Sunday, October 25, 2009

Virtual Guitar Amp Roundup (Pt. 2): Last Things First

Rather than making you read through a review of each piece of software before I give you my final impression and a comparative evaluation, I'll start with my informal ranking and impressions of which ones I've ended up using and enjoying most and what kept me from matching speeds with the others or wanting to use them more. Once again (in case you are viewing the post on its own rather than on the page with the rest of the posts) I'm comparing Line 6 Pod Farm (1.11) with Native Instruments Guitar Rig 3 demo version (3.2.1), Peavey's ReValver Mk. III_Live demo, IK Multimedia's AmpliTube 2 and AmpliTube Metal demos, and Waves GTR3 Solo (3.5).

First a disclaimer -- I'm not putting full weight on my evaluation of either the two AmpliTubes or the GTR3. IK Multimedia gives you a fully functioning version of their software, but puts a 10 day limit on their software demos, after which they inject white noise into the signal on a regular basis to keep you from using the software for recording. Peavey does the same thing with white noise, but with no 10 day grace period, but AmpliTube injects the noise far more frequently and obtrusively than does Peavey, so while I've continued to explore the Peavey software for an extended time, I only got about 8 hours of time to mess with each of the AmpliTubes, and that was a while back. As for the GTR3 Solo software, it's a one year demo but it includes fewer models than the full version 13 of 24 stomp boxes, 10 of 25 amps, 10 of 23 cabinets, and a limited set of mic options. This is a lot of variety compared to a small modeling amp, but not a fair comparison to the full demo versions of the other software or my full but unexpanded version of Pod Farm. It gives you enough to play around with different styles of music, but not enough to get much range within that style. And, unlike the other software companies, Waves withholds some of their more basic models (i.e. plexi and rectifier) and gives you exclusive custom amps instead -- probably in hopes of getting you to upgrade to the full version to try the staples. This does, however, make it hard to compare the tone of models head-to-head if one is so inclined.

After bouncing back and forth between the different software for a few weeks (less the AmpliTubes) and trying to give each piece of software its due, I find that I'm coming back to Pod Farm and Guitar Rig 3 more often than the others. With ReValver getting the nod next and GTR3 just not inspiring me. I enjoyed the AmpliTube 2 demo a great deal while I had it and would probably rank it somewhere around the ReValver based on first impressions. The AmpliTube Metal sounded good, but only included 5 amp models and was by far the most limited in its versatility. Even as a metal head I found myself wanting a bit more range. It could handle classic, thrash, and metalcore/groove just fine, but was too limited to cover anything like the range of Opeth or more progressive sounds.

GTR 3 is a very polished sounding modeling suite. I see that a lot of producers like it, and I'm pretty sure this is because if you look at guitars as something to be added into a mix it gives you very finished sounding tracks. As a player, however, I always thought that the sounds were very processed and didn't have as much range as the others. It's hard to find anything that sounds ugly and dirty. I think I like my guitar with a few less manners. I also didn't like its interface as much. Again, this one seemed like it was built to look familiar to someone who uses DAWs all day rather than for a guitarist that also wants to be able to record or run a virtual rig into an amp miked into a PA.

The AmpliTubes sound great. It's a very detailed and dimensional sound and the way that they set up the cabinets and mics in the interface really helped me to get a better handle on how those things might work in real life. Changing these parameters really changes the sound and gives you a lot of variety even when working with one amp and one cab. The interface is easy to use and intuitive for someone who is used to working with real amps and stompboxes or for someone who has a basic grasp of signal chains. The effects also sound quite good. Like I said above, I thought the AmpliTube 2 was a really strong and versatile product and with more time it might have displaced one of the others.

ReValver strikes me as being a virtual amp modeler aimed at tube snobs that hate modeling amps. It has the dirtiest amp models of the batch, in a low tech, analog dirt sort of way. I've found clips of these models A/B'ed with their real world counterparts and doubt I could tell the difference in any meaningful way. They do sound different, but not in any way that makes the ReValver stand out as a digital simulation. If my biggest goal was to own something that sounded and responded as similar to a real amp as possible I'd get this software. And when the tweakability factor of being able to swap tubes and adjust components and speakers and cabs gets thrown into the mix I'd be all over this if I wanted to build or mod my own tube amps and wanted to narrow in on a sound ahead of time. What I don't like about it, however, is the way that it implements its mic sims and the way that everything ends up sounding like...well...a miked amp. ReValver makes complex and convincing sounds, but they seem less dimensional than the sounds that come out of Pod Farm, Guitar Rig, or the AmpliTube models. The sounds are great, but it would be just as much work to get a good recording sound out of ReValver as it would to get one from a real amp. I also never got the custom cabinet modeler to work without crashing the software.

What sold me on Pod Farm and Guitar Rig in the end was the way that each managed the compromises between being a modeler and being a piece of audio software. The models sound good and get the right feel for a wide range of music. The effects are great, moreso on Guitar Rig than Pod Farm, but then Guitar Rig is also a bit more expensive and Pod Farm can be expanded for not a lot of extra investment. Each gave up a little in realism to the ReValver and the AmpliTube, but they are also easier to use and give you a little more to play with in terms of exploring sounds. Guitar Rig also gives you some impressive options for adjusting virtual mic placement. Pod Farm, on the other hand, gives you a cheap and easy way into the USB world and still sounds great and packs in more versatility than any of the less expensive modeling amps. Trying out all the rest has convinced me that my $50 Line 6 investment got me an awful lot.

If I were going back now to make the investment (USB box and software) all over again I think I would end up choosing between a Line 6 Pod Studio UX1 and the Native Instruments Guitar Rig Kontrol Edition depending on my budget and plans. If I just wanted to play at home and record tracks without the need of channel switching or expression pedals I'd go with Line 6 at half the price of Guitar Rig. If I wanted to use the rig live or needed to switch sounds on the fly I'd definitely opt up for Guitar Rig.

Hope this helps.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Virtual Guitar Amp Roundup (Pt. 1): How I Learned To Love The USB.

When I first purchased my Hagstrom Swede a little over a year ago I had no amp to go with it. I'd been playing off and on for years on a sweet little Fender acoustic I had picked up in the late '80s, but I had not ever taken the plunge and bought an electric, so I was coming at this decision as a complete beginner. I read everything I could find online about amps. There are some, but not many, reliable buyers guides that give you more than a lukewarm sales pitch, but most guides are either linked to a big seller (who is understandably reluctant to say anything negative about the products that they hope to sell you) or is a collection of amp facts combined with bong hit pseudo-science about why tube amps are louder than solid state amps and romantic mythology about what makes all those vintage amps out there so great. [I don't have space or time right now to talk about what makes one amp louder than another, and as for why so many vintage instruments and amps are so great, a big chunk of that is simply that most of the lemons have ended up in a junkyard somewhere. The ones that have been kept and taken care of are either awesome, collectors items, or forgotten attic treasures that may or may not be lemons.]

As I noted in the previous post, a lot of what I was looking for in an amp was variety. I know now what sorts of sounds I like as a player, but I didn't know that at the time, so I was looking for something with a lot of potential for sounds ranging from acoustic to extreme metal. I was also looking for something both inexpensive (< $300) and practical for a small apartment with lots of neighbors and lots of open windows.

The first thing to drop off my list was a small tube amp like the Fender SCXD. I love the sound of tubes as much as the next guitarist, but tubes are expensive and they wear out -- two things that most buyers guides fail to mention. It was also large enough that it would always need to be taken out and put away each time I wanted to break out the guitar. I wanted something smaller, more versatile, and lower maintenance. That left me pretty much a choice between a small modeling amp like a Line 6, Peavey, or Vox, or a direct box virtual setup.

I ended up opting for a Line 6 Toneport GX, which was going for $49 at the time and came with Gear Box software that promised to emulate a whole lot of classic amps, cabinets, stomp boxes and the like and also give me the option to mess with digital recording if I so desired. The only drawbacks to this plan were that I had to play near a computer and could not play live for or jam with friends.

Of course given how I sounded at the time this was probably a feature rather than a bug.

In the last year I have gotten very familiar with the Toneport and discovered that it could be used as a digital interface for any of the other major virtual amp sims. Wondering how Gear Box stacked up with the others I downloaded a free copy of Pod Farm from Line 6 and then went on to get demo copies of Native Instrument's Guitar Rig 3, Peavey's ReValver MkIII Live, IK Multimedia's AmpliTube 2 and AmpliTube Metal, and Waves GTR3 Solo. I've played around with each of these enough to get an idea of how they feel and sound and can give you my impressions of each.

Which I'll do, starting with the next post.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Prelude to a Review

I'd like to share my thoughts about the virtual amp software that I've been trying out over the last month or so, but before doing that I think it might be useful to establish where I'm coming from in these reviews with a bit more solidity than the first couple posts might give you.

I hear a lot of people sneer at modeling software and the like with the underlying assumption that there is something artificial about digital simulations and that tubes are somehow more real or more honest.

I'm not even sure what either of these things mean.

I get that it's hard to sound good with fewer additions to the signal chain and that it takes a lot of talent, practice and technique to make an acoustic sound good. I also get that effects and processing and sequencing and the like can mask and augment a performance that sounds mediocre at best without all these enhancements (see pitch corrected vocals in pop/electronica). I'm sympathetic to these arguments in the sense that I'd readily agree that Jeff Beck and Mark Knopfler are better guitar players than Edge, but that argument really sells Edge short as a musician because so much of what he gives to U2 has nothing to do with his skill as a player.

Bringing this back to the subject at hand...I don't really care whether or not modeling amps or virtual amps are "real" or even if they do a particularly good job of simulating the equipment that the software engineers claim to have emulated in designing their product. I've never used even a fraction of the equipment that these things emulate, and I don't think that really matters. What matters to me is whether the sounds that my guitar produces when I'm using one of these software packages inspires me to play better or differently in a way that reminds me why I love music in the first place. If using it and playing with it puts a smile on my face and keeps me coming back then I'm interested. If I find myself spending a lot of time tweaking it or stuck in a rut with no smile on my face, well...that's not so good.

If I were a gigging musician I'd be a lot more concerned with simplicity and live switching and reliability. If I were a recording musician I'd be a lot more concerned with how these things sound when they are buried in a mix with a lot of other elements. If I were one of those guys that argues about which players or what guitars or amps are better than the others I'd be spending all my time arguing about a bunch of old equipment I had never played in an effort to sound like an authority. And I'd probably own a cheap tube amp and talk about that old Fender/Marshall/Mesa/Vox that I wish I'd never sold.

That's not me.

I'm the guy that plays mostly badly, mostly in his bedroom, mostly through headphones. And I'm the guy that, every once in a while, changes the settings on my modeling software to something new and different and looks up an hour later and find that he's been chasing the sounds that were in his own head and not sounding like a deficient imitation of his favorite guitar players.

My reviews are going to be biased towards those moments.

Just so you know.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Scale Length, Physics, and 22 vs. 24 Frets -- Why Ed Roman is Full of Crap

A while back while I was looking for my Hagstrom guitar I ended up on the Ed Roman site and poked around a bit to see what he had to say. His site definitely has a high entertainment value compared to many other high traffic guitar sites on the web because unlike most other sites that simply reproduce the marketing copy of the big name guitar makers and avoid much controversy, Ed Roman (or Ed Roman's ghost writer, if he uses one) aims to attract an audience that is suspicious of these marketing claims.

The gist of Ed Roman's arguments can be summed up in two sentences: You're a sucker if you buy a big name guitar from a corporate music store. Smart guitar players buy hand built American guitars from Ed Roman. Ed puts forth this argument wherever he can, weaving it through his ad copy and linking in and out of his webpage to lead surfers from the popular brands on his site to one of the guitars -- an Abstract, Baker, Pearlcaster, or Quicksilver -- for which Ed Roman is the primary distributor.

Ed also weaves together his own rants with "tech articles" in order to further his claims that his own guitars are far superior to any of the big name guitars that he disparages on his site. I was especially intrigued by one of his "technical papers" that featured prominently on his site where he criticized Paul Reed Smith's design for his 22 fret guitars with a 25 inch scale length. This article, which Ed characterizes as "[maybe] one of the best technical articles on this website."

Go ahead. Click and read. His hit counter will love you for it. Just be sure to come back and finish reading this once you are through there.

The quick summary of his article (or of John Johnson's explanation) is simple -- 24 fret guitars are better than 22 fret guitars because the pickup on a 22 fret guitar is right were the 24th fret would be, and this is a "dead node of the third overtone." This is a fatal design flaw because you can't change the laws of physics.

Assuming for a moment that this were true, I have yet to figure out what law of physics prevents someone making a 22 fret guitar from moving the pickup back to where it would be if there were two more frets. Just leave a little more space between the fretboard and the pickup. The difference is only a little more than 0.75" on a 25.5" scale guitar. How hard is that?

But that assumes that the basic claim is both a. true and b. relevant in the first place. Is it?

I put together a table that lists the fret placement for a 25.5" scale neck (found at and taken from Melvyn Hiscock's well respected book Make Your Own Electric Guitar) and expanded it out for our purposes here:

Fret Dist. from NutDist. From Bridge1st Harm.2nd Harm.3rd Harm.4th Harm.
(Speaking Length)    

The first two columns are from Hiscock's calculations. The third just reverses these calculations to measure the distance from the bridge rather than from the nut (the scale length minus the distance from the nut) which is important because this gives us the speaking length of the string when fretted at each fret. The remaining columns calculate the location of the nodes for the first four harmonic overtones of the string (at 0.50, 0.33, 0.25, and 0.20 the length of the string, respectively). These harmonic overtones give us the values for the intervals incorporated into the Western musical scale, but that is outside of our concern here. What we are interested in here is the correspondence between column 3 and row 1. According to my calculations here the node of the third harmonic overtone does indeed coincide with the location of the 24th fret -- both are 6.375" from the bridge -- so the basic claim that Ed Roman (and John Johnson) makes is true, but that does not mean that the claim is relevant, or that the conclusions that they draw from this fact are warranted. If we understand the rest of the table and what it is saying we will understand why Ed's point is far less relevant than it pretends to be.

The scale length of the guitar is important for the feel of how it plays and the distance between the frets, but if we are making claims about where to put the neck pickup we need to understand that these relationships only tell us anything absolute about the notes we play on the open strings or at the octaves on those strings because fretting a note changes the speaking length of the string and this changes the mathematical relations between them. If we were playing a harp where the speaking length of the string is fixed, we could optimize the pickup placement the way that the tech article on Ed Roman's website implies, but playing a guitar involves changing the speaking length of the string with every different note. Just look at the way the location of the overtone nodes change as you move down the neck. As the string length shortens so does the distance of the node from the bridge (the only really fixed node on the guitar.

For example, if we are playing an open A string on a standard E tuned guitar then a pickup where the 24th fret would be is at the node for the third overtone of that A note (6.375" from the bridge), but is not at the node for the third overtone of the B note played at the second fret on the same string (5.68" from the bridge). In fact, the node for the third harmonic of the B is closer to where the pickup on a 24 fret guitar would be. So by Ed Roman's line of reasoning you should never buy one of his guitars if you ever plan to play a B note and have it sound good.

Screw E minor. Who needs it anyway.

And this is just comparing single notes on the same string. Think about trying to optimize pickup placement for a jazz chord like a Gadd9 or a Dmin7 with an open string and a three fret spread somewhere up the neck where three of the four strings being played have very different speaking lengths.

So the 'design flaw' that the Ed Roman article points out only really holds true for notes played on the open strings (or at the octaves). The moment you fret any other note the mathematical relations all change. That's the other immutable law of physics that neither Ed Roman nor his physicist engineer friend John Johnson mention in the article.

Guitars are built to be fretted, and the shifting relationship between speaking lengths is what makes chords played on different strings sound so different from each other even when they are composed of the same notes. The only reason Ed wants you to buy that this is a design flaw is so that he can sell you his own guitar rather than one you can buy almost anywhere.

Frankly, if I wanted a semi-custom, American made guitar I'd go with Carvin long before Ed Roman.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Nothing Much To Begin

I'm making this blog in order to have a place to post my thoughts on all matters guitar. I've been playing on and off for years -- pretty basic stuff, mostly -- and I pretty much suck as a guitarist. There are pre-teens that have made more progress in a year of playing than I have in all my years. That's okay with me. I only do this because I like playing. I get to make sounds not entirely unlike music, some of which are pretty enough to keep my partner from leaving the room when I play and have fun doing it with absolutely no bad consequences when I screw up. Not a bad gig, all in all.

That said, I love guitar just as much as the next, better player. And I love *my* guitars just as much as the next gearhead. And I love finding new sounds to make with them. I live in an apartment, so my primary setup is running my Hagstrom Swede through a Line 6 USB audio interface into an iMac running any one of a half-dozen virtual hardware sims, demo or full, to satisfy my jones for tones. I use these to play loudly and badly for about an hour every day.

I might write up a review of some of these things in the near future or put together my thoughts on strings, or finally get my thoughts out on why 95% of what I read on the internet about scale lengths and pickup placement and whatnot is a complete load of crap. We'll see.

After all, I have lots of other writing that I'm paid to do, and a guitar that I could be thrashing instead of writing stuff like this.