Better Than Cell Phones – The State Of Guitar Emulators In 2010

Brandon Drury —  May 18, 2010

Better Than Cell Phones!

It’s a running joke with all my buddies that I must have a plate in my head from the Korean War (I turned 30 this week.). Every time I borrow their cell phone for some random emergency the stupid reception cuts out. I always end up yelling, “The technology isn’t ready! It’s just not there yet!”. (I’m holding out until 2013 to get my first cell phone!)

Just a few years ago I was still waving this “the technology isn’t ready” flag when it came to guitar emulators. The majority of tunes I had heard in Bash This Recording that utilized some sort of non-real amp method sounded exactly like 4 Radio Shack adapters had been duct taped together through a cassette stereo, through a microwave, into the rabbit ears on a 1979 TV, and finally into the back of the computer. It was OBVIOUS when a person was using an emulator. I could point it out blind folded. (Yup! You heard me.)

Something happened in 2008. It started getting difficult for me to tell if a real amp was used or if an emulator gadget was snuck in there. Let me clarify. The idea of Bash This Recording is to help people and in many cases, the real amp sounds weren’t always top notch. They certainly had their flaws in many cases, too. Regardless, being a proud user of fun guitar toys, I had to learn from the Dinosaurs. I started opening my ears a bit to this emulator thing.

Here we are in 2010. I’ve used pretty much all of the VST plugin guitar emulators out there. Here are my thoughts:

  • We’ve all heard recordings that sounded great and only later did we find out that some not-as-cool-as-some-6-amp-12-mic-monstrosity we see in Guitar World was used. If you’ve never been “fooled” by an emulator you are probably lying to yourself.
  • There has been a difference between the real thing and the emulators. That gap used to be an objective “fake” kind of thing. Now it’s a subjective “different” kind of thing. If I posted 10 different songs, I’m guessing the home recording world would have a hard time distinguishing the real amps from the emulators in such a context.
  • When a real amp recording is ON, it’s pretty tough to beat. When a real amp recording has problems, the emulator wins easily.
  • Recording real amps usually takes time and work. I’m constantly tweaking the amp, moving the mic, changing the mic, moving the cabinet, tweaking compressors, playing with my analog Eqs, etc. While there are times when this is worth it, there are times when it certainly isn’t!

Olympic Guitar Tone vs A Musical Statement

We all have different reasons we record music and different goals we are trying to fulfill. Some of us are big on songwriting. Others are looking to create a certain sonic “aura”. Some are going for the most “bad ass” snare or guitar sound.

There’s a swarm of metal guitar guys who dedicate a big ol’ chunk of their lives to doing nothing more than nailing the tone of the century. It’s like these guys are competing for the Olympics. The get up before work and look into new transformers made of Gold and tubes made of God for their amps that already cost them $2,799. When they get off work, they are looking for 8-mic techniques on 12 cabinets or checking to see how a given compressor performs SPECIFICALLY on electric guitar. Frankly, these guys are out of their minds. They are obsessed! The are focused. They are animals. That’s why I love ‘em.

That’s not me, however.

I do think that tone is important. However, I own too many records I love that sound great at making a musical statement, but I would never post “How in hell did AFI get THAT snare sound?”. Why? Because AFI has never had a snare sound that made me want to run out and find out what revolutionary technique was used to get that sound. Their production has been excellent for a decade, but the individual elements rarely stand out as being miraculous. This is not a slam on the engineers and producers who’ve worked with the band. It’s a Who’s Who list! These guys aren’t necessarily training for the guitar tone Olympics. They are looking to make an exciting musical statement.

That’s more the route I’m taking.

How Do Guitar Emulators Fit In?

Now that I’ve taken some time to identify the types of home recorders out there, I can make my assessments.

Guitar Tone Olympic Hopefuls – Stick with the amps. You’ll be able to hear the differences between the real thing and your monster amp collection. Your buddies MIGHT be able to hear it, but you’ll definitely know it if you used an emulator and the guilt may eat you up inside. The extra time it takes to work with a real amp will be offset by the sleep you lose.

Musical Statement Guys – Toss your amps in the trash. The latest era of guitar emulators is great. There are no genres that I’m aware of that the emulators can’t do and do very, very well. You won’t win Olympic medals but I’m positive guys are winning Grammy Awards (whatever THAT’S worth!) using these gadgets. You’ll save time, be able to tweak all you want while mixing, have the enormous benefit of tons and tons of pedal emulators at your disposal and will find yourself being more creative. In case you’ve ever recorded a bad sounding track from a Hughes and Kettner Triamp, you’ll be glad you get to focus on music! By the time your mixes come together, I’d bet that 95% of you find that the tone is totally acceptable.

Stuck In Between?

For you guys who are stuck in between, there’s no need to make a decision right now. One of my favorite aspects of working with emulators is knowing that I can abandon them at any time and reamp through my real amps on a whim. I don’t find myself doing that too often. In fact, most people I record who used Amplitube 3 on the way in, usually end up saying “Screw it! That sounds good to me!” after they go home, feel guilty about using a gadget, and then come back the next day and find that it sounds REALLY good a couple of times.


For the majority of us, particularly those of us in the musical-statement camp, the emulators now present a tool that has very few downsides. By 2011 we may be saying “no downsides”. The turbo purists in their Olympic competitions will continue on with their mega fancy guitar gear, but I suspect most of this will come from the pleasure of using a fancy toy than the actual benefit to the end listener.

Make sure to check out next week’s review of Amplitube 3!

Brandon Drury

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Brandon Drury quit counting at 1,200 recorded songs in his busy home recording studio. He is the creator of and is the author of the Killer Home Recording series.

3 responses to Better Than Cell Phones – The State Of Guitar Emulators In 2010

  1. Brandon, get an Axe-Fx, and you’ll be done. Dozens of amps, and studio-quality effects, better than any VST. It IS like the real thing. Killed my GAS. No more a tube amp snob, now I’m a digital snob LOL

  2. I remember hearing one of these a few years ago and saying “Hmmmmmm”. I’ll try to get one on demo and see what happens. Thanks for the tip!