Maybe you noticed the 2003 EM Editors' Choice for the best individual signal-processing plug-in. If you attended this year's Macworld Expo in San Francisco, you also might have heard a guitarist wailing onstage with nothing but his guitar and a PowerBook. AmpliTube ($399), from Italian software developer IK Multimedia, is a VST, HTDM, RTAS, and DX plug-in that lets you craft your electric guitar tone using software that models some of the most enduring amplifiers and effects in music.
Stages of Life
AmpliTube's interface simulates three stages of an electric guitar rig's signal flow: the Stomp module (for footpedal effects), the Amp module (emulating a preamp and power amp), and the Post FX module (providing stereo effects). Each stage adds its tone-shaping character to the guitar's sound. A noise gate with selectable sensitivity precedes the first module.
The Stomp module provides five effects — chorus, delay, flanger, overdrive, and wah — modeled after classic analog stompboxes. You can use a MIDI expression pedal to control the wah effect (depending on your host software). Each virtual stompbox models the analog circuitry of the box that it's emulating and provides the control knobs you'd expect for each.
The Amp module offers preamp, EQ, power amp, cabinet, and mic selections. Tremolo and spring-reverb controls duplicate those found on a conventional combo amp. You can mix and match the combinations of amp, EQ, preamp, and cabinet or lock the components into the configurations on which they were modeled. A master Output control compensates for the wide gain differences you'll encounter with different models.
The Post FX module supplies reverbs, delays, and parametric equalization, all in stereo. Its capabilities go beyond the Amp module's spring reverb and amp-head EQ and the Stomp module's mono delay.
AmpliTube's user interface is beautiful, complete with glowing tubes and vintage-style knobs. Turning the knobs is tricky, however; a MIDI control surface would definitely help. In addition, the text is so tiny that if you have a small laptop or a fuzzy monitor, you could be in for some serious squinting. A pull-down menu provides access to many preset amp-cabinet-effects combinations, and more are available for download. You can also save your own preset configurations, of course.
Although it will process recorded tracks, you'll probably want to hear AmpliTube's effect on your sound as you play the guitar. For that, your host software must be able to monitor a live input through plug-ins, which isn't a problem for most DAWs. You'll also need a low-latency ASIO 2.0 card and a high-impedance input into your computer for the best possible sound. A direct box with a gain control is recommended. For my tests, I used Roland's SI-24 studio interface and RPC-1 card connected to a dual-processor Mac G4. Latency was negligible.
As of this writing, IK Multimedia is set to launch AmpliTube Live for Mac OS X. Live is a standalone version of AmpliTube that uses the Mac's audio I/O for very low-latency playback.
When I tested AmpliTube using a Les Paul, Rickenbacker 360, and Stratocaster copy, its performance was nothing short of amazing. Three other guitarists who dropped by concurred that AmpliTube sounded and reacted like a guitar amp. The Post FX reverbs are better than many plug-ins I've heard. Clean sounds (especially the tube models) were punchy and present, and every gain point between edgy and over-the-edge distortion was colored with lush overtones. AmpliTube's real power is that it inspires like a well-crafted amplifier should.
Five years ago, guitar players would have snickered at the suggestion of including a computer in their live rigs, especially if it was to be the centerpiece of their tone. After hearing AmpliTube, though, some of them might be willing to trade their stack for a Mac. Download a demo and hear what I mean.