Amp simulators have really come a long way in the last 5 years. What started two decades ago with Line 6 is now commonplace in studios both at home and professional! Today we take a look at the absolute best!
Amp Simulators: They Have Come A long Way…
In the beginning…there was Line 6. The early 2000’s saw the advent of one of the very first “amp simulators” with the Line 6 Pod series. Nothing had ever been attempted quite like the original Pod, as it had several amps built in, that you could choose with a knob. The original Line 6 Pod also had digital effects. There was just one problem…
It didn’t particularly sound very good.
But it got the people thinking about just how far amp modeling could go. Many companies started to jump on the bandwagon of Amp Simulation and through the early 2000’s some did it better than others. BOSS definitely went full force with their COSM technology.
But all of these things so far, required hardware. They were actual pedalboards and small devices that allowed you to manipulate sound. The idea of skipping that step, and being plugged directly into your interface had not happened yet. Amp simulators had a long way to go.
Virtual instruments were also on the rise in the early 2000’s with programs like Garage Band and Fruity Loops.
These virtual instruments were sample based, meaning someone did the recording prior and you just organized it. I definitely played around with these when they first came about, but was ultimately let down due to the synthetic nature of it all.
These were simple effects and samples, not true amp simulators.
Garage Band in particular had some cool ideas for amp simulator technology, but again, the problem was making it sound real and organic. Almost every DAW comes loaded with effects and preamps for instruments. Some are definitely better than others. But the last 5 years we have seen the rise of 3rd party amp simulation.
These amp simulators are developed often with musicians, and run independently from your DAW a stand alone practice companions.
All you need is a decent USB audio interface to connect your guitar to your computer.
In their infant stage, these programs struggled to sound good because of latency issues, and lack of reference material. But now that technology has caught up, it seems like there are a million of these amp simulator programs floating around.
But which ones are actually good? Today we are going to take a look at the best amp simulators on the market, and break down the individual features of each one!
Why Use Amp Simulators VS Real Amps?
Look, if it were up to me…I would have a cranked up Mesa Boogie Stack to record with all the time! It would be shaking the walls every time I chugged and I would be in guitar heaven. Unfortunately, I don’t think my neighbors would be happy about that. I also simply don’t have the room for a ton of large amps in my home studio.
I imagine many other people are in a similar situation, whether the limits are space or volume. It’s not always feasible to have a real amp turned up loud as hell to record your guitar and bass tracks. On the other hand, I still have some albums to produce, and tracks to record!
Amp simulators are the perfect solution to this problem. The technology has come far enough now that even professional studios use them frequently since they are so much more convenient than your traditional amp and microphone setups. You can dial in your tone, and get straight to recording.
The most import factor, other than being just plain easy and efficient, is the volume. You can record quietly with amp simulators and still get a huge tone! Today we are going to take a look at these programs, explain what they do, and show you what the Pros use! Let’s get started…
Line 6 Helix Native
Line 6 really knocked it out of the park with the Helix series. This amp simulator technology is leaps and bounds above anything they ever put out before. Line 6 not only started the idea of amp simulators, they have perfected it with the Helix pedalboard. The Helix is so good, in fact, that it can replace your entire rig.
The main problem with the Helix pedalboard though, is the space it takes up in the studio. I use my Line 6 pedalboard to record all the time, but the size is certainly cumbersome. Since it is controlled by buttons like a traditional pedalboard, it also has to sit on the floor when recording. This can be problematic if you’re in a tight studio environment.
Line 6 Helix Native solves the problems of having physical rig and is only limited to your imagination. There are so many features and sounds at your disposal:
- 60 Amp Simulators
- 30 Speaker Cabinet Models
- Supports 3rd party IR
- 100 Different Effects
- 64-bit performance on AAX, AU, and VST3 platforms
- Works with all DAWs
- Integrates with you Helix Floor Unit
The Line 6 Helix Native has 60 different amp simulations that mimic literally any kind of amp you can think of! The different models can cover just about any tonal base you can think up. The clean tones are based on vintage tweed amps from the 60s and 70s. But you also get everything in between, whether it’s a full stack of high gain amplifiers or a simple combo amp. The possibilities are limitless since you can change the amp’s tube response, tube type, and sag.
Line 6 is known for their effects collection and nothing is lacking here. They have literally any effect you can think of. There is s great collection of reverbs, delays, and distortion pedals that you can dial in however you want. There are also plenty of octave and pitch changing effects at your disposal.
The interface is easy to use, and extremely intuitive. You can basically build your signal chain the same way you would with physical pedals and effects. The difference here is it’s easy to route them any way you want. You can also stack effects however you like, without the restrictions of some hardware units. But should you want to use Helix Native with your Helix board, you can use them in tandem.
The Line 6 Helix Native comes with absolutely everything you need. Not only just a collection of amp simulators, but also many effects and cabinet IRs that will help you tailor your sound. You can also download artist packs, and other user’s patches that they have created. If anything, there is almost too much to work with here!
The few times that I have used Line 6 Helix Native, I had a hard time dedicating myself to one sound. It’s easy to browse for hours, and not get any actual work done! But for you, this may be the all in one solution that you’ve been looking for when it comes to recording.
IK Multimedia AmpliTube 5
Line 6 may have a lot of options for recording, but it pales in comparison to Amplitube 5. This is a serious program, with some of the best amp simulators on the planet. Amplitube has actual profiles of famous amps from all kinds of companies and genres. These are accurate profiles of the actual amps themselves, captured from the amp and recreated digitally.
Amplitube started out as one of the much more simple amp simulators, but over the years it has added tons features. In fact, the newest version of Amplitube 5 has artist profiles from famous guitarists. There are loads of features in the base package alone:
- Fully redesigned user interface
- Sound collections from Fender, Orange, Mesa/Boogie, Leslie, and Fulltone
- Artist collections from Slash, Jimi Hendrix, Dimebag Darrell, Brian May, and Joe Satriani
- 5 amp models
- 2 stompboxes
- 19 rack FX
- Volumetric Impulse Response (VIR) cabinet engine
- Custom IR loader
- Customizable signal chains
- 100-plus recaptured cabinets
- Onboard 8 Track recorder
If you don’t buy Amplitube 5 for anything else, you should get it for the 143,000 cabinet Impulse Responses! If that sounds insane to you, it’s because it absolutely is! There are so many cabinet sims in this software that you can probably spend your whole life going through all the different options. This has every speaker/microphone combo imaginable, and the interface makes it easy to access them all.
The visual interface shows your entire signal chain at all times, with the amp simulators as the base of your tone. You can then add effects and cabinet features to the chain, and really dial in your tone however you want. The interface is more intuitive than Line 6, if you ask me.
Amplitube 5 also has a built in 8 track recorder when used in stand alone mode. This isn’t good for making a whole song, per se. But it’s perfect for getting down your riff ideas, or test out your new tones. The recorder is easy to use, and you shouldn’t have any problems testing out new tone patches that you’ve created before using Amplitube in your DAW.
Amplitube only has two problems in my opinion. The first is the same thing that Line 6 suffers from, and that’s option paralysis when it comes to choosing a tone. There are so many different settings and effects that it’s easy to get lost in the features. Like Line 6 products, I usually sit for hours creating a tone, when I should be playing my guitar!
The second problem, is the different “packages” that Amplitube has. There are several, and if you want the full experience with all of the amps, it will cost you. You can always buy the base program, and add the other packages as time goes along. This depends on your needs, or course. Maybe you don’t 30 amp simulators and the base package does everything you want.
Neural DSP Archetype
The Neural DSP Archetype amp simulators are some of the newest on the market right now. There is a big difference between this program and the ones we have discussed today so far. These are designed and created by guitarists and producers! Each “Archetype” is based on an artist’s signature sound.
Neural was designed by Nolly, the original bassist for Periphery. Nolly is also known for producing albums, and he created Archetype to streamline his workflow when recording other artists. As a producer, he also uses this amp sim to re-amp tracks that have already been recorded. But what started as a project to make his own life easier, has now become a great amp sim that you can use also!
Neural DSP works a little different than other amp simulators, since each profile is based on an artist’s personal sound or a specific amplifier only. Neural DSP also created their own hardware module that resembles a studio interface, and we took a look at that already. So today we will be looking only at the Plug in versions for your DAW.
There are several awesome profiles that you can buy, to not only replicate the tones of your guitar heroes, but also dial in your own tones if you want:
- Nolly’s Personal Rig
- Tosin Abasi
- Fortin Amplification
- Cory Wong
Each one of these profiles has many amp options and effects options at your fingertips. To help break it all down, we are going to take a look at my favorite artist profile, and break down all of the features it comes with. It may sound a little limiting when it comes to amp simulators when you hear that you only get one artist profile at a time. But it’s actually much more:
The Tosin Abasi profile comes with all of the features the 8 string master uses himself when he is recording! Tosin needs a pretty versatile setup when it comes to making an awesome Animals As Leaders album, and his Archetype sim has pretty much everything you need to replicate his sound, or to make your own unique sound:
- Clean, Distorted, and High gain Amp Simulators
- EQ-9 Band
- Digital Reverb
- Delay Effect
- Overdrive pedal
- Cabism Cab Sim
Each amp has it’s own very unique sound. Starting with the clean amp that sounds a bit like a Fender Amp to me. It has sparkling highs and well pronounced mid-range. The Distorted amp setting has a killer crunch tone that is great for heavy rhythm playing and chugs. The last amp is the Lead amp, made for ultra high gain solos and lead passages. Each amp sounds totally different from the next, and you have full control of all the amp features.
You also get two different preamp effects. You get the LOGOS Compressor for boosting and compressing your signal. You also get the PATHOS Overdrive to further boost your lead tones, and to clean up and tighten your rhythm tones. The PATHOS works almost like a tube screamer being ran into the amp, and this makes your tone super tight with plenty of mids to cut through the mix when recording.
Finally, you get two time-based effects. There is a very versatile reverb that can do anything from a subtle room sound to a giant cavernous sound that has depth and weight. The digital delay works similarly in the fact that it can do just about anything. The delay works especially well with the Lead amp when crafting a good tone for solos.
The Neural Cabism option allows you to pick from different impulse responses to make your sound more natural and organic. Cabism has a wealth of IRs to choose from to make sure your tone is just right. This takes speaker emulation to the next level.
Neural DSP Archetype isn’t for everyone, that’s for sure. But don’t let the simple looking interface and seemingly single-minded profiles scare you away. I certainly cant play like Tosin Abasi, but I really enjoy the amp simulators that he came up with, and I have tailored them to my own sound. Archetype is perfect for someone that has problems with the larger programs with so many vast options and features.
Sometimes, simple is better!
Positive Grid Bias FX2
We have talked a lot about Positive Grid’s Bias FX here before, and for good reason. Bias FX 2 is probably newest of all the amp simulators and it has some crazy add-ons that the others do not. Positive Grid has been making amp simulators for a long time, and they have absolutely decimated the competition by thinking outside the box.
The features that separate Bias FX from all the other guys are pretty apparent. This is not just an amp simulator. This is a full on studio tool that can do just about anything you want!
- Thousands of guitar pedal options
- Over 30 Rack style effects
- Tons of amp sims
- Celestion Speaker Emulator
- Guitar Match Simulator
- Smart Looper Technology
- Midi controlled “Scenes”
- Backing track player
It would be easy to talk about all of the amp simulators and effects that come with Bias FX 2. There are literally thousands to choose from. Bias FX 2 has just about any amplifier style you want, and with the interface you can create your customized black chain with the thousands of different pedals available. But these features are not even the coolest part of Bias FX 2!
Bias FX 2 can be fully controlled by midi also. For those who have no idea what I am talking about…Basically, this means that your DAW session can have “triggers” loaded into the file session. These triggers will signal to Bias FX that it’s time to change patches. This means you can map out the song, and when you start to record your guitar part, Bias FX will automatically change patches for you based on the song triggers. So if your verse is a clean tone, and your chorus is a loud distorted tone…you do not need to do anything to change the tone. Bias FX will do it for you!
The Guitar Match features are also absolutely mind-blowing. The easiest way to break down this ground breaking technology is to say it like this: No matter what guitar you have, you can make it sound like another guitar. let me explain…
So let’s say all you have is a Fender Telecaster guitar. This is your only guitar you have to record with, but you want to play some really heavy stuff with it. Well, a Telecaster probably wouldn’t be my first choice to play some heavier stuff. It can work, but wouldn’t a Les Paul work better?
It would, in fact! This is where Bias FX 2 gets really interesting not only as an amp simulator, but as an all in one solution. You can pull up the Guitar Match window in Bias FX, and pick through the many guitar options. Each one is modeled after an actual guitar, and it can change your tone completely! From Bias FX Official:
“Forget swapping out real guitars in the studio to record the next track, or grabbing another guitar onstage for the next song. With BIAS FX 2 guitar effects processor and groundbreaking Guitar Match technology, you can turn your guitar—any guitar— into a hoarder’s collection of legendary axes, each precisely recreated down to their pickups, body type and body thickness.
No special pickup is required to make your guitar sound like a classic American guitar, a vintage LP and more.”
Now other products have done this trick before, like Roland and BOSS with their special pickup tech. But that requires you to alter your guitar’s pickups. Most people don’t want to change their pickups for amp simulators. With Guitar Match, you don’t have to.
When you add this to the tons of amp simulators and effects that come with the program, you honestly have everything you need to create any sound you may have in your head! You can also blend up to three different amp simulators to create your own custom amplifier tones.
As I said…not only do you get some of the best amp simulators all in one package, you get all kinds of other useful tools as well. This is why Bias FX made it to the top of our gear page.
This is the best of the best when it comes to amp simulators since it has literally everything you could ever need. Professional studios all over the world have adopted Bias FX to help streamline their workflow and make things easier for everyone. If you’re looking for the absolute best bang for your buck, Bias FX 2 is IT.
Amp Simulators: Which One Is Right For Me?
The amp simulator you choose to use is going to come down to personal preference. For myself, something like Neural Archetype is perfect for the way I like to craft my tones. It has limited features, but the features it does have are fantastic. It’s simple and laser-focused in it’s approach. So if you enjoy something easy to use like me, this is the obvious choice.
But maybe you like to tinker with your tone endlessly, and create tons of different saved patches for any genre or situation. In that case, something like Amplitube or Bias FX is right up your alley. I get it that some guitarists like to tinker with their sound a lot and constantly switch things up. There’s nothing wrong with that and these larger programs are built especially for you.
These more complex programs are also good for anyone that is getting into home production at a professional level. You can literally have a room full of amps at your fingertips, right in your own home. If you are looking to build a small home studio setup, amp simulators are the perfect choice. All you need is an interface, a computer, and your favorite DAW.
I had a blast trying out these amp simulators in my own studio, and as it turns out, I’m going to be keeping a few of them for sure. I was a skeptic when it came to these plug in types of programs, but I am honestly taken aback by so many of these features. the larger programs, its important to note, should be ran on the right computer to avoid any crashes or problems. Some of these use a lot of RAM, while others are easier on your system.
No matter which of these amp simulators is more your style, there’s no doubt that these are a very useful recording tool for both the professional and the hobbyist. Almost every one of these sims has a free trial that you can try out, and see which one is for you!
Are amp simulators any good?
Most of the newer amp sims are really great! There are many great sims that can help you streamline your workflow in the studio, or even help you with your practice routine. Now is the best time to try out an amp sim for the first time!
Are Amp simulators worth it?
You get so many different amps and effects with almost every amp sim program these days, it’s a no brainer to at least check them out. You may pay as little as $100 for several different amp setups!
Are amp simulators as good as a real amp?
In my opinion, no…not quite. But they are VERY close to being as good as the real thing these days! The tones you get out of the amp sim can be extremely close to sounded like a cranked amplifier, especially when used for recording.
Are amp simulators expensive?
Some of the more complex ones like Bias FX and Amplitube can get a little pricey. But these are full featured, professional studio tools. There are many free amp sims out there, and the expensive ones come with a free trials so you can try them before you buy.
Can I use an amp simulator live?
Bias FX 2 is designed to not only be a studio tool, but a live one as well. You can store your saved patches and then control them live through midi. The possibilities are endless with most of these amp simulators.