Despite having had some form of home studio since the ’80s, I never really got into plug-in amp simulations. I was always more comfortable with mics and amps or various hardware modeling devices (like SansAmps or the Hughes & Kettner zenTera), and I’ve relied almost exclusively on my beloved Kemper Profiler for the past several years. But as amp sims have gotten better, and I’ve become more tech savvy, I’ve been curious to explore the multitudinous sounds and flexibility these magical programs bring.
Producer Howard Benson and engineer/mixer Mike Plotnikoff have crafted killer guitar tones for Bon Jovi, Santana, My Chemical Romance and many others. So when I got the chance to check out this STL Tonality plug-in suite they created, I jumped at it.
STL Tonality supports VST, AU and AAX formats, making it compatible with pretty much any DAW. Downloading and installing it in Cakewalk by Bandlab, my go-to recording program, was easy. The suite features five amps meticulously modeled from Benson and Plotnikoff’s faves: Bogner Uberschall, Wizard 50, Marshall JTM50 tremolo, blackface Fender Twin Reverb and tweed Fender Bassman. There are also five cabs (with the ability to load external IRs) and three stomps (overdrive, delay and reverb). There’s even a handy built-in tuner and a switchable noise gate. Plus, the interface has no menus and is super-intuitive. Everything you need is right there in front of you.
I tracked a dry, direct rhythm part through a Tascam US-20x20 and called up the plug-in, which slathered Amp 1 (Bogner) on top of my lifeless direct track. Without touching a single control, I was absolutely knocked out by the depth and dimension of the sound, which was big and full, with tons of character. Messing with the controls did exactly what you would expect, and even though I dug the fire-breathing sound with all the knobs at high noon, I easily dialed back some of the gain and sizzle for a warmer, lower-gain tone.
I clicked the Pedals button and checked out what the overdrive, delay and reverb did to the tone. Each stompbox worked beautifully with the amp sound, and the Lexicon-inspired reverb is particularly luscious and mix-friendly. Another button let me access the cabinet selection and audition the three 4x12s and open-back 2x12 and 4x10. They all change the tone in musical ways, but I found myself consistently going back to Cab 3, a throaty 4x12. Thanks to their varying degrees of brightness, the other choices will certainly make it easy to nestle guitar tracks in a mix without needing to mess with EQ. But if you do create something you like, it’s easy to save it as a preset for future use.
Some effects systems have a creepy sameness among their sounds, despite boasting a huge number of choices. The Howard Benson suite, on the hand, is full of variety. The Uberschall model delivered effortless high gain, the Wizard sim was grittier and more open, and the Marshall-like Amp 3 was dynamic and aggressive, with lots of range in terms of gain and EQ, and almost like two amps thanks to the Bright/Normal switch. The Fender models (Amps 4 and 5) gave precisely what I’d want from those iconic amps: gorgeous cleans that I can dirty up a bit with their gain knobs or with the Tube Screamer–inspired OD pedal. Every combination of these amps and effects resulted in a kick-ass, musical and “real” amp tone on my song.
If you want 200 amps and 1,000 effects, there are plenty of plug-in suites that will give you all that and more. I can’t go there, though. I need many gradations between pristine clean and filthy dirty that I can access quickly and intuitively. I get that with STL Tonality Howard Benson Guitar Plug-In Suite. I might suggest a slightly easier name or acronym (STL HoBen for instance?), but I love what this digital magic is doing for my recordings.
Howard Benson Plug-In Suite
MODEL Howard Benson Plug-In Suite
PRICE $129 street
SUPPORTED FORMATS VST2, VST3, AU, AAX
AMP MODELS Five
EFFECTS Overdrive, delay, reverb
PROS Dimensional and dynamic amp, cab, and effects sims. Easy interface
CONS Might seem limited to players used to hundreds of amp models