Top: Line 6’s Amp Farm modeling a 1966 Vox
AC30 mic’d by a Shure SM57.
Bottom: Used creatively, the Treadplate amp
simulator in Avid’s Eleven Rack can deliver
convincing high-gain tones.
Over the years, I’ve had a lot of experience
recording with both real guitar amps
and amp plug-ins. In this column, I’d like to
share some of the pros and cons of each as
they relate to real-world studio production.
When I first started playing, I was lucky
enough to plug into some nice tube amps,
so I grew up with the sound of glowing
filaments and that particular give-and-take
that only a good, nuts-and-bolts amp can
deliver. Since then, I’ve amassed a small but
very useful amp collection that actually has
a lot to do with plug-ins.
Here’s what I mean: I’ve found that
plug-ins do a good job of emulating
Fenders, Marshalls, and some heavier-gain
amps by Soldano and Mesa/Boogie—and,
yes, I do have a real Mk IV Boogie head for
comparison. But the software makers don’t
seem to offer classic amps from Gibson and
Magnatone—both of which I use quite
a bit in my TV work, which is heavy on
blues and country. So that’s where I focus
on the real thing. What these Gibson and
Magnatone amps offer is amazing reverb,
vibrato, and tremolo, as well as a spongy
saturation that’s unmistakable and otherwise
hard to come by.
I drive all my amps with a Creation
Audio Labs pedal called the Holy Fire.
Offering up to 12 dB of clean boost, this
pedal allows me to hit the input hard and
bring out the true character of tubes. I can
also edge down some of the treble with the
pedal’s filter knob. The feel I get from these
amps—being able to increase the crunch as
I hit the strings harder—helps me play better
and lay down more dynamic parts. But
this comes at a cost: To get a kick-ass sound
from these amps, I need to play them fairly
loud, and that has its own set of issues.
Also, the amps need to be captured properly—
which is an art form in itself.
I get the best results using a combination
of mics. I like to pair dynamic and
ribbon mics—either a Sennheiser MD 421
or a Shure SM57 dynamic, along with a
Beyer M 160 or a Royer R-121 ribbon mic.
They go through good cabling into high-quality
preamps—usually something from
Universal Audio, Focusrite, or Grace Audio.
But that’s just what works for my ears—as
long as the amps are properly represented,
other combinations can work well, too.
Sometimes, I’ll crank up a room mic
with a Universal Audio 1176-type limiter/
compressor to get a huge sound. Again,
what this affords is a quirky sonic signature
that plug-ins usually cannot achieve unless
you re-amp their output to a room. What’s
important here is preserving the inspiration
that small, unique amps like my Gibsons
and Magnatones deliver as you play—and,
of course, their unique tone. However, old,
off-the-beaten-path amps like these have
to be properly maintained, which adds to
their cost. It’s like owning an old classic car:
Things happen, so be prepared.
Amp plug-ins, on the other hand,
don’t have to be maintained (though the
computers they reside on do). And, of
course, it goes without saying that the
biggest boon they offer is the wide variety
of amps, virtual cabinet combinations,
emulated pedals, and effects they put at
your fingertips. I’ve been using amp plugins
since they first came on the market, so
I can attest that some of them are quite
good now. And, yes, some of them can
deliver both convincing tones and a lot
of the spongy give-and-take we guitarists
love in real tube amps.
Using headphones, you can track with
plug-ins at any time of the day or night,
and there is no real setup. Just plug in
your guitar, dial up an amp, and get to
work—there’s no creative time wasted on
fiddling with stands, cables, and mics. In
addition, when it comes time to mix the
tracks, you can easily alter the sound. You
can decrease signal saturation, change the
EQ, insert a few pedals, or turn up the
reverb—things that are not so easy to do
on tracks cut with real amps.
One trick I’ve found with amp plugins
is to not use their built-in reverb.
Instead, I’ll use something like Audio Ease’s
Altiverb, which models real springs, rooms,
and studios. I’ll often send my amp plug-in
into Altiverb’s Fender Super Reverb or an
impulse response I made from my Gibson
Falcon. These tasty reverbs help sell the
sizzle of the plug-in and generally make for
a better-sounding production.
Another important aspect of guitar plugins
is working with your computer’s latency—
the signal delay that happens between
the time you play your guitar and when you
actually hearing it through the computer.
I’ve been running Pro Tools TDM for many
years, and I’ve used Line 6’s Amp Farm 3
with great success. The low latency of a
TDM system and TDM plug-ins makes
it possible to feel your guitar response in a
manner that feels natural—like you’re playing
through a real amp. However, I’m about
to move up to Pro Tools HDX and, for
some reason, Line 6 is not updating Amp
Farm for this new platform. I’ve talked to
other professionals who use HDX and are
in the same boat, so I’ll be trying to figure
that problem out shortly. I’ll have to start
tracking through RTAS plug-ins, so stay
tuned for that info.
The point is, it’s important to consider
latency when working with a guitar plugin.
You have to make sure its response time
allows you to properly perform your part
without the delay lag throwing you off.
Real amps don’t mess with the immediacy
of fingers touching strings—what you play
and hear is what you get.
Both technologies—real amps and
plug-ins—have their pros and cons. And,
like most everything else guitar related, we
all have our opinions on what’s good and
what’s not. But, from my experience, playing
to the strengths of each and using them
for what they do best rather than picking
one side or the other is the way to go.
engineer and mixer who
has worked with artists
ranging from Al Di
Meola to David Bowie.
A life-long guitarist, he’s
also the author of Pro Tools Surround
and composes for the
likes of Fox NFL, Discovery Channel,
Nickelodeon, and HBO.