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The Virtual Amp Has Arrived

Over the last decade, plug-ins have become both an accepted and, often, preferred tool for functions previously accomplished with outboard hardware or a console’s onboard components.

Over the last decade, plug-ins have become both an accepted and, often, preferred tool for functions previously accomplished with outboard hardware or a console’s onboard components. With the corresponding migration to in-the-box audio production, soundshaping plug-ins are more recently being joined by similarly accepted and celebrated sound-generating software, such as virtual instrument libraries.

Concurrently, guitar and bass amplifier- emulating products have shown a dramatic evolution. The “arrival” of such products as professional-level plug-ins dovetails not only with the DAW revolution but also with downsized budgets and artist-financed (and often artist-produced) projects, which tend to limit both acoustic space and equipment rental and cartage possibilities. The benefits of amp- and stompbox-emulating plug-ins don’t end there, according to this sampling of professional musicians and producer/engineers.

Guitarist Devin Townsend used Peavey’s ReValver plug-in on his recent album, Addicted. “They are beyond close; now they are competitive, and in a way that it becomes an option,” says Nashville-based producer Glenn Rosenstein, who owns most ampemulating software products but is partial to IK Multimedia’s AmpliTube Fender suite (IK Multimedia recently released AmpliTube 3). “The quality and caliber of the guitarists that we work with here in Nashville are of such a level—their ears are great, and their fingers are golden. They can hear the difference between something that sounds like garbage and something that sounds real. I think that as the capability of these manufacturers improves to create better and better emulations, less and less people are reluctant to use it.”

More recent plug-ins, professionals assert, have successfully captured the realism of an amplifier’s high-end gain, as well as the moving-of-air produced by a loudspeaker. “The biggest problem that all the plug-ins had for years was that the clean sounds were brilliant and the distortion sounds weren’t,” offers Neil Citron, who has modeled multiple amplifiers for Waves GTR. “I think it’s because they didn’t have a way to simulate the air. It’s hard to get the sound of air moving. That’s one of the problems. You get more of it by multiple microphones. One of my cabinets, called Vintage, has a room mic added into it, so you get more air on that cabinet.”

“Modeling technology in general has come a long way,” says guitarist Devin Townsend, who used Peavey’s ReValver on his recent album, Addicted. “Early modeling technology was limited to the brainpower of those standalone units. ReValver gives you the ability to get into the CPU power of your computer. I used those resources to put together the intangibles of an actual guitar amp. Engaging your computer in the ones and zeros that ultimately make up those magic elements of the sound is definitely the way to go. Also, being able to get in and change tubes, change your bias and the location—all that allows you to slowly create a sound for yourself that’s unique.”

The conveniences of amp-modeling software are many, these professionals say, including speed and practicality, improved editing ability and creative uses for which it was not designed. Another benefit, says producer/songwriter/guitarist Ken Lewis, will be familiar to mix engineers everywhere. “I’ll get songs, especially from guys doing it in their home studio, where the guitar sounds are pretty horrendous,” he reports, “so it’s a saving grace to be able to put one of those plug-ins on.

“I have a lot of guitars,” Lewis adds, “but the one I use on sessions now is a Line 6 Variax modeling guitar, which I think is fantastic. I’ll plug that into Ampli- Tube and scroll through presets—or different feels, signature sounds, whatever— until I find something that really fits the song I’m playing on. This is why I’ve really gravitated toward amp modeling for many things. With a real amp, there’s only so much that you can do to change up the sound: once you’re dialed in, that’s pretty much what you’ve got. You can tweak the amp, you can change the pickups on your guitar, you can change pedals. But with a modeling plug-in, you can go through 20 or 40 presets in two minutes, and really dial something in that is perfect for the song, or something really close that maybe just needs a delay pedal, or bit of extra distortion. As a guitar player, the creative avenues that it has opened are really freeing. Between what the Variax can model and what the modeling plug-ins can do, it’s pretty amazing. You can set up multiple mics, you can change microphone, position, the distance from the speaker. On top of all that, you can tweak it with pedals and you can change the amp settings. The range of tones you can get, in a really fast fashion, is incredible.”

For 311 guitarist/vocalist and AmpliTube user Nick Hexum, amp-emulating software has made life on the road so much easier. “I used to have to customize the bus, and bring so much gear,” he recalls. “I had a mobile studio back in like, ‘98, and would literally have to take the bus apart to fit enough gear to do everything I wanted to do. Now all I need is my laptop and guitar, and an interface. I can pretty much make an album-quality recording.

“It’s just so convenient to have so much stuff all in one software,” Hexum adds. “You’ve got so many stompboxes as well as the rack stuff. I can control it with my StealthPedal , which really makes it convenient to record on the bus.”

Editing is also improved with amp-emulating software, these professionals say. “If I’m recording a band and I’m using it, I make the sound what [the guitarist] needs to play his best, even if it’s not right for the song,” says Citron. “That is something you couldn’t do with a real amp. He’s ripping and playing great, then I turn off the plugin and edit the clean notes, because then you really can hear if they’re in time or out of time. Once I have it edited, I put the amp on it and everyone’s happy.”

“If you’re editing in the clean guitar signal before the preamp,” adds Hexum, “you can have such better edits than trying to edit an already distorted sound, because that’s a much more complicated waveform. If you’re editing the clean guitar and then put it through the plug-in, you can get a perfect-sounding track much quicker.”

Engineer Alan Branch recently recorded with Jeff Beck, resulting in a Grammy for “A Day in the Life” from the Performing This Week…Live at Ronnie Scott’s CD/DVD. The track, Branch reports, employs some Waves GTR. “He’s not one to endorse anything, really, but he knows what he likes and knows the sound he wants. I feel safe enough for him to try it; let’s put it that way.”

Uses for amp-emulating software, Branch adds, are limited only by imagination. “There are so many different amps and cabinets to choose from, plus all the stomp pedals. You can use those as effects on other things; you don’t have to use it on guitar. You can process a voice, and they’re slightly different because they’re meant for guitar. I’ve done remixes for bands like Primal Scream and Depeche Mode where we shoved vocals and all kinds of stuff through pedals, right on the side of the desk, and tweaked them as the mix was going down. Now you’ve got them as a plug-in, and you can automate them all, which is fantastic.”

Beyond convenience and creative applications, amplifier-emulating plug-ins are practical on multiple levels. “You could spend two hours miking up a Fender half-stack,” says Lewis, “or two minutes plugging in, and at the end of the day, it’s virtually identical. Sometimes it’s even a lot better, because it’s not like miking up a guitar stack is an easy thing to do. There are many variables to getting it right. You’ve got to have the gear, you’ve got to have the mics, you’ve got to put them in the right place, you’ve got to make them phase-coherent. All that takes time and knowledge and experimenting and dialing in the right sound on the amp.”

“The industry has changed, budgets have changed,” Rosenstein observes. “To get the kind of flexibility that IK’s Ampli- Tube Fender emulations allow me would require an enormous investment of time and finance. It’s not only the convenience of being able to throw tons of amps on an original signal and alter them; just conceptually, having all of that at your fingertips to work with—I don’t think it would be practical on any level [with hardware]. But the way records are being made today, this plays right into that.”