From Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse's book "Blockbusters: Hit-Making,…
by Rich Tozzoli
By now you’ve probably had a chance to run your guitar through one or more of the available amp simulators on the market. With hardware and software offerings ranging from the pioneering Line 6 POD to IK Multimedia’s AmpliTube and Digidesign’s Eleven, there are literally hundreds of amp models available at your fingertips. Want a ’64 Blackface Deluxe? A ’67 AC-30 Top Boost? How about a ’65 Marshall JTM-45 into a 4×12 cab loaded with Celestions? No problem, just dial it up.
Well, maybe there’s a little problem. You will need a fairly modern, fast computer and an interface to get the job done with software. Like their desktop and rackmounted counterparts, these simulators are all very well-suited to digital recording rigs, but if you want to use them as a preamp for a live setting you’ll still need to run them through speakers or a freestanding amp.
What happened to just plugging that ¼” cable into a good old tube combo and cranking it?
Amps and amp simulators. There is no answer to which one is intrinsically better, so the question becomes: What best suits your musical needs?
If you’re mostly playing out live, a standard amp sure makes a lot of sense. However, more and more players are going the laptop route with interfaces such as the Stealth Pedal, which was built just for that purpose: live playing through a computer.
What are the benefits of a laptop for live performance? Well, aside from not having to lug your 50 lb. monster in and out of the club, there’s the flexibility of sound. You can call up a massive variety of amps, cabinets and effects to produce most any sound for any setting or style. That kind of Swiss Army-knife diversity would set you back a small ransom if you owned the actual hardware pieces. And who would want to hump all that gear on a gig?
On the other hand, there’s a great deal to be said for the simplicity and reliability of a conventional amp. It may not be a master of all trades, but it can be a master of tone. An amp (let’s say a combo amp) represents true, old-school plug and play, and troubleshooting is usually at a minimum.
Plus, you may not like the feel of playing through a computer. Even though many amp simulators sound amazing, they may not give you that sponginess or string attack you’re accustomed to as a player. That will in turn affect your performance — and we all realize what that leads to.
Another issue to take into consideration with a laptop rig is latency. Basically, latency is the delay (in milliseconds, or ms) that it takes for the sound to travel from your strings, through a computer’s processor, and out to a speaker. The current generation of speedy computers renders latency nearly a non-issue, but there are system/software combinations that are problematic. You’ll have to explore the options to learn which programs are most compatible with the computer you intend to use.
If you mostly work in the studio, an amp simulator can be an amazing tool to get sounds that are otherwise very difficult to come by. Recording a real amp comes with the complication of miking it properly (which includes owning the right mics), not to mention those volume levels when you’re working late at night. With a simulator you can put your headphones on and dial that JTM-45 up to blistering levels. Then, with just a few clicks of the mouse, instantly switch over to a small Fender Princeton.
Good as these simulators are, the sound of a real amp that’s miked up and dialed in just right is an incomparable thing of beauty. Sure, you have to get it set up just right, but that tone and feel can inspire great performances.
Some players throw in the towel on simulators, tired of working with digitized sounds that don’t meet their analog expectations. Some can’t understand why anyone would lose an hour of precious time moving around a room mic when great tone is a click away.
Suss for Yourself
In my work producing artists and on my own television tracks, I’ve found a combination of amps and amp simulators to be the best solution. No software can replace the sound of my ’62 Gibson Falcon, ’66 Magnatone M10, or ’91 MESA/Boogie Mark IV head. But none of those amps can provide me the amazing variety I get using my favorite amp simulator programs.
In deciding which approach works best for you, be sure to test both under optimal circumstances. That is, be sure to give each side a fair shake. Get the tubes changed in your amps and make sure they are biased properly so that when you plug in the sound will rock your world. But also poke around online and check out some cool amp simulators. Install the demos using sounds that grab you, and A/B them with your miked sounds. You just might change your thinking — and your tone — in the process.
Rich Tozzoli is an accomplished engineer, mixer, producer and composer. He has worked with artists such as Ace Frehley, Al DiMeola and David Bowie, among many more, and is the author of Surround Sound Mixing for ProTools. Rich is also a lifelong guitarist and composer. His work can be heard regularly on FoxNFL, HBO, and Discovery Channel.