Amp Modeling is Fascinating... and Frustrating!
I've gotta tell ya... amp modeling technology is flat out amazing, yet at the same time, incredibly frustrating. There are times when it takes a healthy dose of pluck to find the right tones. I've seen lots of people dismiss mainstream modeling, complaining that it "has no dynamic", "sounds sterile", "isn't lively", or "lacks an authentic feel". We have to ask: Why? What's the problem? It isn't just the vintage guys or the tube-snobs grumbling about the issue. What are we missing? Personally, something that always drove me nuts with these Modelers/MultiFX units (MFX) was the varying degrees of "junk-tone" I could get out of them no matter what I would try (and that would subsequently send me off to try the next modeling product). I kept asking, "why would (or could) companies market products that were plunky, lifeless and a far cry from what they claimed?"
Before I get too far into all of this let me acknowledge that it's not always reliable to measure the products by the mp3 sound clips that are put out by the various companies. Nevertheless, you should be able to come close to what you hear in those demos - right? One would think so. Another aspect of MFX that further complicates the issue... all these output settings - yikes!
Ever the optimist, I believe innovation is a great thing! Even if it's difficult to work with it at first. Progress is earned. Gratefully, I've had the opportunity to own and work with most of the mainstream modeler/multiFX products such as POD XT Live, POD Pro, GT-8, ToneLab SE, Korg PX4, GNX4, V-Amp Pro, GNX3000, and a few other smaller units as well. It would be an understatement to say these MFXs are engineering marvels. I mean, to fold so much functionality into a single, portable, totally capable product... well it just boggles my mind. It's a great time to be playing the guitar! But it isn't without its caveats... and if you have dropped by your favorite music store to demo one of these units, you know what I'm getting at.
It Souldn't Be That Hard... Right?
After a few years of experimentation with different MFXs, a host of rig combinations, and long nights of obssessive compulsive tweaking, I believe I finally found a potential solution to this elusive tone anomaly. A while back, as I was hopping around my favorite forums (you know who you are!). We were all barking about how hard it was to get "good tones" out of our MFXs. It got so bad for a few guys that they gave up on the modeling technology altogether! We were running through combo amps (high end, low end, tube, and solid state), stacks, in front of the preamps, into the FX returns, using various EQ and "maximizer" tools as post-fix solutions, and several other things. Keep in mind, most of us were simply striving to reproduce our "direct/headphone/recording" tones through our live rigs. People suggested building at least two sets of patches: one for recording/headphones, and another for running through your live gear.
Well, that's a nice idea in theory - but IMHO in real life it is much more difficult than it would seem to replicate the same tone through very different output systems. I'm all for having thousands of patches! But it shouldn't be this convoluted to get good tones that translate from direct to live to headphones...right? To be fair, not everyone was complaining. There was a relatively small contingent of users who were extremely happy.
The Grumblers Versus The Thrillers
I stepped back and began to take notice of who was dissatisfied with their tones versus those who were very happy with the results they were getting. I may have missed one or two users, but I found that just about all of the folks who were unhappy with their tones had one thing in common: they were all running through traditional guitar amplification! They all had their own unique rigs and various post-treatment "fixes", but the output was always through some sort of typical guitar amp/speaker cabinet.
In contrast to this the elated users were almost always running through some sort of flat response, full range, active PA monitor or keyboard amp type of rig. I'd never considered not using a guitar amp/cab for my primary amplification rig, but things were starting to make a crazy kind of sense. After all, you wouldn't run a full guitar amp/cabinet/FX rig into another guitar amp/cab setup... would you? I don't know many players who get great tone by running one guitar preamp straight into another. Aha! I think we're on to something now.
A couple of the oft-touted features of all these modelers are: 1) the ability to get those cranked-amp tones without having to crank the actual volume...(i.e. you have the option of huge tone at headphone/bedroom volumes); and 2) you can go straight into a direct/recording scenario without the need for anything between the modeler and the recorder - no amp, no real cabinet or microphone (these all have their own cabinet/mic modeling). Both of those features seem aimed at amplification systems that are more transparent, more faithful to the original signal... a flat response, full range (FRFR) output scenario.
MFXs are designed to give you fantastic results through your headphones (typical practice scenario) and/or studio monitors (typical recording/mixing scenario). These types of rigs are generally FRFR speaker systems. Obviously there is a wide range of quality and price points - with some FRFR providing more transparency than others - but the fundamentals are the same.
Let's take a look at our typical guitar amp. Guitar amplifier/cabinets are not designed as FRFR systems. They are engineered to intentionally color your tones in unique ways. This is not always a good match for MFX technology. The specific speakers in a typical guitar amp are voiced to sound a certain way and work best with matched preamp(s) (e.g. Marshall combos/stacks, Fender combos, Mesa Boogie stacks, etc. all have a unique voice in a mix and are known for their signature preamp tone).
MFXs usually include a variety of output options to compensate for the typical guitar amp/cabinet rigs that most users will be running through (with varying degrees of success). Frankly speaking, with most of these settings, I find things either get too shrill and brittle or they get too muddy and dark. The tone's character is rarely superb, though with some tweaking I can get it close to acceptable. I know I'm not alone in this opinion (just visit the various user forums). I want the same quality tones through my live rig as I get through my headphones and recording setups. In my experience, one of the best (and easiest) ways to get there is to run my MFXs through an FRFR output system. There are a few different types that work for our application: active monitors, passive monitors w/mixing board, and keyboard amplifiers.
Hmmm... Flat Response, Full Range
After I'd had this epiphany, I went and demo'd a few different FRFR rigs. I used several different MFXs during that demo period and spent a long time listening to the overall character and quality of the tones at low and high volume levels. It was literally one of those moments where you say to yourself, "Wow! Now I get it. So this is what all the fuss is about! Why didn't I try this before?!"
Before you get too excited - realize that not every FRFR rig matches well with every MFX. I found that a number of FRFR systems have particularly strong tweeter/horn systems. I found it helped to actually muffle the tweeters with a cloth/towel or padding so the high frequencies wouldn't rip my head off!
For a long time I've run exclusively through a pair of FRFR keyboard amps (Behringer KX1200). The tones I can get are gorgeous, articulate, punchy, crushing. Whatever I want them to be - regardless of the MFXs I decide to plug into for the day. Need a huge low end, high gain tone for your favorite metal tune? No sweat! I can rattle the windows and shake the floor. Want a sparkly chorused clean that cuts through? Piece of cake. Big, full flavored, stereo output fills the room with very musical tone. It's so much simpler with FRFR.
Surprised? If you think about it for a minute, you'll understand the sensibility in this FRFR amplification approach. For example: In a typical, high quality, professional gig, everything goes through a mixing board where it's all tweaked for the FoH (Front of House PA system). What you're hearing from your amp on stage isn't necessarily what the audience hears. They hear your guitar AFTER it has been processed and refined by the sound guy through the FRFR system.
I can't keep track of how many other guitarists have shared the same shift in thinking as they let go of their traditional paradigms and get on the FRFR bandwagon. It's really cool to see the spirit of guys and gals who are inspired to play more passionately - having more fun than ever. You have to really try FRFR to appreciate it. FWIW, Since the original writing of this article, countless MFX guitarists have written to share their new excitement once they dove into the FRFR approach.
I hit on this a bit already and it bears repeating: One of the advantages of FRFR rigs is that you will find you spend FAR less time dialing in your tones! You can dial in a tone much faster because you aren't having to compensate for the voicing of your amp's preamp and cabinet/speakers. The result: You won't want to put your guitar down for hours (well, at least that's what happens to me - every time).
Things To Keep In Mind
There are a few things to consider if you choose this route for amplifying your guitar modeler tones. I won't make any bones about it. You need to keep these things in mind when using actives or keyboard amps:
- In a live band scenario, take time to EQ your patches at band practice so you aren't competing with the bass guitar or other guitarist(s) in the band. You should do this anyway with traditional rigs, but because you are full range you can muddy things up by being too heavy in other instruments' key frequencies. It's not much different than understanding how a guitar should sit in an overall mix. Have some friends sit out away from the stage and give you feedback to help work things out.
- If your band has more than one guitarist, and the other guitarist is using a traditional rig, it can be tricky to cut through. It has to do with the voicing of the guitar cabinet and speakers. They live in the mids and are going to be very present. You will need to take time to shape your modeler/full range tone so that you are both loud and clear. This is particularly important if you both trade off leads or play in unison/harmony. The goal is to have a balanced guitar presence on the stage. As I said before, have some friends sit out away from the stage and give you feedback to help work things out.
- It might take you a little time to get used to not being connected to a "real" guitar amp. It did for me. For some, this can be a bit of a problem because we do love being hooked up to a fire-breathing behemoth of a stack (disclaimer: wear earplugs)... and full range systems do feel somewhat different. But allow yourself to acclimate to the new rig. Once you are accustomed to it, the connection to the tone will come back and I would bet that you'll be happier than you ever expected! Note that this disconnected feel is actually worse (IMHO) when running a modeler through a traditional guitar amp/cabinet. A flat response, full range rig in stereo simply oozes feel and tone... If you're like most folks, you'll easily roll right into the new, improved sonic wonderland.
- Don't crank all of the knobs to 10 (i.e. to the max)!!! You wouldn't do this on a real amp (at least you shouldn't if you want to have a musical tone!), so don't do it with a modeler. What makes this especially important to consider is the fact that most of the modelers actually have a wider range of characteristics and features than their real counterparts. For example, many classic amps didn't have a midrange or presence pot but just about all of the modelers throw them into the preamp models because they can. Well folks - just because you can turn that dial doesn't mean you should. Use good judgment and small adjustments.
- Be prepared to retweak your old non-full range tone patches. You'll want to revamp them to take advantage of the better output rig.
- You might find the tweeter/horn on your chosen FRFR rig to be way too harsh/strong. I found that muffling the tweeter resulted in a smoother overall sound. Not all FRFR suffer from this, so demo any potential choices if you can.
- Always, always, ALWAYS use the output setting on your MFX that enables the cabinet modeling component when you are using FRFR rigs. You want to take advantage of the natural, realistic sound cabinet modeling provides! You wouldn't just play through a preamp would you (unless you need a buzzy mess!)?!
- I tend to prefer a 15" driver over a 12" driver in an FRFR system. You gain a lot of low end and a nice full-bodied tone from the larger speaker. Of course, you also gain a bit of weight!
I know there are those out there who are reading this who will want to burn me at the stake for even suggesting the idea of playing a guitar without a real amp/cabinet. Please don't light the matches or set the kindling just yet. That is, not until you get a chance to try a capable MFX through a good FRFR rig.
Don't go into it with preconceived ideas, nor with the words "digital, fizz, sterile, unrealistic, or [insert negative comment here]". Just let the MFX do what it does and listen... not so much for "this is a Marshall" or "this is a Fender" (because there is nothing like the real thing!), but listen for a musical, useful guitar tone. I really think you'll be surprised at how good it sounds; especially if you run through a stereo FRFR rig.
Of course, there is always the disclaimer that each person's ears and taste are their own. After trying all of this out you may still find you don't like what you hear at all. That's okay. An MFX/FRFR rig is merely another tool available to us that can inspire us to make beautiful, emotive music.
Alternatives : Tube Power Amps, Cabinets, and Custom Speakers
Sometimes MFX through an FRFR can lack the "connection" that you get when you are plugged into a screamin' tube amp. That's not always the case, but I have noticed it once in awhile too. I feel that a lot of the problem is a fault of certain MFXs more than the FRFR rig. An alternative that I failed to mention when I first wrote this article, but has increasingly gained popularity, is to run an MFX into a high quality tube-based guitar power amp and feed that into one or more traditional cabinets. This approach infuses REAL power tube feel back into the MFX's modeling and lends a rich authenticity to everything.
There are several options from manufacturers such as Mesa Boogie, Marshall, etc. It does cost a bit more to pursue this method, but the results are very very good. You also gain a little more flexibility in that you can swap out cabinets to whatever suits your style and voice. Another fantastic option that continues to grow in popularity is the Atomic Amplifier "Reactor" series. It is an all in one, tube power amp, tuned cabinet, and custom speaker system specially designed for MFXs output. I honestly can't wait to get my hands on one!
Last but not least, some speaker manufacturers are now producing a wider range guitar speaker engineered just for the amp modeling world that you can mount in a traditional guitar cabinet. Eminence Legend Modeling 12 is the one speaker I see a lot of MFX enthusiasts using with great success. Without a doubt, more speaker companies will follow suit as MFX become more ubiquitous.
There you have it. If you have been wringing your hands over your MFX - spitting fire at it because you can't get it to sound quite the way you want - perhaps you should head to your neighborhood musical instrument dealer and ask to demo some flat response, full range (FRFR) output rigs with your unit. Spend some time with the default patches. Dial in a few basic ones of your own. Make sure you are using the Direct/Phones/Line output setting! Prepare to be blown away by your good old MFX!
As always, your mileage may vary. An FRFR output rig may not be a panacea but it is a very good option. In the end, trust your ears and use the gear that makes you love to play!
Keep on rockin'!