Waves have made a rare foray into the world of hardware with the GTR Ground, designed to give hands‑free control over their Guitar Tool Rack software amp simulator.
Waves were not the first software company to introduce their own amp and effects modelling software for guitarists, but they went the extra mile to ensure that their Guitar Tool Rack stuck out from the crowd. Perhaps the most notable feature was their collaboration with legendary luthier Paul Reed Smith on the design of the accompanying DI box, which was said to be optimised to give the best possible DI'd electric guitar signal. Paul White reviewed version 1 of GTR back in SOS November 2005 (/sos/nov05/articles/wavesgtr.htm), and since then, development has moved on apace.
The GTR software is now at version 3.5; the look has changed, a swathe of new amp models has been added, and the biggest news is the introduction of a floor controller optimised for use with GTR3, the GTR Ground. GTR3, the Ground floorboard and the PRS Studio Guitar Interface are all available individually or in various bundled combinations, and Waves are currently offering the cut‑down GTR Solo free for one year.
In the original Guitar Tool Rack system, the individual components of a typical guitar setup — effects pedalboard, amplifier and tuner — had to be loaded as separate plug‑ins. Most of these individual plug‑ins are still included, but they're now joined by a full‑on Guitar Tool Rack plug‑in which incorporates slots for up to six 'stomp' effects and two amp/cab models, with a dedicated tuner page. This, as you'd expect, works in Pro Tools TDM and all native plug‑in formats, and is also included as a stand‑alone program. You can save global Guitar Tool Rack presets, but each stomp and amp slot also has its own presets, which can be loaded into the individual plug‑ins too.
Guitar Tool Rack is mostly very straightforward to use. New stomp effects are called up simply by clicking on the arrow beneath the appropriate slot and, once active, can be re‑ordered simply by dragging and dropping. Likewise, the position of the amp module in the chain can be altered, and there are buttons to switch both the pre‑ and post‑amplifier effects chains into parallel and split modes. Doing so forces the stomps in odd and even‑numbered slots to form two independent effects chains, which are then fed one to each of the two channels (split mode) or equally to both (parallel mode). A View button superimposes coloured patch cords in case you're unsure.
The only major source of confusion for me was the amp module itself. It seems to be actually impossible to set this up to contain only one amp: both must always be active, and the manual states that one processes signal from the left input and the other from the right. I don't know about you, but all my guitars are strictly mono affairs, so when I first called up GTR as a plug‑in within Cubase, I used the 'mono to stereo' version. This, as you'd expect, routes the input signal equally to both amps, but doesn't seem to do mono‑to‑stereo within Cubase: on a mono track, it returns the left channel only. To get stereo output from a mono input in Cubase, you need to insert GTR on a stereo group or FX channel and route your mono audio channel to that group. If you do want to use a single amp and cabinet, you need to pan it centrally and turn the output volume all the way down on the second one. All in all, it's an arrangement that does work once you've got your head round it, but I can't help thinking it would be easier to simply allow you to switch off one of the two amps.
The range of effects appears to be little changed since Paul White's original review, and the only two additions I spotted are a pitch‑shifter and a new dynamics stomp. Pitcher allows you to manipulate the pitch of the incoming signal by up to an octave either way, with a foot‑controllable slider that operates between limits you set with Min and Max dials. It works pretty well, except that the lowest setting of the Min dial is very audibly not an octave below the source! Axxpress, meanwhile, is a simple but very musical compressor/limiter that offers only Attack, Press and output level controls. I found myself using it a lot.
By contrast, amp and cabinet models have proliferated since version 1, to the extent that there's not space to go into them all in detail here. Obvious highlights include the new Neil Citron models (see 'Neil Citron Amps' box), while some of the models based on more obscure or boutique amps are very welcome additions. The Gibson Skylark and Ampeg Gemini both offer novel (to me) and highly usable tones, while others hail from Paul Reed Smith's private collection and sound like it. There are few guitar sounds you couldn't get close to with this collection, and it's perhaps at its strongest for modern rock. If you want that hard‑to‑find brand of chunky riffing distortion that retains tightness and definition, you've come to the right place. It took me longer to find a twangy country lead sound that I liked — some of the cabinet models have a tendency to break up on note attacks in an unappealing way, just as real ones can — but in the end I was very pleased with the results.
To my ears, GTR3 is one of the better‑sounding amp simulators out there, and although its relatively simple architecture means that it won't be the most obvious choice for the experimentally minded guitarist, it provides a huge range of very usable guitar sounds without a lot of fuss.
And so to the GTR Ground controller, which is an imposingly large beast — not quite as deep, front‑to‑back, as Native Instruments' Rig Kontrol 3, but about twice as broad — though it's still easier to sling in the back of the car than a Fender Twin. It seems solidly constructed, boasts 11 buttons and two expression pedals, and connects to your Mac or PC via USB. Happily, it's a truly plug‑and‑play device, with no need to install drivers. Less happily, it can't be bus‑powered, and comes with a rather delicate‑looking wall‑wart. Although the connectors are recessed, a slip of the foot could easily dislodge either the power or the USB cable.
Unlike Rig Kontrol 3 and some other competing products, GTR Ground is purely a controller, so you'll still need a separate audio interface to get signal into your computer. This means yet more cables and things to go wrong on stage, but may be preferable for typical studio users who already have a multi‑channel audio interface and don't want to complicate their systems unnecessarily. GTR Ground sends its control signals as MIDI rather than embedded in the audio stream, as Native Instruments' system does; this is slightly cumbersome when you're using it to control the plug‑in version of GTR3, as you have to create a MIDI track within your sequencer and route its output to the plug‑in. In Cubase, I couldn't find any way to return MIDI from the plug‑in to the floorboard, so although the controller worked, it didn't give the same visual feedback as it does with the stand‑alone GTR3.
I'm guessing that the need for separate power is brought on by the GTR Ground's displays, which are impressively clear and bright. Each of the six buttons on the bottom row has its own three‑character orange LED display, as does the Preset button on the top row. This switches the unit between its two modes, which are designed for preset selection and real‑time control respectively. You quickly come to appreciate the metal bar running along the middle of the unit, which firmly prevents you from accidentally hitting any of the top‑row buttons when all you want to do is turn a flanger on!
In its default Stomp mode, each of the six buttons on the bottom row switches on or off the stomp‑box in the corresponding GTR3 slot. If there's no stomp‑box in said slot, the display above the button is blank, but where a stomp‑box is loaded, you see a three‑letter abbreviation of its name. If the stomp‑box is active, the letters glow brightly, while bypassed effects appear in more muted tones. This is all very clear and intuitive, although the down side is that there's no way to get these buttons to do anything else — you can't, for example, program one button to toggle two stomp‑boxes at the same time.
The manual states that the two expression pedals are set up by default so that the first one controls an appropriate effect such as wah‑wah or pitch‑shift, while the second adjusts the output volume of the GTR3 software. This turns out to be a mistake: in fact, the pedals aren't assigned to anything at all by default, so you have to make assignments manually. This is easy to do — you simply right‑click on whatever parameter you want to control, select Learn from the pop‑up menu, and waggle the pedal you want to set up — but there are features of the system that limit its usefulness in practice.
Any variable parameter can be controlled using the expression pedals, including stepped ones such as tremolo shape, and it is possible to assign one pedal to more than one destination simultaneously. However, there are two major limitations. First, neither of the pedals has a switch, so you can't emulate a typical wah‑wah, where you push down fully to turn it on. Second, you can't scale the action of the pedal: it always moves the target parameter through the full range of its operation. This is not a problem for effects such as wah‑wah, but is a serious restriction if you want to do anything more experimental or ambitious. It also pretty much precludes the use of the expression pedals to control GTR3's Input or Output Level controls (even though the latter is supposed to be the default destination), because turning either of them up beyond about halfway usually causes clipping. Waves told me that they recommend using the Volume stomp effect instead of the Output Level control for this purpose, but of course not all presets have a spare slot for an additional stomp. Personally, I would also have liked the option to assign the pedal negatively as well as positively to some parameters: this would allow you to have a tremolo that gets less deep as it gets faster, for example.
The currently selected preset number is usually displayed beneath the Preset button, and you can cycle through the presets one at a time by hitting the up and down buttons to its left. As with all Waves plug‑ins, each GTR3 preset is actually two presets, which you can switch between using the A/B button; this goes some way towards compensating for the inflexibility of the Stomp buttons. The Preset button itself turns the six Stomp buttons into patch selectors, allowing you to choose any of six consecutively numbered presets, with the up and down buttons now moving to the next or previous bank of six.
This is fine, although things can get a bit confusing when you start to create and edit your own patches, or choose them from the drop‑down Load menu. Any user presets that you create using the 'Put Into Preset Menu As...' command aren't numbered or easily accessed from the GTR Ground. The best option, especially if you're planning on using preset switching in a live context, is to create your own preset file and put all and only the patches you intend to use in that. I can understand why Waves want to ensure that their preset system is consistent across all their software, but it would be more friendly if there was a neat bank/preset structure. Also, given that GTR3 includes a Preset viewing mode, it seems odd that hitting the Preset button doesn't switch to this mode.
The last button on the GTR Ground is Tap Tempo / Tuner. Hitting this in a vaguely rhythmic pattern sets the master Tempo value within GTR3, to which any time‑based effect can be clocked by enabling its Sync button. This works well enough, though there's no visual feedback of the tempo setting. Keep your foot on the Tap Tempo / Tuner button for a few seconds, and it takes you to GTR3's Tuner page. Unlike most hardware tuners, this doesn't mute the output signal, which could be annoying in a live situation, and oddly, the switch only takes effect when you release the button, so it's unclear exactly how long you have to hold it down. More oddly still, there is no way to use the GTR Ground to leave the Tuner page again — you have to do so with the mouse. And although GTR3's on‑screen tuner is very nice, it's a shame there's no visual feedback on the Ground unit that would allow you to tune without looking at the screen.
I've reviewed a number of Waves products over the years, and in the case of GTR Ground, I'm experiencing a feeling I've never had before: I'm a bit underwhelmed. It's not that it's a bad product, exactly, because it does pretty much what it says on the tin. In conjunction with the GTR3 software, GTR Ground offers a very acceptable substitute for a typical pedalboard or floor‑based digital effects unit, and if all you need is the ability to switch effects on and off, wobble a wah and step through presets, it does a fine job. My sense of disappointment is more down to high expectations, because I'm used to finding that Waves products go further than the competition and do more than you'd expect, but in this case the competition is clearly ahead.
Specifically, I think that when it comes to integrating a floorboard and an amp simulator, Native Instruments' Guitar Rig 3/Rig Kontrol 3 combo wipes the floor with the GTR3/Ground setup. Both of them do the basics well, but NI's system really takes things to a new level, offering a degree of configurability and controllability that simply isn't there with GTR Ground. What's more, it does so without being harder to use or less intuitive in action, and although it has fewer switches and only one pedal, it does incorporate a high‑quality USB2 audio interface. NI's system has clear advantages in the live arena too, thanks to its intuitive on‑screen Live View, the ability to switch instantly between multiple Snapshots, and the Rig Kontrol 3's use of bus powering. Likewise, I've no personal experience of IK Multimedia's ambitious Stomp I/O, but it, too, sounds very comprehensive, allegedly providing foot control over every parameter in their Amplitube software, even down to editing, saving and loading presets.
It should be stressed, though, that few of the restrictions I've mentioned are inherent to the GTR Ground unit itself. They are, rather, down to the way GTR3 handles external control. The Ground unit has the potential to be a perfectly nice hardware controller — in fact, I tried setting it up to control Guitar Rig and it did so very well — but this aspect of GTR feels under‑developed at present. As it is, if you can live without the displays, the level of control that is currently possible could be achieved from a cheaper, generic MIDI floorboard. Let's hope version 4 makes improvements here, because it diminishes what is otherwise a good product.
Neil Citron is an American engineer who's known for his distinctive electric guitar tones, and for GTR3, he and Waves have teamed up to create 'signature' amp models. A total of six models have been created from three amplifiers — a Carvin Legacy, an Ibanez Thermion and a 100 Watt Marshall Plexi — and the key element is not so much the amplifiers themselves as Citron's know‑how in teaming them up with different cabs and miking the results. There's an element here of what you get with Waves' Maserati Collection, because multiple mics and processors are combined behind the scenes, yet all the user sees is a simple choice of cabinet type. The results are excellent, with Citron's expertise yielding a much more three‑dimensional sound than I'm used to from digital emulations. In particular, there's a really weighty cabinet 'thump' when you dig into the low 'E' string. You could happily record an entire rock album with these models alone.