[SOLVED] Why Your Amp Sim Tone Sounds WRONG

Why Your Amp Sim Tone Sounds WRONG
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Do you often wonder why your amp sim tone doesn’t sound like the amps that they emulate? Does your tone vary depending on the interface? This quick fix will save you a lot of headaches.

TL;DR: This is Why Your Amp SIM Tone Sucks + How To Fix It 🎛️🔊

  • Find Your Max Input Level: 🔍 Look for the “maximum input level” spec of your interface, listed as a dBu value. This is crucial for setting up your gear correctly.
  • Model Matters: 🔄 Each interface model, even within the same brand, has a different dBu value. Ensure you’re checking your exact model!
  • Generation Check: 🕵️‍♂️ Know your interface’s generation number (like “second gen” for a Focusrite). This info can be found in your instruction book or by contacting the manufacturer.
  • Set Gain to Zero: 🔇 Plug your guitar into the “INST” or “HI Z” input and set the knob to zero. Test for a clean, non-clipping sound. Here’s a guide on how to do it.
  • Chart Reference: 📊 Use the provided chart to adjust your plugin input gain based on your interface’s specific dBu value.
  • Plugin Adjustment: 🔧 If the chart’s dBu value is too high, add a trim plugin. Remember, the dBu value impacts your guitar’s sound!
  • Discover Clean Tones: 🎸 Experiment with different amp sims and plugins now that you know how to adjust for the best tone.
  • Realization: 💡 Realize the importance of correctly setting input gain, which might have been overlooked before, to unlock the full potential of your guitar’s tone.

The Issue With My Amp Sim Tone: The Hardware?

A lot of us are using amp sims in the studio these days, from professionals to bedroom guitarists. As a matter of fact, the project I have been working on at a professional studio features amp sims from Positive Grid and Archetype.

I started to notice that the same patches that I made at home, sounded completely different at the studio. This became a big problem with the projects I am involved with, and it was downright irritating. I had chalked the problem up to having different gear than the studio.

But my gear at home was not that much different from the studio gear. An interface is an interface, right? They all do the same thing when it comes to recording you guitar, and dialing in an amp sim tone. They take a “dry” guitar track and add an amp sim and cabinet IR.

The purpose of an amp simulator is to give you the closest tone possible as a real amp. If I set my STL Tones AmpHub to a “Fender Clean” then I expect it to be a glassy clean tone with a ton of midrange. Just like my actual Fender amp.

However, I have had a tough time getting a good clean tone with EVERY amp sim tone I try to dial in. Much less something that actually sounds like a “real” Fender amp. When I finally get a good clean tone, it is much more quiet than my other tones.

As it turns out, this is a pretty big problem with everyone. I have been using studio interfaces to record for years, and there is one small detail that I ignored. In fact, most guitarists have been ignoring it, even the brands that MAKE these amp sim plugins do not seem aware of the issue.

So we have all been silently questioning the tones that we get from plugins, but why? Is this just how the amp sim sounds? Do I have bad gear?

It took a short video on the internet to make all of us notice what the issue is with our amp sim tone, and how we set out interface. This is going to change your whole approach to using amp sim plugins. The video, by ED S, is making the rounds on social media. So we want to share it with you, but first… we need to understand the issue.

What is Gain Staging?

Gain staging in guitar amplifiers is a crucial aspect of achieving the desired tone and avoiding unwanted noise or distortion. Gain staging involves managing the levels of signal strength (gain) at various stages of the signal chain in an amplifier. It’s applicable not only to guitar amplifiers but also to recording and audio processing setups.

Gain staging is something we think about as guitarists all the time! We often stack different pedals to achieve several levels of distortion/breakup. But we almost always start with a clean tone, and then stack gain on top.

At least, this is what we do when we are using a real, physical amp. Amp Sims can emulate this effect, and you can add pedals to your virtual signal chain. This can be a very intricate process, stacking the right pedals to get the tones that you want in your virtual signal chain.

But we have forgotten a crucial piece of the signal chain: Your audio interface.

But… my audio interface is not a pedal, right? In fact, it should barely factor into my signal chain, if my chain is just a guitar straight into the interface. My interface is not “coloring” my guitar signal at all, or adding anything to my amp sim tone. Right?

Wrong. And this fantastic video solved all of my plugin issues. I spent hours going through my saved tones and changing them, because they finally sounded like the amps that the plugin emulates. Let’s fix your tone!

Setting Your Interface for The Best Amp Sim Tone Possible

This video by ED S is an absolute treasure, and it is the answer to all of your amp sim “tone woes”. You should actually check out his entire catalogue of videos, as all of them are useful to anyone recording guitar. ED S points out that every interface has a different amount of “pre-gain”.

Now that is not the technical term for what is going on, but it is a good way to look at the situation as an experienced guitarist. Your interface, no matter which one it may be, has the ability to affect your guitar tone immensely. This problem spans across the cheapest interface, to the most expensive ones.

Imagine your interface as a clean boost pedal, or a compressor. If we have a clean boost in front of our amp, that is always “on”, that is going to drastically change the sound once we start adding other pedals, right?

Well, your interface, even at “zero” is acting a little like a boost pedal, and I had no idea. Again, this is not the technical way to look at this, but an allegory for what is actually happening. The paragraph below will walk you through the steps to fix your amp sim tone.

How To Fix Your Tone

In ED’s video above, he tells us to go to the manufacturer page of our interface. In the specs for your interface, there is something called “maximum input level”. Once you find this spec, it will be listed as a dBu value, and this is the number you are looking for.

Every interface has a different “maximum input value” measured in dBu. Once you find out what your interface value is, it is time to move on to the next step. If you are having a hard time finding this number, watch the video above, as it shows how to find it on most websites.

  • Make Sure you check your EXACT model, as even the same brand varies between different models!
  • Check the “generation” number of your interface. For example, my Focusrite is the second gen.
  • This number is also in your physical instruction book for your interface.
  • If you cannot find this number, email the manufacturer and ask for the dBu value.

Now, set your input gain to zero. Your guitar should be plugged into the “INST” or “HI Z” input on your interface. Set the knob to zero, and you will still get a sound, without a plugin active. Try it out, and see if you get a clean direct sound with your interface knob turned all the way down. There should be no clipping in your signal.

ED S Amp sim tone
Chart courtesy of ED S. Thank you so much!

With your interface set to zero, set your plugin input gain to the value on the chart. As you can see, every interface on the chart has a different input volume. This is going to affect the sound of your guitar in a big way.

So for instance, I mentioned earlier that I use STL Tones right? Well my issues with getting a clean tone are gone now. I set my interface gain to zero, and then adjusted the STL Tones AmpHub Plugin to 6.5 or so, and the change was immediately apparent.

Every plugin is built with a different user interface, but most have an input and output knob somewhere. Usually on the main page, or as a static feature at the bottom of the UI, like STL Tones features. Check out the picture below, and find your input gain on your plugin.

If the number on the chart is higher than the input gain allows, anything above 10, then you will need to add a trim plugin. It will depend on your interface, but most numbers on the chart are within normal ranges. The same goes for the negative numbers as well, you may need another plugin.

amp sim tone

Now my clean tones are out of this world! I even went back and tried other amp sims that I did not like before, only to find that they sound better than I thought! Now I have a whole library of usable tones.

But the worst part… is I never even considered this as an option. I was plugging the guitar into the interface and adjusting the gain with the interface knobs alone. I feel like I have missed out on some good amp sim tone opportunities over the last two years of using plugins.

While I have been recording for decades now, I used a Line 6 Helix for quite a while before I tried out amp sims and plugins. With the Helix, my tones were not affected this much by the input gain, so I never noticed this problem.

I just recently became interested in sims, but I was turned off by most guitar plugins because they just didn’t sound great to me. Now I know why, and how to fix it.

Why Have I Never Heard of This Trick?

amp sim tone

I went through most of the FAQ for all of the major manufacturers of guitar plugins, and I could not find much about this subject. I will not snitch on any companies, but some of you need to have this info in your instructions! One company in particular, I had written off as “bad” and quit using their product.

This is such a small thing, but it plays a huge part when it comes to dialing in a tone. I noticed the biggest change in my clean tones, but it also matters with high gain tones as well. High gain tones now react like their tube counterparts, and have more articulation than ever before.

The whole purpose of having an amp sim plugin is to have a nearly identical sound to the real amp. Some companies do a better job than others with this, but that is the goal. It is hard to get your tones dialed in when you have extra input gain layered in your signal!

I have an older Fender Princeton that I have used to record with for years. I also have a plugin for that same amp that never sounded very good. Now, I can A/B them in the studio and they are nearly identical when the knobs are set to the same values.

If You Already Knew This…

Sorry to waste your time! But I have asked several engineers in the industry about this issue, and no one had this specific answer. Everyone I talked to had their own method of dialing in a good amp sim tone. But no one told me about this, and I am glad that ED S is around to help us all out.

As we continue to develop more and more technology, I am sure that amp simulators will get better and more intuitive. Our hardware will also get easier to use, and this will open up a wealth of tonal possibilities that would have been impossible just a few years ago.

If this article helped you out, leave us a comment! The lab here at Electrikjam Studios is all about learning new ways to record guitar and be creative. We would love to hear if this helped you dial in your perfect tone.

Special Thanks to ED S. Your channel is amazing, and very informative.


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