This past week I stumbled across something rather revolutionary, and I am still learning about the Neural Amp Modeler. So what does it do, and how does it work? Today we check out this FREE amp sim.
Neural Amp Modeler: Key Takeaways
- 🎛️ Tech Meets Tone: NAM Plugin mirrors TONEX’s functionality, capturing amp characteristics for a deep dive into the tech behind your sound.
- 🔍 Behind the Scenes: Peek at the code and algorithms that shape your guitar tones.
- 👩💻 Community Contributions: Tech enthusiasts within the NAM community are fine-tuning amp models for optimal sound.
- 🤷♂️ Magic Under the Hood: For most, the intricate workings of NAM’s amp comparison and “training” are complex mysteries.
- 🎸 Plug and Play: Simply download different tones for a straightforward, tweakable amp simulation experience.
- 📥 IR Essentials: Load up an Impulse Response (IR) to complete the setup, with a plethora of free options available.
- 🆓 Freebies to Start: No IRs? No problem. Grab STL Tones’ free bundle with an IR loader and quality speaker IRs, plus an excellent amp sim.
- 🔥 Diverse Amp Library: NAM’s user-generated library boasts a range of tones, from high-gain to the unique sounds of SOVTEK and Bugera amps.
What if I told you that you could have any amp you want for FREE? And all you need is your computer, and a little bit of time?
I think most of us guitarists have at least experimented a little bit with the world of amp sims. There are so many that have popped up over the last two years or so, it can be a very deep rabbit hole.
I swear, that’s the last reference to The Matrix in this article.
But we are truly living in the future, and it is crazy just how far technology has come in the last few years. Luckily, machines are not farming humans for fuel… yet.
Amp Modeling is The Future Whether You Like It Or Not…
Amp modeling has really taken off in the last decade or so, and tons of guitarists have “gone digital”. Even mainstream artists use amp modelers on tour, since it reduces the problems that guitar amplifiers can sometimes cause.
There’s no tube maintenance, and you do not have to lug around different amps for different tones anymore. Amp modelers used to be a luxury, but now I see products like the Helix being used at my local dive bar by cover bands.
There are many different ways to use amp modelers. You have physical devices like Helix, Headrush, and Quad Cortex that work like a pedalboard. But you also have computer-based amp modelers that you can use in the studio, or your bedroom with headphones.
Most guitarists seem to enjoy Neural DSP (unrelated to THIS Neural) which was developed to capture the sounds and tones of certain artists.
You can then take the tones that Gojira or Polyphia used on their albums, and make your own tones and presets.
But that is just one type of amp modeling, and this past year has seen the launch of the Headrush Prime and the TONEX, which can basically clone your physical amps at home.
Previously, only the Kemper Profiler could do this, but technology has really caught up.
What Is Amp Modeling?
Amp modeling is a digital recreation of the tones and sounds that you would get from a physical amplifier. Amp models react much like a “real” amp, and can be used in the studio and on stage. Most modelers have “presets” that capture a certain amp and speaker combo.
This is usually comprised of two parts:
- The amp itself, and the different channels of the amp at various gain stages
- An impulse response, also called an IR. This mimics the speaker’s response to the amp.
Not everyone is so impressed with modeling technology in the guitar community, and these players prefer a real amp.
I was one of those guitarists until recently, and I honestly think that modeling tech is better than ever.
Especially computer plugins, in my case.
I started using STL Tones AmpHub a year ago in the studio, and I have been incredibly impressed with the sounds I am able to get using only my computer. Helix Native from Line 6 is also very popular, and I have used that in the studio as well.
But all of these products cost money, either upfront or by subscription. The cost can pile up quickly in a studio, especially if you are using other plugins for actual production.
But there are some “free” options out there…
Most of the free plugins allow you to try out the quality of one or two amps and IRs. So they are limited when it comes to customization.
We even tried out the “best” free amp sims a year or two ago. You could technically make a full song with those free sims, and no one would know that you didn’t mic up an amplifier to get the result.
These sound very convincing, especially with high gain tones.
Basically, you can make just about any sound you want with just your guitar and a computer. But where do these amp sounds come from, and where do speaker impulses get created?
They have to come from somewhere right?
But Where Do “Tones” Come From?
This can be really confusing, and almost every company that sells amp sims and impulse responses have a different way of “capturing” the amplifier characteristics. But the “idea” is what we are going to talk about today, not the geeky stuff.
The idea, is to take a real amplifier, and find every metric. This means going through different volumes, gain stages, and depending on the amp; the channels. This can be a long complex process, and recent products like the Headrush Prime or the TONEX have simplified this to an extent.
With the new Headrush Prime or TONEX, it takes a “capture” of your amp. This is a lot like taking a screenshot on your computer and then turning it into a picture. You plug up the amp, and get a “copy” of whatever the amp tone is, at the time.
But that is recent technology, and Neural Amp Modeler is using this recent tech to make guitar tones. These are snapshots, rather than full-fledged amplifier profiles. So you have limited control over the actual tone.
When it comes to doing cabinets, making an impulse response is a little easier. The process is a lot like measuring your studio room for frequencies, and adding sound barriers to “treat” your room.
You have to get the “feel” of the cabinet, as well as the sounds of microphones placed in different positions on the speaker. The frequencies are then recorded and turned into a WAV file.
This is called “convolution” and you should read this outstanding article about how speaker IRs work, and what convolution does.
Check out this article by Nigel Redmon if you want a deep-dive into modeling and IRs.
What makes Neural Amp Modeler so cool, is that it allows to take these amplifier “snapshots” and save them as a file. Much like the way that you would make an IR, but the process is a little different.
You let the Neural Amp Modeler capture the amp tone, but then you have to “train” it. This is a lot like a TONEX Pedal in many ways, except it is FREE. NAM is currently only computer-based, with no hardware to accompany it.
But it is totally up to you to find amps, and IRs to use. This is a community-based project, and NAM does not come with any amp models or IRs by default. Luckily, the community is world-wide and VERY enthusiastic.
Still, it sounds too good to be true? Well, it isn’t, and today we are going to go over how you can download NAM and get started making tones!
Neural Amp Modeler
The Neural Amp Modeler looks very simple and unassuming at first glance, but I assure you… it can do a LOT in the right hands.
But there are a few things we should definitely talk about before we dive into how this thing works.
First and foremost, this entire project is completely open source, so all of the tones that you can download are made by other users. So there is not really any quality assurance yet.
This is a passion project created by Steve Atkinson, and it is starting to get a lot of attention.
How It Works
The NAM Plugin works a lot like TONEX in the way that it captures amp functions, and if you have ever wondered how it all works? This can be a huge learning tool.
You can see the code, and the algorithm that makes up your tones.
So there are some tech-savvy people in the NAM community that are capturing some amp models, and then working out the code to make them sound their best.
But most of us have no idea how any of this works.
NAM compares the actual amp with the model, and this is how it “trains” itself. Again, this is not my specialty, so I am not sure how it all comes together.
So for those of us that just want some different tones to play with? You can download them, and then you have some minimal control over the amp sim.
You also have to load an IR, and there are many free IRs out there to try. Again, most of us already have some from other sources.
If you do not have any impulse responses yet, then get the free bundle from STL Tones. This includes the Ignite IR Loader, and it comes with some great speaker IRs. It also has the Emissary Amp Collection, and that is a GREAT amp sim!
NAM has a bunch of amp tones already from the user community. Most of these are high gain amps, but there are also quite a few rare ones like SOVTEK and Bugera, which other amp modelers usually don’t cover.
In fact, the community has even made some Neural Amp Modeler profiles of OTHER amp modelers, like the Quad Cortex. NAM can take a tonal snapshot of just about any source, and there are some good bass amps as well.
The Neural amp modeler is by no means perfect yet, but it is continuously getting updates.
The most recent version has a built-in noise gate. Users are adding new profiles every week and they share these on the Facebook group.
The Facebook group is private, but it is easy to gain access. Just prove that you are a real person, and not a bot. People upload new amps and share them all the time, and there is also information on updates to NAM.
So how do you get in on this? Is NAM really FREE? It is totally free, and we are going to tell you how to get started!
Using The Neural Amp Modeler
The easiest way to do this is to follow the video above, but there are some things you need to consider. YOU have to do most of the legwork here, since the NAM Plugin itself does not come with any presets or amps. In fact, it doesn’t come with any impulse responses either.
You do not need any special hardware to get Neural Amp Modeler to work. You only need a good audio interface, and your guitar! It works just like any mainstream modeling plugin.
But there are some digital things you are going to need.
I know a lot of us already have some great impulse responses that we know, and use. So if you already have some, then you have a leg up. If not, you can search for some free ones.
We have already told you where to get some good ones.
Second, there are the amps themselves. This also requires you to do the legwork, as you will have to download the amps yourself.
So far, the best ones that I have found are HERE and HERE. If you go through those two files, you will find a LOT of amps.
But these are just amp captures, so you will have to dial them in a little bit. The same goes for choosing the right impulse response for each amp that you download. It can be a lot to take in, but take a deep breath. It really isn’t that hard once you get started.
This might take a lot of trial and error, but this is exactly why Neural Amp Modeler is FREE. You have to scroll through the tones, and you have to try them out. I have personally found good ones, and bad ones so far.
NAM: How Does It Work?
Disclaimer: I have no idea how this stuff works at a professional level. So I am going to try and explain how NAM works the BEST I can.
Most modelers and capture tech like TONEX or Kemper take an analog sound, and transfer it it an algorithm, that then gets transferred into a digital sound. That is about as simple as I can explain it, but the thing is, the TONEX and similar products have EPOCH limitations.
I have no idea what an EPOCH is, but it deals with the information involved with modeling software, and how it transfers these computer codes into sound. In the NAM files that you download, you can see some of this code.
I’m just a guitar tech/player/teacher. I am not great when it comes to modern computer tech. But I am still able to download tones and play around!
The Neural Amp Modeler does not have the same limitations when getting a “capture” of your amp. This means that you can model your amp just like TONEX, but you will then have to “train” the model that you just “captured” to get it sounding its best.
Training is just using NAM to compare the real amp signal to the captured model. There is an online way to train the models, and this is how you get them to sound as close to the “real” amp. This is all done with machine learning, and I have not captured any amps myself.
NAM can do a lot of this for you, with AI from what I understand, but I have never made a capture of an amp on either device. While TONEX does most of the work for you, NAM will need some work on your part if you plan on capturing your amp accurately.
So TONEX has a better interface, and it has big company support. It also has the advantage of having a piece of actual hardware in the form of a pedal. But NAM is stuck on your computer, and it would be tough to get it running in a live situation.
Now if you are just wanting to download Neural Amp Modeler and use the presets that other users have captured? Then that is totally fine, and you don’t need to be a tech wizard to get it up and running.
How I have Been Using The Neural Amp Modeler
As you can see in the pic, I have just been using the “stand alone” edition for now, and I have not recorded anything with the NAM just yet. I have several IRs that I like to use, and those have their own folder.
I created a new folder to store all of my amp presets for the Neural Amp Modeler, as you can see on the right of the picture above. This is probably the easiest way to get started and stay organized, and I only downloaded a few amps to test the program.
The amps that I downloaded needed a little bit of tweaking to get right, but they all sound pretty great! Some of them need the output level adjusted, while others just need a solid IR to get running. The Metallica settings were pretty good, and sound fantastic.
Again, this takes a little bit of work on your part. You probably have to adjust some settings to get the amp models sounding “good” to your ears. I have found that the “Output” setting usually needs to be tweaked the most.
But the tones I am getting are incredible, once I get the settings worked out. I will definitely be using these to record in the future, especially the heavier songs in my studio queue.
I could definitely see the NAM being used as a re-amping tool. Likewise, you could also use it to record, or just use as a virtual practice amp. But if it does all of this stuff, should companies be worried? Maybe.
Making Your Own Amp Capture With NAM
I have not tried this yet, but it seems very complicated. You would need a load box of some sort, and you would need to set your rig up like you are re-amping a track. This way, the NAM program gets the “sound” of your amp/preamp.
Past that, is the training process. This will take a dedicated GPU on your part. You can also use some different machine learning programs, but I have not looked into this. There is a full guide on the download page for Neural Amp Modeler.
The training portion is just as important as the capture, so if you are in the dark like me… you might need to watch some videos and brush up on your Python knowledge. Again, this is only for capturing. You can play with NAM all you want with other people’s amp models.
NAM vs TONEX And Other Amp Simulator Brands
Well, in the video above we see that the Neural Amp Modeler Plugin seems to be more accurate than the TONEX, which is scary news for IK Multimedia. What does this mean for the company?
What about other amp modeler brands? Line 6? Headrush?
That is really tough to say. Why pay for something that you can do absolutely free? That answer comes down to a lot of different factors. NAM is very cool, and I have had a blast with it so far, but TONEX is different. I see the point the video is trying to make, though.
Both work by downloading captures from users, and both require similar experience. I think the NAM Plugin could be very alarming to most companies that are making amp sims. The NAM plugin sounds GREAT, so why would you buy an expensive amp sim for home use?
Well… TONEX has the advantage of being an actual pedal, and it has support from IK Multimedia. Steve could disappear on us, and never update the Neural Amp Modeler again. This is totally open source, so someone else could take up the torch. But would it still be free?
Likewise, other amp sim companies have name brand recognition. NAM is a simple program that looks like it is still in a testing stage… because it IS. If you are looking for “ease of use” then something like STL Tones or Neural DSP are going to be better plug and play options.
I honestly don’t see NAM as a threat, just an alternative. This is something you can download and mess around with if you can’t afford some of the other products. IK Multimedia really doesn’t have anything to worry about, because it really comes down to user experience.
I really like NAM, but it would greatly affect my workflow in the studio. Minutes and seconds are money, and I have presets and templates for all kinds of projects already dialed in, with other brand’s products. I think this is the case for most of us, when it comes to recording studios.
So Neural Amp Modeler is a very cool project, and I really want to learn how amp profiling “works”. If you are that type of person, then you should download NAM and play around with it! I really want to learn how to capture an amp, and being able to see and manipulate code is awesome.
If you can’t afford the mainstream plugins, and you have been using free plugins this whole time to play guitar… then NAM is just another free tool to add to your inventory.
After spending the last week or so playing with Neural Amp Modeler, I think it can become something much more refined. But until then, the big companies like Line 6, Headrush, and Kemper shouldn’t be too worried.
Again, this all comes down to user experience, and you have to have a little more knowledge than just plugging up your guitar and picking a preset. NAM in its current state is not as user-friendly for most guitarists as something like the Helix.
Neural Amp Modeler is a very cool program, and it can do some things that no other plugin on the market can accomplish. The fact that it is open source, and free for all to use, was a long time coming.
A long time coming? What do I mean by that?
Have you ever wondered how amp modeling worked? I know I have, and I often wished I knew how to create a program to model amps. I would love to not be constricted to the parameters that a company like Line 6 has in place. Well, now we know how it works on a base level, by using NAM!
For most of us, amp modeling has been very mysterious. I know that Line 6, for example, takes a room full of real amps and turns them into digital presets. But I had no idea how this was actually done, until now.
Maybe Line 6 does something completely different to capture amps, but now I understand the idea. Like I stated before, NAM is a great learning tool for those of us that are interested in amp modeling. This gives us a little bit of insight into modeling tech.
Whatever the technology that these big name brands use, is probably not the same thing a Neural Amp Modeler. But at least we get a glimpse into how all of this works. I know it has been very enlightening to me.
There will always be people that think that amp modeling doesn’t sound as “good” as a real amp in the studio. But it is hard to deny that something like NAM captures the EXACT sound of that amp. I think NAM changes the “real or fake” argument, and challenges some of the guitarists that despise modelers.
We are getting much closer to closing the gap between analog and digital, and even the most experienced producers would have a hard time trying to “find the real amp” in a mix. Despite all of this, there will always be naysayers.
I don’t know what the future holds for Neural Amp Modeler, and there are some issues. It is still a work in progress, and it does not work properly all of the time. Certain operating systems struggle with the plugin, as well as some reported DAWs.
Then there’s the question of ethics, which can be a VERY blurry line. Where do you draw the line, if NAM can recreate and copy something like the Quad Cortex, or Helix? Is it ok to model a modeler and give it away for free?
Unfortunately, I do not think NAM will be “free” for much longer. I can see people trying to monetize presets for NAM, and it seems like there are already a few people out there charging money for these captures.
I can also see the big companies swooping in and putting a cease and desist order on NAM. While I don’t really see anything wrong with the idea, in its current state, I also do not know the laws regarding amp profiles. That’s not exactly something you think about as a musician.
On the other hand, the Reaper DAW is a “free” program that is also open source. While you SHOULD pay for the program, it doesn’t FORCE you to pay anything. You can make it work, and look just like Pro Tools if you want, or any other popular DAW.
So that line is very… blurry.
Honestly, if you want to play around with the Neural Amp Modeler, I would definitely go ahead and get it. Let’s be real here, nothing stays “free” for very long. We should definitely enjoy this while it lasts, and maybe learn from NAM to educate ourselves on how amp sims work.
Steve designed it, and absolutely will not take any money for creating NAM from what I understand. This may be a legal loophole, and a smart choice on his part. But that could always change, in the future.
We are living in some pretty wild times for amp modeling, and I hope the Neural Amp Modeler will only get better as Steve adds more features. There are still quite a few bugs when working with Reaper DAW, as well as Mac OS.
But the product is still in its infancy, and I am sure NAM will continue to improve as long as it is allowed to stay functional. The question is… for how long? And will it still be free once it becomes more mainstream?
I guess we will see…