The Dream Guitar Amp Setup
What if I tell you in my studio I have 12 of the best amps in the world together with matched cabinets, 11 of the best overdrive/distortion units ever made, 6 professional rack mount size time-based effects, 11 modulation effects, 11 filter effects, 6 volume effects, 3 split modules and 3 crossover mixers? You must say I am dreaming. Well, this is when dreams start to blend into reality and the dividing line between fantasy and the real world has become blurred. To tell the truth, I really do have all that gear in my studio, I can use them, I can hear them, but I cannot touch them. I have not lost my mind, not yet anyway. How about one of the most famous British amps ever made : The Orange head and stack? I have it, it has been renamed as "Citrus", but I can tell you it is the real thing, only that I can use it, hear it but I cannot touch it. Why? Step into the world of virtual reality and you will see why.
In August 2008, I made the painful decision of up-grading (some say down-grading) to computer recording. My Alasis ADAT machines are getting old, spare parts are hard to come by and there is no service for these dinosaurs anymore. It is also increasingly difficult to get hold of high grade VHS tapes for the machines. Like it or not, I had to move with the times. After a lot of one-side mental struggle, I got a new computer and installed Cubase as my recording software. After some demo from two kind friends and after spending 4 days and nights in front of the computer screen, I managed to learn how to operate Cubase. I can record, overdub, add effects, mix down to two track and covert the music to industrial standard for playing on CD players. Everything in my studio, from mixer to outboard effects to recording machines to patch bays had become redundant overnight. Now everything is in a computer screen. What is this world coming to? When I was using the ADAT machines, I used to record my guitar with amps or preamps. Whilst trying to learn how to use this new recording system, I stumbled across something absolutely fantastic and blew my mind ; it is the Guitar Rig which is now in its 3rd generation. The Guitar Rig is made by Native Instruments. Just incredible. This is what it does.
The Guitar Rig is a guitar software developed by a company called Native Instruments. Once installed in your computer, you have instant access to a whole world of guitar equipment that hitherto you could only dream of having. You have at you disposal a large number of amps, cabinets, effects and even two tape recorders. You can build your own rig. For example, I want a Marshall head, with a 4 x 12 cabinet, an Ibanez Tube Screamer, a spring reverb, a delay, a phaser, a chorus, and I can have it in a split second. Oh, you don't like the sound of the Marshall head? Try the Mess Boogie Rectifier, you might like it. It really is crazy. But this is what the Guitar Rig does, it allows you access to all these gear and you can combine them in any way you like : only that instead of physically touching them, you do it in your computer. You turn volume knobs and on/off switches with the mouse instead of you hand. This is a typical interface in the Guitar Rig 3 :-
This shows you one of the amps you are using, the "Ultrasonic" in this case, and the different modes you have in the amp. In the interface, the "Heavy Lead" mode is highlighted and chosen. There are two effects attached, one is the Quad Delay and the other is the Studio Reverb. You can hook it up with a foot switch pedal which you see in the lower half of the interface (more about the foot switch pedal later). Using the mouse, you can adjust and fine-tune every knob on the amp, you can add delay, add reverb and decrease or increase input and output volume. Amazing, isn't it? Have a look at this :-
You have a total of 12 amps at your disposal. If this does not turn you on, nothing will. No need to see a doctor, go to nearest bar and get a drink : you are beyond salvation. You might notice that quite a few of the amps look familiar but with somewhat different names. Copyright laws at work undoubtedly. Your Mesa Boogie has been renamed as the "Gratifier", your Marshall JCM-900 is now called "Lead 800", the Orange amp is now called "Citrus" and so on. These thinly disguised names will not fool anyone with even a passing interest in guitar amps. There is also a brief description of each amp which pops up when that amp is chosen. There are a whole world of speaker cabinets from which to choose for your amp head :-
Mind-boggling, isn't it? Now if that is not enough, let's start with some of the outboard effects. Let's have a look at the overdrive/distortion effects at your disposal :-
Can you imagine having all that at your finger tips? My first feeling is not unlike that of a kid in a candy store. Now if that is not enough, have a look at the outboard effects you can use :-
You can literally mix and match with any of the amps, cabinets and outboard effects. The possibility is limitless, the sky is the limit. There is an omnipresent rack mount guitar tuner for tuning your guitar. There are two tape decks that allow you record what you play, loop it and you can jam over it
I cannot think of anything that I find wanting in the Guitar Rig 3. On the contrary, there are a lot of effects and amp combinations I have not tried out before. There are enough gear to last two life times, that is if you be gentle while handling the gear. Absolutely no worries about that. Touch it? You wish. Now, the most important thing of all, how does the software sound? Are there any hidden traps or bobby traps? Let me tell you.
The first thing I have to say using the software is how uncanny it is handling effects and guitar amps with a mouse in a computer screen and not being able to physically touch the thing. It gives you the feeling that the whole thing is a hoax, or at best everything coming straight from a cartoon, all unreal and surreal. But the sound is surprisingly good and almost "real". When you turn full up a distortion unit, you can hear the hiss and noise as you would hear in a real thing. When you twitch knob on the computer screen, the sound actually corresponds and is sensitive to your "touch". I have tried out many of the effects and they are all sensitive to adjustments and really make a difference when they are activated. But there a couple of things I find playing around with the Guitar Rig :-
1. The Guitar Rig is not reality, it is only virtual reality, it is not "real", it has no physical presence. I don't know how to explain it, the sound coming through my speakers are great but they are somehow "unreal", if you know what I mean. I don't know how else it put it. I have read in medical journals that patients who lost their lambs complain of phantom pain in their lost limbs. I think this is the best way I can put it. It takes time to get used to the whole thing, get used to the sound and handling amps and cabs in a computer screen. This is something psychological.
2. If you get over the psychological barrier, you can get to the core of the thing. You need to spend time to work on the different set-ups to get a good sound. The problem here is one is spoilt for choice. We all jump in and have fun, mixing and matching different amps with different cabinets and adding different effects to the chain. If we hear a sound we don't like, we throw one or more of the components out of the window and put something new in their place all too easily. After a while, you will lose the exciting. If you want to get a good sound, you need to get to know your computer gear and fine-tune them just like in real life you tune your effects. A few of my friends did find the Guitar Rig very impressive but they don't use it much in recordings. Maybe it is matter of taste, but I have spent quite a lot of time on it already since I got the software and I found some very good sounds. Within two days after I installed the Guitar Rig 3, I have recorded a complete song on my Cubase using the Guitar Rig 3. On the recording, the overdrive lead guitar sounds out of this world having combined with some of the outboard effects hitherto not available to me. For the rhythm track, I chose a Fender Bassman amp and the rhythm guitar sounds crystal clear, sparkling as a matter of fact.
3. Now one problem : there seems to be some latency between the notes I play on the guitar and the note that comes out of the speakers. This means that there seems to be some delay between the note I play on the guitar and the note traveling through the computer and coming out of the speakers. I have not quite worked out whether this is something to do with my sound card or that I am just imaging things, the "phantom limb" thing. I need a bit more time to make up my mind.
Apart from building your own rig, there are plenty of preset sounds and patches called "signature sounds". You have a Jimi Hendrix Strat neck pickup sound, a Brain May sound, a Stevie Ray sound and so on. They all sound pretty good to my ear. There are also many preset sounds for different types of music, Classic Rock, Blues, Pop, Metal etc.
On top of all this, the software can link up with their pedal board. You can patch different effects or set-ups to different banks on the pedal board. Again the possibility in without limit. The Native Instruments website suggested that this whole thing can be used in a live situation. You connect you guitar to the pedal board, the pedal board connects with a notebook through a USB socket and the outputs from the pedal board goes to powered speakers. I don't know how this set-up will sound. I am rather skeptical, I must say. But there is only one way to find out. Not me of course, would someone try it out in their live show and let me know.
These are early days for me having only started meddling with the Guitar Rig not for more than a few days. But I already see the attraction of the whole thing already. There is a lot of potential in this software (at least for recording purposes) waiting to be discovered. One thing, if just this one thing, it is worth the full price of the software. If you record your guitar on Cubase with the Guitar Rig and later find that you don't quite like the sound of your, say, lead guitar, because it did not have enough overdrive on it, or had too much overdrive on it, you can simply change the setting or configuration of your Guitar Rig and the guitar track will change correspondingly. Fantastic isn't it? In the old days, you would either have to live with the guitar track or record the whole thing all over again. The price for the software is US$339. The software plus pedal board costs US$559. As I said I am not too sure about the pedal board, but the software itself is certainly worth its price. I just love mucking about with all those amps and effects!!
The Jimi Hendrix Factor
Since discovering the Guitar Rig I stumbled across another similar guitar software The Jimi Hendrix Amplitube and was instantly fascinated by it. The softwear featured vintage amps and effects used by Jimi Hendrix. The Jimi Hendrix Amplitube is developed by IK Multimedia. The software features 4 amps used by Hendrix.
Matched cabinets are offered in the Jimi Hendrix Amplitube and you get 5 different mics including dynamic and condenser mics. You can adjust the mix between the two as well. On top of that you can choose near or distant miking and also adjust the ambience.
Whereas the Guitar Rig primarily uses rack mount effects, the effects used in the Jimi Hendrix Amplitude is foot pedals. All the famous Hendrix pedals are included here : The Uni-V. the Fuzz Age, Octaver, Tremelo, Axis Fuzz, Wah Wah, Fuzz tone etc. The images of the stomp boxes are a bit cartoon like, but don't let them fool you, sound just like the real thing. The sound of each of the effects is realistic. It is difficult to explain how "real" they are, you just have to hear it.
The Jimi Hendrix Amplitube also has 4 rack mount units, include Eq, Compressor, Stereo Reverb and Rotary Speaker. Amongst all the effects, the Rotary Speaker is really interesting. I don't know about you, but I have never used one until now.The sound is just something else. The Guitar Rig also has a similar effect called "Rotary Sound" but the Rotary Speaker in the Jimi Hendrix Amplitube is much more authentic and realistic.
Guitar Rig vs Jimi Hendrix Amplitube
I can see it coming : which one is better? To tell the truth both works really well but the Amplitube has a more vintage sound where as the Guitar Rig has a more modern sound. I know it sounds crazy to say there is such subtle difference in computer softwear. I agree, but the Jimi Hendrix Amplitube does sound more vintage. You turn on the Marshall JMT100 in the Jimi Hendrix Amplitube, dial up the gain and you get the kind of sound you get out of an overdriven Marshall, where the treble just dropped out a fair bit and the guitar sound seems on the verge of disintegrating. This is exactly the sound you get out of an old Marshall amp. On the Guitar Rig, you can get yourself a Mesa Boogie Rectifier and you get exactly what the Rectifier offers : unlimited power, clinical, bright and smooth. On the Marshall JMT100, it is possible to get the nitty gritty sound if you get the gain control right. You can turn down the volume of your guitar and get a smooth sound. Turn up the volume of your guitar and you get the crunchy sound just like in real life. If you want a vintage and dirty sound, the Jimi Hendrix Amplitube is what you want. If you want clinical, state of the art sound, Gig Rig 3 is better. In terms of effect, the Jimi Hendrix is rather limited, you only get 9 vintage effects and that may not meet the demand of a guitar pro.
Now, unfortunately that is not the end of the story. Amplitube offers Amplitube 2 which has a great selection of modern amps with a whole series of 21 stomp boxes, 14 amps together with matched cabinets together with a good number of rack mount effects. The Amplitube 2 is much more modern in terms of sound. Still, the Amplitube 2 has a more dirty sound than the Guitar Rig. It really highlights the difference between rack mount effects and stomp boxes. IK Multimedia offers a software called "X-Grear". What this does is once installed, it acts as a bridge between the Jimi Hendrix Amplitube and the Amplitube 2 and you have every feature from both softwares at your fingertips and you can combine them in any way you want. This software is free of charge. Once you own two guitar software from IK Multimedia, you are entitled to the X-Grear free of charge.
The X-Gear giving you access to the Jimi Hendrix and Amplitube 2 at the same time.
If this is the first time you come across these softwares and you head is reeling, don't worry, my head is also reeling too. They are not cheap, but nothing good comes cheap. I have been using a Marshall JMP-1 pre-amp for over 10 years now. The JMP-1 has the best speaker emulator of any pre-amp I have laid my hands on. A few days after installing the Gig Rig, I bought the Jini Hendrix Amplitube and after a couple more days I bought the Amplitube 2. I hardly touch the JMP-1 now. I have unlimited access to a host of great amps, unlimted access to all the effects I will ever need. Sometimes it is really hard to tell what this world is coming to. Is it real or not real?