More and more these days, guitarists are switching to totally a digital guitar rig. There are plenty of pros and cons, so today we are going to look at the the reasons why it might be something to consider.
Why You SHOULD Consider A Digital Guitar Rig
The 2023 Digital Guitar Rig: More Popular Than Ever!
It is a little crazy to look back at the last 10 years or so when it comes to technology, and just how far we have come. Having a digital guitar rig in 2012 was often scoffed at by guitar purists, as it was brand new technology at the time.
But now the digital realm has come so far, and guitarists are moving further away from using big amp rigs. Lugging around a 100 pound half-stack has become very rare, especially for guitarists that gig for a living.
You even have amp companies trying to make products smaller and lighter, like the Blackstar St. James series from last year. Those Blackstar amps were very lightweight, but they were still large and cumbersome.
I have always been a “combo amp person” when it comes to playing gigs. I used a Mesa Boogie half-stack for a little while, and it was just too big for most venues. Well, not too big… it was too loud. If your max cap in a venue is less than 2000 people? There’s no way you are going to be able to crank that amp.
This is the problem, and why so many guitarists are considering a digital guitar rig. Not only is is hard to transport these big amps around, you usually have to crank a tube amp for it to sound good.
Well, it isn’t a rule or anything, but tube amps do sound better LOUD.
Most of us are not playing Wembley Stadium every night, so cranking an amp is out of the question. We could buy an attenuator, but that is yet another piece of gear we would have to carry around. So the solution, is to consolidate everything into one piece of gear.
Today we are going to talk about the pros of using a digital guitar rig on a full time basis. In another article we will talk about the cons, so today is all about the positive aspects. Luckily, there are plenty of positives when it comes to a fully digital guitar rig.
So are you thinking about going digital? Let’s take a look at the top 5 reasons why a digital guitar rig might be the solution you are looking for!
1. Ease Of Use On Stage
This is probably one of the biggest ones, especially for guitarists that do not want to lug around an amp anymore. A digital processor like the Helix or the immense new Headrush Prime is going to be so easy to get set up for a show.
Some people will want to have an FRFR speaker on stage to either monitor their performance, or use the FRFR as the primary sound source while using digital gear. So an FRFR will add to the size of your digital guitar rig, but every stage/venue will be different.
In a lot of cases, the sound man probably has a DI box for every instrument on stage. This makes things super simple, since all you need to bring is your guitars and the effects unit! No amps are needed on most stages these days, and sound personnel at venues know how to get your digital rig going for a show.
This makes things simple, and easy. You just throw a few cables in a bag with your effects unit and go! Most modern effects processors have all kinds of input/output options to run your signal straight into the main PA system.
Some people will always prefer to have some kind of speaker reference on stage, and that’s OK too. You can easily use an FRFR speaker as a monitor, while your main signal goes straight to the PA for the audience.
I have seen “hybrid” setups, where people may run a Line 6 product with a small combo amp. You can use the power amp section of a tube amp to run your processor. Likewise, you can run the processor as “effects only” and use the amp’s sounds for your main tone.
There are a lot of ways to mix a “real” amp with your digital rig. This works great as an option, or maybe you just use an FRFR speaker. There are so many different ways to run your digital guitar rig, and the ease of use makes it completely up to you.
For maximum efficiency, just using the processor is the most economical way to gig. Most venues are set up to run everything direct, and even the pros do it these days. You have everything you need, in one piece of gear.
2. Ditching Your Pedalboard
This one is super controversial, but it can also be a hugely rewarding experience. I can tell you on a personal level, just how freeing it was to get rid of my physical pedalboard. But I also have a different perspective…
I LOVE to try out new guitar pedals, and checking out what kind of cool designs pedal makers come up with! I think I will always love physical pedals, but there is a good argument against carrying those around for playing shows or doing studio work.
When I made the switch to a digital guitar rig in the studio, it really changed my workflow. I was able to create songs faster, and record ideas on the fly. I didn’t have to change anything on my pedalboard, because I have presets ready to go.
The quality of the effects you get from Line 6, for example, definitely rivals the quality of physical pedals that I used to have. When I use a Helix to record, I have hundreds of effects right at my fingertips. While my physical pedalboard was limited to what I had on the board.
I have way more choices with digital gear, and to be able to get all of those physical pedals I would have to spend thousands of dollars. I have so many effects to choose from, it can cause option paralysis sometimes.
Most processors have everything you need, even effects like down-tuning. There are very few physical pedals that can not be replicated digitally. Reverb, Delay, Chorus, Vibes, and all kinds of other effects come with common processors.
Having all of your effects in one place, in a small little box… on stage or in the studio is a great way to have all of the versatility you need. Why carry a pedalboard and your amp around if you can have it all in one?
3. Amp Variations
This is probably the biggest one for me as a guitarist, and the main reason I have switched mainly to a digital guitar rig. Some people only need one amp, and a couple of different tones. That is up to the guitarist, and the genre they play.
But someone like myself? I play every genre of music these days, and to be able to pull that off in the studio I am going to need 6 or 7 amps at all times. Can you imagine how annoying that would be, switching from amp to amp? Or moving those amps between studios?
Most of the time, I use my BOSS Katana for practice, and it has several distinct amp sounds. But when I am recording, I use STL Tones AmpHub. This gives me a multitude of different amp sounds to use at any given point in time. And that is just the plugin side of things in the studio.
Most physical effects processors come with a bunch of amp models that you can dial in, making your processor an absolute weapon. If you need a pristine clean tone, all the way to the heaviest metal, there’s an amp sound that will “fit” in most mainstream processors.
This is going to be one of the biggest factors when it comes to switching to a digital guitar rig. If you are in a cover band, or you just need a ton of different types of amp tones, then digital has you covered. Some processors allow you to “blend” amps, using two at the same time!
Even if you do not play in a band or record in the studio, then processors are great for practice with headphones. This means you can scroll through all kinds of different amp sounds depending on your mood!
Having a multitude of amps and tones at your disposal is becoming the norm in music these days. Even Metal genres are exploring more types of tones, instead of sticking to one heavy tone for the whole set/album.
This is such a big part of building your digital guitar rig. You amp is your main source of tone, so having options that you can dial in any way you want is a huge benefit. Imagine having a room full of different amps that you can dial in, any way you want!
4. Editing And Customization
This is where the fun really begins when it comes to switching to a digital guitar rig of any sort. Almost every processor/effects unit comes with some sort of editing software. This gives you complete control over every sound.
If you are brand new to the idea of a digital guitar rig, you should check out how the Line 6 Editor works. The Line 6 version is one of the more complex setups when it comes to editing software. But it will give you an idea of how all of this works.
You can usually pick from several different amp models, as well as different speaker cabs to build a virtual rig. After you have your “base” sound dialed in, you can start adding effects. You can then save this sound that you created as a preset.
Building A “Base” Tone Digitally
- Find the amp you want, and set the gain
- Pick out a speaker cabinet, most amp models have a matching cab
- Set the microphone for the cabinet (When in doubt, pick the 57)
- EQ the amp to your taste
- Add the virtual pedals to your signal chain
You can program any kind of sound you want, and then save it as a preset. I like to name the preset after what I am going for sound-wise. For example I might dial in a high gain sound and name the preset “Heavy Rhythm” so I know what the preset will be used for later.
This can come in handy live, and in the studio. Do you have a song that needs 3 or 4 totally different guitar amp tones? You can pull those sounds off with one switch, instead of tap-dancing on the pedalboard. Just go through your presets, and find the sounds you need!
I always create a base tone before I add any modulation effects to the preset, but how you do this is all up to you. There are usually a ton of effects that you have at your disposal.
Most multi-effects units also come with a looper, which is great for practice. Some of the more versatile units like Headrush Prime have full “practice suites” with a built-in drum machine. All of this can be controlled and edited by your computer or the unit itself.
The possibilities are not limitless, since all units have a certain amount of DSP when it comes to effects. But most offer more than enough power to run amp models, speaker cabs, and all kinds of reverb/modulation effects.
You can dial in any sound you want, and most processors have “artist packs” that replicate the sounds from your favorite guitarists. Do you want to have a Marshall stack sound in your bedroom? A Peavey 5150 sound for your solos on stage?
You can get just about any sound that you can imagine, and edit it however you want. The better units have more control, but even smaller budget models have a lot of great features these days. Even the pros have switched to some kind of digital guitar rig these days. People like:
- Steve Vai
- And tons of other major artists!
5. Studio Use & Recording At Home
This is where the concept of a digital guitar rig is a REAL gamechanger, and can really help with workflow and creativity. I have some first hand experience with this, and it has really made my life easier when it comes to recording.
If you are just getting started with recording, then you have probably checked out what you will need to get started. The big thing that you need, is an interface of some sort. But most digital guitar rig processors have a “built-in” interface via USB!
This means all you need is to record is a USB cable, and your processor! But even if you don’t plan on using it as an interface, recording is MUCH easier than the traditional way of capturing guitar sounds. Usually, you would have to mic up your speaker/amp and that takes some experience, as well as some serious trial and error.
Using a USB guitar processor takes the microphone out of the equation, and gives you the same tones that you hear through any other sound source from your processor. This is probably the easiest way to get your riff ideas down, quickly.
At a professional level, you can do a LOT with a digital guitar rig. I have used STL Tones, Line 6, and Neural Amp Modeler lately in the studio. I have all kinds of tones saved, and ready to go when I am ready to start recording a song.
The thing about using digital guitar products, is they come in so many different forms. My Line 6 is a physical piece of hardware, but I also have amp plugins ready on my PC. This gives me hundreds of options to record guitar tones in the studio between the two.
I play a lot of different guitar genres, from Metal to Jazz. Having all of those tones at the push of a button is so easy, and keeps my workflow steady in the studio. I don’t have to mic up any amps, and I can even be quiet while recording with headphones!
Many big name studios use amp sim plugins, as well as physical digital products these days, and you have probably heard all kinds of music that use amp modeling/sim technology. Likewise, pro musicians use products like AxeFX on tour, since they have all the tones from all of their songs programmed into the unit.
This makes it so easy to get started in recording, but it is also a great tool for professional musicians that need great tones without having to be loud or mic up an amplifier. It is simple to get ideas recorded, and you can tweak the sounds however you want before and after.
Should YOU Switch To A Digital Guitar Rig?
That is going to be a personal choice, but at the same time… you don’t have to completely switch to a digital rig. There are tons of options, and at then end of the day, amps and digital tech are tools. Your guitar is tool as well, and I think sometimes we forget about this, these are tools for making music.
So yes, an amp that is cranked up in a room sounds amazing, and it can be a great studio tool. But amp sims and multi-effects processors are viable tools as well. So the choice doesn’t have to be “either/or” when it comes down to the decision. Use everything!
You can always use amp sims or processors in the studio, and then use a “real” amplifier for live shows. You can also do it the other way around, and use real amps in the studio and recreate those tones on your processor for live gigs.
But wait! Don’t these processors sound worse than a “real amp”?
I seriously doubt that the audience/listener cares what gear you are using to get your guitar tones. Better yet, listen to some of your favorite recent songs. Can you tell if it is a real amp, or a modeler? Honestly, can you really tell the difference?
I seriously doubt that most guitarists could tell in a blind studio test.
But what about the different brands of processors? Like Kemper, or Line 6, Headrush, or AxeFX? Which one is the best and most accurate sound?
The answer to that is get what you want. Get the digital guitar rig that works best for you, because almost all of these units honestly sound the same. We have got to the singularity point with amp sims, and almost every processor sounds “accurate”.
Sure, some processors react a little differently. But having tried all of them? I would never be able to tell which company made a “Fender Twin” amp model. They all sound very similar to me, when comparing the big brands.
The difference between the choices for a digital guitar rig, is how they operate. I like Line 6, because I am very familiar with the editing part. But if you like touch screens, you should get a Headrush Prime. They are going to sound and react a little differently, but all of these processors sound GREAT.
Digital guitar gear is just another tool, and we have so many options. Which one is better? That is up to you. But switching to a digital guitar rig for the studio or stage is a great solution for a lot of guitarists. At the end of the day, it is all about HOW you play your guitar, not how you get the tone.
The Headrush Prime is one of the most powerful, versatile and realistic-sounding floorboard FX processors ever, featuring an advanced multi-core processor with a huge library of on-board guitar FX, amp, cab and microphone emulations, smart amp/pedal cloning and IR loading, best-in-class looper and a full suite of vocal FX