A deep dive into faux amps, futuristic setups, and how to use modern technology’s powers for good.
The jump between analog and digital gear has never been more manageable. It no longer takes a rack full of outboard gear with a six-figure price tag to help realize not only the tone you have in your head, but the expansive workflows that started to pop up in the early ’80s. We’re now about a decade into the modern era of digital modelers and profilers and it seems like the technology has finally come into its own. “This is really the first time in a while where you can have bar bands playing the exactsame gear as stadium acts,” says Cooper Carter, a Fractal Audio Systems production consultant who has done sound design and rig building for Neal Schon, James Valentine, John Petrucci, and others.
That democratization of pro-level workflows has opened new and exciting paths for guitarists to explore. Barry O’ Neal, who is the chief puzzle solver for Xact Tone Solutions in Nashville, has built rigs for some of the biggest acts in the world, including Taylor Swift, Bon Iver, and Peter Frampton. “In the beginning, all gear was pro gear, to an extent,” he says. “There is a line of demarcation between pro-grade gear and consumer gear. And there used to be a lot clustered around that line. Now, they are all either way above or way below.”
At this point, the difference between modeling technology mainly has to do with features. Do you need more inputs and outputs? Is direct recording via USB a priority? Are there certain one-off effects or sounds you need on a gig? All the top-level units have a somewhat similar set of core features, but each one also branches off into more specialized realms. Let’s dig in and discuss choosing a modeler, break down some myths that surround these units, and help novice users get just a little bit more out of their chosen processor.
Which One is For You?
Kemper Profiler Stage
Ah, the eternal question—as a guitar journalist, this might be one of the most frequent questions I get asked. There are many ways to tackle this. One element of this puzzle that I’ll leave for others to debate is how these different units compare in terms of tone. From my perspective, you need to figure out what you’re missing in your current setup and how a digital rig would make your life easier. As we’ve seen in literally hundreds of Rig Rundowns over the years, these units have passed the test both onstage and in the studio. Even when you have Dumbles and vintage high-powered tweed Twins at your disposal, having a modeler in the rack can still be useful. (Hi, Keith Urban!) “Go online and watch videos on how you program and use the unit. If those don't make immediate and visceral sense to you, bail,” says O’Neal.
Fractal Audio FM9
I usually point people to two different camps: the all-in-one units (Line 6 Helix, Fractal Axe-Fx, Neural DSP Quad Cortex, Kemper, etc.) or the smaller stomp-sized boxes that have a narrower focus on amp, cab, and mic emulation (Strymon Iridium, Walrus ACS1, or the Boss IR-200). This is an important fork in the road because both types of units offer their own solutions. Plus, price can vary widely. Although there will be some overlap, this article will focus mostly on the all-in-one units. However, the stomp-sized amp emulators have their place. Simply place one at the end of your board for an easy analog-digital hybrid setup or keep one within arm’s reach in case a tube goes out on the gig.
Neural DSP Quad Cortex
One of the bigger conceptual things to think about when choosing a modeler is the difference between an open ecosystem and a closed one. The Line 6 Helix and Fractal Axe-Fx units (and their various spinoffs) are what I consider closed systems, because you can’t create an entirely new amp model within their space. (The Axe-Fx III has an incredibly powerful ToneMatch feature, but that’s more based on deep customization of a pre-existing amp.) Both offer regular firmware updates with new amps, cabs, effects, and features. On the other side of things, you have Kemper and Neural’s Quad Cortex, which allow you to “profile” or“capture” digital versions of your amps and effects. This is really the defining feature of these units. With a simple recording setup, you can get extremely accurate versions of your prized—and fragile—tube amp and leave the original at home. The one caveat is that the quality of the result is only as good as your engineering skills, which is why a cottage industry of purchasable, professionally made profiles has popped up.
Start With What You Know
A piece of advice that I always recommend to anyone getting into modeling is to create your own presets. Yeah, it might take more time than just tweaking a factory or purchased preset, but in the end, you will learn much more about the features of your unit, as well as how the various elements of your signal chain interact with each other. For example, let’s say you’re a country-rock player who prefers a Vox-style amp.
With a simple recording setup, you can get extremely accurate versions your prized—and fragile—tube amp and leave the original at home.
Put aside the bells and whistles for the moment and focus on how to create a good base tone. Carter suggests a similar route: “Start simple with just an amp and cab. Get used to the interface and GUI [graphical user interface]. If you’re a Bassman player, it doesn’t make sense to just jump in and start tweaking a Mesa/Boogie.” Depending on your modeler, the various parameters for amps and effects might be different—or nonexistent—but at least you will have a point of reference before jumping into the deep end with experimentation.
Once you have the basics down, a prime place to start branching out is in routing. Gone are the days of needing a huge amount of rack gear to experiment with pre- and post-effects, parallel solutions, and MIDI. With a virtual playground, you can emulate nearly any imaginable signal flow and even design some that would be impossible in the analog realm.
Most of the digital “boards” that guitarist and PG contributor Joe Gore designs are subversive, inspiring, and far from the mainstream. (He offers 13 different meticulously crafted Helix presets through the Line 6 marketplace.) Gore’s presets taught me invaluable lessons about using expression pedals when I tried to reverse-engineer them. Each scene or snapshot change has up to 60 different parameter changes, which alone is quite the feat. I would highly recommend his Blood & Pasta and Psych presets—they are simply mind-blowingly creative. In Fig. 1 you can see an example of how extensive this can get. Don’t be afraid to push the limits and reverse-engineer something from a more complicated setup.
“This is really the first time in a while where you can have bar bands playing the exact same gear as stadium acts.” —Cooper Carter
If you’re at least considering a digital unit, you likely don’t get the cold sweats when you think about learning your way around various menus and options. Each of us has our own specific tolerance of those, but in my experience the better you learn the ins and outs of your gear, the better you will sound. Although these are very, very tech-heavy units, you can get incredible results with simple setups. Going “digital” isn’t an all-or-nothing proposal. If you really dig your amp or pedals you can easily integrate those with any digital modeler. Let’s look at a few options that allow you to hold on to a bit of the analog.
4 Cables or 7?
The easiest way to combine digital control with analog pedals is to take advantage of the effects loop. Here’s a scenario: You want to use your modeler simply for effects alongside your trusty tube amp, but you don’t want to run everything in front. This is where the “4-Cable Method” comes in. In this arrangement, you’re able to run all your compression and drive pedals directly into the preamp and move all your modulation and time-based effects to after the preamp. In Fig. 2 you can see a diagram of how to hook everything up. Here are the steps:
- Arrange you signal chain in your modeler so that the effects loop insert is at the point where everything before it will go in front of your amp and everything after will go directly to the power amp.
- Connect your guitar to the input of your modeler (cable 1).
- Connect the effects send of your modeler to the input of your amp (cable 2).
- Connect the effects send of your amp to the effects return of your modeler (cable 3).
- Connect the output of your modeler to the effects return of your amp (cable 4).
This results in a hybrid setup that allows an incredible amount of flexibility with routing your digital effects within a traditional tube amp. (One tip: Check the global settings on your unit and make sure the effects loop is set to instrument level rather than line level.) Not sure if a certain effect works better before or after the preamp? Simply move them around in your modeler.
In Clip 1 you can hear what it sounds like with distortion, delay, and reverb running directly into the front of the amp.
And in Clip 2 I used the 4-cable method to clean things up.
But what if you’re running a stereo rig? That’s where the 7-cable method comes in. There are a few more things you’ll need (other than cables) to pull this off. First, your modeler must have two effects loops and dual outputs. Let’s pretend that the 4-cable setup described above is for amp #1 via output 1 of your modeler (Fig. 3). Now, follow the steps below for the second amp:
- Connect effects send 2 from your modeler to the input of amp #2 (cable 5).
- Connect the effects send from amp #2 to effects return 2 of the modeler (cable 6).
- Connect the main right output of the modeler to the effects return of amp #2 (cable 7).
It always helps me to sketch out how I envision everything working before diving into editing a patch.
The signal flow in the modeler will also become a bit more complicated. It always helps me to sketch out how I envision everything working before diving into editing a patch. If you think of these two as simply two parallel signal paths that come from a single source, it helps to keep everything straight.
On major tours, there’s an army of talented engineers that help craft the best sound possible, both onstage and out front. For most of us, that’s a real luxury. One routing setup that Carter suggests helps with both your monitor mix and getting a bit of that amp-in-the-room feel onstage. “The most practical application would be to run your fully processed signal to FOH and then a separate signal to a powered cabinet on stage,” he says. “From there, you can insert a split before the delay and reverb and feed that to your monitor or in-ears.” In Fig. 4 you can see an example of how to feed FOH, an onstage cabinet, and your in-ears. Tweaking the level of delay and reverb in your ears separately from FOH will allow you to better shape the reverb for the room without affecting what you’re hearing. “Whatever sounds best to you will make you play better,” says Carter.
One of the easiest ways to level up the realism of a preset is to use an impulse response (IR). This is where the all-in-one units and smaller stomp-sized modelers cross paths. Remember, the speaker and cab configuration in a traditional setup is basically an EQ—different cabinets and speakers treat the signal differently and therefore match better with certain amps and guitars. An impulse response is a digital version of everything after the amp, which would include the mic pre, mic, cab, and speaker. With a digital modeler, these would run in place of a cabinet block and before any time-based effects or reverbs.
Creating an impulse response isn’t too complicated. There is a wealth of tutorial videos on YouTube detailing the process, and some DAWs come with a built-in IR creator. In short, you sample ambient sound around a core tone and then the modeler uses that to treat your guitar tone.
In Clip 3 you can hear a Vox-style amp with a closed 2x12 cab IR.
And in Clip 4 you can hear that exact same tone with a larger 4x12 cab IR.
There are a host of ways to use IRs in your signal chain, but often it can be a somewhat paralyzing notion to try and wade through dozens of options to find the right one. Most IR packs come with loads of different WAV files that that can be separated by either cab, mic, or, for acoustic settings, guitar type. One way to quickly parse through them would be to set up a simple template with your preferred signal chain and then insert a split after the amp block to two separate IR blocks. Then map those IR blocks to different footswitches. This allows you to A/B a pair of IRs without taking your hands off the guitar.
Acoustic amplification can be a tougher road. Brian Wahl and Bradford Mitchell are behind Worship Tutorials, a website that offers various presets and IRs for many types of modelers including Helix, Kemper, and Axe-Fx. A few years ago, Wahl purchased a few acoustic IRs but never really connected with them. So, he decided to make his own. “One of the big myths I see is that people think you need to get an IR pack that closely matches their guitar type. That’s not true,” he says. “It’s like thinking you can’t put Telecaster pickups in a different guitar,” adds Mitchell. The purpose of the IR is to help shape the tone of your instrument in ways that EQ can’t quite reach since there’s a bit of reverb and possibly delay packed into each one. Another myth that Wahl hears is that if you have a really good pickup system, you don’t need an IR. “My response to that is we’ve found that guitars with higher-end pickup systems actually benefit more by using an IR,” he says.
“One of the big myths I see is that people think you need to get an IR pack that closely matches their guitar type. That’s not true.” —Brian Wahl
The process for Wahl and Mitchell starts with making a high-quality recording of the miked acoustic. Then, they will match the recording across six different pickup systems and 10 different mic options. Once you factor in different sample rates and WAV lengths, the process can become quite intense. “When deciding which IR is for you, I typically recommend staring with a mic you’re familiar with and cycle through the different pickup options,” says Wahl. Trust your ears at this point in the process above all else. “Most of them actually might sound bad,” he adds, “but once the correct IR clicks, you’ll know it.”
Talking with Wahl and Mitchell inspired me to dig up a few acoustic IRs and test his theory. I plugged my Córdoba Acero straight into my HX Stomp and recorded into Logic Pro X via USB.
In Clip 5 you can hear my completely unaffected signal. The Acero’s pickup system combines a piezo and under-saddle mic, so I kept the blend at noon. It’s not a bad tone, but enough of the piezo quack is coming through to warrant a better solution.
For Clip 6 I loaded up an AKG C12 dreadnought IR. The result sounds better. There’s more air around the sound, but the high end is a bit thin.
Clip 7 is an IR from the same mic, but I chose a different pickup option. It’s not as good as Clip 6, but still has that ambience that I dig.
Finally, we have Clip 8, which is a combo of a piezo pickup and a Neumann U67-style microphone. It’s kind of gross and thin but could serve a purpose in the right mix. I think recording examples like this is essential to finding the right IR match. Taking an objective listen will help you decide between options that could be quite subtle.
State of Expression
One of the most fun—and interactive—parts of using a modeler is exploring the absolutely endless options that expression pedals can offer. In most units, nearly any parameter you can think of can be assigned to an expression pedal for real-time tweaking. One player who really opened my eyes to what’s possible with expression pedals is John Nathan Cordy, a British guitarist who specializes in jazz-fusion styles and has a YouTube channel that explores most of the modern modelers. One of his favorite expression pedal tricks was inspired by the ambient pads Eric Johnson would play on the intro to live versions of “Cliffs of Dover.”
Fig. 5 shows the diagram, but here’s how you set it up:
- Arrange a basic signal path and then add a parallel path.
- Place a digital delay on the parallel path. Digital works better because with analog emulations you can dip into self-oscillation, and we don’t want that.
- Within the delay, assign your expression pedal to the feedback control so that when the heel is down you’re at about 10 percent and toe down is 100 percent.
- Put a volume pedal block before the delay and assign the expression pedal so when the toe is down it mutes the input.
- Add reverb to taste after the delay.
- Connect the parallel path back to the main path after the amp and cab block.
I’d recommend saving this as a template and then experimenting with loopers, compression, multiple outputs, and more.
Ultimately, the better you know any piece of gear, the better it will sound. Once you find a modeler that you connect with, invest the time to learn and explore the features and effects that you can put into practice. Understand its strengths and weaknesses and make sure those align with the goals you have for your rig. And don’t be too bashful to ask questions online—each of these units has a robust community of users, which means there’s a ton of info out there. Chances are if you run into a roadblock, someone else has too.
Finally, do what inspires you. Don’t overthink things or get distracted from the big picture, which is to enjoy making music.
Melodies, hooks, clean tones, and no guitar solos. Are we sure this Elliott Smith fan fronts a doom-metal band? (We’re sure!)
Legend has it the name Monolord refers to a friend of the band with the same moniker who lost hearing in his left ear, and later said it didn’t matter if the band recorded anything in stereo, because he could not hear it anyway. It’s a funny, though slightly tragic, bit of backstory, but that handle is befitting in yet another, perhaps even more profound, way. Doom and stoner metal are arguably the torch-bearing subgenres for hard rock guitar players, and if any band seems to hold the keys to the castle at this moment, it’s Monolord.
The reason is simple: Thomas V Jäger’s guitar riffs—the raison d’être of Monolord’s songcraft—are relentlessly catchy and infused with immense groove and swagger. When asked how he vets potential riffs for Monolord songs, Jäger, who is also the band’s singer and main songwriter, offers this: “The core of it is some kind of hook that makes it stand out just a little bit—that’s what I’m looking for. It’s really hard to pinpoint exactly what it is. We still want real heavy records, but at the same time you need hooks, you need something that people will remember.”
MONOLORD - The Weary (Official Music Video)
Hooks may be more commonly associated with pop than metal songwriting, but Monolord’s latest magnum opus, Your Time to Shine, is rife with them. From the opening salvo of “The Weary,” Jäger’s guitar playing conjures majestic tones, conveying the zeitgeist of our time with equal parts bombast and melancholy. His playing on songs like “To Each Their Own” and “Your Time to Shine,” fueled by indelible grooves that ebb and flow (the band foregoes click tracks), carries an emotional heft that “soundtracks the ruined world,” as Consequence so aptly described it. And his layered approach to recording guitars infuses the band’s heavy backbone with a sublime melodic sensibility.
While Monolord is an indisputable riff-rock juggernaut, only one of the five cuts on Your Time to Shine, “The Siren of Yersinia,” has a bonafide guitar solo on it. “You could probably arrange the songs so there’s a guitar solo on every track, but that’s not really what we’re looking for,” explains Jäger, who ascribes to a less-is-more ethos. “Of course, there are lead guitar parts here and there, in every song, but they’re mostly written, not improvised. It’s like another melody.” Such embellishments function as additional riffs or motifs within the jigsaw puzzle of Monolord’s sound, in service to the melodic framework of songs rather than as obligatory showcases of technical prowess. And when that one solo does finally appear in the album’s final track, “it’s better,” says Jäger, "because there are not any other solos on the record.”
TIDBIT: The band’s new album clocks in at 39 minutes and features five songs—only one with a guitar solo, but all packed with a plethora of licks, melodies, and melodic fills.
“When you’re playing slower, you have to be more precise, because it’s not as forgiving as if you’re playing punk rock or death metal or whatever.”
Monolord formed in Gothenburg, Sweden, in 2013, out of Marulk, a boogie-rock band that included Jäger and drummer and mixing engineer Esben Willems. They needed an outlet to indulge their heavier affinities, and so, after hooking up with bassist Mika Häkki, they transformed. Their 2014 debut, Empress Rising, is an exercise in musical restraint, showcasing the trio’s ability to riff on and develop a single motif. Vænir followed in 2015, followed by Rust (2017) and No Comfort(2019)—each one further cementing Monolord as a major name in the doom genre. Aside from his guitar playing, Jäger’s ghostly, Ozzy-esque vocals (think “Planet Caravan” by Black Sabbath) add yet another distinctive melodic element to the band’s bone-crushing, heavy-yet-droning riffs.
Jäger says that when the band began, songwriting was more like “loose ideas just thrown all over the place.” Now, however, he has his own home studio, so it’s like doing pre-production. “Except I don’t play drums. I program those most of the time, so that when Mika and Esben hear the song, they can get the vibe. I try to make [a demo] as complete as possible.” His studio consists of an old PC running Windows XP with Pro Tools 8 and a Digidesign 002 interface. “It’s a really old setup,” he admits, “but I just love having a room crammed with stuff where I can turn around, pick up a cowbell, and just start playing and recording.”
Thomas V Jäger’s Gear
The Monolords, from left to right: drummer Esben Willems, guitarist and frontman Thomas V Jäger, and bassist Mika Häkki.
Photo by Chad Kelco
- Two 1981 Greco V-types
- Gibson SG-1
- (Jäger’s guitars have Lace Finger Burners humbuckers.)
- Orange Dual Dark 50
- Two Orange PPC412C 4x12s with Celestion Vintage 30s
- Orange OR100
- Orange PPC412HP8 high-powered 4x12 with Celestion G12K-100 speakers
- Boss BF-2 Flanger
- Boss HM-2 Heavy Metal
- Boss RE-20 Space Echo
- Carl Martin Octa-Switch MK3
- dunn effects Death Knob HM-2 EQ Blender
- Dunlop JHM9 Jimi Hendrix Cry Baby Mini Wah
- Electro-Harmonix Nano Small Stone
- Hiero Effects Phatoum Fuzz/Churchburner
- Laney Black Country Customs Tony Iommi Signature TI-Boost
- Orange Amp Detonator Buffered A/B/Y Switcher
Strings and Picks
- D’Addario NYXL1156 (.011–.056)
- Dunlop Ultex 1.14 mm
Jäger has been doing the bulk of his songwriting lately not on a cowbell but on an acoustic guitar tuned to standard, which adds another twist to Monolord’s sound, since he and Häkki tune down to B-standard on their electrics. “If I play an E on the acoustic guitar, that [position] is B on the electric guitar that’s down-tuned,” he explains. “Sometimes I switch it, so the chord starts in the E [5th] position on the down-tuned guitar, but in ‘The ‘Weary,’ for example, the verse is in B, simply because I wrote it in E on the acoustic guitar.” Mostly his actual writing process is pretty straightforward. “I sit on my couch, take a cup of coffee, I have my notebook, and I just start to check ideas. Then, if I get the vibe, [with] more than one riff, I go upstairs, turn on the computer and record a demo.”
Because Monolord is only a three-piece, Jäger admits it’s hard to recreate his layered recording approach while playing live. “It works as long as there’s not a third guitar harmony,” he explains. “So, with the bass and just one guitar, it doesn’t feel like we need a second guitar for most of the parts with the harmonies. I don’t know if it has something to do with tuning down. If we have a chord progression, and there’s a lead guitar over that enhancing stuff, it’s hard to do both. So, on some songs I go with the chords, and some songs I go with a lead. It’s just what suits the songs best.” He adds that during some solos, Häkki will play chords live, instead of just single-string notes.
“There are lead guitar parts here and there, in every song, but they’re mostly written, not improvised. It’s like another melody.”
Lately, Jäger has been experimenting with his guitar tone by going with less distortion and adjusting his EQ settings. “I cut a lot of bass on my guitar sound these days,” he says. “I didn’t do that from the beginning, because we wanted this massive wall. But now I try to get as close to Malcolm Young as I can. So when you strike an E chord, you feel the bass response and the mid response, but not too bright—you get this low-mid and high-mid kind of ‘swoosh’ or ‘whoosh.’ It’s a good crunchy darker version of Malcolm Young’s rhythm guitar sound. The first thing I check when I turn on the amps onstage is the clean sound, and then I can do some adjustments, and when that sounds great, the fuzz sounds great, too.”
Speaking of fuzz, Jäger relies primarily on a Hiero Effects Phatoum Fuzz/Churchburner, a Boss FZ-2 Hyper Fuzz clone built “by a guy in Russia.” For leads, he uses the Laney Black Country Customs Tony Iommi Signature TI-Boost. “I run that together with a [dunn effects Death Knob] HM-2 EQ Blender that you can blend into the signal,” he explains. “I read that David Gilmour used the Boss HM-2 for leads at some point in his career. So, I took out my old HM-2 and tried it, and I immediately knew what he was talking about. You get this tone that just cuts through everything. It’s got all these mids and aggressive highs, but it’s a bit too noisy, and I got a lot of feedback because I wanted to push it to the max. I tried the low-gain TI-Boost together with the [dunn effects Death Knob] HM-2 Blender EQ and I can get really creamy mids, but it doesn’t feedback as bad as the HM-2.”
Jäger’s fleet of Orange amps give him plenty of juice for Monolord’s sweet-and-heavy sound. He plugs in with one of his Goya V-type guitars or a Gibson SG-1.
Photo by Josefine Larsson
Aside from the obvious aforementioned influences, Jäger says he’s most inspired by guitarists who are also great songwriters. “Most of the time I’m listening to old ’70s rock, like MC5, with Wayne Kramer and Fred Smith—they are amazing,” he says. “And also Nicke Andersson of Entombed and the Hellacopters, among other bands—he’s been an inspiration.” Surprisingly, American singer/songwriter Elliott Smith is also among his favorites. “He’s not really this awesome guitar player, but if you like low-key singer/songwriter stuff, his record Either/Or is amazing. It’s not really a guitar record at all. It’s just low-key strumming and good chord progressions.”
Jäger says he’s truly inspired by guitarists “that can play more than one instrument and create a lot of good music.” And he cites Cathedral’s Garry “Gaz” Jennings as another influence. “When he starts to play guitar, I can hear it’s him right away. And if you can hear that from someone, I think you have done a rather good job being this guitarist that doesn’t sound like everybody else. No matter what setting, you can still hear that sound.”
“I try to get as close to Malcolm Young as I can. So when you strike an E chord, you feel the bass response and the mid response, but not too bright.”
When it comes to the matter of spearheading a musical movement, Jäger offers the following assessment: “Even though it’s called doom, the foundation is rock ’n’ roll. Of course we want to make heavy songs, but not ridiculously heavy. We also need some clarity and some tone. So, I’m not sure if I call our music doom. It’s more doom-rock.”
Other signatures of Monolord’s songs are length and tempo, hence the five-song track list on the 39-minute Your Time to Shine. And Monolord’s tempos are usually, in classical terms, lentissimo, which presents particular performance-related challenges. “When you write shorter songs, you can bang out the chords and you are done,” explains Jäger. “But when you’re playing slower, you have to be more precise, because it’s not as forgiving as playing punk rock or death metal or whatever. Of course, you’ve got to be tight when playing death metal, too, but being a bit late or a bit early is not as visible as if you’re playing slow. ‘I’ll Be Damned’ was really hard to keep down because we all wanted to play faster. It feels good to play a bit faster sometimes.”