Eschewing the ‘mix and match’ philosophy of most amp modellers, Brainworx have turned their attention to capturing entire recording chains.
Guitar players today have an impressive array of modelled guitar amps, cabinets and effects devices to choose from. Debate has often raged as to the exactness with which modelled amps capture the sound of the originals — debates which often ignore the reality that comparison amongst different examples of the originals often results in even greater variation. Still, most guitarists own at least one amp, and recording them is often fraught with limitations, unless you have access to a professional recording studio staffed with experienced engineers and filled with top-flight gear. The great benefit of modelled emulations is that they provide the experience pre-packaged, so great-sounding guitar tracks can be laid down in the kitchen while brewing some coffee.
A major selling point of most guitar modelling products is their versatility: the inclusion of numerous models means that users can mix and match almost any amp with any cabinet and microphone. Universal Audio have partnered with Brainworx to deliver something rather different. Building upon the success of their Rockrack Pro plug-in, Brainworx have concentrated on modelling two popular guitar amps: the Engl E765RT retro tube amp, and the more modern Engl E646VS tube amplifier. These emulations are great-sounding in and of themselves, but the real innovation is the way in which they model the entire recording chain so as to capture not only all the individual components in that chain, but the experience and preferences of the recording engineer, thereby introducing a new element previously unavailable. Though they will work with all UAD2 systems, in combination with UAD’s Apollo hardware interface, they provide not only a great low-latency recording option for guitarists, but a live performance workflow that few have offered before.
The origins of the Engl plug-ins go back to Brainworx founder Dirk Ulrich’s experience recording rock and metal bands in his studio, where he specialised in getting great guitar sounds. Once he found that it was possible to capture the entire recording chain, he came up with the idea of utilising his recording experience to create an alternative to the ‘mix and match’ approach that other plug-ins offer. The intent was to create sounds specifically tailored for different applications such as clean strumming, heavy metal soloing and so on. The chain would capture a complete analogue signal path, from amp to microphone to mic preamp to console and EQ. Particular attention was paid not only to the preamp and its distortion characteristics, but also the role of the power amp. A power soak feature, according to Ulrich, allows the user to “crank up the power amp and get that behaviour that the amp would give you in the real world, and then turn it down and tame the volume just as you would with a real power soak.”
The UAD Engl plug-ins can be used with any UAD2 hardware, but their real power is fully realised when used with the UAD Apollo audio interface and its ultra-low-latency Apollo Console, which allows the user to audition and, if appropriate, record input signals through UAD plug-ins at minimal latency. Typically, the track to which you’re recording the guitar signal in your DAW is armed but its output is muted so that you don’t hear the signal twice. This is a bonus for Pro Tools users who don’t have HD hardware and therefore lack a Track Input Monitor button. You could even use the Console without a DAW, for playing live. The latency of the Console application itself is so low as to be virtually undetectable during performance.
When the Engl plug-in is first loaded into an insert in the Console utility, the guitar amp controls are immediately visible along with the top portion of the cabinet being used in the current recording chain. The plug-in offers three different 4x12 cabinets labelled Por, Std and Ret, but these can’t be selected individually; instead, you choose an entire recording chain. Hidden beneath the amp grille is an FX Rack, which is where recording chains are selected. Both plug-ins offer identical FX Rack controls and recording chains. Both also come with a variety of Presets tailored for different guitar types, offering a huge variety of sounds out of the box. These are nice to have, but I think most discerning guitarists will create their own presets to fit their individual guitars and playing styles.
The two-channel Engl E765RT is the more ‘vintage rock’-sounding of the two modelled amps. Channel 1 is ‘clean’, while channel 2 is the higher-gain ‘rock’ channel. Both channels feature Bass, Middle, Treble, Volume and Gain controls. Channel 1 offers a Bright switch, while Channel 2 includes a Tone switch, which boosts the mid-range frequencies for a more aggressive sound. A master volume rounds out the controls, along with a channel selector and a Gain Boost, which will affect the selected channel and add crunch or distortion. Four Settings buttons labelled A, B, C and D are at the top of the plug-in window; these store variations of the currently loaded preset sound, thus allowing you to quickly try out different settings. The currently selected recording chain and any FX Rack control settings are stored as well as amp settings.
Clicking on the FX Rack button at the top of the plug-in window reveals a number of additional options and zooms the interface, making it easier to see your amp settings, which is very helpful on a large computer monitor. The FX Rack offers a Noise Gate that features Threshold and Range controls and a useful LED to indicate when the gate is closed. A filter section adds either a low- or high-pass filter that can be pre- or post-amplifier, which can be very effective when needing to tighten up the low end or roll off any brittle high frequencies. A vintage delay can be adjusted via a knob, a tap tempo button, or sync’ed to the host tempo when used inside your DAW. It is very warm-sounding and reminiscent of an old analogue tape delay.
Next up are the Recording Chains. With so many to choose from, Brainworx have designed a clever system which will automatically switch the chains at intervals of one to eight bars so you can audition them in turn. An input gain control offers increased flexibility to accommodate different pickup types, processors such as compressors placed before the amp plug-in, or the desire to drive the preamp harder or softer. Preamp and power amp bypass switches are unique features you won’t find elsewhere. Bypassing the preamp allows you to use your own guitar preamp with the Engl amp and recording chains. This is probably my favourite feature. I took the line output of my rather loud and noisy Roland JC120 amp and connected it to the Apollo with the preamp section of the Engl plug-in switched off. This amp has been sitting in my home studio unused for years, as it’s difficult to record without angering the neighbours. Now I can record its crisp clean tones and take advantage of some of the ribbon mic emulations available in the recording chains (Recording Chain number 51, which utilises the AEA R84, is my preferred chain in this context). Conversely, the power amp bypass allows you to use the Apollo and Engl plug-in to feed an external power amp cabinet for live use. For this I used my Tech 21 Power Engine 60, which is a 60 Watt cabinet with a single 12-inch Celestion speaker designed just for such a purpose.
Engl E646VS is the more modern of the two modelled amps, with a much more sophisticated layout and a crushing heavy metal sound. Four channels are available: Clean, Crunch and two Lead channels. Each channel has its own gain and volume control. The Clean and Crunch channels have independent treble controls, while the Lead channels offer a ‘Middle Voiced’ control that can be switched on to bring the mids forward rather dramatically. Two separate master volume knobs are offered to aid the customisation of preset sounds. Finally, there are Presence and Depth Punch controls that affect all channels, the former cutting or boosting ultra highs and the latter enhancing any low-end power that might be missing from a particular recording chain. The sonic possibilities within this plug-in are almost endless, to the point where the four Settings buttons may not be enough to satisfy your needs.
The Engl plug-ins are reasonably priced, to the point where they should be a no-brainer if you already own a UAD Apollo interface and are a guitar player or recording studio owner. They can be had separately or in a bundle that includes Brainworx’s bx_tuner too. The system as a whole, including the Apollo, gives you ultra-low-latency recording, a wide variety of guitar tones, the ability to utilise your own preamp with the recording chains in home studio situations, re-amping of DI guitar tracks and the possibility of using the plug-in with an external cabinet for live performance — what’s not to like? Well, if you don’t have them already, then factoring in the cost of a portable computer and the Apollo interface does add up to a pretty serious investment. For perhaps a quarter of that, the Avid Eleven Rack will allow you to accomplish most of those tasks, and there are non-computer-based alternatives such as the Kemper Profiling Amp and Fractal Audio Axe FX.
There are some additional issues to consider for live performance, too. Presets must be designed and labelled specifically with the power amp disabled, as accidentally selecting a preset with it engaged can cause a very unpleasant burst of noise and feedback from your live amp cabinet. Worse, there’s no easy way to change presets when playing live besides grabbing the mouse and trying to click on a relatively small part of your computer monitor’s real estate. Even changing amp channels invokes a slight processor delay, and if there is sustained audio happening, a loud thump can sometimes be heard. There’s no way to automate anything in the Console, and while you can automate the plug-in within your DAW, latency issues would defeat the purpose of using it live in the first place. The Eleven Rack has big knobs you can grab, switches patches much more smoothly and is designed to be easy to work with even in dim stage lighting. Still, I’ve become a huge fan of these plug-ins and can highly recommend them. If I had to pick one, it would be E765RT, which suits my particular playing style perfectly. The Apollo interface is a great-sounding and worthwhile investment, and I hope that UAD will capitalise further on its low-latency capabilities to introduce more offerings like this — perhaps even virtual instruments.
Those wishing to avail themselves of Brainworx’s guitar amp modelling technology without UAD hardware should investigate the bx_Rockrack Pro plug-in, which first introduced the idea of recording chains. Its design is very similar the layout of the UAD Engl plug-ins, but it caters for a wider range of styles, with seven amp models. Rockrack offers a built-in tuner and a ‘shred’ control, and as with the UAD Engl, users can disable the recording chain (but not the preamp) to use with other speaker cabinet simulations or output to an external guitar amp.
UAD users also have the option to choose from three Softube guitar amp plug-ins: Vintage Amp Room, Metal Amp Room and Bass Amp Room. All three provide the same ultra-low latency when used with the Apollo Console. Unlike Engl, they provide the familiar ‘click and drag’ mic setup, with the ability to change the distance to the cabinet and the angle of the mic to capture on or off-axis sounds. The Metal Amp Room gives the UAD Engl the most direct competition with an amplifier modelled on the Engl Powerball and two cabinets: the Metal Cabinet, modelled on the ENGL E412V 4x12 and the Black Cabinet, based on a Marshall 4x12. Paul White has reviewed each in past issues of SOS and are worth reading online.
If you don’t have a UAD Apollo but are looking for a similar ultra-low-latency solution, the Avid Eleven Rack doesn’t offer the DSP processing that the Apollo packs, but works equally well as a low-latency guitar interface. It also embeds the amp rig settings in the recorded file within Pro Tools, allowing for precise recall of settings. It doesn’t have as much in the way of I/O, but it’s about a third of the price of an Apollo and has been specifically designed to be able to take on the road and use in a live setup without requiring a computer attached to tweak settings. It also offers a unique ‘True Z’ feature, allowing users to tweak the input impedance and eliminate the digital glassiness that almost all modelled guitar devices suffer from. I own both the Eleven Rack and the Apollo, and the Eleven Rack served me well as a DAW interface until the Apollo was added to my setup. Both the Eleven Rack and the Engl/Apollo combination feel like I’m playing a real amp.
Great recordings start with great mics, and there are some excellent ones used here — nine in total. The particular mic used is listed for each chain, and include the venerable Neumann CMV563 valve ‘bottle mic’, AEA R84 ribbon (one of my favourites), AKG C414, Shure SM57, Sennheiser MD421 and Blue Blueberry. Mic preamps used included Telefunken V76, SPL, Millennia and the built-in mic pres on the Neve VXS72 desk, one of only nine made. The mics were brought into the Neve console where each was individually equalised before being bused to a group channel that was further tweaked with a Millenia EQ as a sort of summing EQ. EQ employed on individual mics came from the built-in desk EQ on the Neve, the Millenia NSEQ and the SPL Bass Ranger. Says Ulrich, “Guitar sound is basically all about the mids and low end. To carve it out properly, the Bass Ranger has eight different bands below 2k and is very detailed.” Depending on the desired colour of the recording chain, mics were turned on and off before being sent to the group output. In a few chains EQ was disabled entirely. A total of 64 recording chains were created, two of which are ‘Secret Setups’, and for live situations the ability to bypass the chain entirely is also offered.
To accompany the new amp modelling plug-ins, Brainworx have also created a tuner — with such heavy DSP demands that it needs to be offered as a stand-alone plug-in rather than integrated into the amp models.
The bx_tuner plug-in was designed specifically for guitar (both acoustic and electric) and bass; UAD caution that the ballistics and detection mechanism were not meant for synthesizers and may yield imprecise results. Best results are obtained by inserting it before any amplifier or signal processing plug-ins. Controls are relatively simple, with a tuner on/off switch and a three-way switch to either mute, dim or play the output while tuning. The plug-in adds no latency, but will still use DSP processing power from the UAD chips, so it is advisable to bypass the plug-in from the Apollo insert when not in use. The tuner offers a trio of visual aids, beginning with a Note Display (with flats only, no sharps), a large LED divided into two ±50 cent segments (representing a half-tone on either side) and a Fine Tuning aid with a range of 3 cents. The reference pitch can be changed via a drop-down menu, and a helpful ballistics control allows users to control how slow or fast the display reacts — a nice touch. It’s easy to use, very inexpensive, and can be purchased separately from the Engl plug-ins if desired.
- Great-sounding recording chains.
- Virtually no latency.
- Feels like you’re playing a real guitar amp.
- Lets you incorporate your own guitar preamp.
- Real-time use requires an Apollo interface, which makes the system as a whole expensive.
- Can be unwieldy in live situations.
This pair of plug-ins offers great-sounding Engl amp models at a price that’s attractive if you already own a UAD Apollo, with a tonal range that encompasses most tastes from vintage rock to modern metal mayhem.
E765RT and E646VS $149 each; bx_tuner $19; bundle of all three $249.
+44 (0)20 8962 5080
E765RT and E646VS $149 each; bx_tuner $19; bundle of all three $249.