, effects, and rack processors—so you can create your own rig, a piece at a time, based on your needs and finances.

If you don''t have already have AmpliTube 3, download AmpliTube 3 Free. It has all of AT3''s functionality—it''s no “lite” version—and includes four amps, five cabs, three mics, nine stomp effects, two rack effects, and a digital tuner. No, it''s not the full version''s 160 devices, but it''s enough to make some cool noises.

Then, check out the custom shop and buy “credits” ($1/credit, dropping to 60 cents in bulk). You can download anything and audition it for 48 hours, every two months. If you like something, buy it—prices range from five to 20 credits, which don''t expire. If you already have AmpliTube 3, included models will show as having been purchased, while other models have the “Try or Buy” option.

IK put some real thought into the shopping experience. You can browse all models in a particular meta-category (like Amp, Cab, Stomp Box, etc.) or by more limited categories (like only Clean Amps), and mix ''n'' match across the AmpliTube line—download a bass effect from AmpliTube SVX, or a cab from AmpliTube Metal. There''s info and a full-size image for each model; new additions are noted, and there''s a list of top sellers so you can see what other people thought was worth the bucks.

Armed with 125 credits, I hit the virtual aisles. The first thing you notice about this shop: No one is playing “Stairway to Heaven” badly, at 127dB. We''re off to a good start.

The current top-selling amp is the Soldano SLO-100, so I started there. I hit “Try,” and a few seconds later, it was loaded in AT3. (Note—Custom Shop has to be open in your browser during the trial period.) As it''s boring to watch someone shop, I''ll keep it short: I went for the Soldano for its outstanding leads, Orange Tiny Terror for chunky rhythm, the crushingly brash Orange RockerVerb 50, and the Fender Princeton for its vintage vibe (tough decision between that and the Fender Champ, tough).

IK recommends amp cabs, and they''re only five credits, but I went for the T-Rex Mudhoney stompbox. (Try it with no amp, the 4x12 Modern M3 cab, and a rack parametric stage with a 6dB cut at 2300Hz and Q=7—all honey, no mud.) After testing out the Nu-Tron III, I had to have it, too—it nailed that soul sound of the ''70s.

All the new models are worthwhile; there''s no “filler.” Some, like the Soldano, add something significantly different to the roster of models. Others, like the Nu-Tron, add a variation on existing effects. (AT3''s existing envelope filter lacks the Nu-Tron''s “snap” or down drive option.)

Did I have fun? You bet! The new models are excellent, and the Custom Shop concept gets a major thumbs up.

ZBox is small, useful, and works with any guitar or bass that has passive pickups.

ZBox is small, useful, and works with any guitar or bass that has passive pickups.

Guitar pickup impedance adapter

Standard guitars with passive pickups can''t drive line inputs or mic inputs effectively, so interface manufacturers introduced special “instrument/hi-impedance” inputs to accommodate guitar. These prevent pickup loading, thus preserving level and high-frequency response. (With pickups, loading reduces highs and level because impedance increases with frequency.)

However, many real-world guitar amp inputs do add slight, but noticeable, loading. A tube stage''s input also interacts with guitar. These combine to create what some guitarists call a “warmer” tone although technically, it''s not as “accurate” as a hi-Z input. ENTER ZBOX
ZBox is a simple, passive box with two 1/4" inputs (high and low impedance, relatively speaking), and an attached 18" output cable terminating in a 1/4" unbalanced out. To transform a high-impedance input (whether in an interface, mixer, wireless transmitter, etc.) into one that''s more like a “real” guitar amp, a resistor network provides the necessary loading, while four silicon diodes connected in series provide (very) soft asymmetrical clipping starting at around 2.8V—so it''s just barely shaving the tops of the positive peaks.

With amp sims, despite the best efforts at modeling, feeding in a bright signal—which happens with a high-Z input—can sound brittle. ZBox adds a subtle rollback of the highs and also interacts with the midrange, but the effectiveness depends on several factors.

Using active pickups, or inserting an effect between guitar and ZBox, is pointless; to work its magic, ZBox must insert between the passive guitar out and interface Hi-Z in. Also, rolling back the guitar''s tone or volume control greatly reduces ZBox''s effect. I tested it with a Strat bridge pickup going through the Softube White Room (set for heavy distortion) and Les Paul neck pickup going into the Softube Green Room, then recording both for an online web clip. Listening back, the effect is subtle, but noticeable. The Low-Z input loads the signal down enough so a bit less level feeds the sim, which equals pulling back the drive somewhat. But there''s more to it than that. Using either input—especially with the Les Paul—gave a timbre I''d characterize as “rounder” or “smoother.”

Depending on the pickup, playing style, and amp sim setting, ZBox''s effect ranged from barely noticeable to both significant and useful. This is the kind of box you could hard-wire into the signal path when feeding a sim—it can''t hurt, and more often than not, definitely helps.

One of the mics is outlined in red to show that it''s being moved. You can click-and-drag to reach the corner of the room where the other cab resides.

One of the mics is outlined in red to show that it''s being moved. You can click-and-drag to reach the corner of the room where the other cab resides.

Quality metal modeling

Softube amp sims haven''t really gotten the attention they deserve, perhaps because they follow a very different sim philosophy: Instead of opting for a huge variety of amps and effects, Softube models setting up a couple mics with an amp, in a studio—there are zero effects.

Softube claims quality and simplicity over quantity; their plug-ins aren''t designed to make pre-produced guitar sounds, but give an amp/room/mic toolset. How good are these tools? Let''s load and find out.

The metal-optimized amp has an Engl Powerball-inspired lead channel, a hybrid Engl/Marshall JCM800 rhythm channel, and two different 4x12 cabs (Engl- and Marshall-like), each with a dynamic and condenser mic. You can move the mics along an imaginary track that extends about 4–5 feet away from the amp and moves inward, curving as it gets closer to provide off-axis and on-axis placement. A balance and width control (basically two complementary panpots) simplifies setting up a blend; you can also throw one mic out of phase.

Because of the potentially high gain, there''s a clever, program-dependent noise gate whose decay tracks string decay. But one of my favorite features is Softube''s “super-normalize,” which keeps the output within rational levels regardless of the preamp and master control settings.

Softube downplays switching off the lead setting and using the “Marshall” cabinet, but I obtained some muscular, defined hard rock timbres—even Syd Barrett''s early Pink Floyd guitar sound, which was a real surprise. Metal Amp Room is far more versatile than the name implies.

Compared to other sims, the probability of dialing in a really appropriate sound within seconds using Metal Amp Room is very high—given Softube''s philosophy, that makes sense. But you don''t even have to do that, as the presets present a good mix of tones.

But here''s where it gets really interesting. Some of my favorite sounds were feeding AmpliTube amps (cabinet bypassed) through the Softube cabs, with the Softube amps bypassed. I also liked combining the Softube amps with Waves G|T|R cabinets—although the sound was quite different than the Softube cabinets. Perhaps not surprisingly, mixing and matching with Softube''s Vintage Room produced excellent results. POD Farm and Guitar Rig seemed most dependent on matching their amps and cabs, so separating them produced mixed results—from “turn it off!” to “wow.”

My takeaway: The Softube cabinet/room models are outstanding—whether used with Softube amps, or ones from other modelers. The Softube amps are excellent too, but the other modelers provide more amp variations that work extremely well with the Softube cabinets, thus offering a wider range of possible tones.

Metal Amp Room seems ideal for those who want to get a hard rock/metal/heavy sound quickly, with “can''t-go-wrong” customization possibilities. And Softube is right: This is a helluva toolset. Try the mix and match shuffle with other sims, and you''ll hear what I mean.

This signal chain follows Amp and a Cabinet with EQ, Filter Delay, and Ambience to build a complete sonic environment.

This signal chain follows Amp and a Cabinet with EQ, Filter Delay, and Ambience to build a complete sonic environment.

Live adds amp/cab simulations

Created by Softube, this add-on works with Live 8.2 and above. The Amp component itself has voicings for Clean, Boost, Blues, Rock, Lead, Heavy (as in “Metal”), and Bass. Controls include Gain, a Bass/Middle/Treble/Presence tone stack, Volume, and Dry/Wet balance control.

The Cabinet component roster is 1x12, 2x12, 4x12, 4x10, and 4x10 bass. Mic choices are dynamic or condenser, with placements for near on-axis, near off-axis, and far; again, there''s a Dry/Wet balance control.

Live already bundles a bunch of superb effects—not just the usual chorus and delays, but innovative, unusual effects like Grain Delay, Erosion, Filter Delay, etc. So, all the bucks for Amp go to the amp/cab emulations instead of being spread out over a virtual pedalboard.

Amp follows Softube''s “here are the tools, you do the rest” philosophy. If you just insert Amp and Cabinet and expect a killer guitar sound, you may be disappointed; of course, you can find plenty of “pre-fab” racks with complete setups, or make your own.

For example, most cab/mic combinations have an “amp sim resonance” that, although technically representing what a mic hears from an amp, doesn''t necessarily represent what your ears hear in a room. The accompanying screenshot shows some Amp post-processing that creates a more “organic” sound (at least to my ears!). Three stages of EQ notch out the resonance, cut a bit of bass to emulate an open-back cabinet, and warm up the sound by trimming the highs slightly. The Filter Delay adds three discrete echoes for stereo space that helps define a large room size, while the Reverb uses ambience to fill in the space between the echoes.

As this is Live-specific and you can download a free trial, we won''t go deeper. Suffice it to say the amp sounds perform as advertised, and the cabs really come to life once you start tweaking. If you''re looking for plug-and-play guitar sounds with emulated vintage effects, you''re probably better off with other sim packages. But for the experimentally-minded—and what Ableton Live user isn''t?—Amp and Cabinet round out Live''s toolset with plug-ins that are good for more than just guitar and bass.

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