There's no shortage of software guitar-amp simulators around, but Magix claim that their new Vandal has what it takes to stand out from the crowd.
"Oh great,” thought I, as I opened the large envelope on my desk. "Just what the world needs. Another software guitar-amp simulator.”
It's a crowded market all right. Anyone who owns a guitar and a Mac or PC already has the pick of innumerable packages from Line 6, Native Instruments, Waves, IK Multimedia, McDSP, Avid, Softube, Peavey, Studio Devil and many more. So can Magix's Vandal really offer anything new or different?
Magix certainly think it can. A common complaint is that amp simulators fail to capture the all‑important 'feel' of a true valve amplifier, the sense of reaction and interaction that helps to bond player, instrument and amplifier into a single unit. Magix claim that Vandal, unlike rival products, really captures the responsiveness and interactive qualities of a real valve amp. They also say that this goal cannot be realised using convolution: instead, every aspect of the amplifier and cabinet needs to be modelled algorithmically, in order to reproduce the dynamic qualities of the real thing.
Vandal is available as a plug‑in for Mac OS and Windows, in VST and Audio Units formats. It's authorised using a kind of challenge‑and‑response system that probably works very well if your studio computer is connected to the Internet. Mine isn't, and it took a couple of emails to Magix's tech support to obtain a valid authorisation code.
Most amp simulators have smart‑looking user interfaces, and Vandal is no exception. It follows the well‑established paradigm whereby signal flows, conceptually, from the top downwards. Your guitar input is first trimmed in level and, if you wish, gated, before passing through a tuner and a virtual pedalboard, where up to four stomp-boxes can be placed in series. It then meets the amp, cabinet and room/miking sections, before emerging via up to two post‑amplifier 'rack' effects. Everything fits neatly into one large window, with no scrolling or multiple pages, though some more advanced controls are hidden unless you hit the adjacent spanner icons.
Where Vandal differs from most amp simulators is that you don't choose from a range of authentic‑looking virtual amps with names like 'Fendah Baseman' and 'Vocks AC31'. The idea here is that there is only one guitar-amp model and one bass-amp model, but both are hugely flexible, so getting that Bassman or AC30 sound is just a matter of setting up the controls appropriately. Fortunately, you can save presets for the amp and speaker section independently of the global presets, so in practice it's easy to instantly call up a Vox or Fender patch as a starting point for further tweakery.
The amp section thus has most of the controls you'd expect to find on a well‑endowed guitar amp — preamp gain and master volume, a tone stack with passive bass, mid and treble controls, and built‑in reverb — but these are joined by some less familiar ones. Most significant of these are the two unassuming dials in the Voicing section, which radically change the sound of the amp, and seem to do much of the work when it comes to moving from the middly bark of a tweed Fender to the scooped bite of a modern high‑gain amp.
Clicking the spanner icon to the right of the amplifier section reveals some additional controls, which turn out to be fairly important. You can choose between three different virtual preamp circuits, with the characteristics of a typical Fender, Marshall or modern high‑gain amp respectively, and you can also choose to run the power amp section in Class‑A or Class‑AB mode. There's also a Sag control that emulates the response of a valve rectifier in Class‑AB mode. Whichever preamp circuit is selected, you have the option of three different input channels: Clean, Crunch and Lead.
All in all, then, Vandal's amplifier model is rather well thought‑out, presenting a huge range of sonic possibility in a compact interface that is easy to navigate and doesn't overwhelm you with controls.
The amp section is, as you'd expect, hard‑wired into the next part, which models speakers, cabinets, and microphone placements around them. In the main, things are fairly conventional here: you can use one or two microphones, from a variety of familiar types, in a range of typical positions. You can also choose from a small range of well‑known speaker models and cabinet sizes. However, one feature I haven't encountered before in an amp simulator is that Magix model the speaker and the cabinet independently. The additional controls revealed by this section's spanner icon thus include a dial that sets the balance between sound coming from the speaker itself, and that coming from the resonating cabinet. You can also adjust the amount of speaker distortion and the damping of the cabinet. Between them, these three controls exert an enormous influence on the sound, especially in the bass-amp model.
Vandal's range of virtual stomp-boxes is not as extensive as you'll find in some other products, but they cover most bases, and sound pretty good. There are, for instance, four distortion/overdrive pedals, ranging from the rather lovely Tubescreameresque 'Crema' to the more brutal 'Hellfire' and 'Fuzz'. The combined phaser and tremolo pedal does a good job and, as you'd expect, there are both analogue‑style and digital delays, plus separate compressors and chorus pedals optimised for bass and guitar, and volume and wah pedals that can be controlled over MIDI. The most individual effect is 'Funk Frog', a kind of auto‑filter which is capable of some endearing results. There's no reverb pedal, so if you want a spring reverb, you're dependent on the one built into the amp section, which sounds pretty good, but offers no control other than level. Nor will you find any truly outré effects such as ring modulators, choppers or bit‑crushers among the stomp-box smorgasbord, but of course you can always put additional plug‑ins in series with Vandal.
The provision of only four stomp-box 'slots' might seem a little limited compared to some of the competition, but as far as I'm concerned it's plenty. More of an annoyance is that there's no way to drag and drop effects from one slot to another, so if you decide that you'd like to hear how your flanger sounds before your overdrive, you'll have to load both in anew. It's a rare stumbling-block in an otherwise slick user interface.
In general, though, Magix make it easy to compare and switch between different settings. Each global preset consists of four 'scenes', which represent snapshots of the entire plug‑in, and you can easily switch between these over MIDI. You could, for instance, use scenes to switch between the Clean, Crunch and Lead channels as you can with a footswitch on some amps. Alternatively, you could switch between several effects settings, or even use different amp voicings in different sections of your song. Switching between scenes is instant, and usually smooth, although you can sometimes hear an audible click when the 'before' and 'after' scenes are very different.
Perhaps oddly, the selection of 'rack' effects that can be used at the end of the signal chain does include a 'lo‑fi' bit‑crusher. It seems a little out of place among its colleagues, which consist of fairly unremarkable modulation effects, delays and reverbs, and personally I'd have found it more useful as a stomp-box. If you don't find what you're looking for here, it is, of course, very easy to apply post‑processing effects in any DAW.
In short, then, Vandal's capabilities on paper are roughly comparable to those of most other amp simulators. It doesn't have the flexibility or sound‑design potential of a modular system like Native Instruments' Guitar Rig, nor the ability to adjust the value of every virtual resistor, as you can in Peavey's ReValver, but it certainly offers enough variety to cover the vast majority of conventional guitar and bass tones. The real question then, is whether Magix's claims for it stand up. Does Vandal sound and feel more like a real valve amplifier than rival amp simulators?
I haven't tested every amp simulator on the market, but I've used my share, and I'm inclined to think that there is more than just hype to Magix's claims. Most amp simulators can do passable clean sounds, and the extremes of metal distortion are usually well catered for; it's the areas in between that pose problems, where there is obvious colour and grit to the sound, yet a real valve amp still behaves highly dynamically, responding in a living way to subtleties of touch and picking style. Amp simulators often fail to capture the depth and three‑dimensional quality of these sounds; it can sometimes feel as though the break‑up is 'pasted' onto an otherwise clean note, rather than emerging naturally as an intrinsic part of the sound.
With the possible exception of Softube's Vintage Amp Room, Vandal somehow feels more sophisticated and alive than the other amp simulators I've tried. Sounds that are on the edge of break-up have a rich, complex feel to them, with no fizzy edges, and it still feels as though there's a wide dynamic range on offer to the player. My experience of most amp sims is that I end up constantly tweaking the sound, and every time I think I've arrived at something just right, five minutes' playing sets me reaching for the controls again. By contrast, some of the presets within Vandal just feel 'right'. I was particularly taken with some of the Marshall Plexi‑style sounds; not only do they work well without further tweaking, but introducing an overdrive into the pedalboard has exactly the results you'd hope for. Unlike some amp-simulator packages, moreover, Vandal doesn't treat bass amps as some kind of afterthought, so there's every chance it could become the only amp simulator you need.
Of course, all of these judgements are highly subjective, but one attractive feature of Vandal is that being only 12MB in size, it's easy to download as a demo and make up your own mind. Not only is it compact, but Vandal is refreshingly light on CPU horsepower, at least compared with anything that does convolution in real time at low latency.
For a new product, Vandal also seems commendably slick and mature in operation. Niggles are relatively few. One is that I couldn't get on with the tuner, which is too small, can't be set to references other than A=440Hz, and never quite seems to make up its mind about whether you're sharp, flat or in tune. There are also a few areas where I'd have liked a bit more control: I sometimes found myself reaching for a non‑existent Presence knob, and some ability to shape the sound of the spring reverb would have been nice. And unlike some rivals, Vandal is not really set up for live use; the single‑window approach means that both the controls and the text on screen are quite small, and there's no stand‑alone version of the program.
So does the world need yet another amp simulator? I remember asking myself a similar question when Magix's earlier Analogue Modelling and Vintage Effects plug‑in suites landed on my desk back in 2007. Surely, I thought, most people don't need more compressors or tape simulators or algorithmic reverbs. Yet three years on, I still turn to plug‑ins like AM Track and Variverb Pro first of all, and use them in every session I work on. If that happens again with Vandal, I won't be at all surprised.
Vandal is well set up for MIDI control. Every parameter is presented to your DAW for automation or MIDI control via the host, and there are also five Remote dials at the top of the interface that add an extra layer of sophistication. Each of these can be assigned a MIDI Continuous Controller as its source, and up to five Vandal parameters as destinations, allowing you to manipulate multiple parameters simultaneously with a single twist of a knob. Best of all, you have independent control over the way in which each Remote knob modifies each of its destinations, so you can, for example, have Vandal automatically drop the output level a little while raising the preamp gain a lot. This is reminiscent of the very effective system Native Instruments employ in Guitar Rig, and it works well here too, except that in the version I tested, the destination parameters don't visibly move when you adjust a Remote knob. Magix are on the case, and it should be fixed by the time you read this.
The Vandal philosophy of using a single, extremely flexible amp model to emulate a wide range of guitar amps is applied equally effectively to the world of the bass. In other words, there's only one bass-amp emulation, but it has the potential to create a wide range of sounds. It, too, features multiple gain stages, but these are modelled on the circuits typically found in bass amps, while the EQ features two mid-range bands with user‑selectable centre frequencies, as well as high and low shelving controls. There's a simple one‑knob opto compressor, and the work of the guitar amp's Voicing section is taken care of by a single Contour knob.
Despite a rather desultory selection of presets, it's clear that the bass-amp model sounds good and is versatile enough to cover everything from polite jazz tones to grinding rock. The ability to tinker with the cabinet resonance and the cabinet/speaker balance really comes into its own, allowing you to tailor the amount and shape of the cabinet 'thump' to suit.