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Atomic Amps Amplifire

Guitar Amp Modelling Pedal
Published April 2016
By Bob Thomas

Atomic Amps Amplifire

The Amplifire promises great sound, plentiful options, ease of use — and the ability to load your own cabinet impulse responses.

Atomic Amplifiers’ founder Tom King was one of the first to recognise the need for specialist amp-modeller amplification, and the company’s current offering, the CLR (Coincident Linear Reference) range of compact active and passive cabinets, based around a proprietary 12-inch dual-concentric driver, has earned Atomic an excellent reputation. In 2014, Atomic announced that they’d teamed up with amp-modelling software company Studio Devil to develop the Amplifire, a new hardware guitar-amp modeller and multi-effects unit, in a floor-pedal format.

Outside To Inside

Visually, the Amplifire is quite arresting, its compact brushed-metal chassis cover resplendent in an almost-metallic red. Three programmable footswitches and their associated LEDs sit on an angled front panel, with the remaining controls and a back-lit dot-matrix display positioned on a slightly recessed plateau behind them. The single guitar (or bass) input sits on the right-hand side, whilst the TRS balanced L-R stereo output (left only for mono) and a headphone mini-jack occupy positions on the opposite end. Other I/O sit on the rear of the cover: a mono send and stereo return for the effects loop (the latter doubling as expression pedal inputs), MIDI I/O sockets, balanced XLRs for the aux output, a USB connector and, finally, a non-locking socket for the included 9V DC 1A wall-wart power supply.

Two 400MHz SHARC DSP chips give the Amplifire considerable processing power, enabling it to run the amp- and cabinet- modelling software developed by Studio Devil. Founded by amp-modelling pioneer Marc Gallo, Studio Devil’s patented approach to tube-amp emulation is based around highly detailed DSP analysis and recreation of classic 12AX7 (ECC83)-based preamplifier stages, push-pull power amplifiers and speaker cabinets.

The Amplifire’s simple (but not simplistic) on-board user interface uses a push-to-edit/turn-to-change continuous rotary encoder. With this, you can access all editable parameters, the results being displayed on a 12x2 dot-matrix display. Left and right arrows step backwards and forwards through the selected menu, and a Save button flashes as soon as any changes are made to the loaded preset. Physical knobs for Gain, Master Volume, Bass, Mid, Treble and Presence give instant access to these parameters, and any alterations made by these or the rotary encoder to the loaded preset can be saved instantly, using the Save button. A non-programmable Level control allows you to set the Amplifire’s overall output volume.

The Amplifire Editor software, available for both PC and Mac, communicates with the Amplifire via USB and gives access to all editable and programmable functions. Its four screens (Edit, Cabinets, Global and Backup) are clearly laid out, extremely functional and completely intuitive in use. Cleverly, the global functions that you’re likely to want to change or audition while in a preset (for example, the gate threshold) are also programmable from that function’s Edit screen, which avoids unnecessary interruption of the creative flow. The Cabinets tab is where you import, organise and store third-party cabinet IRs (impulse responses), which you can then incorporate into any preset.

The only drawback in the software’s operation is that communication is entirely one way from computer to Amplifire, which means that, although changing a parameter value on-screen simultaneously updates the Amplifire, the reverse is not true. It is only when a preset is recalled in the Editor, or the displayed preset is refreshed via the file menu, that the Editor screen is updated, and I kept wishing for a dedicated on-screen refresh button.

Signal Chain

As can be seen in a diagram in the owner’s manual, the Amplifire has the potential to sit happily at the centre of your guitar-amplification universe. As with any guitar or bass amp, you can either plug your instrument straight in or use any pedals that you wish.

The Amplifire’s processing pathway is made up of five building blocks. After the A-D input conversion takes place, the first section, Pre-Effects, is best thought of as models of those pedals that you’d have in front of your amp in the real world: noise gate, volume, wah, compressor, a single-band parametric EQ, boost and graphic EQ. This is followed by the amp model, of which you have the choice of 18 types — 14 thinly disguised emulations of classic and contemporary amplifiers, plus four generic types (EL34, EL84, 6L6 and KT88, but, sadly from my point of view, no 6V6).

The effects loop comes next and, unusually, its returns can also be configured to act either as a stereo aux input for backing tracks, or as inputs for two expression pedals. The post-effects block follows the effects return and is made up of three single-band parametric EQs. Next comes the ‘EFX’ engine, with its four time-domain modulation effects, followed by the Echo segment. The latter gives you exceptional control of its five basic types, and a similarly comprehensively controlled Reverb follows, offering three rooms and one spring. The volume, compressor, graphic EQ, parametric EQs, effects, boost and delay can be repositioned in the signal path pre or post the amp model. This facility is sensibly constrained to always give you a signal flow that essentially corresponds to how you’d probably set up the movable models in real life.

The OS X/Windows control software allows you to fine-tune your presets, and even offers the ability to load your own speaker impulse  responses.The OS X/Windows control software allows you to fine-tune your presets, and even offers the ability to load your own speaker impulse responses.The Amplifire’s processing chain is completed by the Cabinet component, containing the Amplifire’s killer feature and major selling point — its ability to load and store 32 impulse responses of your choice, to complement the cabinet models from the TAF and Singtall presets and those from the 18 Amplifire models. To put the icing on the cake, if you happen to have more than 32 IRs in your collection, you can load one into the active preset straight from your computer.

As you’ll probably have gathered by now, combining the considerable amount of sonic flexibility available via the controls of the 16 individual components in the signal chain with the variable positioning of nine of those is not only going to give you almost limitless possibilities, but also (and more importantly) is going to enable you to build or to sculpt a guitar sound to fit almost every occasion.

Connection & Setup

Connecting the Amplifire up can be as simple or as complex as you need it to be. If you’re using it on its own to feed into a DAW interface and/or a pair of FRFR (full-range, flat-response) cabs, then all you have to do is to connect the appropriate output in either stereo or mono (balanced TRS on the main out and/or the balanced XLR on the auxiliary output), make sure that the tube power-amp and cabinet models are enabled on the required outputs, plug in your guitar, select a preset and you’re all set.

The power-amp and cabinet-model switching threw me a bit, in that whilst the cabinet emulation can be active on the main and aux outputs individually, simultaneously or not at all, the power-amp emulation may only be switched off globally. This means that you can’t feed the aux output with the amp and cab emulations active to a DAW or FOH desk whilst simultaneously feeding the main output without these emulations to, for example, the effects-return of your favourite tube guitar amp to give you a bit of real amp feel.

Using the effects loop involves another set of choices: do you use it as an effects send and return, as an auxiliary input for a backing track, or as the input for one or two expression pedals, to control the on-board volume and wah functions? Decisions, decisions...

If the Amplifire is on a desktop or being controlled via a MIDI foot controller, you won’t necessarily have to worry about its three programmable footswitches, but otherwise you’ll want to set their functions to suit your setup: there are 21 options to choose from.

Almost all the settings I’ve mentioned in this section so far are part of the Amplifire’s Global settings. There’s not the space here to go into all of these in detail, so I’d recommend that you download the owner’s manual and peruse these at your leisure. As you might imagine, there’s an extensive list to work through.

The Fun Part

I began by monitoring the Amplifire through its built-in headphone output (which has the amplifier and cabinet emulations permanently enabled) and ran through the amp models with all the effects switched off. I immediately noticed not only that the Amplifire’s 12AX7 preamp model was genuinely touch-sensitive, but also that the modelled amplifier presets manage to convey the characteristics of their corresponding originals. Feeding the Amplifire into a JBL Eon 10 PA system produced the same level of results, although I did have to start tweaking the parametric and cabinet EQ settings to get the presets to where I wanted to be, sound-wise. It was much the same story when I ran the Amplifire through my studio monitors: time spent on individually EQ’ing elements of each preset really paid off in terms of getting the amplifier and speaker cabinet emulations to sound the way I wanted them to.

Following on from there, I listened closely to the four time-domain modulation effects, the five echoes and the four reverbs, all of which I initially placed post-amp. The tremolo, chorus, flanger and phaser sounded very good indeed in that position, and were just as effective positioned before the amp as if they were pedals. Two unusually named controls, Tweaks A and B, allow you to modify two parameters for each effect, the precise parameter depending on the chosen effect. The echo emulations were, to my ears, very convincing. Having the control capability to tailor their sounds to the requirements of a particular preset and guitar part is just outstanding. The reverb section has even more parameters available, and allows precise modification of the reverberation characteristics of the space or spring selected.

The Amplifire’s effects-loop returns can double up as expression-pedal inputs.The Amplifire’s effects-loop returns can double up as expression-pedal inputs.The ‘pedal’ effects (gate, wah, compressor and boost) were all excellent emulations. As with the echo and reverb, the amount of control available on the wah is extraordinary and should enable you to set precisely the sound that you’re looking for. Since expression pedals don’t often incorporate switches, Atomic have come up with a neat global Auto-Off function, that automatically bypasses the wah if it has been inactive or parked for a set time (programmable from 10 to 2000 ms). The Compressor has the control complement that you’d find in a studio compressor, allowing you to tailor it precisely to the needs of each preset, and the boost’s screamer, overdrive, distortion and fuzz modes perform effectively and realistically.

I enjoyed playing through the Amplifire, especially when I had it hooked up (cab emulation bypassed) to the effects return of a solid-state 1x12 guitar amp. In this setting, I got a considerable part of the sound and feel of playing though a real tube amplifier. All my own tube amps are vintage ones from the days before effects returns were invented, so I could only run it with those as an effects pedal board (albeit very successfully!).

Conclusion

To me, the Atomic Amplifiers Amplifire can be thought of as two units in one — it’s both a full-blown tube-amp modeller and a well-specified digital effects unit, when its entire amplifier/cabinet modelling is disabled. As a digital effects unit it can’t really be faulted and has to be given major bonus points for the amount of control that it offers, especially over its echo and reverb functions.

As a tube-amp modeller, the Amplifire is extremely impressive. Its touch–sensitivity feels natural, the models sound as you’d hope that they would, and time spent fine-tuning a preset is time well spent. The results record very convincingly and, if you run them into either an FRFR cabinet or (even better) the power stage of a tube or solid-state guitar amp, it can feel pretty much like the real thing.

The PC/Mac editing software is simple and intuitive, and it makes building, optimising and saving presets quick and easy. The ability to load third-party cabinet responses adds to the Amplifire’s versatility and is, in my experience, unique at this price point — it’s a striking feather in the Amplifire’s cap.

The Amplifire can be used in a  number of ways, and the manual usefully includes suggested connection diagrams.The Amplifire can be used in a number of ways, and the manual usefully includes suggested connection diagrams.There are some relatively minor operational restrictions, but they’re sensibly chosen and the only one that I felt would actually inhibit me operationally (unless I used a MIDI controller) was being forced to choose between having a stereo effects return or two expression pedals — and given the Amplifire’s retail price, I can live with that restriction.

Considering what it delivers operationally and sonically, and the competitive price, Atomic Amplifiers’ Amplifire is a device that anyone looking for an effects unit and tube-amp modeller, to record with or play through live, really needs to check out. As you’ve probably surmised already, the review unit won’t be going anywhere any time soon!

Alternatives

There are now several high-quality software amp and effects modellers, but the serious competition for anyone wanting to play live is rather more restricted. Although relying on a very different approach, the Kemper Profiling Amp is worth consideration. So too are Fractal Audio Systems’ Axe-FX II and Two Notes’s Torpedo family of processors. Of those mentioned above, only Two Notes offer anything of comparable price. So too do amp-modelling pioneers Line 6, their nearest competitor probably being the Pod HD500X, though they’ve recently launched the more ambitious, and correspondingly more expensive, Helix.

Published April 2016