Amp Simulators: Taking Your Tone to the Next Level

Amp simulation software is one of the technological marvels of the modern world, in my opinion. Having a collection of realistic virtual amplifiers, cabinets, and effects at one's fingertips is a dream that the 15-year-old me, just starting out on guitar a couple of decades ago, could have never imagined would come true. Needless to say, present-day-me couldn't be more delighted by these developments. So it is with a bit of reluctance that I must point out that, as wonderous as amp sims are, they are not perfect, and there are a few hurdles one must overcome when using them. For example, the feel of a software amp can often seem rather sterile and unresponsive, even if the sound is good, and the process of dialing in a good tone typically takes much longer than dialing in a similar tone from a real amp, especially when using an unfamiliar program. Also, amp sims often have a propensity for fizzy high-end frequencies that can be a challenge to eliminate. Fortunately, none of these obstacles to quality amp sim tone are deal-breakers. They can all be overcome with some attention to one's signal path, as well as a few simple workarounds using basic tools that most of us already have on hand. Here are a few tips for making the most of amp simulators:

Start at the source

GarageBand Amp Simulator

As with all things audio, good sound starts at the source. This means that the guitar needs to be properly set up, have fresh strings, a decent set of pickups, and a skilled operator. If any of these things are lacking, the tone will suffer. I have found that amp simulators can be particularly unforgiving in regards to string freshness. Dull, corroded strings that are nearing the end of their functional life might still sound okay through a good tube amp, but plug into an amp sim and they'll probably sound flat, decrepit, and unappealing.

Cables

It should be mentioned that cables of good quality will be necessary. Nothing fancy is required, just verify that all instrument cables are doing their job with no bum connections or undue noise. When in doubt, swap 'em out! Also, as a rule of thumb, it's best to use the shortest cable possible for the job, as unnecessarily long cables can degrade the signal and add interference.

Check your interface

The next crucial step in the signal chain is the audio interface. The quality of its preamplifier and analog-to-digital converters can have a substantial influence over the quality of your amp sim sounds. Fortunately, these days even most cheap audio interfaces (and most integrated soundcards, as well) are pretty darn good, with very respectable A-D conversion and clean, quiet, transparent preamp circuitry. This was not always the case, however, as the vast sonic improvements in audio converter technology have only trickled down to the low end of the interface market relatively recently, so if your interface is old and sketchy, now may be the time to retire it and get something new. There are countless fine and affordable options from Focusrite, Presonus, M-Audio, IK Multimedia, and many others.

Watch your levels

Unlike analog gear, which can often sound (subjectively) better when hammered with a hot signal level and spiking transients, digital gear does not like to have its inputs overloaded. Digital distortion is an ugly, ugly thing, and there's no quicker way to make an amp sim sound like poop than to clip the converters of your audio interface with too hot a level. This means that you must carefully monitor levels at all steps in the signal chain, keeping gain modest and keeping an eye and ear out for transient spikes that may occur when you play hard. Some interfaces have a soft limiting feature that can be engaged, which serves to prevent the odd digital overload that can result from aggressive rocking. This is an excellent feature to take advantage of when using an amp sim.

Use real analog pedals and preamps

In my own experience, I have found that using a real, analog pedalboard or preamplifier, rather than the virtual pedals found in a lot of amp simulator software, yields a much better tone and a more realistic feel. Setting the virtual amp for a clean or slightly broken-up tone, and then using analog dirt pedals for gain is often the way to go with many amp simulators. I have also found that using an analog preamplifier, like those made by A/DA and Tech 21, for example, can similarly improve the overall amp sim sound and experience, especially if said preamp has a gentle compression or tube emulation component to soften the tone somewhat and smooth out the transients. Certain amp sims seem to interact better with real pedals and preamps than others, but I personally have had success using this method with AmpliTube, Guitar Rig, and Softube's wonderful Amp Room plugin. Again, keep an eye and ear on gain staging and levels to avoid digital clipping.

Use EQ and low-pass filters

One of the major pitfalls of amp simulators is their tendency toward treble "fizz,” especially when cranking virtual preamp gain. Using a basic parametric EQ plugin after the amp simulator, like the kind that is built into most DAWs, to find the fizz and carve it out, can be a very effective strategy. Fizz usually lives in the frequencies between (roughly) 2kHz and 12kHz, so creating a narrow band EQ notch and sweeping slowly back and forth with it through that frequency range can often reveal the fizzy frequencies. Another, somewhat simpler option is to use a low-pass filter after the amp sim, experimenting with where, and how aggressively, to roll off the high frequencies. This can warm up the tone significantly.

Add some virtual ambience

Magnus Ambience

Most amp sims have built-in ambience options, often in the form of an "air" control that adds a subtle touch of depth and room tone without sounding like an obvious reverb effect. Some also have virtual room microphones that can be moved closer or further from the virtual cab to add a sense of space and roomy ambience. Experimenting with these can make a night-and-day difference in the realism of faux amp tones.

Take time to tweak

One of the best strategies for getting good tones from amp simulators is to simply take the time to experiment, turn all the virtual knobs, and listen to the results. A few of the more complex amp sims can be devilishly difficult to dial in at first, but once you acquire some experience with the functions and idiosyncrasies of the software, the tones will improve substantially. In general, amp sims just take a bit more knob twisting and experimenting than most real amps do. If you're new to the game, a straightforward, no frills amp simulator, such as the aforementioned Softube Amp Room, is probably the best choice. Patience, grasshopper.

comments powered by Disqus