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Kemper - how does it sound?

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After decades of playing through great tube amps, I've spent the last 6 weeks or so playing through a Kemper. It's a loaner that I acquired to play for a run of the musical theater show "We Will Rock You". This show is effectively a Queen tribute, and as such requires Brian May's signature sound...but a fully-cranked AC30 isn't going to work in this application. Thus, we found a Kemper that we could use to try to recreate May's sound at a more manageable performance volume. As a bonus, the pit band is playing a set of '70s and '80s rock as a pre-show "overture", so I got to try out some of the very popular hair metal and arena rock sounds. Next week I'll be returning it, and I wanted to share some impressions from my real world experience with the Kemper.

> The factory profiles aren't that great, and do not reflect the ultimate capability of the rig. This is no different from a lot of digital products, but it means that a demo in-store won't show you what it can really do.

> You really need a high-quality monitor system to use a profiler effectively. If your monitor cabinet is junk, it will make the entire rig sound like junk; this is a high-end, studio grade product, and should be paired with a similar level of amp/monitor to get the most out of the rig. You get what you pay for. Note that this is another reason that an in-store demo isn't going to be helpful; plugging into a $300 entry-level powered cabinet isn't going to give you the resolution that you need to hear the nuances that the Kemper creates.

> You can get really good profiles from several 3rd party vendors, or you can make good ones yourself. Spend the time/$$$, and you will be rewarded. Be aware that this may require sourcing dozens of profiles for each one that ultimately works for you. It's time-consuming, but the end result will be impressive if you invest the effort.

> A quality profile can sound very good indeed, but you can't do much tweaking without getting a very processed, "digital" sound. Changing gain, for example, I found to universally mess up an otherwise perfectly good profile.

> It takes a lot of time to build a complete patch from a profile (rig) and the various FX options, and the UI is a bit clunky, IMO. As with everything, it gets better as you gain experience, but I didn't find it to be particularly easy to short-cut the process of building Performances and Presets.

> The Performance mode is limited to 5 patches per block, which I find to be very limiting in real world use.

> Using MIDI to select performances and patches can work, but I have found the patch change delay to be problematic at times.

> I have found that some profiles do not respond well to partial-volume inputs - you really almost have to build a new profile for every different instrument and setpoint for it to sound really good. This may be acceptable for studio work, but trying to tweak on the fly during performance can be annoying when you start to hear that fizzy digitized sound.

> The potential versatility is outstanding - but at the cost of a lot of effort for every individual sound.

> The ability to control volume and send a perfectly matching signal to FOH is very helpful, just as when using a good loadbox/IR with a tube amp.

> I think that the software is in need of some attention in several areas. I have had a number of crashes on a Win8 laptop, and lost a lot of time when changes I had made were undone due to non-intuitive workflow procedures. The lack of a patch editor has been a crucial missing piece of this system; V3.0 of the Rig Manager software with patch editing capabilities has finally been released, unfortunately right as I will be returning the Kemper. I would like to spend some time with it to see if this update addresses some of the workflow challenges, but I will not have the time with the Kemper to give it a fair shake-down.

In the end, I can see why people with certain approaches to their playing would love this amp. It's capable of a lot of really good stuff, and the ability to customize it with your own profiles is something that the Fractal and Line6 units simply cannot do. For example, I have an old Marshall 3203 that sounds great and is relatively rare. With the Kemper, I can profile it with my own settings and duplicate it for performance use, without having to take it out to a gig. No other modeller gives me this ability, no matter how good they may sound with the amps that they have in their standard list.

I can also see why others might want to throw it off a cliff after getting frustrated with its limitations. I think that for something this complex, they really need to spend some time on developing a software UI that is intuitive, comprehensive and simplified. I don't think it will work for me, either.....but it has convinced me that the digital technology is getting very, very close to duplicating what a tube amp can do. In fact, this one can very nearly duplicate what a dozen or more tube amps can do, in a compact, lightweight package.

Edited by SteinbergerHack
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Good on you for giving it a proper go and a fair assessment. 

I have to say that I never have to deal with the fizz you mention (low pass filter) and 5 performance slots per song is heaps for me. I've not had software issues on Windows 10.

It's easy to see how someone can prefer a great tube amp setup. There's still nothing better when it's done very well.

I'm mad about versatility, so for me to be at my best I want Princeton, AC30, Dumble SSS, Shiva, Polytone, JCM800, Ecstacy, Champ... I'll always trade some tone to have a more varied palette. I never feel like I'm trading anything though. They sound just like the original amp, perfectly miked.

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10 hours ago, Grant Harding said:

I have to say that I never have to deal with the fizz you mention

I didn't either until I was in a performance situation.  When I was operating at full volume on the guitar and not fine-tuning, it sounded great.  Then when I started using the guitar's volume knob to fine-tune volume and gain to balance with other instruments, it was really noticeable.  I suspect that it's a quantization issues, so it might be addressable with more attention to the gain settings across the whole system.

10 hours ago, Grant Harding said:

 5 performance slots per song is heaps for me.

I am used to a MIDI rig that gives me 10 FX presets with a single button press.  For the number of groups I work with and the variety of material I do, trying to match songs to performance slots won't work.  I think in terms of a matrix of gain settings (amp channels) and FX presets (MIDI rack).  The Bogner gives me 6 distinct gain settings on the pedal, and then I have two banks of 10 each "standard" FX presets (song-specific patches go to other banks).  That's 120 potential pre-built combinations, all available with no more than 2 footswitch actions.  The Kemper is WAY more clunky in this regard.

11 hours ago, Grant Harding said:

 I've not had software issues on Windows 10.

I've had a number of crashes with Win8, and I've read reports of others having the same problem with it crashing while connected to the KPA.

The good news is that they just released a new official (non-beta) version with a supposedly improved UI and the long-awaited patch editor.  I may give it a shot before I return the KPA later this week, and see how much it improves the usability.

11 hours ago, Grant Harding said:

I'm mad about versatility, so for me to be at my best I want Princeton, AC30, Dumble SSS, Shiva, Polytone, JCM800, Ecstacy, Champ... I'll always trade some tone to have a more varied palette.

Well, that's where the Kemper really excels, so it would make a lot of sense for your goals.

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