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.

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