IK Multimedia Amplitube 2

[$399, amplitube.com]

Okay, I admit that I was a little prejudiced on this one. From an early age I’ve had a fascination with electronic hardware that led to countless hours of soldering together new pickup switching combos, preamps, and amps for a small army of cheap guitars. Although most of my “professional” playing has actually been done on transistor amps, I really prefer to get some real tubes into the chain at some point, especially when going for distortion. That said, I’m not too happy with lugging around all the gear that I’ve collected over the years, and I get even more upset when one of my precious hand-built contraptions goes on the fritz. Given my more recent embrace of digital recording technology, it would only seem logical that tube amp modeling would be the way for me to go. There are a host of programs and digital hardware combos that provide much wider arrays of sounds in much smaller packages, with the ability to instantly recall any setup you create without having to wrestle with cabinets, pedals, and the giant patch-cord octopus that lurks in the corner of my studio. Amplitube is one such program, providing all the aforementioned benefits along with an easy-to-use virtual interface that replicates the look, as well as the sound, of traditional guitar gear.

Nonetheless, I have been lukewarm on the whole idea. I have already spent half my life working my way through various solid state amps that claimed to have authentic tube sound but inevitably disappointed me, especially when stomping out the heavy, distorted sounds I crave. Once I got my hands on a true tube Marshall head and a nice 2x12 cabinet, I felt that I had found a happy sonic state in which to reside, and I was loathe to go back to modeling of any kind. Previous experience with Amplitube LE had left me somewhat cold, given the somewhat cumbersome interface, limited functionality, and rather artificial sound. Amplitube 2, however, brings a completely redesigned interface and DSP engine, using their new, patented DSM technology to provide emulations that really challenge the trained ear to pick the real amp sound. In addition, v.2 adds a host of new features, including five different modules, separate pre, EQ, power amp, cabinet/mic combo modeling, 21 stomp effects and 11 rack effects (up to 20 total simultaneous effects), and two separate rigs that can be routed simultaneously in series or parallel.

There’s certainly no shortage of flexibility and functionality in Amplitube 2, but the price is paid by the CPU. I was running this in ACID 5.0 on a 3GHz Pentium 4 laptop with a Gig of RAM, so I was able to run up to four instances of the plug-in without any problems, but there have been some complaints from users on different platforms, notably Logic users and folks with Macs (even the G5, go figure). In my case, I did find limitations in performance at low latency rates even with only one instance of Amplitube, so I was a bit concerned. According to tech support, you can disable some of the oversampling while tracking to cut down on CPU usage, and then reactivate the full plug-in when mixing. They also promise to have some more CPU-friendly updates out soon, so you don’t necessarily need to get a new computer to run it. And installation was relatively trouble-free, although I was a little disappointed that they have gone with a USB dongle key for licensing. It’s not a huge problem for me, as I do most of my work at home, but I am dreading the time that I either forget that it’s in the back of the laptop when shoving it into the case, or that I leave it at home on the way to a session. Nonetheless, the key is relatively unobtrusive other than the warm red glow from the LED.

Once loaded, I started in with some remixing and found Amplitube 2 very easy to use, and very impressive in its replication of many different amplifiers, including several that most of us would rarely get our hands on otherwise. Given how proudly IK Multimedia lists some of the amps this program is modeled on (Fender, Vox, Marshall, Mesa Boogie, and so on), it is rather amusing to read the manual on which model was based on which amp: The section on “British Tube 30TB” refers to “4 guys from Liverpool.” Version 2 also builds on some of the version 1’s homegrown models, just in case you want to try something completely different (FWIW, I swear that “Solid State Fuzz” was actually modeled on an old Peavey Bandit).

Purists will probably always find fault with any amp emulator, but I was very impressed with what v.2 has to offer in its arsenal. However, after playing with Amplitube 2 for a few days, I got in a bit of a mood and had to plug in to the old rig and crank it for a little while. The raw, visceral feeling of turning those knobs is way more satisfying than sitting on my duff and clicking the mouse, I have to say. As far as the sound goes, though, even hard-core tube heads, such as myself, my roommates, and my neighbors, were not able to accurately distinguish the virtual amps from the real deal. Everything is always subjective, of course, but this app comes closer to ousting my stack than anything else I’ve tried so far, and listing at $399 ($320 at most retail outlets), it’s a lot cheaper than collecting all the amps yourself. With all this virtual modeling, though, don’t you think they should make the dials go to 11?