IK Multimedia AmpliTube 2, Native Instruments Guitar Rig 2, and Waves GTR 2
By hcadmin |
Cross-platform guitar amp/cabinet/effects simulation software
By Craig Anderton
I've basically come to the conclusion that amp simulation software is like amps themselves: They're all different. I use all three of these sims for different reasons, as each one has different sound qualities and functionality. So, I'll be presenting some objective and subjective views on each one, and hopefully, they'll be helpful in deciding which one is right for you.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
Whenever I boot up an amp sim for the first time, my reaction is "This sounds awful!" That's because I call up a few presets, and there's the first problem: The presets were designed by people who weren't playing my guitar or using my pickups. Furthermore, many times presets are designed to show off what a device can do, rather than be part of an ensemble of instruments.
But a little tweaking gets me where I want to go. Usually this involves adjusting any input gain or drive control to match my levels, then experimenting with different pickup settings to determine which one sounds best with the preset. Then I'll often scale back some of the settings, or disable some effects altogether, to clean up the sound. Think of presets as more of a point of departure than a final destination.
Another issue is whether an amp model sounds exactly like an amp. Many guitarists report that playing through a sim doesn't give the same experience as playing through an amp, but when recording and playing back, it's very difficult (and in some cases impossible) to determine whether what you're hearing is a "real" amp or a simulation. Furthermore, there's the question of which amp you're simulating. Different production runs of amps had different sounds, and even the same amp could change over time as tubes age.
But I'm not even sure if "precise duplication" should be the goal of an amp sim, as what they also offer is the ability to make sounds you can't get in any other way. So with these basics out of the way, let's dig a little deeper.
All these sims can make some great sounds, but each has their specialty. For example, in addition to the expected overdrive and crunch sounds, GTR has a sterling repertoire of clean and slightly dirty amp sounds. These are exceptional at giving straight guitar sounds some real character and presence.
AmpliTube 2's special talent is that it simulates the transition from "clean" to "breakup" very faithfully. This is extremely difficult to simulate, and while GTR also does a good job, I'd have to give AT2 the edge on this one.
Guitar Rig's strength is that all its amp models are very faithful (with a little tweaking, of course!) to the originals; I've heard some clips from Nashville guitarist Jerry McPherson where he recorded a miked amp and the same sound from Guitar Rig, and you really can't tell the difference. (Note that both GR and AT2 have "high resolution" modes that tax your CPU, but give a smoother, sweeter distortion effect.)
Guitar Rig is definitely the most flexible of three, as it uses a "rack-based" paradigm where you can throw modules in wherever and whenever you want. It also has unique signal splitting and crossover modules that really open up options for parallel and series/parallel effects routing. If you're a "tweak freak," GR can pretty much do whatever you want it to.
Guitar Rig 2 uses a rack-based paradigm. You drag modules from the left side (the different distortion options are shown) into the rack on the right. Note the "Tweedman" amp module's "advanced" parameters along the bottom of that module.
AT2 takes a different approach. Its setup is fixed: Stomp boxes always go before amps, and a complement of "studio effects" always follow amps—but within those limitations, there are eight distinct routing options that put the two stomp box "pedalboards" in series, in parallel, routed through amps that can be in series and parallel, etc. You can have one amp go through two cabs, two amps through two cabs in parallel, and the like. This strikes a good compromise for people who want some degree of flexibility, but don't want to be overwhelmed with options.
GTR lies between these two. It has separate plug-ins for "pedalboards" and amps, so you can put the effects pre- or post-amp, stack one amp after another, and so on. If you want effects before an amp, followed by more effects, followed by an amp, followed by yet more effects, go right ahead. The one drawback is that with the current version of GTR, you can't save the entire combination as one preset: You need to save the pedalboard setups as presets, and the amp sounds as their own presets. I think the odds are good this will be addressed in a future version, so that you have the option to save complete presets.
THE ROSTER OF EFFECTS
Guitar Rig has the lead in sheer number, as several updates have occurred since it was first introduced, and each one added more effects. It also has many modulation options, such as a step sequencer, analog sequencer, and envelope follower. Additional effects you won't find in competing products are a JamMan-type looping device, eight different distortion stomp boxes, and a rich roster of dynamics control (two different compressors, limiter, noise gate, and noise reduction). There are 35 effects total, as well as two "tape recorders" that can record your riffs, or play back riffs.
Another interesting feature is that most effects have an "advanced" mode, so that the main interface is familiar and non-threatening—but if you want to go deeper, you can do so by revealing additional parameters.
This shows the AmpliTube amp window toward the top, and one of the stomp box "pedalboard" windows at the bottom. Each of the two pedalboards can hold a maximum of six effects. A sixth one is being selected here.
AT2 has 21 stomp box effects, and these lean more toward vintage simulations. For example, their "EchoMan" nails the E-H Memory Man sound, and their Envelope Filter sounds deliciously vintage. But the "special sauce" here is a bunch of decidedly non-vintage post-amp "rack effects," which provide the higher-quality plug-ins you'd expect to find in a studio. You'll find 11 more effects, including digital delay, reverb, tube compressor, parametric EQ, stereo enhancer, etc. These add a bit of a "finished" sound to patches.
GTR has 23 effects—and these are all derived from Waves' roster of effects, so they exhibit that "detailed" sound for which Waves is justifiably famous. They cover all the bases (distortion, dynamics, pitch-shifting, reverb, way, modulation, gating, etc.), and are an interesting combination of vintage meets precision. I find them very "musical" and like GR, being able to put effects pre- or post-amp adds a significant degree of flexibility.
GTR is probably the least "user-friendly" in terms of creating sounds fast, because of the need to load separate stomp box and amps. However, that can also turn into an advantage once you've had the program for a while. I've built up a nice collection of stomps for specific purposes (a very useful compressor/EQ combination, for example, and a tempo-synched delay/chorusing effects that sounds just plain beautiful), so you end up with a bit of a "Chinese restaurant" effect: One from column A, one from column B, load up amp—done.
This GTR setup shows the amp module in the upper left, and two different stomp box pedalboard setups. Unlike AT2, you can have an unlimited amount of pedalboards, with 2, 4, or 6 effects per pedalboard.
For instant gratification, AT2 comes out ahead. It has a bunch of useful presets that show the range of the product, but are also very useful. It's simple to operate and tweak.
GR2 is somewhere between the two. It comes with a ton of presets, and while many of them are excellent and useable "right out of the box," there are also quite a few "educational" presets that show off specific techniques. These are ideal for veteran tweakers, as they provide excellent starting points for truly innovative sounds; but you'd be less inclined to just "punch 'em up and go" on a session.
THE BOTTOM LINE
I'd characterize GTR as having the sweetest, least "computer-like" sound, but it's also the most expensive. AT2 has a similar sound quality, although it exhibits a somewhat more "aggressive" edge (notwithstanding that superb clean-to-breakup transition). GR is without a doubt the most versatile of the three, and while some feel the amp sounds aren't as rich, I think those are probably people who haven't switched to high resolution mode—it makes a huge difference and is worth the CPU hit (AT2 also has oversampling and high-resolution modes that are worth enabling). It's almost like the difference between a tube and solid-state amp.
For sonic explorers who want to get guitar sounds no one has gotten before, GR is by far the best option. It can do standard guitar amp sounds, but also delivers some exceptionally esoteric and synthetic sounds. Neither GTR nor AT2 offer that kind of versatility.
If sound quality is of paramount concern, GTR has the edge. Whether that edge is worth the extra dollars (and iLok authorization) is something only you can decide, but the clean amps are in a class by themselves—and the dirty ones are almost like "high definition" dirt.
If your priority is instant gratification and an authentically vintage sound, then AT2 is probably your best bet. It may not be as flexible as the others in some respects, but IK has done a fine job of deciding which functions are most crucial to make sounds, and made them accessible.
So now you see why I use them all! Each has its own set of talents and occupies its own unique niche. While that may make purchasing decisions difficult, the good news is that each one is intelligently designed, and regardless of which one you end up with, you'll be able to make some exceptionally cool sounds.
Craig 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.