In case the title wasn’t a dead giveaway, an amp simulator is exactly what it sounds like – a program that simulates an amp (or more often, amps). Spanning a range of iconic tones to amps that have no real reason to exist, amp sims are extremely popular among guitarists, engineers – amateur and professional alike.
As you would know if you’ve been following my VST effects series (if you haven’t that’s okay, but just know that I’m very disappointed in your lack of commitment to me) there is an easy way to define the difference between a virtual instrument and a virtual effect:
- A VSTi (Virtual Studio Technology instrument) generates sound
- A VSTfx (Virtual Studio Technology effect) alters sound
There’s really not much more to it — though many of these guitar simulator VSTs are extremely malleable and are capable of unrecognizably mangling and transforming various sounds through a suite of options, stomp-boxes and cabinets — they are ultimately still just amp simulators.
If you’re an artist with a bedroom in your studio (yes, not the other way around) look around right now. Unless you’re rich, professional or just a better planner than I am, I doubt you have more than 2-3 amps and certainly not enough space to comfortably fit and eventually record more than 5.
And with that, you have it — the easiest justification for simulating an amp. Most hobbyists can’t afford to shell out thousands of dollars per classic amp to create an army of amplifiers to do their creative bidding, yet this is something that many amp libraries offer at a fraction of the price and space.
Amps, especially if you are using a cabinet and head instead of a combo amp (where the speaker and amplifier are contained within the one box) can take up a whole lot of room.
Once you factor in mic stands, cables — did you just shudder? — it can become a minefield for tangling, tripping or just generally getting frustrated and breaking things of your own accord.
That said, simulated amps still do take up space, it just isn’t physical.
If you start buying amp libraries like an absolute maniac it can begin to slow down your computer and become deceptively detrimental to your music-making process — but if you have a powerful PC and plenty of room on your hard drive this is unlikely to exacerbate into a major issue.
Additionally, there is no need to concern yourself with room acoustics, microphone placement (or just owning a microphone) with amp simulation — all of that is done, and is quite often easily adjustable, within the program itself.
You don’t need to fiddle around with your amp’s knobs, shifting your microphone stand 2 inches to the left in order to drastically change the tone that fits this one riff, only to have to remember exactly where they were placed for the rhythm section prior.
Recording a real amp can be a pain in the ass and amp simulators ever-so-kindly circumvent these issues without asking for anything in return. Except, of course, your money.
Ever wondered what kind of guitar tone you can get by combining a Fender Reverb with an Orange Crush while using a RAT pedal, all in reverse?
Yeah, me neither, but it’s still something you can (though not necessarily want) do using an amp simulator. The possibilities aren’t quite endless, but they’re certainly vast.
Why Use the Real Thing?
So this all sounds great — but almost a little too good to be true. What are the drawbacks?
Amp simulations are exactly that: simulations. The quality with which they emulate true guitar amplifiers is frighteningly good, but it is still a far cry from the real thing — as with every other VST, modeling and replacing the real instrument is an almost impossible feat.
This does not have any significant impact on how you should go about your creative process though. Just because something doesn’t sound exactly like the real thing doesn’t mean it won’t sound good, or complement your recordings.
Most pro guitarists will still lean toward using real amps to track their initial recordings, however come mixing time this dynamic may not remain as simple.
Using the recording of the mic’d up amplifier, it is then possible to add a guitar amp VST either as an auxiliary track (so you can control the proportion of ‘dry’ and ‘wet’ signals) or as a direct in, allowing a complete alteration in tone using pedals or even another amp without having to re-record anything.
This is also significant in preserving that ‘real’ sound of a guitar tracked from a mic’d amplifier.
What Else Is It Good For?
Another potential use for guitar sims that avoids the ‘gap’ that exists between the emulation technology and the real thing, is using them as a form of saturation.
This is super useful as it really adds to the value of purchasing a guitar amp simulator — even if you hate some of the modeling for guitars recorded D.I into your DAW program — the plugin can still be used for a multitude of other purposes.
I know when most people hear the word ‘guitar’ they think of Eddie Van Halen shredding out some ludicrous solo on a decked out Kramer guitar, generally forgetting the second, too-oft bypassed word that goes with ‘bass’. It’s not just a bass ladies and gentlemen. It’s a bass guitar.
Thus, there are similarly numerous great bass amps that will be available in some of the larger amp simulator bundles, as well as some plugins that are dedicated to modeling a specific set of bass amplifiers.
Additionally, as you would know if you bothered to read my past articles (sorry, just ignore my passive aggressiveness) amp simulators are a pretty vital addition when using any virtual instrument in the guitar field — be it a bass or electric — to really add an extra layer of dynamics to some dry MIDI recordings that may need a little bit of magic to slide seamlessly into a mix.
What to Look For in an Amp Simulator
Plugins Within Plugins
A feature that a few virtual amplifier libraries come with is the ability to download and add new packs, or community presets. Some of these will set you back a bit of money as they involve new content — perhaps a new amp, set of pedals or something similar, and are created by the original or an independent developer.
It is particularly prudent when working within genres of music that have very specific guitar tones, like post-rock or black metal, as these packs will come with a solid variety of different sounds to employ within a set musical style.
Many amp simulators are just that — amp simulators and don’t come with any additional pedals or substantial effect options.
This doesn’t mean that they are lacking in variety or necessarily have an inferior range of tones to play around with, as it is perfectly reasonable to value sound quality over sonic malleability. But I gotta admit, having a bunch of pedals to play around with is just fun.
However, having all of this ready to rock’n’roll within the one box is super convenient, saves on CPU (processing) and allows for easier navigation through user/stock-created presets.
Though technically not an amplifier, you can also source pedalboards or individual pedal effects as standalone VSTfxs, separate to what you may find in a suite.
These can be quite powerful as although they offer nowhere near the flexibility an amp simulator library does, their focus on one element often means the quality of sound and attention to detail is first-class.
An example of a great free pedal VST is the TSE R47, an emulation of the famous rodent pedal used by pretty much any band that has used distortion since the 1980s.
Look, this one should probably go without saying, but just in case you get swept up in the craze of a million different presets, 4000 potential cabinet/head combinations and 750 pedals, it’s important not to forget there’s more to VST software than just how much fun you can have messing around with it.
The thing is, what you should be looking for above all else, isn’t even ‘good sound’ — and who gets to define such an arbitrary line that distinguishes between good and bad VSTs. Oh, right. Reviewers like me — but ‘good sound for your music’.
If a particular guitar amp sim works terribly with the sonic style attempted within your current song, it would be strange to choose that one just because some so-called ‘expert’ told you it was good while another, ‘less realistic’ plugin that fits your genre perfectly, lays to waste.
So, keeping the above in mind, let’s power on (get it? Because you have to power on a guitar amp? Ahh, probably a bit too high-brow for you all…) and get to my recommendations.
Best Guitar Amp Simulator VSTs
iK Multimedia AmpliTube 5
There is also a free version of AmpliTube, which has substantially less features but is a good place to start.
AmpliTube is one of the biggest names within the guitar amp sim field, and for good reason. Containing countless options for even the pickiest sound engineer to peruse, this program contains diversity upon diversity upon diversity.
If you need effect pedals routed in a specific manner to emulate a tone, look no further. If you want to alter the room dynamics, the microphone placement or cabinet size within a particular amp setup, AmpliTube can achieve this intuitively and smoothly.
iK Multimedia are renowned for their tone and realism more so than experimentation with effects (though this may be an out of date assumption given AmpliTube’s 5 flexibility) so if you are looking for particular emulations of popular brand amplifiers, this is the program for you.
That said, the only drawback of this VST is that their actual modeled amps from developers like Orange and Fender aren’t included in the original purchase and are ‘add-ons’, something I discussed in previous chapters.
These aren’t essential to making the most out of AmpliTube 5 though, as their in-built presets live up to their reputation of being realistic, thick and well-behaved when recording them into a mix of mic’d instruments.
Scuffham S-Gear 2.9
Scuffham’s S-Gear is a very popular offering among studio guitarists and engineers, as its tube amp tone is lauded among the industry.
Based on boutique amps, coupled with ‘accurate convolution-based speaker cabinet emulation’ has led to one of the most consistent, pleasant to use and detailed guitar amp sims available on the market.
Like other higher-end guitar amp programs, S-Gear allows its user to manipulate the acoustic makeup the amps are recorded in, the positioning of microphones and even the microphones that are being modeled. Once again, this allows for tonal control without compromising quality.
The virtual amplifiers are actually designed by Mike Scuffham, who is a former employee and designer for Marshall Amplification.
While Scuffham does lack in versatility compared to some others within its price range, it still boasts an impressive resume of available hardware models to place onto an effect rack, such as analog reverb and delays.
The battle cry of S-Gear is: we don’t have a million effects and presets you have to wade through to find something you like. Just plug in your guitar, play, and experience the superior quality of our amps.
I gotta admit, it’s hard to argue with that.
UAD Fender 55 Tweed
If you’ve used any of their products before, you know their ‘schtick’. UAD are the industry-leaders in hardware modeling. There are many, MANY great programs and VSTs out there which emulate old-school, popular analogue effects with great success, but no developer is as consistently realistic and faithful as UAD. Their take on the Fender 55 Tweed is no outlier.
Obviously, this amplifier differs from the above as it is not a library — it is just based off one amp, yet will still set you back a similar amount of money. This can lead to a misleading conclusion: that if something is more expensive but less versatile, then it must do that one thing better.
This is a fallacy and certainly not always the case in the VST world. But in this case? Yeah, probably not too far off the mark.
To be putting your money into this plugin, you’d want to be sure that you’re after the sound of a Fender 55 Tweed, as it offers very minimal tonal shift outside of what you could expect when actually micing up a Fender amplifier (which to be fair, is actually quite substantial, just not when compared to a VST library such as AmpliTube). But if this is the sound you’re after, you aren’t gonna find a better, more focussed representation of a classic Fender twang sound than this.
It’s an awesome plugin.
Native Instruments Guitar Rig 6
Demo available that runs 30 minutes per session and you cannot save or recall presets.
Moving back to amp simulator libraries, Guitar Rig 6 is another of the more popular VSTs among guitarists due to its massive range of effects and focus on tonal experimentation and diversity.
While some guitar purists claim that Guitar Rig’s tonal quality is lacking in detail and realism relative to its competitors, not only is this a subjective thought, it can also be forgiven when you realize Guitar Rig’s strengths:
NI’s goal with Guitar Rig 6 is to hand over the keys to guitar amplifiers to the user, whether they’re a seasoned veteran or someone that only just realized Smoke on the Water could probably be mastered by a 2-month-old child. The number of effects available could make anyone giddy with possibilities.
Guitar Rig 6 really comes into its own for specific, niche genres of music. That is not to say it isn’t competitive when it comes to guitar tones for pop, rock and the like, but enter the world of post-rock, dream pop, ambient and other more experiment, fx-heavy styles, and NI’s focus on user creativity rises to the fore.
Guitar Rig 6 is also open to user libraries, meaning that random members of the community can create presets for you to use, meaning that the near-gluttonous selection of potential analogue-modeled effects and amp+cab combos doesn’t become overwhelming.
Kuassa Cerberus Bass Amp Simulator
Kuassa also have a powerful, detailed guitar amp simulator on offer, but in my experience, the true powerhouse of their product line is Cerberus, their bass amp emulation.
At a brilliant price-point given its quality, Kuassa’s plugin offers users three amps to switch between: Valve, FET and Drive, alongside an in-built compressor, equalizer and the ability to change microphones and their positioning.
It has an easy to use and intuitive GUI (graphic user interface) making it an obvious choice for any of your bass needs.
I personally own, use and highly recommend Cerberus — I often use it on synth/fake basses to give them a sense of realism or to help them sit smoothly in a mix.
Sometimes, in my darkest moments (aka when my actual bass has been too far away for me to be bothered using) I have recorded my electric guitar, tuned it down 12 semitones and hidden my shame with this program — to surprisingly quite good effect.
Neural DSP presents probably the most accurate amp modeling software that money can buy. Though they aren’t one big pack/library so lack convenience relative to some of the other guitar amp simulators we’ve touched upon on this list, Neural DSP creates specific plugins based upon specific amplifiers to an extremely high standard.
Though if you were to collect a large collection it would become quite a hefty hit to your bank account, a single tube amp provides very good value when you consider the versatility — for example, Archetype Plini comes with EQ and pedal effects, 6 mics that can be chosen from and positioned along the cabinet, as well as the option to choose between clean, crunchy and lead guitar tones.
The philosophy of painstaking modeling is similar in nature to what UAD strives to achieve and the quality of Neural DSP’s packs do not defer from this very high benchmark.
It is important to consider that the majority of amplifiers in this line of VST plugins are aimed at metal players (though some of their newer packs do aim to diversify). This is not to say they cannot be used for other styles and applications, but I wouldn’t go out expecting to make twee pop with the Fortin Cali Suite straight off the bat.
Price: Free! That’s right! FREE!
LePou’s amp pack — comprising 8 free plugins including amp simulators and analogue-modeled preamps — is a wonderful way to get your feet wet in the world of amplifier emulators.
While many of the more popular amplifier libraries do offer free or demo versions, these can unfortunately be quite restrictive in what they offer. This is in contrast to LePou’s pack of plugins, which is completely unpacked and available for usage on your song.
There’s nothing worse than recording a KILLER guitar track, for that lovely message to pop up halfway through it informing you — ever so rudely — that your 30 minutes is up and it’s time to go.
Not only are there the obvious implications of a program being free (that being you don’t have to pay for it) this suite of VSTs actually has quite a competitive tone.
It isn’t lacking for diversity either — the quality and detail of the sound being output can be adjusted to taste pretty easily using typical EQ, reverb and compression controls.
Many may grab themselves a copy of this plugin pack to give themselves an entry and begin to learn using amp simulators, only to find it remaining a staple of their DAW toolbox years down the track.
Other Great Options
- Bias AMP FX 2
- Waves GTR
- Softube Vintage Amp Room
- Overloud THU
- Audio Media Research’s ReValver
I like guitar amp simulators. I’m a particularly experimental music producer — messing around with my ‘art’ allows me to hide any terrible decision-making, poorly recorded pieces and generally mediocre instrument-playing under the pretence of ‘creativity’. This means that anything I can use for multiple functions is exciting to me.
Guitar amp sims can make for great tonal adjustments to guitars, direct in or recorded with a microphone, but I have personally found more use for them as saturators on vocal tracks, synths and even pianos.
Being able to have such diversity with potential applications is only one appealing aspect of using an amp emulator — the convenience, the sheer amount of sounds at your fingertips, or just being able to get a guitar tone into your DAW at all (I appreciate not everyone has an amplifier or a microphone) are all great reasons to invest in one of the above-mentioned VSTs.
As always DYODR — do your own damn research — because what may be junk to someone may be gold to another. The unique tones, options and effects that are available on any given guitar amp VST mean that it really does come down to a matter of taste.
Just because I haven’t mentioned your favorite guitar amp bears no actual meaning — it might actually be the best of the lot.
I tried to focus on a diverse range of options while factoring in popularity and ease of use, because there can’t really be a ‘best’ amp simulator.
Whichever one you like the most?
Yeah, that one’s the best.