Native Instruments Guitar Rig 3 vs. Waves GTR3

Guitar Rig 3 ($339 retail/$299 street Software Edition; $579 retail/$499 street for Kontrol Edition) and GTR3 (complete system $500 retail/native or $600 TDM; software only is $380 retail/native or $480 retail/TDM; interface only is $120 retail) are new releases from bit-crunching veterans Native Instruments and Waves, respectively. Both include the sonic upgrades made possible by the latest chips and multiprocessors, and both programs offer a wealth of signal processing, amplification, speaker, and microphone emulations. I put them head to head by running them as plug-ins on adjacent tracks in Ableton Live (both programs also work as stand-alones). I recorded a riff to one of the tracks, and then cloned it to the other. This way, I was able to A/B the identical playing performance through each emulation. I recorded all tracks using an M-Audio 1814 Firewire interface and a Macintosh G5 Dual 2.5 GHz PowerPC with 2.5GB of RAM, and I monitored the results through a pair of Roland power
Publish date:
Updated on

Native Instruments Guitar Rig 3

NI calls Guitar Rig a “digital guitar studio,” and the name fits. As a stand-alone program, you can use its two virtual tape decks to learn licks by speeding them up and slowing them down, and/or record your own parts and overdub solos. This is in addition to the program’s 12 guitar and bass amps, 44 effects, 17 guitar and six bass cabinets, four rotary speakers, and nine microphones.

Guitar Rig uses a highly intuitive virtual rack system that allows you to drag and drop elements into your “rack,” mixing and matching them in combinations that suit your fancy (Fig. 1). An optional Rig Kontrol pedalboard can act as both a foot controller and a USB audio interface.

Ever since its first version, Guitar Rig has offered amp emulations of Marshall, Fender, Vox, Roland, and Mesa Boogie models; signal-processing essentials from Boss, Ibanez, Electro- Harmonix, Digitech, and others; as well as many microphone and mic-placement options. Add cabinet mixing and matching (an AC30 through a 4x10 anyone?), and you start out with an almost infinite array of sonic possibilities. The upgrades on Guitar Rig 2 included a new MDF (Modifier) section that allowed guitarists to easily route LFO, Envelope, Sequencer, and Input Level modules to any effect or amp parameter. For example, simply dragging the Input Level Assign button to the Tremolo Rate knob makes the tremolo pulse faster as you hit the strings harder (Fig 2). Version 2 also added the Pro-Filter—an EQ based on the filtering section of classic Prophet synthesizers. Given all that—as well as the Electro-Harmonix Micro-Synthesizer emulation—it was hard to imagine where NI might go with version 3.

Well, for starters, Guitar Rig 3’s amp-modeling technology has been reworked so that the amps sound and feel noticeably more realistic. Four new amps have been added: Ultrasonic (a high-gain boutique sound), Tweed Delight (based on an old Fender Deluxe), Citrus (Orange), and Hi-White (Hiwatt). A new Matched Cabinet module provides a basic combination of cabinet and microphones to match each amplifier—which offers a workable starting point, and reduces option anxiety. The original Cabinets & Mics module is still available for adding extra cabs and deeper tweaks.

New effects include TapeEcho (a cool version of the Roland Space Echo for all those dub and feedback effects), Delay Man (based on the Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man), Sledge Hammer (a new overdrive/distortion), Real Wah (which is very subtly different than the program’s other wahs, with perhaps a tad less bass and Q), Custom EQ, and Ring Modulator.

A new Snapshot mode allows you to change multiple effects settings within a preset by stepping on a single controller switch. A new Live View mode simplifies the screen for live playing with just the program names and a large virtual-controller view to let you know which switch is controlling which function for that patch. Other tweaks include a more elegant interface, and a rearranged sound library for easier categorization of your presets.

Guitar Rig’s ability to place distortions after reverbs and add LFO controls that sync flanger depth changes to tempo allow for an incredible range of textural possibilities. In the past, I’ve noted a slight digital tinge to the amp distortions, and I’ve had some difficulties making the controller respond to my specs. I am happy to report that Guitar Rig 3 has come a long way toward improving those elements. I still prefer adding Rig overdrive pedals to amps for solo work, but the crunch rhythms on the amp models now sound way more detailed and realistic. For example, the new models are particularly vivid in capturing the subtle character differences between an Orange and a Hiwatt. The new Rig Kontrol is easier to program, and setting up an additional Continuous Controller pedal is as simple as plugging it in to an input on the floor unit—the pedal was instantly recognized by the software. With Guitar Rig 3, the idea of gigging with only a laptop, a guitar, and Rig Kontrol has become an attractive option.

Waves GTR3

Waves has a reputation for creating top-quality software plug-ins. Partnering with guitarmaker Paul Reed Smith in 2005, the company developed GTR—an amp and effects modeling program bundled with a hardware interface. The Waves/PRS Guitar Interface transforms a guitar’s unbalanced, high-impedance signal into a balanced, low-impedance signal to reduce hum and retain a full dynamic range. The software offers 19 guitar and seven bass amps, 16 guitar and six bass cabinets, and 26 stompbox-style effects. The program requires an iLok authorization and a USB iLok key.

The “Interface” moniker is a bit misleading, as it offers no direct USB or Firewire connection to the computer. Instead, the GTR hardware provides balanced XLR and unbalanced 1/4" outputs that can be can be connected at line or mic level to a mixer, or a “true” audio interface such as M-Audio’s Firewire 1814. The unit runs on two 9-volt batteries (included) in an easily accessible compartment, or a rather obscure 12VDC positive tip adaptor (not included).

In plug-in mode, the GTR3 offers the Stomp and Amp sections as 13 separate plugs that include variations of stereo and mono effects and amps. The slot options hold two, four, or six effects (Fig. 3). CPU usage is still dependent on how many effects you use, but this arrangement helps save screen space if you are using fewer effects by eliminating unused slots. The stompbox modules can be placed in front of—or after—the amps, as well as in effects channels for parallel routing. Also offered is a Tool Rack plug that combines both stompboxes and amps, but allows only six stomps total. Here, a section of routing buttons permit various series and parallel configurations (Fig. 4). If you work in stand-alone mode, Tool Rack is the setup that appears.

Once chosen, Stomp effects can be dragged to different places in the signal chain, but choosing effects and amps involves numerous dropdown menus. Waves references some classic amp and cabinet models in the manual that appears when you click on a GUI question mark (no printed manual is included, and the references don’t appear at all in stand-alone mode), but the amp names in the dropdown menus give little clue to the models referenced (Fig. 5). Should you be looking for a Vox sound, you would need to remember that it is called “Edgy,” a subhead under Drive. And calling up this amp does not automatically call up the related speaker configuration. You need to once again check the manual to learn that the 2x12 open back is the one you require to start with the familiar Vox tonality. Clicking on the Load button at the top of the amp presents you with a wealth of presets such as Sweet N’ Bright and Modern Beast—a feature that seems geared to players who seek a type of tone, rather than a specific amp emulation.

GTR3 offers the high-quality sound that has made Waves famous among recording engineers. All of the amp and effects models exhibit a presence and sheen that screams expensive production. The amp models are dynamically responsive and warm with virtually no digital edge. The High Gain models offer superior definition—even at massive gain levels. The Guitar Interface definitely improves the sound over plugging in without it, and it’s dead quiet. A USB-powered interface with audio outputs would have been nice—not to mention the fact that it could have acted as a substitute for the iLok.

Head to Head

Which system you choose will be largely a question of your musical taste and production leanings. Both software packages are fun to play, and each offers professional-quality sounds with a wide range of tonal and textural possibilities.

GTR3 seems best suited to lovers of sparkling major-label production. The effects comprise all the essentials, and the sound has the slightly compressed, in-your-face quality that’s guaranteed to make your music more radio friendly. Even the effects sound more like high-end studio processors than stompboxes.

Guitar Rig 3 offers slightly less sparkle, but the emulations tend to nail the funky grit of vintage amps and stompboxes. For example, when comparing clean Fender Bassman settings while playing a funky, ninth-chord riff, both GTR3 and Guitar Rig 3 sounded great, but Guitar Rig captured a bit more of a vintage Bassman’s warmth and roundness. Likewise, crescendoing eighth-notes played through each program’s Vox setting tracked my picking dynamics accurately, but chiming chords exhibited more of the distinctive Vox-like hollow mids in the Guitar Rig version. However, some of the Guitar Rig amps—such as Tweed Delight— exhibit some digital graininess. Other amp models—Citrus and High White, for example—are smooth as silk.

While the user interface of GTR3 is intuitive, its lack of an instant cabinet matching system and all the pull-down menus make it more difficult to use than Guitar Rig’s drag-and-drop system. And while GTR3 provides sonic explorers with unfettered and non-specific sound-sculpting options, players who base their tonal tweaking on standards such as Fender, Marshall, and Vox flavors might find Guitar Rig’s textual and visual allusions to well-known amps and effects more comforting.

GTR3 is definitely better suited to studio work than live performance. The GTR3 hardware is not a computer interface, so playing live would require an audio interface and, possibly, a MIDI controller. This means you’ve used two USB slots on your laptop, which may leave no space for plugging in the essential Waves iLock. This situation can certainly be worked around, but Guitar Rig’s iLock-free authorization and integrated audio interface/controller make live-performance a more attractive option.

In short, if modern-sounding amps, rack effects, and hi-fi tones are your thing, GTR3 will rock your world. If you prize vibe—and you dig exploring the outer reaches of guitar-based electronica—then Guitar Rig 3 is your baby.