The world of guitar amp simulations has developed significantly in the last few years, and since our original roundup. As with emulations of vintage synths, drum machines and classic effects and processors, the amount of nuance and realism that can now be captured when modelling combinations of analogue circuits and recreating that digitally (without breaking your computer under the processing strain) means that we’re finally at a point where emulations are consistently on an effective par with their analogue inspiration.
Here, producer and guitarist Mark Marshall rounds up the best options for authentic guitar tones in 2016 going into 2017, together with insights gleaned from his studio sessions for achieving the best results, and audio examples of each in action.
General Tips On Evaluating Guitar Amp Sim Tones
One of the most important things I learned about amp sims is that the default presets often need quite a bit of tweaking to make them sound more realistic. Upon loading, they often have too much low end and gain. I almost always immediately reach for the bass and gain knobs.
Consider the experience when you use a real amp. You turn the amp on and start playing at a fairly low volume. You don’t just start with the amp on 8.
A lot of times when we open up an amp sim, the volume is set to a much higher setting. This means we’re overstepping the process of hearing the amp’s gain staging as it progresses.
I’ve seen some engineers just switch to another amp sim instead of exploring the various gain stages of the current amp sim.
This is an important point when evaluating amp sims. Don’t base you opinion solely on the default or preset sounds. Explore, as you would with a real amp.
My Top 5 Amp Sims
Universal Audio has really raised the bar in all things plugin related. The zero latency operation of the UAD hardware has been real game changer for home/mobile studio recording.
It has always been a real draw back to use guitar sims with latency. Zero latency paired with high end sound is a great team. I’ve often felt you had to sacrifice one.
UAD Marshall Silver Jubilee – Rock:
UAD Bluesbreaker – Blues vibe:
UAD Plexi – 60’s vibe:
Pro Tip #1: The deeper options to choose microphones can be really powerful on amp sims. Sometimes the switch between FET, Valve and Dynamic mics can make all the difference. Spend some time to learn the characteristics of each mic option.
One thing I think is worth highlighting about using the UAD hardware and sims is the Unison technology. Unison technology allows the plugin to see the same impedance from your pickups the real amp would. This makes a big difference in the tone and gain staging. Nobody has really nailed this aspect of guitar amp relationship yet.
I’m a big fan in particular of the UAD ’55 Tweed Deluxe, Marshall Plexi Super Lead 1959 and Marshall Silver Jubilee 2555.
As far as amp sims go, I think these are the closest to the real thing. Not only in tone, but in feel.
Available for: UAD guitar plugins require dedicated DSP processing to operate, and so are available for Mac and PC users of one of Apollo series of audio interfaces, a UAD-2 DSP Accelerator PCIe card (installed inside a PC) or UAD-2 Satellite DSP Accelerator (standalone hardware units). The current lowest-budget DSP hardware option for gaining access to UA plugins is the Apollo Twin Thunderbolt Audio Interface with Realtime UAD SOLO Processing, which we massively recommend as an audio interface for electronic musicians and guitar players alike!BUY NOW via Amazon.
Positive Grid have made the tweak’s dream plugin. It’s a guitar amp sim that allows you to tweak very aspect of the guitar amp.
Want to try a different transformer? Want to switch from 12AX7’s to EL34’s? Sure! This plugin was made for you control freaks.
There is also a cool feature that will allow you to match your own amp. This is great for when you’re working while traveling and need to get “your” tone.
BIAS – Rock vibe:
BIAS – Blues vibe:
BIAS – 60’s vibe:
Pro Tip #2: Because there is so much tweak-ability with Bias, I think it’s important to start with familiar ground. Try to recreate an amp you know well. Then you can proceed to hear what a different power amp section sounds like.
Available for: Mac, PCBUY NOW via Plugin Boutique.
IK Multimedia has been in the amp sim game a long time. They still make solid sounding plugins with a lot of features.
You can swap speakers in the cab, change to room the amp is recorded in and add effects to the effects loop.
Amplitube 4 – Rock vibe:
Amplitube 4 – Blues vibe:
Amplitube 4 – 60’s vibe:
Pro Tip #3: Running two amps at the same time can really pull a sound together. Experiment finding two amps that compensate for each others weakness. This is why a blackface Fender and Marshall go well together. The blackface Fender has some midrange scooping. Marshall amps have a nice amount of midrange.
Available for: Mac, PCBUY NOW via IK Multimedia.
Native Instruments have a great reputation for plugins. It’s not surprise that Guitar Rig 5 is really nice. The amp tones are very versatile. One of my favourite features of guitar rig is the effects. They’re very flattering sounding. It’s hard to find good ITB guitar effects tones. So much so that I often use my pedalboard in front of my interface.
This doesn’t work so well with heavy tones though. It’s best to have certain effects in the effects loop or post. I have no fear of plugging straight in with Guitar Rig 5.
Pro Tip #4: Having a solid idea of what type of tone you’re looking for is important. You can get lost searching in the preset tweaking world. Much more so then you could with real amps. Have a reference track with a target tone. Do some research to what amps were used to get that sound. Then start your virtual amp hunt.
Available for: Mac, PC
Guitar Rig 5 can be bought separately and is also of course included in NI’s huge Komplete 11 Ultimate Bundle, together with a whole studios worth of other effects, synths and processors to further craft finely honed guitar-based tracks.BUY NOW via Amazon.
TH3 comes stacked with tons of presets. There are a sea of amp models to choose from. Just about every feature you would expect is there.
TH3 does have one effect many others lack. A looper! This is a really helpful tool. Not just for practice, but for production.
I like to create a lot of ambient loops. Sometimes a nice loop soundscape can sit well below a section of a song.
I would normally have to use my hardware Infinity looper from Pigtronix. This can be problematic though when using amp sims. I may want to add distortion to my sound, but not want the whole loop processed in gain. Problem solved!
Overloud TH3 – Rock vibe:
Overloud TH3 – Blues vibe:
Overloud TH3 – 60’s vibe:
Pro Tip #5: Although most of these amp sims do quite a good job, I still often use pedals as a front end. Sometimes more as a preamp. For instance I use an Effectrode Tube Drive for my preamp sound into various amp sims. The tube drive is a real tube pedal that runs at amp voltage. It acts like an amp.
I will run my amp sims pretty clean. For classic rock ad blues tones, I find this to work best. For high gain tones I use the Empress Heavy as a preamp. Surprisingly, I like the higher gain sounds on the amp sims more then the lower gain sounds.
Available for: Mac, PCBUY NOW via Plugin Boutique.
It’s fair to say I used to cringe slightly when I got called for a session only to show up to track with an amp sim. Sims tended to be less dynamic and two dimensional, and did take some of the expression out of my playing.
I don’t feel that these days. Partly due to the zero latency monitoring and Unison technology, but also because of improvements in realistic sound recreation.
The sound is so good that I don’t find myself endlessly changing parameters in tweaking purgatory looking for a decent sound, and I use these amp sims on a regular basis in work I compose and record for TV.
Mark Marshall is a New York City-based multi-instrumentalist, producer, session musician and instructor offering guitar lessons for NYC. His commercial work includes a variety of national ad campaigns, video game soundtracks and film scores. guitaristmarkmarshall.com
That’s Mark’s pick of his favourite guitar amp sims. What are you using for crafting your ideal guitar tracks, and what tricks do you use to get the results you want from sims and plugins? Leave your comments and tips below for others to benefit!
For more tips and techniques for getting the most out of all of your plugins and studio gear in your tracks, don’t forget to check out the Ultimate Guides series:
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