What is it?
Software that digitally “models” the sound of classic guitar amps and effects through the use of advanced algorithms is all the rage these days. By painstakingly measuring the behavior of every part of the signal chain – from vacuum tubes, preamps, amps, speakers, microphones and effects – engineers have developed some very convincing software technology for the modern guitarist. While it would certainly be fun and inspiring to have several different classic tube amps and a pedalboard full of the greatest effects of all time at every gig, who can really pull that off? Most of the gear modeled in this software is now prohibitively expensive to own and requires constant upkeep, too. When you consider the sheer manpower needed to move it around, it quickly becomes impractical on several levels. With modeling software, you have a believable emulation of the real thing.
If we buy into the premise that most of us already have a computer, then it is reasonable to assume that we should find ways to use that computing horsepower to do something of creative value. AmpliTube 2, from IK Multimedia (fig 1) and Guitar Rig 2, from Native Instruments (fig 2), are two well-designed and highly-evolved applications in the world of guitar amp and effect modeling. Both existed in previous incarnations and were hailed as breakthrough products at the time, but Guitar Rig 2 and AmpliTude 2 pack in more new features and even better sound quality. It seems that things just keep getting better for digitallyinclined axe slingers.
What can they do?
There are some similarities between these two applications, so let’s take a look there first. Both apps feature a “virtual” rack where you can select amps, speaker cabs, microphones and sound effects to create your own “preset” sound. Most of the classic combinations are available – from plexi Marshalls, the ’59 Fender Bassman, and the Vox AC30 to modern classics like Mesa Boogie – albeit, sometimes with thinly veiled names, such as Brit Tube 30TB or AC Box, Plex, Tweedman, etc.
From muscular blues and boogie to metal and high gain grind to ambient and spacious, both products feature a vast world of tonal possibilities. Tone tweakers and gear freaks will feel right at home in the computer modeling world, with options to select what type of virtual speaker cabinet is connected (closed back Celestion, open back Fender, etc.) and even which type of virtual mic you want in front of your cab, ranging from the old standby Shure SM57 to high-end tube condensers; you can even choose to aim the microphone directly at the virtual speaker or off-axis, satisfying the most compulsive tone hounds. Each of these choices makes for a fairly dramatic change in tone and the flexibility allows you to dial in the exact sound you’re looking for.
As intimidating as the world of computerized guitar can be to the uninitiated, the best course of action with both of these applications is to simply dive right in. Why not try a Marshall type of amp with an 8” open back cabinet? Wouldn’t it be cool to try a Fender Twin Reverb through a 4x12 closed back cabinet? Experimentation is fun and yields lots of great sounding combinations. When you add all of the virtual stomp box and rack effects, such as wah, chorus, flanger, delay, distortion and reverb – plus a few wild and crazy effects in each program – you have serious tone-shaping power.
If you just want to plug and play, both applications serve up an extensive list of preset tones in a broad range of older and modern styles that make it a cinch to get started. One could easily spend a week just auditioning the presets. Each new preset inspired me in a different direction; from pumping out solid rhythm guitar to Chicago blues to modern high-gain leads. It was very entertaining to spend some time with each preset and I would highly recommend it if you want to get a firm handle on all of the sound possibilities available. Banks and presets in various styles make it simple to see what each application can do. Even to an experienced set of ears, most of these sounds are extremely convincing. The models are expansive, dynamically responsive like a tube amp should be (more on that a bit later) and just plain fun to use on stage or in the studio. Guitar Rig 2 includes a “Rig Kontrol” footpedal that makes using it in a live setting easy. Not to be outdone, IK Multimedia has a foot controller for AmpliTube 2 coming soon called Stomp I/O. When using these applications in a studio setting, they can also function as plug-ins within recording applications such as Pro Tools, Digital Performer and Logic. Consider how convenient it is to dial in any sound you can imagine, at any volume and hour of the day or night – and even having the flexibility to change sounds after the fact. This is sheer sonic bliss and would have seemed like some kind of virtual voodoo just a few short years ago!
How does it work?
Those of you new to computer audio may need a little explanation at this point, in order to get your guitar signal into the computer and application. Generally speaking, you’ll need an audio interface that has a high-gain instrument input on it. These come in several varieties, usually USB, FireWire or USB 2.0. Each company approaches this differently – the Guitar Rig 2 Rig Kontrol footpedal also happens to be a USB 2.0 audio interface and is quite convenient. After installing the software, simply plug the footpedal into your computer via a USB 2.0 port (make sure you have this type of port before buying), plug your guitar into the foot controller and commence rocking.
With AmpliTube 2, you can use any audio interface you like, and there are quite a few interface options under $100, such as the M-Audio Fast Track or JamLab, or IK’s own Stealth Plug. In this scenario, you’ll need to make sure your computer “sees” your interface for audio input and that the application itself also sees it for audio input. This should all be handled during the interface’s installation phase.
After getting your interface set up, if you are using either application in stand-alone mode, you will be ready to plug and play. If you are using either application as a plug-in with Pro Tools or another recording program, you will need to create a track in that application for your guitar and then “insert” the modeling software on that track. You’ll want to reference the recording application’s manual if you’re unsure of how this works. It can be a little confusing to get it all configured correctly, but it is definitely worth the patience required. Once you get it working, the settings are retained for future use.
It’s important to note that, depending on where you live, you may or may not be able to try either of these applications out before you buy them, because stores rarely have them installed on a computer and accessible for demos. Most stores will not return opened software, make sure your computer can handle the processing needs of the program/interface – you can find this on the side of the box, under “Minimum Requirements.”