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Turn Your Computer Into a Guitar Amp - And Much More

 

$249 list, $199 street

www.native-instruments.com

 

by Craig Anderton

 

Although software has made huge inroads in recording and with keyboardists, one of the "Holy Grails" for software companies has been a product that cracks open the huge guitar player market. With millions of guitarists out there, who wouldn't want a piece of that action?

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Check Out the Sounds of Guitar Rig (these sounds have no mastering or sweetening)

Two tape decks: Using tape decks to add an overdub to an existing track.

Twang reverb: The sound of the Twang Reverb amp sim.

Basic 800: The sound of the 800 amp sim.

Police reggae: An Andy Summers-type sound.

Lead sound: A typical lead guitar patch.

Cool lead: Lead sound with additional effects and delay.

Chorused sound: A really sweet, full chorus effect.

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Until fairly recently, many of the barriers that kept guitar players from getting into computer-based effects and amp simulation were technical, with the main one being latency - the time that elapses between playing a note and hearing it. After all, it takes a certain amount of time for the computer to process your signal. For musicians used to hitting a string and hearing something instantly, having a delay was just too disconcerting. And price was a factor: Not only did you need a high-performance computer to minimize latency, you also needed an interface (which was usually designed for recording, and overkill for guitarists) and software, which was typically designed for professionals and priced accordingly.

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But times have changed. Thanks to multicore technology, today's  computers are fast enough that latency isn't much of an issue - and  prices are actually lower than the slower computers of yesteryear. And now Native Instruments, a company with years of experience in guitar amp/effects modeling, has stepped into the low-cost arena with Guitar  Rig SESSION. This bundle provides the other two pieces of the puzzle: An  inexpensive, yet high-performance interface designed specifically for guitar players, along with amp/effects modeling software that - rather  than trying to be all things to all people - intends to provide the  essentials at a reasonable price. It also includes a sample player for  making backing tracks and DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) software. For under $200 street, just about any guitar player with a decent computer  can now afford to get into the world of computer-based playing and  recording.

 

MODELING VERSUS THE "REAL THING"

Want to start a brawl? Get a group of guitar players together, and just say the word "modeling." Some will contend that modeling can never sound like an amp - that it sounds thin, flat, and lifeless. Others will say that modeling lets them get a collection of sounds they'd never be able to get otherwise, and that it sounds great. Sounds thin! Sounds great! Sounds flat! Sounds fantastic! (Better duck before someone lands a punch on you.)

But while I often hear people say an amp simulator can't sound like a physical amp, the reverse is also true: A physical amp can't sound like an amp sim. If you want to hear what a step-sequenced wa-wa with backwards echo sounds like going through an AC30 with a Twin Reverb cabinet while split into a JCM800 with an Orange cabinet, it's possible to set that up in hardware but it's expensive and time-consuming. For an amp sim, that kind of scenario is all in a day's work.

However, there's a far more important issue at play here, so listen up: The amp sim's presets were not designed with you in mind. Odds are they were done by someone with a different guitar, with different pickups, who uses a different type of pick than you do, and plays a different style of music. If you just step through the presets, the odds are against those sounds being perfect for you.

I've played with enough amp sims over the years that I'm pretty confident in making this statement: Unless you know how to tweak the software, you won't be able to exploit amp sims to their fullest. As one example, I was testing out Line 6's GearBox software for a review, and I thought the sounds were dreadful. What were they thinking?!?

Well apparently, they were thinking with a guitar that had a lower output than mine - or maybe they didn't play as hard, or used a thinner pick with lighter gauge strings. In any event, as soon as I pulled back the preamp gain control, everything snapped right into place. Nasty, fizzy distortion turned into beefy, chunky sounds. Thin lead lines became lyrical and sweet...you get the idea. And my first experience with Native Instruments' Guitar Rig (and every other amp sim, for that matter) was similar.

So, the bottom line with evaluating amp sim software isn't just about the raw sounds and components that are available for making various sounds, but how easy it is to tweak them to your bidding - if you have to go through pages of sub-menus just to pull back the treble, you're not going to be happy. Fortunately, one of the great things about Guitar Rig 3 XE is that a lot of attention has been paid to workflow.

 

THE HARDWARE

 

The cross-platform Session I/O interface requires USB 2.0, and is USB-powered - there aren't even provisions for a wall wart. This also means that you probably want to avoid using a USB hub, but if you do, make sure it's a powered one.

RearPanel.jpg
 
Guitar Rig SESSION I/O's rear  panel.
 

Looking at the rear panel, from left to right there are line-level outputs from your computer (these are suitable for feeding powered monitors, mixers, PA systems, etc.), a Kensington lock, USB connector, and +48V phantom power switch (which produced +43.2V with my unit - a tiny bit under spec, but not a problem).

Let's get the main limitation out of the way first: No MIDI interface, which is particularly important because the Session I/O interface doesn't have a control pedal input. Fortunately, there are plenty of available MIDI interfaces for Mac and Windows (I like Tapco's Link.MIDI; it's inexpensive and works well).

FrontPanel.jpg

The I/O's front panel
 

The front panel is equally simple. There's a Neutrik XLR mic connector, two inputs with gain controls (switched as a pair to line or instrument level using the Line/Inst switch), and two output controls: One that controls the level to the output jacks, and another for front-panel headphones. Note that the box has a sturdy aluminum frame; protruding knobs notwithstanding, I doubt you'll have to "baby" this box.

TopView.jpg
 
The top view shows the various indicators.
 

As to displays, there are activity/overload LEDs for both inputs, and indicators that show the chosen instrument input. A final indicator shows whether the phantom power switch is on or not - and that's it for the hardware, except to say that the sound quality exceeds expectations: The Cirrus Logic AD/DA converters go up to 24-bit/192kHz, which should take care of you.

Once you're set up with the interface, it's time to get going with Guitar Rig 3 XE. We'll start off using it in standalone mode, but then use it as a plug-in with Cubase LE 4.

 

GETTING READY

Using Guitar Rig 3 XE as a virtual amp setup is easy - once you've connected a USB cable, ins and outs are available on the Session I/O. Now all you have to do is get it to talk to the software. (Note: My Mac sometimes wouldn't recognize that Session I/O was connected; unplugging the USB cable, then re-plugging, solved that.)

Preferences.jpg

Preferences specifies several Session-related parameters.
 

GR3 XE's Preferences is where you set the sample rate, output device, amount of latency (start out around 15ms, then reduce to the lowest value possible without the audio breaking up or distorting). On my quad-core Mac Pro, that ended up being well under 10ms - typically 8ms at 44.1kHz, and 6ms at 96kHz. To put things in perspective, 8ms is the amount of delay you'd experience by being about eight feet away from your amp.

GR3 HIQ.jpg

Enabling the HI Q option is  the "special sauce" for getting the most realistic distortion modeling.
 

As far as I'm concerned, the most important control in GR3 is the HI Q button, located to the immediate left of the NI logo in the upper right. Enabling this doubles the hit on your CPU, but makes for a night and day difference in sound quality, particularly with distorted sounds. Once you use HI Q, you won't disable it unless you absolutely have to, or are using mostly clean sounds.

Next up: Setting levels, and GR3 has a very cool "Learn" button - click on it, hit the guitar as loud as you're going to hit it - done. Your input levels are now optimized.

VolumeLearn.jpg

Setting levels is a snap - just tell GR3 XE to "learn" the levels, and adjust its input accordingly.
 
 

GUITAR RIG 3 XE'S ARCHITECTURE

Guitar Rig uses a "virtual rack" approach, and the following image shows all available components you can use to make a rig.

AllModules.jpg

Here you can see all the available modules - seven amps, five distortions, four modulators, four EQs, three dynamics, three delays, and two modulation sources (input level trigger and LFO). You drag these into the rack, in any order you want, to create a particular rig. As expected, the more modules you use, the more CPU power you'll need.

BuildingPatch.jpg

Drag-and-drop components to create a rig. Here, the Transamp distortion processor is being dragged between the Wah and Gratifier amp.

 

However, even running complex programs at high sample rates with low latency and the HI Q button enabled (pretty much the worst case scenario for saving CPU power!), GR still used well under 50\\\% CPU on my Mac.

AdvancedParameters.jpg

With some modules, there's additional power "under the hood" - check out the additional controls under the main controls.
 

Some components even have hidden "advanced" controls. Hiding them keeps Guitar Rig from being too intimidating, but the power's there if you want it. For example, with amps you can change a "variac" parameter (i.e., the virtual line voltage), power supply regulation, response, and other characteristics.

 

EXTRA "HELPERS"

Guitar Rig 3 XE isn't just about amp and effect simulation: There's a metronome, tuner, and two "tape decks" which of course, have nothing to do with tape! Seriously, these are two "scratchpad" recorders that go at the end and beginning of the signal chain, and they're really handy. For one thing, this is how I recorded all the audio examples: I didn't need any other sequencer or anything, I just enabled the second tape deck at the output, clicked on record, then saved the resulting file for later editing.

Helpers.jpg

In addition to the Input and Output stages, note Tape Deck 1, the Tuner, the Metronome, and Tape Deck 2.
 

However, you can also record a riff at Tape Deck 2 and transfer it to Tape Deck 1 at the input. And, you can set loop points on what you transferred. So you could, for example, record a chord progression in Tape Deck 2, transfer it to Tape Deck 1, loop the part you want to practice against, then play away (that's how I added the harmony line in the "Two Tape Decks" audio example). Furthermore, you can then record the original part and the overdub into Tape Deck 2, and add yet another overdub. Nor are you restricted to filling Tape Deck 1 with content from Tape Deck 2; you can load an audio file of, say, a song and play against that, or record your guitar coming into Guitar Rig 3 XE. (Incidentally, Guitar Rig 3 XE includes some content, such as backing track loops, suitable for loading into the Tape Decks.)

But wait, there's more: You can also send the Tape Deck 1 out directly to the audio output, or run it through the various processors. The latter is tremendously helpful for tweaking a program for your guitar: Record a riff, then have the Tape Deck play it over and over again while you adjust the various parameters. Normally, you'd have to play, then tweak, then play, etc. The Tape Deck is a great way around this, and the combination of two Tape Decks makes for an excellent practice tool.

 

AND MIDI, TOO...

Although the Session I/O doesn't have MIDI built-in, Guitar Rig 3 XE includes comprehensive MIDI control options for its parameters. There are a few ways to take advantage of this; for example, Line 6's KB37 keyboard connects to your computer via USB (no MIDI interface required), and includes four knobs you can assign to various Guitar Rig 3 XE parameters, a control pedal input, and of course, a keyboard which is ideal for playing the sounds in the Kore player. M-Audio, CME, and several other companies make USB MIDI keyboards. GR3 XE parameters can also be automated within Cubase LE 4 if you're using GR3 XE as a plug-in.

RigKontrol.jpg
 
A virtual representation of the Rig Kontrol hardware shows up in the lower right. As shown in the controller assignment page on the left, you can make global or per-program assignments for the pedal and switches (e.g., the Pedal could always control wa, or control different parameters in different programs).
 

What's more, GR3 XE supports Native Instruments' Rig Kontrol (version 1, 2, or 3), a footpedal/footswitch controller for stage or studio that's also available separately - although Rig Kontrol 3 will set you back more than the entire cost of Session. Still, if you crave control, this makes a great companion for GR3 XE. Note that you can also control GR3 XE from the virtual Kontrol Rig shown on screen in the same way as you would the physical controller.

Actually, the control options are very sophisticated - we don't have the time or space to get into them all here. Suffice it to say that you have no excuse for static sounds, whether using GR3 XE as a plug-in or in standalone mode.

 

THE BUNDLE

In addition to Guitar Rig SESSION, you also get Steinberg's Cubase LE 4, Kore Player (for playing back NI's optional-at-extra-cost SoundPacks), and the Pop Drums SoundPack so you can start creating rhythm tracks out of the box, and record vocals and other instruments into Cubase LE 4.

Cubase LE 4 deserves props, because it's not just a toy but a very useable sequencer that owes much to the Cubase legacy. Given that you don't have to pay anything for it, it's a great addition. This isn't so much a Cubase LE 4 review, but Korg (which bundles LE 4 with some of its products) has an excellent feature summary online. (Note that there's an upgrade path to the full version of Cubase 4 for $499.99; an upgrade to Cubase 4 Studio is $299.99, and Cubase 4 Essential, $99.99.)

CubaseLE+KorePlayer.jpg

Here's a shot of the Kore Player and GR3 XE running under Cubase LE 4. A drum loop is selected in the Kore Player, but as you can see, a bunch of other sounds are available.
 

The Kore Player is a free download, so in a way, it doesn't add value to the package. However, it's a very cool instrument; you can find out more information and specs from the Native Instruments web site. However, what does add value is the Pop Drums SoundPack, which normally lists for $79. It not only includes drum sounds you can play from a MIDI keyboard or MIDI drum pads, but has four loops with automatable variations that are way more fun to play with than a metronome. What's more, there's a library of MIDI files you can use with Cubase LE 4: Funk, Indie, Basics, and Ballad each have 64 MIDI files for verses, breaks, choruses, etc. Several SoundPacks are available now, with more being added from time to time.

 

CONCLUSIONS

First of all, you're not committed to getting Guitar Rig 3 XE only as part of the Session package, as it's available separately for around $99 street price. However, if you don't have a suitable interface, DAW software, or drum samples for making drum tracks, Session represents excellent value.

Although there's comprehensive documentation for each part of the package, I think it would be helpful to have some document that explains how all the pieces fit together: For example, a tutorial on how to create a drum track in Cubase LE 4 using the Kore Player, then how to overdub a guitar track using Guitar Rig 3 XE and a vocal using its mic input. This would definitely help the "just getting started" audience for whom Session is eminently well-suited. Furthermore, while Guitar Rig 3 XE includes a bass amp/cabinet model for bassists, Native Instruments never really makes it clear that a lot of the XE effects (e.g., graphic EQ, compressor, reverb, delays, chorus) sound great on vocals...the XLR mic input is there for more than just decoration!

Perhaps one of the most important factors is that, despite its low cost, Guitar Rig SESSION doesn't feel like a "teaser" product that exists mostly to convince you to upgrade to the full versions of Guitar Rig, Cubase, and Kore; you can make complete recordings with what's included. In fact, this is all many guitarists will really need, whether beginner or seasoned pro. In today's recessionary times, that's saying a lot.

 

CraigGuitarVertical.jpgCraig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.

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