Waves/PRS Guitar Tool Rack

October 20, 2005

The two biggest issues facing the creators of amp-modeling software are dynamic response and latency—considerations that were not lost on Paul Reed Smith. “A good guitarist only has to play an instrument for a few moments to know whether it feels and sounds right, and the same goes for amp and effects models,” he says. “Does it feel like you are plugged into a physical amplifier, with the same immediate response and dynamics? Does it sound good enough to be used on a professional recording? Guitarists will make that judgment in about ten seconds.”

The Guitar Tool Rack (GTR) includes three Waves software plug-ins—Amp, Stomp PedalBoard, and Tuner—along with a physical Guitar Interface designed by PRS.

Waves Amp

Amp comes in four configurations: Mono, Mono Dual Cabinets, Mono to Stereo, and Stereo. Those choices allow you to combine seven amp types, eight speaker cabinet types, and six microphone types in various ways, with either mono or stereo inputs and outputs. Each of the four configurations provide Drive, Bass, Mid, Treble, Presence, and Master output “knobs,” and the stereo versions include individual Volume, Pan, and Phase controls for each channel. There’s also a retro-style output meter.

Although Amp’s seven amp types are modeled on actual amplifiers from Smith’s collection, they are labeled according to gain level, rather than being identified by model. Each amp was tweaked until it sounded as good as possible before modeling, and that’s what you hear when you load the default preset for a particular type (with all controls straight up). The controls are designed to provide the sort of limited tweaking a studio engineer might do to tailor the sound to a particular track, rather than emulating the range of actual amps. Amp ships with several presets for each amp type, and an unlimited number of user programs can be saved to your hard disk.

Waves Stomp PedalBoard

This plug-in lets you chain up to six effects together using any combination of mono or stereo inputs and outputs. The 23 included “stompboxes” resemble popular effect pedals in some cases, and a few do cop vintage sounds, but most appear to be customized versions of Waves’ high-end studio processors (which is not a bad thing). Additionally, most of the effects parameters can be automated within a digital-audio workstation, and many can be controlled using external pedals and/or switches via MIDI. Also, because Stomp operates independently, PedalBoards can be positioned before and/or after Amp in the signal chain, or used alone. There are factory presets for each effect and entire PedalBoard configurations, and both types can be saved as user programs.

Waves Tuner

The user-friendly Tuner operates in much the same way as any “arrows and dot” electronic guitar tuner, providing Chromatic, Guitar, and various alternate tuning modes, as well as reference note settings for non-standard pitches.

Guitar Interface

The hardware Guitar Interface provides nearly transparent pre-amplification and signal balancing, along with specialized impedance matching. “We came up with a circuit that reacts the same as an amplifier input,” enthuses Smith. “The input impedance has a huge impact on tone. There are roll-offs and all kinds of other things going on, and it has to react the same when you turn your guitar’s volume down.” The device can be powered either by a 9-volt battery or an external adapter.

In the Studio

I tested the Native (Audio Units) version of GTR within Apple Logic Pro 7, on an Apple Macintosh G5 2.7 Dual with 1.5GB of RAM, running OSX 10.4 Tiger. The Guitar Interface’s XLR output was routed to a MOTU 828 mkII (operating at 48kHz), and monitoring was via a Mackie Big Knob and JBL LSR28P powered studio monitors. (Additional testing was done on an Apple Macintosh Mini 1.42 GHz G4, with identical results.) Guitars used included a PRS Custom-24 Brazilian, a ’62 Reissue Fender Telecaster, a ’69 Gibson Les Paul Custom, and a mid-’70s Fender Stratocaster. In addition, every GP editor played with the software and offered opinions on each model’s tone, feel, and vibe.

The Guitar Interface functioned flawlessly, and it responded more or less like a guitar-amp input. By adjusting the 828 mkII’s I/O buffer to a very low value, I was able to reduce latency to a negligible level. (Note that the TDM version, which operates using Pro Tools’ dedicated DSP card, presumably has zero latency.) These two factors alone went a long way towards endowing GTR with a natural feel.

Generally speaking, the amp presets sounded comparable to or better than any I’ve heard from other manufacturers, particularly those using the Clean amp type. The edgier and heavily distorted models sounded good, but there was an odd rasp to some of them that several players found slightly disagreeable. And although they responded quite well to playing dynamics, some were a tad over compressed. The collection of sounds was also less diverse than those offered by other manufacturers. On the other hand, the annoying gating that eclipses decaying notes on most amp models is entirely gone, and most of the pressets responded remarkably like real amps when the guitar’s volume control was rolled back. Hallelujah!

Having the ability to select multiple cabinets and microphones (on and off axis), and to reverse phase, provides enough options to create a huge variety of tones. But given the pro-studio orientation of GTR, the choice of microphones—and to a lesser extent, the limited placement options—seems unnecessarily restrictive. For example, the six microphone types include only a single condenser (the relatively obscure Brauner VM1), and somewhat offbeat choices such as the Sennheiser Echolette 409 and Electro-Voice RE20 are represented, rather than more commonly used models such as the Neumann U87 and AKG C 414.

As for Stomp, the distortion-type boxes suffered slightly from the same sorts of rasp artifacts as the amp models, but all of the other effects sounded fantastic—particularly the delays, reverbs, and compressors. Even the spring reverb—a notoriously difficult sound to model—had lots of authentic vibe. In fact, I wanted to use the Buzz+Octaver+ Reverb+Clean combo on a recording so badly that I imported a rough mix of a tune into Logic (drivers for my DAW, MOTU Digital Performer, were not yet available), recorded the tracks, exported them as AIFF files, imported those into DP, and synchronized them manually.

Put in perspective, GTR is definitely a leap forward in the quest for more realistic amp modeling, and the shortcomings identified here may not even be issues when it comes to the system’s prime directive of delivering tones that can cut it on professional recordings.

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