Guitar-amp plug-ins are nothing new, and the concept is pretty straightforward: Much like you’d use a software compressor, EQ, or other processor plug-in on a recorded track while mixing in your DAW, for example, you record your guitar track dry via DI, then insert an amp plug-in on that track’s channel strip to transform it to the type of tone that the production demands. The amplifier plug-ins on review here from Universal Audio will also function exactly so, but they really shine when used during the recording process, as Unison plug-ins accessed via one of UA’s own Apollo recording interfaces. As such, you not only hear the selected amp as you record it, you also feel the interaction between guitar and carefully modeled amp via the Apollo’s Hi-Z input, and all with zero latency. And that, UA reckons, should make a marked difference in the feel and dynamics of your performance. In a bid to discover how well that premise holds up, GP checks out UA’s Unison plug-ins for the Marshall Legends Bundle ($399 direct), ’55 Fender Tweed Deluxe ($199 direct), Fuchs Overdrive Special 50 and Train II ($149 direct, each), and Engl Savage 120 ($149 direct).
Note that you need to own a UA accelerator card or recording interface to run this company’s plug-ins, and the latter hardware is required to use them as Unison plug-ins while tracking. I tested these Unison-enabled plugins using a Les Paul and a Stratocaster into an Apollo Twin Duo desktop interface, both monitored live through Mackie HR824 studio monitors, and recorded direct to Pro Tools for further examination on playback.
MARSHALL LEGENDS BUNDLE
Comprising models created exclusively for UA Unison by Softube, the Marshall Legends Bundle includes the Plexi Super Lead 1959, Silver Jubilee 2555, and Bluesbreaker 1962 (also available individually at $199 each). All were modeled from rare original amps in Marshall’s own collection, with mic and cabinet IRs voiced and captured by Tony Platt (who was part of the recording/mixing team for AC/DC’s Back in Black and Highway to Hell albums). In addition to the amp controls themselves, opening each plug-in’s “Channel Strip” accesses a mixer where you can select between multiple setups comprising several classic studio mics each, and mix them to taste.
Initial impressions? Massive! Naturally, I went to the Plexi first, plugged in, and before any tweaking, the “default” preset was thick, raw, and ballsy, with telltale elements like that visceral 4x12 thump and edgy Greenback clack that tell you you’re playing a well broken-in Brit rock monster. Note: It might all sound and feel a little “once removed” to players not familiar with studio setups—keep in mind you’re hearing an amp as captured via studio mics, so it’s what you’d expect to hear in the track, not from a bare amp in the room—but to me it sounds entirely like I’m sitting in the control room listening via the monitors while tracking a great amp miked up and raging in the live room next door, and spookily so. The Bluesbreaker and Silver Jubilee plug-ins also hold their own extremely well, sounding entirely in character. Crank the former and you get a warts-and-all Beano-era bluesfest as the amp and 2x12 kick out creamy ghost-note inflected goodness, or dial it back for sublime KT66-fueled edge-of-breakup—or plug into the 2555 for a heathy fix of godlike late-’80s arena-rock lead tone.
’55 FENDER TWEED DELUXE
Designed entirely by UA and fully endorsed by Fender Musical Instruments Corp., the ’55 Tweed Deluxe was derived from intense R&D based around two highly regarded original 1955 Deluxes. To this foundation UA adds the ability to select between three speakers—the original Jensen P12R, a Celestion G12M Greenback, or a JBL D120F—and to capture the sound via two independent high-end studio mics, which can be selected from among five classic options and mixed and/or repositioned via the plugin’s Mic Mixer. In use, the first surprise from this tweed classic might be how utterly gnarly it can sound, which of course is vintage-correct and just one of the loveable characteristics of the breed. From raw, farty blues or Neil Young-style lead freakout, it’s a mean rock ’n’ roll machine, but also impressively sweet when you dial it down. Get it into a mix, and even its raspiest settings sit surprisingly well, helping your tracks punch through.
FUCHS ODS 50 AND TRAIN II
It’s fun seeing contemporary makers giving their blessings to the modeling arena, and having tested several Fuchs amps in the flesh for GP over the years, I’d say these emulations created exclusively for UA by Brainworx sound and feel extremely good. From the creamy, sweet leads and buxom cleans of the Dumble-esque ODS to the muscular crunch and punchy rhythm tones of the Train II, these models admirably dish out the notable characteristics of Andy Fuchs’s excellent designs. And—yeah, they’ve all got bonus features—just click the “FX Rack” button to reveal user-tweakable Noise Gate, Pre-and Post-EQ, Delay with tap-tempo, Power Soak (aka post-power-amp attenuator), and Cab and Mic IR selection panel. Powerful stuff.
ENGL SAVAGE 120
Savage by name, savage by nature, this Engl model, done exclusively for UA by Brainworx, is one of the easiest routes I’ve tried to instant metal and hard-rock mayhem (the “FX Rack” features are the same as for the Fuchs amps, above). If that’s your forte, and you’re already UA equipped, I can’t imagine not grabbing this one at the very least to have instant access to eviscerating thrash and doom tones when you don’t want to set and mic up your full rig of death. Or, if you’ve got a studio that only occasionally uses such sounds, all the more reason to grab this package to get it done easy-peasy style when needed. Lots of fun even for a less-metal-inflected guy like me, and monstrously huge in every way.
It remains to point out that all of these Unison amp plug-ins display exemplary interaction between guitar and “amp”—pick lightly or turn down the guitar’s volume and they clean up, and sound natural in doing so—and each presents an impressive rendition of its subject. That being said, gathering a full collection like this is an expensive proposition, which quickly takes you over the $1,000 mark (although UA does tend to mail out frequent discounts and coupons to existing users). You can buy a lot from the Fractals and Line 6s of this world for not much more than that, or from the Atomics and others for less. Then again, UA’s processor plugins are found in the world’s top recording studios, and many major engineers and producers swear they couldn’t work without them. If you need a particular flavor of classic amp to make your tracking life easier, I’d think grabbing one or two of these is an easy decision (the Plexi particularly floated my boat), and, as such, UA has created another batch of studio tools that are likely to keep pro users smiling.
KUDOS Versatile and great-sounding models of classic amps, with impressively realistic interaction between guitar and “amp” too.
CONCERNS Amassing a collection can get expensive, and you need UA hardware to use them in the first place.