MusicLab’s virtual guitars get a major overhaul.
It’s been a while since any MusicLab virtual guitar instrument has been featured in SOS — March 2018 to be precise. That review of RealGuitar (the acoustic models) explored its promotion to version 5, a substantial upgrade with many new features. A new Steel String model was added as a separate plug‑in to complement the original Standard model. The introduction of Multi Performance Mode was also particularly welcome, allowing the performer much more flexibility when playing chords; notably, melodic lines and internal movement within chords (voice leading) could now be injected in the midst of a strummed chordal part.
Since then, all other guitar models in the range (RealStrat, RealRick, RealLPC and RealEight) have received the version 5 treatment, RealEight and RealRick having languished at v1 for some time prior to a brief incarnation as v4. RealStrat also received a shot in the arm — the addition of RealStrat Elite, a separate plug‑in featuring a completely new sound set sampled individually from all three pickups, with additional patches simulating double‑tracking and 12‑string, with options for standard or baritone tuning. As of v5.1 the GUIs were all made resizeable. For those unfamiliar with these remarkably flexible, playable instruments I recommend referring to the 2018 v5 review for a detailed overview of their features (now common to all models): www.soundonsound.com/reviews/musiclab-realguitar-5.
Version 6 remains much the same in terms of core functionality, one notable improvement being found in the Output section: two faders to adjust the relative volume of upstrokes and downstrokes. This may seem trivial, but the ability to adjust these (particularly when reducing the volume of upstrokes) greatly improves the dynamics and realism of strummed chords. So what is significantly new in v6? The answer lies not so much in the instruments themselves, but in what MusicLab have incorporated to make them an all‑in‑one solution for virtual guitarists.
Guitarix may sound like a headbanging Gaulois from Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix comics, but is in fact a Linux‑based guitar amp simulator.
Guitarix may sound like a headbanging Gaulois from Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix comics, but is in fact a Linux‑based guitar amp simulator. As a PC user, I had unsurprisingly never come across it, so a little snooping was in order. The program is free, and being open source is under constant development. I scoured the Internet for a PC version, but no, it’s resolutely Linux. Nevertheless, MusicLab have cunningly ported it over to work on PC and Mac within their instruments. During the guitars’ installation/upgrading process a message pops up asking if you want to install Guitarix — the sensible thing to do is say yes. Guitarix is simultaneously installed as a separate VST3 plug‑in, more of which later, to quote Kirsty Wark on Newsnight. As seen in the RealEight screenshot, the Guitar Amplifier section occupies the top left of the GUI. By default it’s inactive; clicking the ‘on’ button for the first time invokes a request for permission to access Guitarix — again, no point in saying no.
Guitarix comes with over 200 presets, divided into Acoustic, Electric and Bass categories; the Electric presets are sub‑categorised into Clean, Crunch, Distortion and Lead. The three main categories also include a selection of Effects presets. All these presets are available to any MusicLab instrument, so if you fancy distorted acoustic steel string guitar, go for it. Clicking the Edit button opens Guitarix’s control panel, from where you can tweak the presets or create custom amps from scratch. Your own tweaks and creations can be saved, appearing as an additional ‘Guitar Amp Presets’ category, and are available to Guitarix in all subsequently instantiated instruments. You can also save a complete setup, including all current guitar and amp settings as a single file. These, amazingly, can be loaded into any other ‘Real’ instrument, even the acoustics — great if you simply want to switch guitars but keep every other aspect the same. Brilliant.
Clicking the Guitar Amplifier’s Edit button on an instrument’s GUI opens the Guitarix interface in a separate window. This GUI is divided into two halves; the left column always contains an Input module and an Amp Stack — certain parameters of both can be disabled, but neither module can be removed. Whilst you can insert modules between these, in general you’ll add modules below them, in signal flow order. The choice of modules is nothing if not comprehensive, with multiple types and in some cases numerous variations under categories including Tone Control, Distortion, Fuzz, Reverb, Echo/Delay and Modulation, many sporting recognisable brand names. The identity of some is rather less obvious, but interesting to investigate nonetheless.
Given so many modules and their variations, attempting to describe them would be futile — and as MusicLab don’t provide a separate manual for Guitarix, it’s up to the user to explore and discover for themselves. The right column hosts stereo effects modules to further process the signal arriving from the left column. Clicking on the ‘+’ icon of any module adds a new ‘blank’ below it — just select the desired module type from its drop‑down list. Note that once in place, modules cannot be re‑ordered, so think carefully about their position in the signal flow before spending time making the perfect setting, as the only way to reposition a module is to delete it, re‑insert it elsewhere, and recreate any settings you’d previously made.
As the Linux version of Guitarix is constantly evolving, we must assume MusicLab’s ported version is also a work in progress. As such, some aspects appear underdeveloped: there is no preset system for the individual modules, and no MIDI automation for any aspect of Guitarix, although MusicLab say this is under consideration. And whilst the preset load/save dialogue includes the option to integrate other external amp sim plug‑ins you may own (instead of Guitarix), this is not currently operational.
As mentioned earlier, the separate VST3 plug‑in can be inserted into any audio track, but also has its limitations. It defaults to having only the Input and Amp Stack modules, it has no presets and no means of saving what you create, nor loading the ones stored within the MusicLab instruments, so you’re starting from scratch every time. However, if your DAW supports the saving of track templates, that serves pretty well as a substitute preset filing system.
With its plentiful selection of tube amp models, amp and cabinet convolution impulses, a dizzying selection of distortions, compressors, EQs, delays, reverbs and more, Guitarix delivers an impressive range of tones. It enlivens the sound of MusicLab’s acoustic guitars greatly, in particular bringing out the true character of the Steel String. Most impressive though are the overdriven electric guitar presets — tones that I’ve struggled (and often failed) to obtain with other ‘mainstream’ amp sims just seem to pop effortlessly out of Guitarix.
Anyone interested in the Linux version that spawned MusicLab’s take on the subject might like to check out the Guitarix homepage, found here: guitarix.org. It’s interesting to note the differences between the two — the Linux version is graphically richer, there are minor differences to some modules, and it also offers MIDI automation. Whilst MusicLab don’t provide a user manual for their Guitarix, there is a Wiki manual for the Linux version, found here: sourceforge.net/p/guitarix/wiki/Main_Page. It explains the purpose of many of the modules, as well as offering helpful tips on how to get a good sound — all equally applicable to MusicLab’s version of Guitarix.
Existing owners of MusicLab’s guitars would do well to upgrade just to get access to Guitarix — you may well find yourself putting your preferred amp sims to one side! If you’re a newcomer to the virtual guitar world, MusicLab’s v6 instruments offer a complete all‑in‑one solution and a diverse choice of models, all with great playability and realism.