10 Essential Amp Simulator Tips

August 1, 2009

EVEN AFTER MANY YEARS OF DIGITAL SOUND processing, guitar-amp simulators can still be controversial. Some players will contend they don’t sound or feel like real tube amps, and others will claim amp sims deliver sounds you can’t get any other way. Guess what? They’re both right.

For the exact sound, feel, and vibe of a Fender Twin, play through a Fender Twin. But if you want a Fender Twin layered with a plexi Marshall head going through a Peavey cabinet, and with part of the sound filtered in time with the drums, and the guitar’s bottom two strings going through an octave divider—believe me, you’re better off with amp sims.

Latency is becoming a non-issue. If you got turned off to sims because of latency—the delay between hitting a note and hearing it—today’s fast computers have reduced the delay to well under 10ms. That’s about the same delay as having your ears ten feet from your amp.

Re-amping is always available. When you load a sim into your DAW, you’re not recording the processed sound. You’re recording the dry sound of the guitar, and monitoring through the sim, which means you can change your guitar sound right up to the final mixdown.

Personalize presets. I’m never happy with a sim until I tweak the presets to match my playing style with my guitar.

Take it higher. While 44.1kHz is fine for CDs, running a sim at a high sample rate of 88.2kHz or 96kHz lets it reproduce distortion characteristics with better fidelity.

And higher. Programs such as IK Multimedia AmpliTube and Native Instruments Guitar Rig have options that provide higher fidelity, but increase the load on your computer. Use them— unless they load down your CPU so much that the audio starts to glitch.

There’s no one way to rock. Miss the sound of speakers in a cabinet pumping air? Just feed the sim preamp output into your amp. Love your pedalboard, but hate lugging amps? Then, plug the pedalboard into the sim input, select a sim amp, and then plug the sim output into a P.A. system.

Download updates. As computers become more powerful, designers often take advantage of that extra juice by tweaking their simulation algorithms to deliver better effects and sweeter sounds.

Watch those levels. Sim levels must never ever go “into the red,” because you’ll get nasty digital distortion that’s totally unlike the “good” distortion you get from a tasty amp.

They’re not just for guitars. Amp simulators often include a bunch of delay, reverb, modulation, and other effects that sound great on vocals, drums, and keyboards.

Sorry, but there’s no “best.” The algorithms that create amp sounds are as much art as they are science. So, just as I own several guitars, I have several amp sims, because each has its own character. Some excel at clean tones, others at distortion. Sometimes, I even put two amp sims in series so I can use the preamp and effects from one, and the amp and cabinet from another.

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