With so many virtual guitar amps already on the market, can newcomers Scuffham Amps bring something fresh to the party?
To those of us who remember the novelty of the early Line 6 products, it's strange to see how digital amp modelling has become a stock effect. Almost every MIDI + Audio sequencer comes bundled with a selection of virtual guitar amplifiers and effects, and if they don't float your boat, there are innumerable third-party hardware and software products to choose from. The latest entry into this crowded market comes from a new company called Scuffham Amps. S-Gear is the brainchild of Mike Scuffham, a former product designer at Marshall Amplification with no shortage of fresh ideas about how to replicate the sound — and the feel — of valve guitar amps in software.
S-Gear is available for Mac OS and Windows, and operates either as a stand-alone application or a plug-in in the VST and Audio Units formats. It's authorised by a challenge-and-response system, which is painless if your studio computer is connected to the Internet and causes only mild twinges otherwise.
Broadly speaking, designers of amp simulators usually take one of two angles. The approach pioneered by Line 6, and many others since, is to replicate specific items of classic guitar gear as closely as possible, providing readily identifiable clones of familiar amps and effects pedals. Other designers, however, see the move into software as an opportunity to escape the limitations of vintage equipment. Rather than provide an exact replica of the Fender Bassman or Vox AC30, developers such as Magix, Peavey and McDSP have tried to create much more open-ended amp designs: designs that can be set up to respond like a Bassman or an AC30, but which are also capable of producing a far greater range of sounds than any hardware amp.
Mike Scuffham's approach falls squarely into the latter camp, and S-Gear currently includes only three amp models, called the Duke, Stealer and Jackal. Each of these draws inspiration from a hardware original, but is much more than simply a recreation of it. "The three amps have some influences,” says Mike. "The Duke is based on a Fender Super Reverb, with a little extra gain available. I particularly like the Super Reverb because the tone stack does not scoop quite as much mid-range as, say, a Fender Twin, and as a result, some very expressive tones can be achieved. The Stealer is derived from a classic Marshall Plexi amp, with a unique twist by way of the Bright Contour control. The Jackal design was strongly influenced by the original Soldano SLO-100.” There are, likewise, only two effects supplied, but they are far more versatile than any stomp box.
Most guitar-amp setups consist of several stages of processing and amplification: effects pedals feed a preamp, which in turn feeds a power amp, which in turn is loaded by a speaker. One of the interesting things about S-Gear is the attention that has been paid to the interactions between these stages. A common criticism of software amp simulators is that however closely they capture the tonal character of a real amp, they fail to reproduce its 'feel', the dynamic response to touch and picking intensity that makes a good valve amp rewarding to play through. Mike Scuffham has gone to some lengths to address this problem, and it seems he feels that capturing the complex interplay between pre and power amp, and between power amp and speaker, is the key.
So, for example, all three amp designs have a toggle switch labelled Amp Drive. This isn't a conventional distortion or gain control, but, when switched on, lowers the headroom of the power-amp stage so that it is being pushed harder by the preamp. This can be used in conjunction with a hidden control for power-amp Sag, which mimics the condition whereby a (usually) valve rectifier struggles to supply enough power on sustained notes. Each causes a characteristic type of compression, and on top of that, you can alter the extent to which the virtual speaker loads down the power amp by varying its impedance. In a real amp, these phenomena contribute not only to distorted sounds but also to apparently clean tones, and so it is here too.
S-Gear is made up of several modules arranged in a virtual rack, where signal flows from top to bottom. They can be re-ordered by clicking and dragging in a way that's reminiscent of Native Instruments' Guitar Rig, although the emphasis here is on providing a handful of very versatile modules rather than a bucketload of specific amp and effect emulations. There's no scrolling: the window expands and shrinks to fit in all the modules as you add or remove them.
Always visible are two utility modules, one at the bottom and the other towards the top. The lower one includes input and output level controls and a simple but effective noise gate, plus metering and push-button preset selection from the active bank of 10. The upper utility module offers more sophisticated preset management and general configuration options, which include comprehensive MIDI control. There is, alas, no guitar tuner, which is a shame.
As well as the module containing your virtual amplifier, the rack can also contain a single Pro Convolver module, which handles speaker and mic modelling, plus up to two each of the Delay Thing and Mod Thing units (see box). The amp module always resides at the very top of the rack, so there's no way to place effects in a stomp-box position before it. The three amps are switched not from the amp module itself, but from the lower utility rack.
All three amps have a conventional tone stack with Bass, Middle and Treble controls, plus a Presence knob and a gain control, but there's also some more unusual parameters on offer. Clicking a button labelled Tweak makes visible three extra controls: the aforementioned Sag, plus High Cut and Presence Frequency dials which shape the treble response of the power-amp stage. These are present in all three amp models, and each also has its share of unique controls. The Duke, for example, has a Clean/Overdrive switch, which hots up the input signal, an additional Boost switch, which adds gain after the tone stack, a Bright switch, and a further switch that modifies the preamp bass response. The Stealer, likewise, has Push, Boost and Bass Shift switches and adds a Bright Contour control, which can have a fairly radical effect on the amp's tonality, and The Jackal also has its share of toggle switches.
The Pro Convolver module is a dual-channel affair, allowing you to emply two entirely separate cabinets and mics in stereo if you wish to. It comes with a choice of seven speaker impulses licensed from Redwirez, but you can also load your own, or use one of three speaker emulations created using filters rather than impulse responses. You can also choose to mic your virtual cabinet with an SM57 or a Beyer M160 ribbon mic, choosing from several placement options. There's basic level, EQ and pan controls, plus the aforementioned 'Z' control, which mimics the effect of changing speaker impedance on the power amp that's driving it. A small amount of delay can be applied to either speaker in a stereo configuration to enhance the impression of stereo width.
The most important question you can ask of almost any effect or processor is 'How does it sound?', and the best description I can think of is to say that S-Gear sounds expensive — in a good way. If your idea of the perfect guitar sound is a broken valve in a toy amplifier, feeding a torn six-inch speaker in a cardboard enclosure (and who's to say that wouldn't sound fantastic?), you won't find it in S-Gear. But if you like warm, clean sounds that subtly shade into overdrive as you dig in harder with your right hand, or if you want snappy note attacks combined with singing, blooming sustain, or heavily distorted power chords that never lose definition or get flabby at the bottom end, it's likely to perk up your ears.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about it is the attention paid to dynamic response and the 'feel factor'. Although the influence of the Amp Drive and Sag controls on the tone of the amplifiers is often relatively subtle, they make a real difference to the way in which your hands feel 'connected' to the notes that emerge from your speakers. It's an effect that's nothing like placing a conventional dynamics plug-in in the signal chain, or using a stomp-box compressor, and few other amp simulators I've tried get it as right as this.
Similar attention has been paid to elements such as the tone controls, which allow you to shape the sound in a very musical and natural way. As is typical of real amps, there's a lot of interaction between the various different controls, which all feel as though they're part of one organic whole rather than acting in isolation. And although there's a considerable range of tonal control on offer, bright sounds rarely become fizzy and dark ones seldom descend into mud.
In use, S-Gear is slick and stable, with a simple user interface, clear graphic design and a general air of quality that matches its sonic tendencies. At least at this stage in its development, it's not yet a jack of all trades, and there are a number of classic guitar sounds that it simply doesn't cater for at present. I, for one, would love to hear a Scuffham take on the Vox AC30, so I hope they'll be adding additional amps in later versions, along with extra effects.
Talking of future versions, it's worth noting that anyone who buys S-Gear is guaranteed free upgrades until May 2013, making it even more of a bargain than it seems. I tried it out before I looked at the price tag — and when I did, I was stunned to discover how little Scuffham are asking for it. At this price, it's very hard to think of a reason why anyone with a guitar and a computer shouldn't own a copy!
There are far too many other amp simulators out there for me to make a comprehensive list here, but if your emphasis is on authentic sound and playing response, two others I'd recommend trying are Magix's Vandal and Softube's Vintage Amp Room.
Many software amp simulators come with a virtual pedalboard so large there'd be no room on the stage for the band. S-Gear, by contrast, currently ships with only two effects, although more modules are apparently planned. According to Mike Scuffham, the next module to be added will be a Reverb Thing, which fills an obvious hole in the current line-up, while other effects such as distortion and wah are also under consideration. When you're using S-Gear within a DAW, of course, you always have the option of placing other plug-ins in series and, fortunately, both Delay Thing and Mod Thing are very versatile, and sound great.
At the heart of Delay Thing is a replication of an old-school 'bucket brigade' analogue delay line, without the noise but with the alternative of a simulated 'tube' sound if required. Repeats can be fed back, panned, filtered and modulated, and in general, Scuffham have done a great job of tweaking all the parameters so that it's flexible yet always useful within its context as a guitar effect. In keeping with the ethos of S-Gear as a whole, its sound is perhaps best described as warm, yet hi-fi: the tone-shaping makes sure the delays aren't too bright, but at the same time, you won't hear worn-out tape or overloading solid-state electronics here. Delay Thing is also capable of some very rich chorus effects, especially if you take advantage of the option of using two instances of it. It can't currently be sync'ed to DAW host tempo, though, which some may view as a limitation. The excellent PDF manual suggests using short delays to create a sense of space and ambience in the sound. A large number of the S-Gear presets do exactly that, and to very good effect.
Mod Thing, as the name suggests, handles traditional modulation-based effects such as flanging, chorus and phasing, and does so very well. Again, the parameters are well chosen, providing a wide range of effects from jet-engine whooshes to subtle thickening, while remaining easy to use; and again, the emphasis is on classy rather than trashy sounds, which remain rich and full even at extreme settings.
Although they don't quite cover all possible bases in terms of delay and modulation effects, Delay Thing and Mod Thing are certainly versatile enough for most purposes, and in practice I never really found myself wishing for more. One thing I would like to see, though, is the ability to save presets for these individual modules, as well as for S-Gear as a whole. If you've spent half an hour perfecting a particular delay setup, it'd be nice to be able to add that to different amp presets with the click of a mouse.
- Superb value for money.
- An amp simulator that not only sounds great but feels very playable.
- Delay and modulation effects are versatile and sound good.
- Limited range of amps and effects at present, and no tuner.
- It would be nice if individual modules could save their own presets.
Scuffham Amps' S-Gear is an amp simulator with a character of its own. It feels unusually involving to play and sounds vastly more expensive than it is!
- Scuffham S-Gear v2.02.
- Scan PC with 3.4GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 CPU and 8GB RAM, running Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit SP1.