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.

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