EM Editor's Note: This Year's Modelers

Read Mike Levine September 2009 EM Editors Note, Where He Writes About Using Amp Modeling Software When Recording Guitars for Audio Production
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Photo: Marla Cohen

Those of us who record electric guitars in our studios must choose whether to mike an amp or use hardware or software that models amp sounds instead. That choice used to be obvious: If you wanted realistic, fat amp sounds, then you needed to mike a good amp, preferably of the tube variety.

Nowadays, amp-modeling software has become so sophisticated and powerful that the choice is not always so cut and dry. Modeling offers a lot of enticing advantages. For one thing, it's much quieter. You don't need to crank an amp to get a good tone, and you can monitor strictly on headphones. More importantly, modeling provides you with a lot more flexibility because you can change amp sounds at will after the guitarist has finished laying down his/her tracks. And unless you have a large vintage-amp collection (such as the one Brian Tarquin has in his studio; see this month's “Pro/File” column), using a modeling plug-in gives you a much wider palette of amp sounds than would otherwise be possible. Of course, this wouldn't mean a whole lot if the amp tones produced by the software weren't realistic-sounding, but with the current crop of amp modelers, they typically are.

If you recall the feature story “Showdown at the Clubhouse” in the February 2009 issue (available at www.emusician.com), you might remember that we conducted a blind listening test with a panel of producers and engineers with a ton of guitar recording experience. We asked them to try to pick out the real amp from the amp modelers, and in a majority of the cases, most of them weren't able to.

After that article was published, I heard from a graduate student who wanted to use the example tracks from that test in his own research project. I said sure, and he recently told me that only about 25 percent of his 50-person listening panel were able to pick out the real amps in his testing.

Clearly, amp modelers can be very effective studio tools. Do they replace real guitar amps completely? Of course not. But they are a viable option in many circumstances. As you've seen from the front of this month's issue, we're devoting our cover story (“Shredding In the Box”) to Michael Cooper's examination of six cross-platform, AU/VST amp-modeling software packages. Michael is an experienced engineer and guitarist, and puts the various modelers rigorously though their paces. I think you'll find it a very informative story.

As we were preparing to go to press with this issue, Apple released Logic Pro 9, a major update of its flagship DAW software. I bring this up in connection with amp modeling because Apple has done a major upgrade of Logic's own capabilities in that area, with its new Amp Designer and Pedalboard plug-ins. Look for coverage of those plug-ins, as well as the rest of Logic 9's many new features, very soon in these pages.

While on the subject of modeling, I should point out that our lead review this issue is of the Roland V-Piano, the first physically modeled digital piano. The V-Piano created quite a stir when it was introduced back in January 2009 at the NAMM show, and now that it's shipping, senior editor Geary Yelton took it out for a spin (actually, quite a few spins) to answer, among other things, the question of whether it sounds and feels like a real acoustic grand.

Finally, a correction: In the story “Make Mine Modular” in the August issue, it was incorrectly stated that MOTU's innovative new synth-control plug-in Volta was cross-platform and supported VST. In fact, it's currently only for the Mac and supports AU and MAS, but not VST.