Tube amps have traditionally been the holy grail because they tend to sound warmer and respond very well to dynamics. At home, I have a Dr. Z Maz 18 Jr, and a pedalboard packed with goodies from Xotic, Fulltone, Eventide, and Bogner to name a few.
OTOH, tube amps are loud and hard to tame. My 18-watter requires the use of an attenuator to keep the volume levels in check. Without it, if I were to drop the master volume to a reasonable level, I lose that great tube tone. Tube amps are typically heavy or at least not so portable when combined with a pedalboard. And tubes wear out. Tube amps generally require backup rigs in case they go on the fritz.
So what about a reasonable alternative? Well just as computers have revolutionized just about every other area of our lives, they have also revolutionized guitar tones. Digital modeling brings that hope by having computers simulate the tones of tube amps and effects. I think most guitarists would say, upon investigation that modelers are coming closer but might still think of them as somewhat of a compromise for tone.
But as I’ve been watching the technology, I’ve become more convinced that the tide has turned. The working man’s modelers come in the form of what I’ll simply call pods. The pods I think have thus far mostly cemented the reputation that modelers do a good job but are still a bit of a compromise from the real thing.
However, my attention has been drawn over the last few years to high-end modelers. The Fractal Audio Axe-fx, Kemper Profiler, Avid Eleven Rack as well as a piece of gear that I now own called the Amplifire, made by Atomic Amps, have in my view, closed the tone gap.
How do these high-end modelers separate themselves from the working-man’s modelers? In a nutshell, they typically incorporate high end hardware, usually in the form of dual processors, one being totally dedicated to the amp models, while the other is usually dedicated to effects.
A great reason this makes such a difference is in something called Impulse Responses (IRs). Forgive me but this is where I get my guitar geek on for a moment. Impulses are the part of the code that models the sound of the speaker, speaker cabinet, and room, as heard through a mic. The mic AND its preamp are also part of the IR model. These IRs are said to really be the game changer in the tone. Unfortunately, your average pod doesn’t have the hardware to process high quality IRs without producing a lot of latency (delay in the signal).
These high-end modelers, with their beefed up computing hardware, can handle the load without hiccupping. Unfortunately, they often can break the bank and be less than ideal in form factor (usually double rack mount in most cases). The Amplifire is the first exception in that it is a small pedalboard and is priced at a fraction of most of its counterparts.
How do these things sound? Well since I got my Amplifire, my tube amp is collecting dust. What’s more is that I no longer get strange looks from people for hauling in a tube amp and pedalboard; setup is a breeze, and I can tame the volumes, keeping the sound guy happy. I’m convinced that the amp models in these high-end modelers can fool even the most trained ears into thinking they are listening to the real thing. And as a worship leader, I find myself no longer a slave to my gear, but instead being able to focus on the actual worship. And being no longer a slave to the gear, I find the gear is truly serving me as I attempt to serve God and his people.
Greg Jones is a musician, music teacher, worship leader and independent recording artist. On my site you find me sharing music instruction, with an emphasis on worship music and articles on worship leading.