Guitar Geek moment: Tips on getting the most from amp modelers

Gonna call myself out on a geeky guitar gear related post here, but I’ve told this stuff to a lot of people over the years and finally decided to write it down. If you’re a guitarist who has to play live without an amplifier… read on.

There are lots of reasons you might have to use an amp modeler instead of a tube amp for live performing work. Some limitation of the venue perhaps, or practicality, or affordability, or whatever.

I have a very strong bias towards using a live amp (or amps) and pedals. But over the years, I’ve had occasion to do a lot of live work in large venues using various amp modelers. And the good news is, they can be made to sound good. The bad news is… there are no shortcuts. Good tone takes work no matter what gear you use.

So, whether you’re using the affordable units (Line6 POD models) or high-end stuff (Fractal Audio AxeFx, etc.), there are some things you can do to get the best sound possible. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Reference and Context:
Dial in your tones using some reference point – ideally, another guitar amp, or recording of one you like. Remember – in music, context is king. You can create a tone that you think sounds good and balanced by itself. But without something to compare it to, or some sort of context to place it in, you can end up with a sound that either disappears in the mix, or pokes out in all the wrong places and just sounds bad.

Dial in your tones side-by-side with a real amp, or play along with recorded guitar sounds you like to see how it sits in the mix.

Dial in your patches at gig volume. This is not an excuse to play loudly – this is because of the Fletcher-Munson, or ‘equal volume’ curves. In short, your ears perceive midrange frequencies more prominently at low overall volume levels. At low volume levels, you will have to add a lot of low- and high-end EQ for your ears to perceive those frequencies as being as equally loud as the mids.

So… let’s say you dial in a patch on your amp modeler that sounds all warm and articulate at apartment volume. Then you put it through a PA, which is a couple dozen dB louder, and there’s way too much bass and highs. It’s all ice picks and mud, you sound terrible, the FOH guy hates his life, and his only recourse is to bury you in the mix.

I believe this is why people dislike amp modelers – because the people using them don’t understand this very important bit of audiology.

By dialing in the amp modeler patch at a meaningful volume (80-85 dB, where your ears’ natural frequency curve is the flattest), you’ll know the tone you’ve dialed in is going to sound good once it comes through a PA at gig volume.

Dial in your tones through a full-range system, since that’s what they’ll be playing through. Don’t do it using earbuds, and don’t do it using a guitar amp. Even a full-range monitor will be better than nothing, but do it through a PA if you can. A studio control room is also good. Heck, even a good keyboard amp would be better than nothing.

This ain’t a 5-minute proposition. Here’s an example: I did a live record last year, and even though I prefer a tube amp, I used a digital amp simulator. (If I had to re-track anything later in a studio, I could use the same gear and punch in with the EXACT same sounds. Out of 14 songs, there were a couple I needed to replace some minor parts in, and I was glad I did it that way.)

So, in preparation for that gig, I dialed in the amp modeler settings using my own tube amplifier as a reference. I sent the signal to the amp sim into a PA, AND to my amp, so I could A/B them in real time, and make sure the modeled amp sound was as similar to my tube amp as possible.

Then, I played the modeled sound through the PA along with other recorded music to make sure the sound worked in context.

Bottom line: I spent several hours – like, 10 – tweaking that patch on my amp modeler. (When it’s your job and you’re preparing to record a live album, you invest some time…). In the end, the producers of the album were happy, I was able to easily do some minor track replacements, and the finished product sounds great. Everyone wins.

All patches are not created equal… but should be:
Okay. All of that effort I just described was for ONE PATCH in my amp modeler. If you dial in multiple patches using different amp models, then you should also play the patches and switch back and forth between them, and make sure the volume levels and overall EQ aren’t wildly different. Your FOH guy will thank you.

So there you go. In short:
– Dial in the patches using some sort of reference for comparison
– Dial in the patches at a meaningfully loud volume
– Dial in the patches through a full-range PA system of SOME sort
– Spend the time to get it right
– Make sure your various patches have similar overall volume and aren’t radically different on overall EQ.

And if you’re me, you’ll STILL want to use your amp, but I don’t always get to decide. I like to work, so I do what it takes to get the gigs, and this is part of it sometimes. I can either be picky or employed 🙂

I’m sure there are other tricks, and if you have any, I’d love to hear them!  I am certain that more ampless gigs are in my future, and maybe yours too.