Long story short. I’m a recovery guitar player turned recording guy. The quest for the Holy Grail of guitar tone has always burned in me. I’ve got plenty of killer guitar toys like the Rivera Knucklehead, Peavey 5150, and 1971 Marshall Superlead and a killer signal chain for recording electric guitar (Royer R121 > Vintech 1272 > Distressor EL-8x > Mytek AD96). I’ve always felt like there was something missing in my recordings.
So when we approach this review of Amplitube 2, I want to make it clear that I have all the fun toys and I’m still not 100% satisfied with my guitar recordings. There is something in the way. I have a feeling that many of you out there using killer amps and killer signal chains feel the same way.
An Old Purist
There was a day not too long ago (spring of 2008) when I felt that the electric guitar emulators were nothing more than toys. Back then, I was well known for being able to listen on Bash This Recording http://forum.recordingreview.com/f11/ and immediately know if I was hearing an emulator or the real thing. Then something crazy happened. I got it wrong!
So when I approach this review, I want to make it perfectly clear that I know what the real amps can do. I record guitar amps more often than I eat breakfast. I’m always a little late to jump on the new technology because I stick to my guns until it makes sense to get new and improved guns.
There are some products where you know right out the gate that you have something that extremely well thought out. Some products just leap out at you and you say “Wow!”. I feel this way about Cubase. It’s the main reason I never upgraded past Cubase SX3. (That’ll change soon with Cubase 5.) I feel this way about Amplitube 2. It’s clear that these guys know exactly what they wanted in terms of features and put some serious effort into making something that kicks major ass. I’m impressed.
Do You Want These?
- Tons of pedals?
- Tons of guitar amps that really sound different?
- Tons of power amps that really sound dramatically different?
- Tons of guitar tone controls?
- Tons of guitar cabinets?
- Multiple mics?
- Multiple mic placements?
You got ‘em!
You know I hate listing features. Just check ‘em out here.
Amplitube 2 is extremely full featured. It took me well over 20 sessions with it before I found something it couldn’t do. (I’m one of those guys that immediately looks for that one thing a product can’t do. It’s a flaw.) The only problem is I can’t even remember what that “can’t do” function was. It clearly wasn’t that big of deal.
First off, I want to say that I don’t believe in emulating. I don’t bother. Trying to mimic another sound is not only boring, it seldom works right when nothing in the chain seems to have changed. So I’m not going to compare the Recto preset in Amplitube with a real Dual Rectifier. Why? I’ll tell you why. Because I don’t care! I don’t need an A/B test to confirm my convictions. Either the tone excites me or it doesn’t. I’ve already stated that I’ve recorded all kinds of real amps. I’ve never gotten the dream tone! So what do I care if I can perfectly emulate something that isn’t even 100% ideal. That makes no sense to me.
Real amps take serious work to get up to par. In some instances we can get what we need in 2 minutes, but it’s usually more like 30 minutes of tinkering. Sometimes it takes all day. The reasons for that are something I don’t have time to get into here but I cover in depth in Killer Home Recording: Electric Guitar.
With Amplitube 2, you plug in. You hit a few knobs and you are there. You can certainly tweak later if you so desire, but I’ve found that snagging an exciting sound seldom takes more than 2 minutes. It seems like all the conventional obstacles have been removed. What obstacles am I talking about? I’m talking about that X factor that keeps my real amps from sounding screamingly awesome on recordings. That road block simply doesn’t exist in Amplitube 2. The Amplitube 2 tracks sit in the mix very well without any of the excessive low mid stuff I often fight. In other words, the Amplitube 2 tracks sound finished on the way in. I don’t feel the need to shoe horn them into a mix like I find myself always doing with real electric guitar tracks. I don’t mistake excessive low-mid crap for “thickness” with Amplitube 2 like I often do with real electric guitar tracks. (I’ve got a damn room mode that always seems to hide the mud in my electric guitar sounds I have to solve!)
Does Amplitube 2 sound as good as a real amp? First off, that’s an overly simplified question. Which real amp and which tone are we going for? Will it do the EVH brown sound as good as an old 50 watt Marshall Plexi through a $2,000 cabinet with 20 watt speakers? No. It won’t. At least I haven’t figured out how to get that one. Will it come close? You bet your ass it will! Will it sound good doing it? Definitely! What’s funny about this topic is a Rivera Knucklehead won’t do the EVH brown sound nearly as good as the vintage Marshall rig either, but it will also sound damn good trying. (Again, emulating is stupid!) The same could be said for just about all amps. There are only a few that really nail that sound.
If you check out the Real Guitar Amp vs Emulators Shootout on Killer Home Recording: Electric Guitar you’ll find that the sound from emulator to emulator to emulator varies quite a bit. They vary so much that it’s difficult even for a guy like me to pick out the real Knucklehead. Why? Because these modern emulators like the Amplitube 2 do have real tone. They do sound good. On their own, I’d probably lean in the direction of the real tube amp in terms of flat out tone. (If a killer real amp gets a 100%, Amplitube 2 gets a 95.5%.) However, by the time I screw up the tone of the real amp with mics and such I end up losing 10% and that’s with the tools I mentioned above. (Royer R121 / Sennheiser MD421 / Shure SM57 / etc > Vintech 1272 > Distressor EL-8x > Mytek AD96). Most home recorders aren’t going to have such tools at their disposal.
Real World Electric Guitar Recording Problems
I do a lot of different types of sessions. One day I’m doing a live band. Another day I’m doing MIDI techno programming. I do quite a bit of guitar recording as well, but how often are my amps used? I’d say 30% of the time. If I really wanted to have the ability for crushing guitar sounds all the time, I’d need more cabinets. I’d want at least three of them. I need a modern metal type of cabinet (Recto / Orange / Bogner). I’d need a vintage cabinet like a late 60s Marshall with 20 watt speakers. I’d need an open back Fender-style cabinet. I’d need a smaller cabinet with maybe an 8″ or 10″ speaker of some kind.
Then when plugging a Recto into my G12H30 equipped 1×12 cabinet isn’t happening, I can figure out something that will. I’d love to tell you that the old Marshall cabinet is the best cabinet in the world (for 95% of all music I’d say it is) but there are times when the band is going to prefer something else. Who is going to accommodate that? The band? Yeah right! 2% of all musicians in bands take their tone seriously enough to have “their sound”. Most just buy something with Mesa Boogie on the cover, plug in, smile, and make their credit card payments.
So simply putting together a signal chain as mentioned above that pushes $5,000 isn’t good enough. If the guitar doesn’t mate with the amp and the amp doesn’t mate with the cabinet, all that is pointless. I’d take a guitar > amp > cabinet setup that all work extremely well together over the fancy recording toys any day of the week.
So, to make a long story short. If you don’t have all the necessary tools, you are playing a game of hit and miss. Of course, this also assumes that you are taking the time on your recordings to try out all your cabinets. How many home recorders spend a day on the amp head and a day on the cabinet? This is what the big boys are doing. If you are not, you’ve already compromised and you are at the mercy of the gods. Spin the wheel and hope you get the tone you are going for.
The only ideal solution is to have all available tools at your disposal. This is the main reason I love the Amplitube 2 emulator so much. Maybe the Gibson SG Mr. Guitar Player uses feels a little wrong with amp #1, we just move on to amp #2 or use cabinet number #2. This ability to match the guitar with the amp / cabinet works the same way a real setup would, but without consuming the cash, space, and time it takes to implement the real thing.
Downside(s) of Amplitube 2
On my ancient computer system (Athlon 64 2800, 2GB of RAM) I can only get 2-3 instances of Amplitube 2 running simultaneously with latency at 160 samples. I suspect this will be a non-issue with the Quad-core computer I’ve been eyeballing. This slows down workflow quite a bit. It would be nice if I could just fire up 5 instances without having to render / freeze tracks. I don’t consider this the fault of Amplitube 2, and I suspect my next computer will have no problems. Just be advised that if you are using Amplitube 2 on an old computer that freezing / rendering guitar tracks is a vibe killer.
Amplitube 2 has been 100% reliable. Using it nearly every day for a month I can’t recall having one single problem with it. Again, this is a testament to the caliber of products that IK Multimedia is cranking out.
Amplitube 2 kicks ass. I’m considering selling all of my real amps now why they still have a little bit of value because they may not in 2 years. Is Amplitube 2 perfect? No. The technology is very close and I suspect that in another 2 years the emulator stuff will be so good that no one will think twice about using it.
I think the best testament to the sound of Amplitube 2 goes like this. I am producing a band. They have some rocking songs, but for the most part they don’t really sound like a “guitar band” like Guns N Roses or something. The plan was to record the guitars DI, use Amplitube 2 as the “scratch tone” and then later reamp the guitars through a real amp. Well, as the record as progressed the guitar player said, “Brandon, I don’t want to reamp. I’m 100% happy with this.” I agreed. What was to be gained from reamping? In this case, I was actually worried about what we’d lose. Today and I went back to listen to the tracks. No one on Earth will ever know these were done with an emulator and in fact, I suspect I will get compliments on my guitar sounds. I’ll put money on it. In other words, Amplitube 2 is a winner even if you’ve got 3 very desirable real amps collecting dust in the corner.
I suspect that if I sold all my guitar amps and was forced to use Amplitube 2 for the rest of my days, it wouldn’t bother me one bit.