Software that emulates guitar amps and cabinets has become dramatically more realistic sounding during the past couple of years. Add digital clones of classic stompboxes and outboard effects, and throw in amenities like in-the-box tuners and signal splitters, and it's tempting to leave the real amps and mics in the closet. But can all those 1s and 0s truly replace vintage amps and Neumanns? And of all the guitar-processing software now vying for your wallet, which offers the best sound, easiest operation and greatest versatility?
For this article, I tested six of the latest guitar-amp-simulation plug-ins (all of which also operate in stand-alone mode). To keep my report to a manageable size, I limited the field of players to just one product per manufacturer and included only cross-platform Native plug-ins compatible with both Audio Units and VST formats. If a company offered several such products, then I chose the newest release. Software that required accessory hardware such as pedals or USB interfaces, as well as products that didn't include virtual amplifiers and effects, were excluded from this report. That said, a few manufacturers offer optional hardware, so be sure to check their Websites.
All of the products I tested included such effects as noise gate, compressor, flange, chorus, phaser, pitch-shifter, wah-wah, delay, reverb and various types of distortion. I'll note any additional effects offered by each plug-in when I discuss them.
I tested all of the plug-ins in MOTU Digital Performer 5.13 on an 8-core 2.8GHz Mac Pro running OS 10.5.4. I routed my '62 Strat to my Mac via a Demeter Tube direct DI box, Millennia HV-3D preamp, Apogee Rosetta A/D and MOTU 2408mk3 I/O box (digital input). This signal path produced minimal pickup loading, and pristine gain and A/D conversion. For the best playability with inaudible latency, I set Digital Performer's buffer size to 64 samples during my tests. Let's shred!
IK Multimedia AmpliTube Fender
Developed with Fender, AmpliTube Fender ($199.99, ikmultimedia.com) includes dynamically modeled versions of 12 vintage and modern Fender amps (including three bass amps) and their original matching cabinets (see Fig. 1). Turn off the Match switch to use a different amp/cab combination than the historical configuration. Emulations of nine mics, six stompboxes and six rack effects join a tuner to sweeten the deal. You can position the mics on- or off-axis, and either far away from or close to the cabinet, and then dial in the amount of room ambience you desire.
FIG. 1: IK Multimedia AmpliTube Fender's GUI displays the tuner, stomp effects, amp, cabinet/mic combination and rack effects in turn.
Four-hundred presets get you started. You can chain two complete guitar rigs (each comprising stompboxes, amp, cab, mic and rack effects) in any of eight serial and parallel configurations. Slap on as many as 20 simultaneous effects (12 stomp- and eight rack-based), sync them to your DAW host's tempo and automate their parameters in your DAW. AmpliTube Fender doesn't currently support MIDI control of parameters. Stompboxes and effects include a volume pedal and a stunning re-creation of a 1963 spring reverb. A noise gate and tuner are always at your fingertips, no matter which setup you recall or create from scratch.
The system is expandable using AmpliTube X-Gear, a software shell that hosts both stand-alone and plug-in versions of any Powered by AmpliTube product. AmpliTube Fender comes bundled with SpeedTrainer and Sonoma Wireworks RiffWorks T4 recording software. SpeedTrainer is a practice utility that lets you import an audio file, loop it, change its tempo and pitch, and play along with it (with or without a metronome click). RiffWorks T4 is a 16-bit loop recorder for guitar that also facilitates online song collaboration.
AmpliTube Fender Version 1.0.1 sounded terrific. I really felt like I was blowin' out of a real Fender tube amp with vintage spring reverb (see Web Clip 1). Sound-design capabilities are also quite extensive within the constraints of the plug-in's mission: presenting realistic models of Fender gear. That said, you can't drag effects to a different position in the signal chain after inserting them somewhere else. Even with all high-resolution optimizations activated in the software's preferences, only about half of my CPU resources were ever used. Documentation is superb.
Line 6 POD Farm Platinum
FIG. 2: Drag models from Line 6 POD Farm Platinum's Gear pane into the signal paths of a parallel setup.
With POD Farm Platinum ($299.99, line6.com), you can construct two different signal paths in parallel configuration (see Fig. 2). Each path (called a Tone) can include models of an amp (or preamp), cabinet, mic and effects. Each Tone also has its own pan, volume and mute controls.
A cornucopia of 78 guitar and 28 bass amps, six preamps (including vintage mic preamps) and 97 effects is available. Each amp can be paired with any one of 46 cabinets (24 guitar and 22 bass cabs). Drag the cabinet around a virtual room with your mouse to adjust the level of early reflections captured by one of four mic setups (a setup being the mic model and its position relative to the cab).
Effects include an octaver, vocal de-essers, tremolo, ring modulator, rotary drum and EQ. The position of effects can be toggled so they sit either before or after the amp (in the latter case, near the end of the signal chain). Alternatively, you can drag effects with your mouse to change their position in the chain, but with some limitations. I often found I could add a particular effect only by replacing one already in the chain.
Set effects parameters to sync to your DAW host, to a fixed value or by using tap-tempo. In a DAW, you can automate 77 parameters for each Tone (154 total); MIDI control is not supported. A whopping 765 presets are organized into different banks; searching and sorting functions help you find the one you want quickly.
POD Farm Platinum V. 1.1 offers an incredibly wide variety of preset tones, from clean to high gain and from dry to extremely processed (see Web Clip 2). Preset management is sophisticated, and operation is intuitive. Unlike the stand-alone version, the plug-in does not have a tuner.
Native Instruments Guitar Rig 3
The software edition of Guitar Rig 3 ($299, native-instruments.com) includes emulations of 12 amps, 24 cabinets (18 for guitar and six for bass), four rotary speakers, nine mics and 44 effects (see Fig. 3). Select the default matched cabinet for use with a given amp or roll your own cab. You can play through as many virtual cabs at once as you wish, choosing a mic for each and tweaking its position (on- or off-axis, far-away, etc.).
FIG. 3: In Native Instruments' Guitar Rig 3, you drag components from the GUI's upper-left to any positions in the rack on the right to establish their order in the signal chain.
Effects include tremolo, octave shifters, equalizers, limiter, ring modulator and a volume pedal. Effects can be chained in any order — in both serial and parallel configurations — and synched to your DAW host. Insert a crossover so that only high frequencies are sent to one side of a signal split and lows to the other side for superwide imaging.
Hundreds of presets are included. Organize your custom presets into banks tagged with keywords (for example, “bass amps”) for expedited search and recall. A new Live View magnifies all mission-critical components for live performance so you can see them from across a stage. In addition, two Tapedecks let you practice to a loop of backing tracks, overdub new parts and slow down guitar solos to make it easier to learn them. Utilities include a tuner and metronome.
A MIDI Learn function expedites mapping MIDI controllers to Guitar Rig's parameters. Save snapshots of different parameter setups for your song's intro, verse, chorus and so on, and use MIDI to recall them in turn.
Despite its somewhat flawed operating manual, Guitar Rig 3 was easy to use. Although I found some great-sounding presets, many sounded glassy or buzzy (see Web Clip 3). The bass amps also sounded somewhat thin and cold. But on the plus side, Guitar Rig offers several dozen fantastic synth-like and “FX” presets for the guitarist who's looking for something really fresh (see Web Clip 4).
The GUI for TH1 ($279, overloud.com) won't get in your way during fast-paced sessions. TH1's tuner, gate, reverb, delay and filters are always available with whatever patch you recall (see Fig. 4). You get 999 factory and 999 user bank slots, each containing up to 13 sounds, and each sound can have eight variations, all just a few mouse-clicks away.
FIG. 4: Overloud TH1's resizable and well-organized GUI makes navigation the plug-ins deep feature set a snap.
Digital emulations include 18 mics, 10 amps, 21 cabinet models, several dozen convolved cabinet impulse responses and 61 effects. Of special note: Reverbs are based on Overloud's Breverb. EQs, octaver, tremolo and vibrato are also offered.
Changing the order and series- or parallel-chaining of stompboxes, expression pedals, amps, cabinets and rack effects in the signal chain is unrestricted and a snap. A signal splitter can adjust the levels and filters for signals on either side of a parallel chain. A mixer module offers independent control over the phase, delay, stereo width, pan and level of the signals on each side and outputs the whole enchilada in mono or stereo.
You can gang together related module parameters (such as all distortion shapers and amp channel settings) for simultaneous adjustments by up to eight master knobs and switches. Then automate them in your DAW or control them with MIDI commands to morph complex changes to your tone. Amp modules also each have their own fader that morphs between two different amplifiers (see Web Clip 5).
Choose a cabinet, then select two mics and change their positions (the distance from and the vertical and horizontal angles to the cab) and phase. The Cabinet IR module allows you to load convolution-based presets or import your own impulse responses. Time-based effects can be synched to a DAW host or set using tap-tempo or typed-in values.
TH1 V. 1.1.1 sounds phenomenal. The depth and nuance produced on clean tones — always the acid test with such software — is palpable (see Web Clip 6), and the feature set is Grand Canyon-deep.
Peavey ReValver MKIII
ReValver ($249.99, peavey.com) gives you an insane amount of control of your sound, right down to the component level. Begin by chaining — in any order, and in both serial and parallel paths — 19 stompboxes, 15 amp models, 12 preamps, nine power amps, more than 150 speaker simulations and 11 effects (see Fig. 5). Then add Tone Stacks (sets of tone controls), swap or add additional tubes (17 tube types are offered) and even modify component designs such as grid resistors and plate load. Drag modules with your mouse to change their order in the signal chain. Save the result as an impulse response and load it into a speaker-simulation module. ReValver offers both convolution-based and modeled speaker emulations.
FIG. 5: The GUI for Peavey ReValver MKIII stacks modules from top to bottom in the order of signal flow.
Stompboxes and effects include tremolo, octaver, convolution reverbs, equalizers, stereo widening, limiter and a built-in VST wrapper. The latter lets you use third-party VST plug-ins as modules inside ReValver. Utilities include strobe tuners, a signal splitter and a frequency analyzer. You can automate 32 parameters in a DAW and control all knobs, faders and buttons by MIDI. Clicking on two Learn buttons in turn automatically sets I/O levels for the plug-in to prevent harsh digital clipping.
ReValver is much more demanding of CPU resources than the other plug-ins here, but it provides a lower-resolution mode to lessen the load. Even set thus, some patches with convolution reverb nearly maxed out my CPU.
ReValver MKIII sounds really terrific. However, factory-preset programming overwhelmingly favors tones with distortion, leaving me wanting more clean offerings (see Web Clip 7). Effects can't sync to a host DAW, but that functionality is planned for an upcoming release. The plug-in is easy to use, though its GUI is not quite as streamlined as that for some other plugs. ReValver's performance was a bit buggy in Digital Performer 5.13; it often grabbed control of the DAW and made it temporarily unresponsive.
GTR3 ($180, Native; waves.com) essentially comprises four different types of plug-ins. GTR Amp features amps, cabinets and mics; GTR Stomp provides a virtual pedalboard of effects; and GTR Tuner is a chromatic tuner. GTR ToolRack is a plug-in that rolls the other three plugs into one intuitive interface, with each component in a separate window view accessed in turn by a single mouse-click (see Fig. 6). GTR ToolRack also affords stand-alone operation.
FIG. 6: Waves GTR ToolRack puts stomp effects, amp/cab/mic combinations, a tuner and a presets directory only one mouse-click away.
GTR Amp offers 32 modeled amplifiers, 25 for guitar and seven for bass. Each amp has drive and tone controls, and can drive two cabinets. Choose from 27 modeled cabinets, then select a single mic for each cabinet and place it on- or off-axis to the cabinet. Guitar cabs offer a selection of seven different mics, while bass cabs have six mics in their menu. Tweak the volume, phase, pan and delay of each cabinet/mic combination independently of the other. Bass amps let you control the mix of direct and processed sounds — a great feature.
GTR Stomp features a pedalboard replete with 26 stompbox effects, including vibrato, tremolo, EQ, octaver, doubler, panner and volume pedal. Effects can be placed both before and after the combined amp and cabinet, chained in serial and parallel configurations, and synched to a host DAW's tempo or set using tap-tempo. You can automate 96 ToolRack parameters in a DAW or control them in real time by MIDI.
Built-in WaveSystem preset management provides 32 undo and redo levels each, something I wish other guitar-processing plug-ins also provided. You can also switch between two different setups for A/B comparisons.
GTR3 V. 3.5 offers much more than 300 presets, most of which sound stunningly realistic and are of practical use (see Web Clip 8). The presets' programming is at once deft and very adventurous, with bizarre-sounding presets joining more traditional fare. An eminently wide range of clean to high-gain amps and a bumper crop of quality effects make GTR 3.5 especially versatile. The documentation is excellent, but you won't need to read it; GTR 3.5 is one of the most intuitive programs reviewed here.
Which Is Right for You?
For the widest variety of high-quality preset tones, GTR3 and POD Farm Platinum get the nod. POD Farm Platinum offers more than 300 presets that re-create guitar tones used in hit songs (identified by the name of the song), making it a great choice for guitarists in cover bands.
GTR3 was the easiest plug-in to use, while TH1 and ReValver had deeper feature sets. AmpliTube Fender is a must-have for Fender aficionados. For high-quality bass sounds, the best plug-ins were GTR3, POD Farm Platinum and AmpliTube Fender. Considering its rock-bottom price and competitive performance, GTR3 offers the best value. Guitar Rig 3's synth and FX presets are great for guitarists looking to transform their sound in unusual and flattering ways.
All of the plug-ins except ReValver MKIII consistently allowed a buffer setting of 64 samples in Digital Performer with plenty of CPU headroom to spare. Depending on how powerful your computer is and your DAW's buffer setting, your mileage may vary. But one thing's for sure: Guitar-amp-simulation software — in terms of tone and playability — has truly arrived.
EM contributing editor Michael Cooper is the owner of Michael Cooper Recording in Sisters, Ore. Visit him atmyspace.com/michaelcooper recording.