Native Instruments have repackaged their powerhouse amp-modelling package with a new, stage-friendly interface, not to mention four new amps and a pile of vintage effects.
What makes a good software amp simulator? For some guitarists, there’s only one answer: a good amp simulator is one that sounds, and responds, exactly like the amps it simulates. To others, the real joy of a software amp is that it allows them to do things that are impossible with hardware, whether that means automating knob movements in real time, routing three different amps in series, or putting a glockenspiel through a Marshall stack.
Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig is an obvious choice for anyone in the second camp. Its unique modular design makes it easy to construct bizarre and electrically unsound combinations of virtual gear from the safety of your laptop. Version 2, reviewed in February 2006 (www.soundonsound.com/sos/feb06/articles/niguitarrig2.htm), upped the ante with the rather wonderful Modifiers, which brought the concept of synth-style modulation to bear on amp and effect parameters, with unparalleled scope for weirdness.
Time moves on, and NI have now brought out Guitar Rig 3. This brings with it a welcome crop of new amp and effect modules, but in contrast to the previous upgrade, most of the other improvements are directed at making Guitar Rig more friendly to use, rather than opening up new possibilities for experimentation. There’s a particular focus on making the system more useable on stage as well as in the studio.
Central to both applications is the Rig Kontrol hardware unit, which combines the roles of DI box, audio interface and foot controller, and has also been improved in version 3. The most obvious changes are that it is now a rather stylish black instead of silver, and that it sports eight buttons instead of six. The floorboard itself hasn’t grown, so you’ll need to be a little more delicate with your size nines, but it shouldn’t cause problems except for the most cack-footed. The top row of buttons are now clearly labelled according to their default functions, so you’ll never have those moments on stage where you forget which button brings up the tuner. Other welcome additions include LED input and output level meters.
A more subtle but potentially life-saving improvement is the relocation of the USB port to the rear left, where it has been augmented by a chunky hook to secure the cable. It’s still, probably, better to not get your foot caught up in it, but this might just be enough to stop you having to reboot the computer on stage.
Internally, the Rig Kontrol seems little changed. NI say that the converters have been improved, and it certainly sounds very clean, but then so did its predecessor, to my ears. The Rig Kontrol still connects to your computer via a USB2 port, and the driver has been tweaked to provide more informative options for buffer sizes. It seemed happier to run at low latencies in my system than the Rig Kontrol 2, and I experienced none of the occasional clicking that I found with the previous version. In general, I imagine most Rig Kontrol 2 owners will be content to stick with their existing hardware, though.
The Guitar Rig 3 software is available independently of the Rig Kontrol, and will still work with previous hardware versions. Like all NI software, it needs to be authorised on-line, but the process is painless. Unless you don’t have an Internet connection on your studio computer, that is, in which case it could cause a mild twinge. As before, Guitar Rig 3 works both as a stand-alone application and as a plug-in in VST, Audio Units and RTAS formats. The first thing you notice on loading the new version is the new look, which struck me as an obvious improvement: the interface is now much cleaner and easier to navigate, and it features a greatly improved preset–handling system (see the ‘Preset Paradise’ box).
The biggest development to the Guitar Rig interface is probably the new Live View. NI have recognised that when you’re on stage, there’s not much point in being able to view hundreds of knobs and sliders, because you’re in no position to mouse around and select them. Live View thus presents only the parameters you can access via the Rig Kontrol floorboard, and puts them on screen in high-visibility, easy-to-read orange and white. The lower half of the window shows you what all the switches do in the selected preset, while the area at the upper right can display either the metronome, tuner or Loop Machine loop recorder. The remaining space at the top left shows the patches in the selected bank, in nice large type, with a bold orange bar across the one that’s currently active.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to try the new system out on stage, but it’s clearly a good idea, and I’m sure I would use Live View rather than the conventional interface in any kind of live context. I have only a couple of reservations. One is that although you can use Live View with other controllers, it only ever displays a virtual Rig Kontrol 3. If you use an earlier Rig Kontrol, or a third-party controller, the mental gymnastics involved in relating what you see on screen to what’s at your feet will tend to negate the simplicity that Live View is supposed to bring. The other concerns the scrolling in the preset list. As you use the Next button to cycle through the presets in a bank, the orange bar moves down to the bottom of the window and the list scrolls up. So once you get beyond the sixth preset in the bank, you can’t see which one is coming next. Surely it would have been more sensible to keep the selected preset at the centre of the window and have the list scroll around it? NI are aware of this issue and say they’re working on it.
Another cool live-oriented feature is Snapshots. Hit the miniature Rig Kontrol icon above the gear rack and a virtual floorboard appears at the bottom of the rack, as before. In Guitar Rig 3, however, the options that appear when you right-click on an unused button include Snapshot. Choose this option and name the result, and hitting that button thereafter will recall all the parameter settings for all the components in the current preset. The idea is that if, say, you want to tweak a preset in various ways for the different sections of a song, you can simply store and recall a couple of Snapshots. This is infinitely easier and neater than trying to shuffle between three or four variations on a preset using the Next and Previous buttons. You do have to remember to re-save your preset after setting up Snapshot assignments, though.
Finally, it seems to me that preset switching is more seamless than in GR2, which is obviously a good thing for the live player. It sometimes takes half a second or so to respond, but there are no glitches or pops when you switch sounds or add a new component to your current preset.
A Guitar Rig upgrade wouldn’t be a Guitar Rig upgrade if it didn’t include tasty new amps and effects, and this one is no exception. NI say they are particularly proud of the new amps, and feel that they have taken their modelling technology to new heights.
Four new amps are included, and between them they have something to offer every guitarist. Traditionalists will be taken with the new Tweed Delight, which models a vintage Fender Tweed Deluxe combo. At the other end of the spectrum, Ultrasonic emulates the ultra-modern high-gain tones of the Bogner Uberschall. In between, there are tributes to two neglected classics from the ’70s, the Hi-Watt Custom 100 and Orange Overdrive heads. There are new cabinet models to match, and the emphasis on ease of use is reinforced by the new Matched Cabinet model. This is now the default choice when you drag a new amp module into the rack, and provides a sensible set-and-forget cabinet choice with relatively few controls. You can, of course, substitute the more complex Cabinets & Mics module if you want to vary the sound.
Heavy metal isn’t my thing at all, so I was surprised by how much I liked NI’s Bogner emulation. It’s often said that software amp modellers don’t capture this sort of high–gain sound very well, but the NI Bogner might give nay-sayers pause for thought. Paired with the default Matched Cabinet, there’s a muscular yet tightly controlled thump to the low end which really conveys a sense of moving air. There’s plenty of definition in the sound, even on the dirtiest of riffs.
Utterly different, yet also impressive, is Tweed Delight. There are only two volume controls and a Tone knob, but these are enough to move from a thick clean tone to a warm, rich overdrive, with a barking mid-rangey sound that’s different from the brightness of a Twin. Backing off the volume on the guitar cleans up the sound nicely, and although I thought I detected a fizzy edge creeping in on occasion, switching back and forth between Tweed Delight and the AC Box model from the original Guitar Rig provides a good illustration of how NI’s amp modelling has progressed. The two sounds are not a million miles removed from one another, but the Tweed Delight somehow feels more involving and responsive to play.
Orange amplifiers have always had a good reputation, but never quite achieved the mass acceptance of brands like Marshall or Vox. NI’s Citrus is an emulation of the Overdrive master–volume head, and there is something typically ’70s about its tone: a ‘springy’, rounded clean sound gives way to a friendly, middly crunch when you boost the gain. Once again, the responsiveness to dynamics and guitar settings makes it very playable, but it took me a little longer than with the other models to get a sound I liked. Initially I found my rhythm playing had a tendency to disappear in the mix, and I ended up using the Treble Booster component in front of it most of the time, to give it a little more edge.
The Hi-Watt model, by contrast, is about as present as guitar sounds get. Every so often, I kick myself for failing to buy the vintage Custom 100 I could once have had for very little money, so it’s great to have the sound in software, especially as you can drive it into power-amp distortion without killing everyone within a 50-yard radius. To my ears, this model sounds very good, with an uber-bright, ringing clean sound that gets progressively more compressed as you turn the gain up, before a harsh distortion reluctantly kicks in at extreme levels. Note attacks have a real bite, and even the cleanest chords cut through.
Guitar Rig 2 made big steps forward in terms of provision for bass players, with the Ampeg amp emulation and a number of bass-oriented effects, so it’s a shame there’s nothing new on offer for bass players in GR3. Likewise, I really liked the new possibilities opened up by GR2’s Modifiers, so I was a little disappointed to find that this aspect of the program has not been developed further in version 3. Most of the other component divisions boast new additions, however.
The workhorse Quad Delay and the experimental Psychedelay from the original Guitar Rig have been joined by two vintage delay units, of which the jewel in the crown is undoubtedly the Roland Space Echo emulation. NI have modelled the original in painstaking detail, and added a comprehensive selection of ‘under the hood’ controls such as Warble and Motor Acceleration. Your virtual Space Echo can thus be pristine or as beaten-up as they come, and, best of all, you can use the Rig Kontrol to adjust parameters in real time — I had hours of fun with the footpedal set to control Feedback. Bring Modifiers into the picture and you have access to a huge range of effects that sound authentically ‘tapey’ but would be impossible to achieve with hardware.
By default, the Tape Echo module is sync’ed to host tempo, but you can only see this if you click the little plus sign to open up the additional controls. This makes the Tap Tempo box a bit confusing, because all that happens when you try to tap tempo with the mouse is that you close the Tape Echo editing window. You need to open up the extra controls and turn Sync off to make Tap Tempo work. It would be helpful if the Tap box was greyed out when not usable; NI say this is how it should be, and that it will be fixed soon. In any case, this is a minor glitch, and shouldn’t be allowed to distract from the fact that the Tape Echo component is a fantastic effect that would make a great plug-in in its own right.
So cool is Tape Echo, in fact, that it threatens to overshadow the other new delay. That would be a shame, because Delay Man is a nice recreation of the Electro-Harmonix Memory Man, a versatile and warm-sounding bucket-brigade delay that can also do chorus or vibrato. There are more chances to play ‘guess the classic pedal’ in the Modulation effects section, courtesy of the Phaser Nine phaser and Electric Lady flanger. The latter in particular is a real improvement over the old Chorus+Flanger component, with a gorgeously rich, dense sound. The new crop of modules is completed by a copy of the Marshall Jackhammer distortion pedal, a new wah based on the Clyde McCoy Real Wah, and a Ring Modulator.
I mentioned at the start of this review that guitarists tend to divide into two camps when it comes to amp simulators. If you view them primarily as a golden opportunity to experiment with new guitar sounds, you might feel that the Guitar Rig 3 upgrade doesn’t have all that much to offer you. Bass players, too, might feel aggrieved that there’s little here that’s new for them. If, on the other hand, you view amp simulators as a practical and versatile alternative to a real amplifier, the improvements on offer in this update really should be music to your ears. Not only does Guitar Rig 3 contain the best-sounding amp models that Native Instruments have yet produced, but the whole program feels far more slick and polished than its previous incarnation. The Live View and Snapshots are very nicely thought-out enhancements for stage use, and they are matched by a new-found sense of solidity and stability that would make me a lot more confident in Guitar Rig 3’s capabilities as a live tool. And, of course, those qualities are just as welcome in the studio.
If you have version 2 of Guitar Rig in your system, GR3 will be installed alongside it, and they will both show up in your plug-in menus. The reason for this is that the program’s preset handling has been completely changed. It is possible to import GR2 banks into GR3, but this doesn’t happen automatically, so any plug-in instances of GR2 in existing DAW projects won’t be converted to the new version unless you change them yourself.
A part of the reason for the change is to make Guitar Rig compatible with NI’s Kore system, allowing presets to be tagged with descriptive metadata. The new Search engine allows you to look for sounds not only by name, date of modification and so on, but also on the basis of what Style, Tone or Instrument they might suit. For instance, with a couple of mouse-clicks you could locate all the GR3 sounds that are deemed suitable for country music on an electric guitar with single-coil pickups.
Before, presets were divided slightly arbitrarily into banks along stylistic grounds. Those banks still exist, but each amplifier model now has its own named preset bank too. Some presets thus appear twice, such as ‘Pete cant explain’, which is found in the Classic Rock bank and the bank of presets for the new High White amp model. It would be nice if presets created in other banks automatically appeared in the appropriate bank for the amp used, but this doesn’t happen; if you do want a preset to appear in a second location, you’ll have to copy it and save it there. Fortunately, copying and saving presets has been made much simpler. You can drag and drop sounds between banks, holding down Ctrl to copy them rather than move them, and both the Bank and Sound lists have drop-down menus that aid in preset management. Best of all, there’s now a Save As option, allowing you to save modified presets to the next empty slot. (I lost count of the number of times I accidentally overwrote presets in version 2...)
The presets themselves have received a thorough overhaul, too, and one nice touch is that the new ones include a bracketed note telling you what sort of pickup configuration they work best with. Of course, there’s nothing to stop you using a single-coil sound with a humbucker, or vice versa, but it’s another nice touch that makes quick-and-dirty preset–surfing easier. On the down side, a number of my favourite presets from version 2 have disappeared, though if you have GR2 in your system it’s easy enough to import its preset banks into GR3.