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Make Your Amp Simulator Sing!

...metaphorically speaking. 

There are a few common questions that seem to tag along with any guitarists conversation about amp simulators, cab sims and how to run them on your pedalboard in place of a real tube amp.  Some of these common questions are: 

  1. Where should my Cab Sim go in my signal chain? Does it matter? 
  2. Can I run my amp simulator into a real amp? Or should I always turn it off? 
  3. Which pedalboard friendly amp simulator is the best?
  4. What can I do to make it sound even better?

These are solid questions.  We recently did a pedalboard build for Matt.  We had to cover these questions at the outset of our planning.  What we talked about is covered in this blog, as well as some photos of Matts board along the way. Like this one... 

Professional Pedalboard Build

Let's get into these questions one at a time. 

It should be noted going into this blog that there is a difference between an amp simulator and cab simulator.  A lot of companies include both in their unit, but some only include cab sim. It's not in the scope of this blog to cover this in detail.  I will likely offend people with my simple definition of this, but in short: 

Amp Simulator - This can cover (model) an amp in its entirety (the pre-amp/tone stack, Power amp, speaker cabinet and the room / mic used on that speaker cab).  In an amp simulator you can generally turn the different sections of this amp on or off and manipulate its controls. 

Cab Sim - This generally refers to the speaker cabinet, the mic used, and the room that the cab sits in.  Sometimes it will also include basic pre-amp and power amp sections, but by definition it does not need to be a part of this unit.  

As you can see there is a lot of overlap.  For this blog and from now on I will just use the term "Amp Sim" (amp simulator) to cover the unit as a whole.  

Signal Chain and Amp Simulators

Custom Wiring for pedalboard

Believe it or not, signal chain can play a significant role in how well your amp sim sounds.  I have done a lot of experimenting with this and have found my personal preferences.  I encourage you to do the same! Don't take my word for it, but try these tips out for yourself and do what sounds best to your ears.  

There are two main areas guitar players will put their amp sim.  

  1. The middle of their signal chain
  2. The end of their signal chain 

The most common of these two seems to be the latter.  The end of the chain just seems to make the most sense, right? You plug your amp into your chain at the very end, so why not put your amp sim there too? 

It's logical, it's simple.  I like it. 

Amp Sim Last

Amp Simulator Last vs first

This is a great option for most! One of the perks of running your amp sim at the end of your chain is access to the headphone jack (assuming you have one on your unit).  If you think about a typical signal chain: 

Guitar - Compressor - Gain Pedals - Modulation - Delay - Reverb - Amp Sim - Console

You can see that the amp sim is going to get signal from everything before it.  All of the pedals.  This seems like a waste of space.  Why did I even bring this up? 

If you move your signal chain around as follows: 

Guitar - Compressor - Gain Pedals - Amp Sim - Modulation - Delay - Reverb - Console

The amp sim will now only see the gain pedals and compressor.  The entirety of the board / signal chain will go to the console (sound desk) but not the headphone jack of the amp sim! 

This means if you try and practice at home with the headphone out on your amp sim, you'll only get the gain pedals and compressor - no crutch ... sorry, I mean clutch pedals like modulation, delay and reverb. 

There we have it.  Problem solved.  ALWAYS run your amp sim last. 

Right?  

If only life were that simple.  

This is where letting your ears decide becomes very important.  We are about to hit a crossroads and once you get there, there is no turning back. Reader beware.

Amp Sim In The Middle

Amp Sim before wet effects

Time to play devil's advocate.  Why would someone want to put their amp sim in the middle of their chain when they lose the use of the headphone jack? 

What I tell my customers: 

"If you want to prioritise at home practice with the headphone jack, put your amp sim last, if you want to sound marginally more amp-like when playing live / recording, put it in the middle." 

Again, this is assuming your ears agree with mineWith the goal to sound as close to a mic'd tube amp as possible, my experiments have shown that putting an amp sim in the middle is marginally more life-like. The transients (pick attack, fingers brushing across strings), and gain structure interpreted and spat out by your amp sim sounds more life-like, real, like the tube amp I'm trying to model. 

I do have to note here, the difference is not night and day.  My favourite question to ask when talking about nuance in tone is:

"Will anyone in the audience notice?"

ABSOLUTELY NOT! Let's not kid ourselves.  Your girlfriend who just showed up to your 2nd ever show is not going to come up to you after the gig is finished, plant a sloppy kiss on those chapped lips of yours and proclaim, "Thank you. Amp sim in the middle made the show! SO MANY MORE NUANCES!"

In reality she will say something like, "All I could hear was the drums, but those jeans really make your biceps pop."

Time for a rhetorical question and answer:

Will YOU notice a difference? 

Yes. 

Can that affect how you play live? 

Yes. 

Can that change how your guitar sounds more than the position of your amp sim? 

Of course. 

Will you enjoy playing guitar more if your tone is sounding better than it has in a long time? 

You bet. 

In short.  Your amp sim position does matter.  A bit.  Changing its position will make a noticeable difference to your ears, because you care the most.  It will also make a difference to the sound guy’s ears - marginally.  

Your girlfriend won't care.  Don't bother telling her. From experience - it's better that you don't. 

 

Can I Run My Amp Sim Into A Real Amp? 

Kingsley Squire Preamp for Amp Simulator

Sure! 

You can also lick pavement, try to boardslide a handrail, and go cliff diving without checking your landing.  

There's a good chance all of the above will end badly though. 

I'm kind of kidding, kind of not.  

I haven't come across a good reason to run your amp sim into a real amp, but I also love to be proven wrong. Some of the coolest sounds in the history of guitar come about when people don't care about the rules and break them just because they can. 

It's not necessarily wrong to run an amp sim into an amp, but you might not get your desired results.  If you are going to do this, just take a few points, some of which come with a warning. 

  1. Amp sims tend to have a hot / loud output.  Turn yours down before plugging into an amp.  Save your ears, your amp, and your relationship with your neighbours by heeding point 1. 
  2. When running an amp sim into an amp, you are modelling (re-creating / synthesising) a real amps preamp, power amp and cab. You’re then running that into a real amp which is another preamp, power amp and cab.  It's a lot of unnecessary signal manipulation repeated at multiple points in your rig.  If it works for you, awesome. If you're doing it for no good reason and it doesn't work for you and you're just trying to prove me wrong because I spoke badly about licking pavement... just turn off your amp sim. 

All in all, I am still a true believer that there isn't a right or wrong when it comes to creating guitar tone.  If running your amp sim into your amp gets the perfect sound for that song - it's the right thing to do.  In general, if there's something in your signal chain that doesn't need to be there though, get rid of it. 

 

Which Pedalboard Friendly Amp Sim Is Best?

The reason I make the distinction and say, "Pedalboard Friendly" is because there are a lot of amp simulators out there.  Some are designed to be mounted to a pedalboard, others are designed to take up the space of an amp and come with many more options.  To narrow the field, we are talking pedalboard friendly (small) amp sims today.  The kind of amp sim that allows you to take one less piece of heavy, back-breaking gear to a gig. 

Even now that we've narrowed down the field, there are still far too many amp sims to cover in this blog post.  I'm just going to stick with my favourites as outlined on our website, tell you why, and let you make up your own mind from there.

What I look for in a stand out amp sim? 

  1. Not too feature packed.  Many people will disagree with me here. But similar to my amps, I want to plug in my amp sim and have it sound great.  Minimal tone control, level, room size and a couple other options.  I'm personally not a fan of pages and pages of minor adjustments and changes that generally leave me more confused than empowered to play guitar. 
  2. Easy to power.  If I have to use current doublers, polarity inverters and flobnobbers to power my amp sim, I'm going to be less attracted to it.  I want to plug in Center negative 9VDC on a 2.1mm barrel (the industry standard for guitar pedals).  
  3. IR's.  Also known as an impulse response.  An IR is essentially a recording of your amp / room / effect reacting to a signal that you have fed it.  

In short.  You feed your unit a signal and record how it responds.  You then upload that recording on to your amp sim and can manipulate it further on the unit itself.  

Don't write this off yet as something you will never use.  You can also use third party IRs that other people have recorded as well which really opens up what your unit can do and sound. 

  1. Stereo capable.  If you're going to run an amp sim, generally speaking, it's an easy ask to get another line and run stereo.  Depending on where you run your amp sim, you can get away with a mono version (if you run amp sim before your stereo wet effects).  If you run amp sim at the end though, go for stereo. 

The question now has to be asked.  Which unit(s) outperform the rest? The standouts (according to one person among many).  

Starting with number 3 and working our way to number 1... 

BluGuitar Amp1 - We had this in for a Custom Setup a while back and I was really impressed with it.  It sounded great, had some good control over the different amp options and was easy enough to get a good sound out of the box.  Definitely worth a look if you have the pedalboard real-estate.  It's big. 

PROs

  1. Easy to use 
  2. Uses actual tubes in pre/power sections
  3. Has a 100W power section for a live cab. 

CONs

  1. It's huge. 
  2. It's pricey 
  3. Understandably powered with mains (120-240v)

Line6 HX Stomp - This is a multi effects unit.  It comes with MUCH more than amp and cab sim.  The reason it's on this list?  I was pleasantly surprised by how good its amp sim sounded.  The amount of customers we have had (unprompted by Goodwood) that have an HX stomp solely for amp sim leads me to believe I'm not alone in really appreciating this pedal’s amp sim. 

PROs

  1. It has a lot of factory amp sounds that are quite impressive.
  2. You can dial in additional effects for either your amp 'sound' or as separate effects
  3. Can be run in series, parallel, stereo, mono, wet dry wet etc. 

CONs

  1. Slightly harder to power with 1000mA required, 2.5mm center negative plug. Because I like it so much though, we make an HX stomp power cable you can use with your high current supply HERE
  2. On the expensive end at $599USD 
  3. More of a learning curve with this pedal.  It’s not hard, but you will have to menu dive a bit to get your sound. 

Strymon Iridium - This unit impressed me right out of the box.  I plugged it in without having any idea how its alternate functions worked or what I needed to do to get a 'sound' and dial it in. I just started turning knobs and flicking switches and it all made sense.  More importantly, it sounded incredible.  Don't get me wrong, I will still choose my mic'd up Matchless lightning, but if I need to use an amp sim, this is the one I would grab (and what most of our YouTube videos are recorded with as well). 

PROs

  1. Easy to use
  2. Sounds great without having to consult a user manual
  3. No option paralysis (limited options on the face of the pedal)
  4. It's small! 
  5. Easy to power. 

CONs

  1. For those that want very in depth control, this pedal is not for you (although the alternate functions get much more in depth than just the face of the pedal) 
  2. It's still on the pricey end for it's feature list at $399USD. 

There you have it.  One guy’s opinion on amp sims.  Take it with a grain of salt. 


How Do I Make It Sound Even Better?

Use a preamp with your amp simulator

If sound quality is your biggest concern (more than headphone jacks and silent practice at home) then signal chain will make a noticeable difference.  Try putting it in the middle.  

But now I'm repeating myself.  Is there anything else you can do to make your amp sim sound better?

Yes. Maybe.  

This again comes down to your ears.  I'm going to give you something to try.  An experiment of sorts.  

Take your cleanest overdrive or preamp style pedal.  Run it at unity gain (doesn't add any volume when on) and dial it in until you think it sounds as good as it's going to get.  

Run your amp sim in the middle of your board before your wet effects. Now, put this clean overdrive / preamp pedal right before your amp sim.  

Your signal chain will now look something like this: 

Guitar - Compressor - Overdrives - SUPER CLEAN OVERDRIVE / PREAMP - Amp Sim - Modulation - Delay - Reverb - Console / Sound Desk. 

You are going to leave that clean overdrive, placed obediently right before your amp sim, ON.  

Always. 

Don't touch it. 

Don't look at it. 

Forget it's there.

This clean overdrive / preamp is Luke Skywalker.  It's going to bring balance to your board. 

Now comes the important part.  Play your pedalboard.  Use your pedals as you would in a song, turning overdrives on and off (not your clean/preamp pedal though.  Never turn Luke off.  Leave him on.), delays, reverbs, modulation... have a play and have fun. 

Do this with and without your preamp pedal on.  Record yourself if you're feeling crazy and listen back.  Which do you like better? 

Let your ears be the judge. 

If you like this approach with a pre-amp. Keep your pedal there or invest in something even more preampy.  Yes, that is a term - in this blog. One of my favourites for a preamp is the Kingsley Squire.  Yes it's pricey and comes with a waitlist, but it's well worth it. A lower cost option to check out is the Xotic Effects RC Booster.  It is a great pedal and it comes at a great price. 

That's it.  Hopefully this ramble of words on a topic I find quite interesting has challenged you to re-think an aspect or two of your pedalboard. 

Happy testing! 

If you've got questions, you know where to find me. 

Hanging out with Luke. In the depths of your pedalboard. 

But only if you're using a preamp. 

If not, try me at Info@goodwoodaudio.com

By Grant Klassen

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