Digital hardware that models classic guitar amps has been big business in recent years, but in the software field Line 6's Amp Farm has had the market to itself. Now, however, IK's Amplitube looks set to provide some serious competition.
IK Multimedia are already well known for their T-Racks mastering program and Sampletank software sound module, and their latest product is a guitar amp modelling program called Amplitube. Available for Mac and PC, it works within any VST-compatible host software as well as supporting RTAS/HTDM for Pro Tools users (see System Requirements box). Authorisation is via a challenge and response system, prior to which the software runs in demo mode with regular interruptions of white noise. Think of it as a physically modelled intermittent guitar lead!
Guitar amp modelling has become familiar territory since Line 6 launched their Pod hardware unit, but the advantage of a software amp modeller is that you can record a track dry and then create any guitar sound you like when mixing. Amplitube can be used as a software preamp to 'record through' where the host software allows, or it may be used to process guitar tracks on playback, giving you the choice of how to work. Logic users should be aware that you can't record through plug-ins in any version prior to 5.2, but it's simple to set up a workaround that lets you monitor the effects of the plug-in as a 'live input' while recording the clean guitar part onto another track, though this usually means linking two physical inputs on your audio interface/card. Note too that although software can model most aspects of a guitar amplifier, it can't model the high-impedance input socket of a typical guitar amp, so you should record either via a high-impedance DI box or a preamp with an instrument input.
Amplitube really comprises three separate sections, with navigation buttons allowing each control window to be called up directly. The first section is referred to as the Stomp Module, and models five effects pedals typically used before a guitar amp. It also provides a gate to clean up the signal when high gain settings are being used. The 'pedals' are wah, delay, chorus, flanger and overdrive and are controlled by between two and four knobs each, just like their hardware counterparts. They're even turned on and off using on-screen footswitches, so if you have a touch screen and don't mind taking your socks off...
The output of the pedal section feeds into the amp modelling stage, where the designers have broken the modelling down into preamp types, EQ types, power amp types, speaker cabinet types and miking options. This allows the user to mix and match the various sections to produce customised hybrid amplifiers; for more cautious types, there are Match switches in the amp and speaker modelling sections which, when active, cause the appropriate settings to be called up in the other areas whenever a new basic amp type is selected. In Match mode, the knobs that would normally allow selection of alternatives are greyed out.
As with other modelling products, the amp types are described without using the names of any specific amplifiers, but you're still left in little doubt as to what you are getting. In all, there are seven different preamp models, five EQ types and four power amp stages, two solid-state and two tube. These are followed by nine cabinet models (if you count 'no speaker' as a model), and all the virtual knobs are made out of virtual Bakelite for that vintage touch.
The only effects in the amp section itself are a tremolo offering Rate and Depth controls and a mono spring reverb emulation. The EQ offers three bands plus presence, and the output of the amp model can be cranked up to bring in power-stage distortion. Changing the virtual mic from capacitor to dynamic and switching between close and distant miking produces a convincing change in tonality, but if you still want more control, the post-amp effects will take care of that for you.
This final stage of tonal shaping is a virtual studio effects rack comprising a three-band parametric EQ, a delay unit providing mono, stereo and multi-head modes with feedback and level control, and a stereo hall reverb. Each effect has its own level control and bypass button as well as duplicating the Output Level and Gate controls found in the other windows.
Used in conjunction with a reasonably low-latency soundcard or interface, Amplitube feels very much like playing through a hardware modelling preamp. I rather missed having an integral compressor, but in most VST hosts, it's easy to patch one in either before or after Amplitube depending on which sound you prefer. Though there are fewer amp models than on some hardware units, the ability to swap EQ sections and speaker cabinets provides plenty of tonal variation, as does the ability to turn up the amp model output to overdrive the power stage. In this way, some of the ostensibly clean amp models can be pushed to produce a nice blues distortion, and for more angst, there's always that Overdrive stomp-box model.
In fact there are only two overtly overdriven amp models, one based on the Boogie/Soldano school of extreme overdrive and the other of a somewhat more British provenance. Initially, I found that these could sound a hint edgy when used to create brighter overdrive sounds, but later discovered that the parametric EQ in the Post FX Module helps greatly in this respect. For example, instead of using the amp EQ to make the sound brighter, you can use the parametric to accentuate the 'bite' of the sound more effectively and without incurring a 'fizz' penalty.
The pedals all sound pretty much as you'd expect their hardware counterparts to sound, though the wah must either be controlled via the knob or set to auto as there's no pedal included. Delay, flanger and chorus are based on the sound of the 'bucket brigade' analogue units popular in the '70s and early '80s, an approach which gives them a warmer, less incisive sound than most digital units. By contrast, the Post Effects sound more like their digital studio equivalents, though the EQ is smooth and powerful with no obvious digital vices. The hall reverb sounds fine on guitar, with control over decay time, density and level, and has a noticeably different character to the intentionally coloured-sounding spring delay in the amp section.
By way of response, Amplitube doesn't have the same feel as a really good valve amp, but then neither do any of its competitors, hard or soft. It is however, adequately responsive to playing dynamics to fool most listeners and it manages to convey a better sense of energy and low-end punch than most of its rivals. Because of the limited number of amp models and the interaction of the three processing stages, it can take a while to get exactly the sound you have in your head, but with a little effort, you can coax just about any guitar sound out of it. In tests on my 800MHz G4 Mac with 762MB RAM, the audio performance meter in Logic Audio registered around 25 percent with a realistic number of effects engaged, but even on less powerful systems CPU demand need not be a problem, because as soon as you have the guitar sound you want, you can bounce to a new track, then deactivate Amplitube.
Although I would have liked a couple more familiar amp models to play with, I found Amplitube extremely intuitive to use and managed to get a good range of sounds out of it — in particular, those creamy on-the-edge sounds that so often elude capture. It does help to use a compressor, and I feel the designers should have included one in the stomp-box section, but other than that it gives you all the tools you need to get a cracking guitar sound with no additional processing. And by that I don't just mean rock sounds for the boomer generation (thought it does those pretty well) but also contemporary grungey rhythm sounds. By switching to Match mode, you can get a lot of 'classic' sounds fairly quickly, but for me, the ability to mix and match amp sections provides the greatest opportunity for tone design. This takes a little longer, but is definitely worth it. What more is there to say? While not perfect, Amplitube is a great software product and in the right hands can sound fantastic.
- For Pro Tools LE or TDM, Amplitube will run in the RTAS or HTDM host-based plug-in formats, but not as a TDM plug-in. Pro Tools III and Digi 001 users require Pro Tools version 5.0 or later; 24|Mix and Mix Plus users need version 5.1 or later; M Box users need Pro Tools LE 5.2 or later, while HD owners need Pro Tools version 5.3 or later. Mac OS 8.6 or above is required, with a minimum 128MB RAM.
- For the Mac VST version, the minimum spec is a Power Mac G3, running Mac OS 8.6 or later but not OS X. G4 models need at least 192MB RAM.
- The Windows VST version will run on a Pentium II or later with Windows 95, 98, ME, NT 4, 2000 or XP, and requires a minimum 64MB of RAM.
- Realistically, an up-to-date machine with a minimum of 192MB of RAM is advisable whether you're a Mac or PC user.
- Solid State Clean.
- Vintage Clean.
- Tube Clean.
- British Crunch.
- Modern Hi-Gain.
- Solid State Lead.
- Tube American.
- Tube American 2.
- British Class A.
- Tube British.
- Tube British 2.
Power Amp Models
- Solid State 30 Watts.
- Solid State 100 Watts.
- Tube 100 Watts.
- Tube 50 Watts.
- Small Combo.
- Open Back 1x12.
- Open Back 1x12 2.
- Vintage Open Back 4x10.
- Modern Closed 4x10.
- Vintage Closed 4x12.
- Modern Closed 4x12.
- British 2x12.
- No Speaker.
- Spring Reverb (mono).
- Condenser (close and far).
- Dynamic (close and far).
Stereo Post Effects
- Parametric EQ (three-band, stereo).
- Stereo Delay (four modes).
- Stereo Reverb (hall).
- Easy to install and use.
- Includes stomp-box and studio effect modelling.
- Good range of guitar sounds available.
- Reasonable dynamic response.
- No integral compressor.
- Would have liked a few more overdriven amp models.
Amplitube is one of the nicest virtual guitar amps I've tried, and though you have to work at some of the sounds, the results are definitely worth it.