Digidesign Eleven

The first popular DAW guitar-modeling plug-in—Line 6’s Amp Farm software—worked solely with Digidesign’s Pro Tools TDM sequencer. A decade later, Digidesign has decided to enter the fray with its own guitar-modeling software. Let’s take a look at what they came up with.
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Eleven ($395 street for LE/RTAS; $595 street for TDM) is an amplifier modeling plug-in that works exclusively with Pro Tools, Venue, and Avid systems. Unlike most of the other software out there, it offers only guitar amps, cabinets, and miking options—no pedals, rack effects, file players, loopers, or even a tuner.

The plug-in’s name is an obvious Spinal Tap reference, and the included models are all amps Nigel Tufnel would approve: a ’59 Tweed Luxe, ’59 Tweed Bass, ’64 Black Panel Lux, ’66 Hi AC Boost, ’67 Black Duo, ’69 Plexiglass-100W, ’82 Lead 800, ’85 M-2 Lead (Mesa/ Boogie Mark IIc), ’92 Treadplate Modern and Vintage models (Dual Rectifier Head), ’89 SL-100 Drive (Soldano), and DC Modern models (Digidesign Custom).

Each model loads with its appropriate cabinet, but cabinets can be matched with different heads. The cabinets are ’59 Fender Bassman 4x10 (Jensen P10Qs), ’59 Fender Tweed Deluxe (Jensen P12Q), ’64 Fender blackface Deluxe (Jensen P12N), ’66 Vox AC30 (12" Celestion Alnico Blues), ’67 Fender blackface Twin (Jensen C12Ns), ’68 Marshall 1960A (Celestion G12Hs), ’06 1960AV (Celestion Vintage 30s). Eight mic models (Shure SM7 and SM57, Sennheiser MD 409 and MD 421, Neumann U67 and U87, AKG C414EB, Royer 121) are available that can be set on or off axis. Unique to Eleven is a Speaker Breakup control that lets you add a simulation of the distortion created when a speaker is pushed to its limit.

After booting Eleven up as a plug-in in Pro Tools, you set the input level of your guitar using the attenuator on your interface—in my case, an M-Audio Firewire 1814—and the clipping LED in Eleven’s input stage. The software knob labeled Input is not for adjusting input to the plug-in, but rather attenuates a clean line boost or cut of 18dB. This acts like an extra gain stage in an amp’s preamp section, and it comes in handy for making single-coils drive the models like a designer during Fashion Week. An Output knob acts as a gain makeup stage to even out the level of your presets. Speaking of presets, Eleven offers well over 100, and each preset is well thought out and usable.

The software provides automation for all parameters, the ability to save your own presets, MIDI control, and the option of bypassing the head or cabinet. This last feature allows you to plug a head with no cabinet into one channel, then buss it to two or more different cabinets in additional aux channels. For that matter, you can run as many different amps in multiple channels as your computer’s processor can stand. In that respect, Eleven is extremely CPU friendly. I was able to run five full instances (or “models”) without my 2.5GHz Mac G5 breathing hard. This may be part of the reason Eleven has the least latency of any modeling software I have tested.

Okay, enough tech-talk—how does the darn thing sound? Digidesign makes a point of the fact it “went to great lengths to obtain the world’s most sought-after vintage and modern amps in their original states,” and then modeled them exactly (see sidebar). As I don’t have access to those amps, I can’t say how close they got. I can only compare Eleven to my experience with vintage amps that sometimes sound very different from each other, and to see how well it stacks up against other modelers in terms of real amp feel and sound.

By those standards Eleven rocks. Every model has a large helping of the sonic depth and complexity found in a high-quality amp. The different brands and eras exhibit many of the sonic quirks by which we identify them: The classic Vox has the requisite hollow midrange and high-end jangle, myth-making Marshalls have the trademark clang, and vintage Fenders spew their signature warmth. All the amps clean up nicely when the guitar volume is backed off, and the models respond very naturally to picking dynamics. As claimed, the simulations interacted authentically with my pedalboard, but no more so than some other modelers.

Careful listening revealed a hint of digital rasp—mainly in the brighter amp-distortion settings. The speaker breakup adjustment was slightly audible at higher gain levels, but I doubt it would be very noticeable in a track. Other modeling plug-ins seem to deliver a bit more low end, and a wider frequency range in general. This doesn’t necessarily make other modelers sound more authentic, just more hi-fi. An ability to sync amp tremolo to the track tempo would have been nice.

Is Eleven the software that will make real amps obsolete in the studio? Not yet. But Eleven has a slight edge over its current competitors in the genuine amp feel and sound sweepstakes. Whether that is enough to warrant a sticker price similar to other software solutions that offer way more goodies (effects, bass amps, tuner, etc.) is something you will have to decide.

Taking It To 11

With major amp modelers such as Guitar Rig, Amplitube, Amp Farm, and Izotope Trash already available, and more on the way from Studio Devil, Overloud, and db-audioware, you might wonder why Digidesign decided to jump in with Eleven. Senior Project Developer Bobby Lombardi explains: “While Digi has created fewer plug-ins over the years, we’ve focused on quality, rather than quantity. When we enter the market with a new plug-in, it has to be either sonically pristine, or do something special.”

Lombardi feels the realism of some other modelers falls down when emulating what happens when the signal leaves the power amp. “We took measurements of the sound of the speaker itself, the coupling of the speaker with the power amp, the cabinet resonances when you push a speaker, and the breakup of the cone,” he says. “We also took into account matching and mismatching of speaker loads. We actually modeled the impedance mismatch when you take a 4? Fender Twin and put it into an 8? Marshall cabinet. There is a bass resonance and a treble boost that occurs with those couplings.”

In addition, Digidesign modeled “authentic” vintage amps, rather than old models that had been repaired and/or modded.

“It had to be the original speaker cones, original transformers—everything matching the date of what we claim was modeled,” says Lombardi. “We were blessed with a large budget for the project, but it was still painful to write some of the checks for the amps and cabs.”

The other main concern was the initial stage where the guitar meets the amp, and how the tubes respond to the input.

“Getting the sound and the character of the amp wasn’t good enough for us,” he says. “One thing all amp modelers do okay is a highly overdriven sound. But getting a clean tone that just starts to break up a little bit—that point where you get that interaction of the player, instrument, and amp—is something we felt just didn’t exist in other amp modelers.”

Not content to take their own guitar-playing staff’s word for the accuracy of the response, Digidesign brought in some ringers.

“Even at earliest test stage, we took 20 expert guitarists—all of whom wouldn’t use guitar modelers because they couldn’t interface with their own pedals,” says Lombardi. “We needed to be able to go into a studio with a Big Muff or an Arbiter Fuzz, and have the exact same coupling and interaction. What we were trying to do is to prove amp modeling could be taken to the next level.”

System Requirements

Mac: OSX, Pro Tools TDM HD, Pro Tools LE, Pro Tools M-Powered, Accel.
Windows: XP, Pro Tools TDM HD, Accel, TDM Venue.

Kudos: Highly realistic sounds and response. Works well with pedals. Low latency. Low CPU usage.

Concerns: No effects (other than amp tremolo) or tuner.

Contact: Digidesign, (650) 731-6300; digidesign.com