Monday, November 2, 2009

Virtual Guitar Amp Roundup (Pt. 3): What I Didn't Expect

One of the things that surprised me most about the way I ended up ranking the software was how important mics and cabs had become to my overall impressions of the products and how much this varied from my first impressions. Nowhere was this more evident than in the split between Guitar Rig and ReValver.

Guitar Rig 3 was the second modeling suite that I downloaded after getting Pod Farm and I was really excited to play around with it and look at the different amps and stompboxes it modeled. I had it for all of a day before I went out and found the ReValver demo, and when I first heard the sounds coming out of the Peavey XXX sim I thought that it might be the best metal amp sim out there. The sounds were very dynamic and live. I didn't come back to Guitar Rig for a day or two. The ReValver just sounded more like a real amp.

When I did come back to a head-to-head comparison between the two and started playing around with more than just the amps and the stompboxes, I found myself less satisfied with the ReValver. Guitar Rig had more effects models included which, despite the broad versatility of the ReValver models, gave me more tonal options on top of the amp models. At this point Guitar Rig crept back up in my estimation, but there wasn't a lot of daylight between the two.

Then I started to play around with the cabs and mics.

Peavey's cab modeling may be state-of-the-art and very realistic, but they are hard to navigate -- more like searching a list of presets than experimenting with different mic placements and cabinet enclosures. You look through a long list of options broken up into collections organized around cabinet --> mic --> mic placement (i.e. Peavey Collection | 6505 4x12 | sm57(a) )with little description of those options within the software itself. Each cab had a set of knobs to adjust the sound of the speakers, but it was hard to get an idea of how the various changes to those virtual pots translated into sounds. (There was an option for building custom cabs as well, but that option always crashed my software whenever I tried to use it.) Given the sheer number of options to navigate and select from and the difficulty of doing so from a single drop-down menu I quickly found myself frustrated both by the mono boxiness of the default sounds and by my inability to change a single ingredient (cab, mic, placement) without going back to the list and searching for the combination that I wanted to try. And those choices seemed fairly limited in most cases with only two mic positions listed. Given Peavey's thoroughness with this product I am fairly sure that I'm missing or misunderstanding some of the options. I hope I am. But whether or not this is the case, the interface design for this particular part of the software suite is both non-intuitive and not much fun, which quickly turns into a recipe for accepting and criticizing the default settings, which tend towards flat, closely miked sounds with little air or reverb. Meh.

Guitar Rig, on the other hand, gives you two different paths to tweaking the sound and splits the options in easy to navigate and highly intuitive ways. Using the matched cabs function you automatically get the standard cab for whatever amp you choose (i.e. a closed back 4x12 for the Marshall sim) a slider to blend between the sound of a condenser and a dynamic mic, and a slider for the amount of air to put between the mic and the cab. Switching to the cabinet options you get to choose the type of cabinet you are working with, the mic that you are using to record the cab, and the placement of that mic between 4 or 5 different options (on-axis, off-axis, edge, far, and back for open backed cabs), and dials for many other options. It's easier to navigate because the options are broken up into more manageable lists and it's easier to experiment with because you can change one option at a time and hear the difference that makes while chasing the ambience you are looking for. It's less like duplicating a real guitar amp sound and more like looking for a sweet spot that combines all the interactions of amps, mics, cabs, and rooms.

For the record, both the AmpliTube and the Pod Farm lie somewhere between these two on the cab and mic tweaking front. They are more intuitive than the ReValver and more streamlined than either ReValver or Guitar Rig. Guitar Rig is the standout here in my evaluation.