We’re going to make a statement that’s going to upset a lot of old-school guitarists.
In many (but not all) situations, software modeling amps are now the better choice for guitarists to buy first. Not only that, but they have pulled ahead in many key areas, especially for solo musicians and hobbyists.
(I can feel many purists shaking their head at me for writing that, but seriously, they’ve come a very long way in the last 5 years.)
That being said, this doesn’t mean that they are the end-all-be-all of guitar equipment, nor does it mean that they will replace actual amplifiers, pedals, or cabinets any time soon.
In this article, we’ll look at some of the different situations in which you may wish to buy an amp simulator, when you’d want to buy a real amp, and what our best recommendations are depending on your unique situation.
What Is Amp Simulator Software?
Long story short, amp simulation or amp modeling software essentially works like this – you connect your guitar to your computer via an audio interface (like the Scarlett 2i2). Then, the software takes your signal and modifies it the same way traditional equipment would.
Typically, they come with a wide variety of modeled amplifiers, cabinets, pedals, and effects.
Then, you can mix and match the equipment any way you like. Adjust the knobs to your liking, switch the order of the signal chain, move the modeled microphones around… there are practically no limits to how you can tweak your tone.
Once you’ve found a setup you like, just play your guitar like normal. This can be either recorded directly into your DAW (digital audio workstation) and of course, played back in real-time through speakers.
Because of that, amp sims are becoming more popular not just as a tool to play around with, but for live performance and even for recording!
Considering that high-end amp simulators cost only a few hundred dollars, vs. the tens of thousands of dollars it would cost for all of the individual equipment, I can’t say I blame people.
But how big is the sacrifice? Let’s look at the pros and cons of each in more detail.
The Case For Amp Sims
If amp simulators didn’t have some serious benefits to them, they wouldn’t even be something worth discussing. Let’s take a look at some of these benefits in more detail.
1. The Sound Is Practically Indistinguishable From ‘The Real Thing’
This, more than anything else, is the reason why amp sims are now such a hot topic.
For most intents and purposes, the sounds you can get out of a quality amp sim can practically match the sound of the real equipment.
Some tone purists will disagree, and that’s fair. However, you are at the very least, getting 99% of the way there. Professional musicians cannot tell the difference in blind tests.
And if that’s the case, the average listener sure as heck won’t be able to tell the difference at all. Even if they could, they wouldn’t care.
If you’ve used an amp simulator in the distance past, consider giving a newer one a try. They no longer sound thin and ‘processed’ like they did before.
If you are primarily interested in playing rock or metal music, we recommend Overloud TH-U as our number one pick at the moment.
2. Hundreds Of Pieces Of Equipment
Amps. Cabinets. Microphones. Pedals. Effects. If you were to buy each piece of equipment individually, you would be dropping tens of thousands of dollars.
Not to mention, you would need a place to store it all, and you probably wouldn’t bother to use it all since it would take so much time to swap things out.
With amp modelling software, you have access to all of these for a much cheaper price, making it a great value.
The sheer versatility and wide arrange of possibilities is very exciting, and really helps you to try new things out in a bunch of creative ways.
3. Presets Make Things Convenient
There are some people that like to spend a long time shaping their tone. There are others that just want to pick up and play.
Amp modeling software caters to both of these people.
Most amp sims ship with hundreds of presets built-into them, and then allow you to also save your own.
This means you can shape your tone when you’re feeling like doing so, save it, and instantly pull it back up when you want to use it. You can group these into preset banks for organization purposes, making it convenient to find what you’re looking for.
Musicians that use amp simulators for live performance often will put their setlist in a preset bank and then cycle through them during shows.
Let me tell you, being able to go from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama to Metallica’s Master of Puppets with the press of a button is convenient.
4. MIDI Foot Controllers Keep The Pedalboard Experience Alive
One possible downside to using software – especially for live performance, is that you have to use a computer.
Or do you?
Using a MIDI foot controller like the Behringer FCB1010, you can still turn on and off your pedals during live performances just like you would on a normal pedalboard. On Overloud TH3 / THU, you simply map each pedal in each preset to the footswitch you want to use. You can also set up global footswitches – for example, the first pedal will always be overdrive, for every preset that has an overdrive pedal.
You can also use the footswitches to toggle through presets, meaning you never have to actually touch a computer during a gig.
I consider being able to turn pedals on and off seamlessly to be an important part of the guitar playing experience, so I wanted to mention this here as many people do not know that MIDI foot controllers are a thing! You can grab the foot controller demonstrated in the above video here.
5. You Can Change Your Tone After Recording
This one might just be both a blessing and a curse.
When you record into your DAW with the plan to use amp sims, you are truly only recording the pure signal of your guitar. Then, the modelling software works with and over that tone, leaving the original recording untouched.
This means that you can go back in and adjust it (in minor in very drastic ways) later down the line or during the production process of your track.
With a regular amp, you’re stuck with the tone you dialed in when you mic’d it up and recorded it. Yes, you can further process the sound, but you can’t make the same sort of changes as you could if you were working with a clean signal.
This is convenient, because you can make necessary adjustments without having to rerecord. By the same token, it can also lead to a compulsion to spend more time tweaking the tone, making it harder for perfectionists to accept a project as complete.
As someone that works a lot with MIDI virtual instruments, I can’t count the number of times I’ve listened to an old track of mine, decided I wanted to change one bar or the setting of one instrument, and bounce the audio again.
The same feeling of compulsion can arise with software-based amplifiers.
6. Authentic Tube Amp Sounds – At Lower Volumes
It’s common knowledge that in order to get the best sound out of classic tube amps, you have to crank the volume up really high.
There are tube amps these days that get a good sound even at lower volumes, but good amp modelling software can model the vintage tube amps and simulate the quality of the sound, even at lower volumes.
Plug in a nice pair of headphones, and you’ve got a killer sound to rock out with, even if your partner is sleeping in the next room over.
7. When It Comes Down To It, You Can Always Buy The Real Thing Later
One of the greatest things about being able to try out a lot of simulations of equipment together, is you have a better idea what to actually invest in.
After all, there is no reason you can’t own a good amp sim or two, alongside your collection of real equipment.
By playing with the amp sims, you may have a better idea on which equipment you want to purchase first to better get the sounds you’re looking for the most.
The Case For Real Guitar Amps
Despite all the benefits that amp simulation software can provide, there are of course some benefits to purchasing ‘real’ equipment as well.
Let’s look at some of the benefits actual guitar amps have over amp sims.
1. Starting With The Obvious – The Aesthetic Feeling Of The Amp
There is something unique about playing with actual equipment that just can’t be delivered – nor can ever be delivered, with modelling software.
Maybe it’s just the fact that I’ve grown up in a family of musicians, watching the world’s most iconic guitarists play shows on the television, but there’s a certain appreciation that comes with using real equipment.
Plus, being able to turn over and reach or feel your equipment, to see it physically in front of you, has an element of satisfaction that can’t be matched by ‘fake’ equipment on a screen.
2. Amp Simulators Can Be A Bit Clunky To Work With
It is often quicker and easier to make small adjustments and fine-tune your sound on actual equipment, than it is using amp simulation software.
On large or complex signal chains, you may not be able to fit all of the equipment on your screen at once, and you may have to scroll to find the piece of equipment you’re looking for. This doesn’t take long, but it is a minor inconvenience you have to put up with.
Then, to turn the knobs, you have to click or drag, and it is easy for the sensitivity of your mouse to cause this to go too far.
I wouldn’t say this is necessarily a huge issue you have to be fearful of, but it’s certainly less convenient than simply bending down and turning a knob slightly on your pedalboard.
One potential solution to this issue is using something like a Novation Launch Control XL. Because most amp modelling software supports MIDI learn, a controller like this one will allow you to map the knobs on the virtual equipment to the knobs on the controller. For example, you could map the first row of knobs to the knobs on your virtual amp, then map the second row to various pedals, and so on.
I still wouldn’t say this is as convenient or aesthetically pleasing as using actual equipment, but it is still a step up over having to use your mouse for everything.
3. Too Much Variety Can Be A Bad Thing
The problem with having a lot of equipment at once – especially if you get it all at the same time, is that it is much harder to actually get to know it.
Many of us get into a habit of chasing that next piece of equipment in hopes of getting the sound we want – without ever taking the time to make the most out of what we already have.
When we have less to work with, we’re more likely to take the time to really dig deep into it, learning how each and every thing affects the sound. We gain an intuitive sense on what we need to change to craft the tone that we’re looking for, and we know exactly what adjustments to make when something sounds off.
This may be more important to some people than to others. However, I considered it to be pretty important, and definitely something to keep in mind – there really can be too much of a good thing.
4. Crashing During A Gig
We’ve all experienced a time when our computer has failed us in some way.
Most amp sims are stable on all modern computers, but that’s not to say you won’t ever have a problem. And if that happens to come during a gig, you’re in for a tricky situation.
Even if the software works flawlessly, you never know when Windows is going to decide it’s time for an update, and conveniently prevent you from using your computer for 20 minutes or longer.
Therefore, most people would agree that actual amplifiers are more dependable, especially for those performing live night after night.
5. Multi-FX Units Are Still Available
If you want to play primarily with real equipment, you can still experiment around with one of the many multi-fx units available on the market today.
In fact, we recommend a multi-fx unit as one of our top accessories for guitarists for many of the same reasons we appreciate amp simulation software so much – there are a lot of options available, at a relatively low price.
One such example of a multi effects pedal at about the same price range as quality amp modeling software would be the MOOER GE200.
Like amp modeling software, multi effects pedals have come a long way in the last 5 to 10 years, so if it’s been a long time since you’ve given one a shot, consider trying one out again. The sound quality has gotten a lot better!
Want To Try Amp Simulation Software? Here’s What We Recommend
In order to use amp simulation software in the most natural, convenient, and enjoyable matter, we’ve put together a list of recommended purchases in order to make the most out of your experience. While only the first 2 are strictly necessary, the others can help to make the most out of the software, while also giving an experience that’s most similar to using actual equipment.
1. The Software Itself
The amp sim itself is likely to have the biggest effect on the overall experience you get from playing.
Truthfully speaking, some software is better catered for different genres. For a good overall experience – especially if you’re playing rock or metal, we recommend Overloud’s TH-U. They also have a few bass amps modeled, which is a nice bonus if you are also a bassist!
2. An Audio Interface
For the best experience, it is highly recommended to pick up an audio interface like the Scarlett 2i2.
Technically, it is possible to connect directly to your computer via USB using something like this cable, but an audio interface will provide a much cleaner signal while also reducing latency. Without a powerful computer, the latency introduced without an audio interface may make the software practically unusable.
3. Decent Headphones – Or Speakers
For the love of all that is holy, don’t invest in a quality amp simulator and then play it out of your laptop speakers.
Laptop speakers are designed to be as bare-bones as possible and should always be avoided by musicians even in a practice setting.
For a good pair of cheap headphones, we recommend the Sennheiser HD280PROs.
For a good pair of cheap speakers, we recommend the Edifier R1280DBs. Of course, if you already have studio monitors, these should be fine.
4. Novation Launch Control XL
This neat little controller will allow you to map different knobs and sliders to different things within the software, allowing you to conveniently change them just by changing the knob or moving the slider.
Although the sales page claims it’s made for Ableton Live, it is just a MIDI controller at its core – and therefore can be used within any software that supports MIDI learn (like Overloud TH-U mentioned above.)
I wouldn’t consider this to be a must-have, but it is convenient if you use amp sims – or other virtual instruments a lot.
5. MIDI Foot Controller
If you are a performer or you need the ability to turn different pedals on without stopping, a midi foot controller can be a great investment.
It is also necessary if using a wah pedal is important to you, as this is the only way you can really control any soft of wah effect while playing. Overloud does a modeled auto wah pedal, but the use of a regular wah pedal can be much more expressive.
A MIDI foot controller bridges all of the gaps, allowing you to control the virtual pedals the same way you would with real ones. Press down on the foot switch to turn the pedal on and off, or even cycle through different presets in your amp sim.
Note that not all amp simulators may support the use of MIDI foot controllers, however, many of the popular sims like Overloud TH-U and Guitar Rig 6 do.
We recommend the Behringer FCB1010.
6. DAW Software
If you don’t have any already, we recommend investing in a cheap DAW to record into and further process your audio if you wish to do so.
For guitarists and bands, we do not have enough good things to say about Reaper. It can do just about everything you want, has a free 60-day trial, and a very cheap price of $60 after that trial is over.
The developers are also constantly adding features that people ask for and overall they are a fantastic company we are proud to support.
Ultimately, the choice to invest in guitar amp simulation software vs real equipment is a largely a personal choice. While each has their own benefits, you must decide on your own which are the most important to you.
While live performers and purists may prefer owning real equipment they can physically see and bring with them, more and more home musicians and hobbyists are finding joy with their amp modelling software. Considering that you can get a large variety of simulated equipment that’s now good enough to play and even record with, I can’t say that I blame them.
We now recommend amp modelling software or a multi effects unit to all new guitarists we work with due to how much fun either can be. After all, isn’t the point – more so than anything else, to have fun?
It would be wonderful if you could share your opinions about this topic in the comments section below. We would all love to hear what you have to say – just keep it civil. 🙂
Remember, there’s no reason you can’t own both at some point!