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Steinberg Red Valve It TDM

Guitar Preamp Plug-in By Paul White
Published January 1997

Paul White plugs his very real guitar into a virtual amp and gets down to playing some unimaginable music.

Steinberg's Red Valve It TDM plug‑in package is a software emulation of a rock guitar amplifier and loudspeaker system, designed specifically for use within Digidesign's Pro Tools TDM environment. While the amplifier and speaker may be virtual, the Digidesign hardware is very real — as is the price tag attached to it — which is a shame for many of us because, as you'll discover if you read on, the quality of amp emulation is impressive. The plug‑in may be used in real time to effect signals being recorded, or it may be used to process previously‑recorded parts, and the amplifier and speaker simulator sections may be deployed individually if the need arises.

Before you can use Red Valve It, you'll need a Mac/Pro Tools TDM system and TDM‑compatible software. This could be Digidesign's own Pro Tools software or a TDM‑compatible audio sequencer such as Cubase Audio or Logic Audio. Like most music software, Red Valve It is copy protected — not by a dongle this time, but by the equally familiar master disk install system. After installation, you have to authorise your hard drive before the software will run, and doing this uses up one of the two installation counts on the disk. Disk installs aren't affected by de‑fragging the drive, and if you accidentally trash the Red Valve It application on your hard drive, reinstalling will get you running again without using up another install. If you must re‑format your drive, you should run the uninstall routine on the master disk first to recover the install. This system works well enough, but it's still too easy to lose your installs and end up stuck in the middle of a session if, say, your hard disk crashes.

I can see why copy protection is required, but as a legit user, I don't feel comfortable knowing that I can be locked out of my own software, and if the manufacturer goes out of business (some software companies are quite small), what do you do if sometime in the future you lose your installs or corrupt your master disk? What's more, with the amount of protected software on my computer, it could take several hours to find the master disks and uninstall everything. At the very least, there should be a utility that can automatically gather all your hard disk installs onto one disk, so that you can put them back again in one hit after formatting or resurrecting a serious crash.

Red Valve It

Sermon over. Once installed, Red Valve It comes up in the list of insert devices as two separate modules (the Red Valve It amp simulator and the Virtual Speaker 1 speaker simulator), each of which requires a whole DSP chip to operate. A basic Pro Tools III NuBus system, such as the one I'm using, has only two spare DSP chips, so if you want to use both the amp and speaker simulator, you've no room to run any other plug‑ins.

You need to remember that you can't just plug a guitar into a Pro Tools I/O box, because the inputs are optimised for line level, and anyhow, the impedance is far too low for a guitar. A DI box with gain, such as the Award Matchbox, is perfect for the job, though if you have a mixer to bring up the gain, a standard DI box, hi‑Z active pickup, or active lead would do the trick. The other potential problem, especially if you're working on your own, is that computer monitors and guitars don't mix. Depending on the type of pickups you have, you may have to move back 10 feet or more before the buzz dies down to an acceptable level, especially if you're using a setting with a lot of overdrive gain.

The Interface

Call up the Red Valve It amp and you're greeted by a cheerful red front panel, complete with virtual anodising, on which are six rotary controls, a couple of buttons, and a slider for selecting presets. Numeric windows are located above each knob and the usual TDM buttons, including bypass, appear at the top of the screen. The Input knob is simply a level‑matching control, and a clip LED warns if you run out of headroom.

A 3‑band EQ offers simple bass, middle and treble, with no fancy sweeps, parametrics or presence controls. Gain is set on a scale of 0‑99 for overdrive level, while the Mix control claims to balance the processed and dry sound. My first instinct was to avoid adding any dry sound, because on analogue systems, this never seems entirely satisfactory. Nevertheless, in this digital emulation, experimenting with the Mix control produced a far more natural overdrive sound with plenty of bite and warmth.

Such a simple control setup would normally result in a restricted set of sounds, but Red Valve It isn't just one preamp — it can be any one of 12 possible preset types. You choose the nearest to your needs with the Presets slider, then use the front panel controls to fine‑tune the sound. (See 'Amp Preset Types' box.) Furthermore, if you pass the output of Red Valve It through the Virtual Speaker 1 modules, you have a choice of Combo or Stack coloration — two very different voicings. As you move the Presets slider from left to right, the selected preset title appears in a window above the slider.

Last of all comes the noise gate, which is very easy to use, requiring only two buttons. After setting up the sound you want, simply stop playing and press the Calibrate button. After a couple of seconds, the noise gate threshold will have been correctly adjusted, and all you need do is turn the gate on, using the Gate button. Surprisingly, there's no facility for storing your modified presets, nor their gate settings, so every time you change presets, you have to reset the gain, EQ and noise gate.

Virtual Sound

I was expecting to be seriously underwhelmed by Red Valve It. Digital overdrive processors have been, up to now, disappointing, but in combination with the speaker simulator module, not only can you get a huge range of tones out of the Red Valve It, but they're good tones as well. Though I wouldn't claim that this is a perfect tube amp emulation, it comes pretty close and has a similar feel to the Sansamp or Sessionette 75 pedals, yet the overall tonal coloration is more like what you'd expect from a Zoom product. The coloration is particularly pronounced when you bring in the Combo speaker simulator setting, though several of the rock sounds have a nice honk to them, especially if you pile on the mid range.

While the overdrive sustains nicely, bringing with it the promise of sweet harmonics during the decay period, the sound also cleans up nicely when you play quietly, just like a good amp should — and exactly like most solid‑state amps don't! There seems to be a hint of dynamic filtering built into some of the simulations — subtle but very effective — and if a preset doesn't do what you want on one speaker setting, you might find that it becomes a totally different beast on the other setting. As with all digital processes, there's a slight time delay between the signal going in one end and coming out the other, but in this case it's only around 5ms — the equivalent of being five feet from your guitar amp. In practice, I didn't notice it at all.

Reality Check

If Red Valve It came in a £100 pedal, it would be seriously impressive, but the reality of the situation is that it's not a cheap piece of software, and you need to tie up two DSPs to run it. It performs surprisingly well and doesn't sound at all digital, but I still find it somewhat perverse to tie up thousands of lines of code, two expensive DSP chips, each containing a scrillion transistors, and a box full of state‑of‑the‑art A/D and D/A converters, to do the same job as an analogue pedal containing maybe a pound's worth of ICs and a handful of resistors and capacitors.

If you want to keep your signal in the digital domain for as long as possible, or if you want to process guitar parts already recorded, Red Valve It is a great way to do it, and if you have a huge TDM system with DSP farm cards to spare, maybe there's a case for having it anyway, but for those of us more used to the real world than the virtual one, I feel it's an expensive luxury. What's more, it's an expensive, non‑programmable luxury.

Economics aside, though, you have to take your hat off to these programmers. This is one of the best tube amp simulations I've heard, either analogue or digital, and if a version could be made to run with Steinberg's Wavelab, it might open up the technology to more people. The system isn't perfect — for example, I feel that a slider to move between Combo and Stack settings would have produced far greater tonal flexibility than the two very different options provided — but with a little work, you can get most of the classic rock guitar sounds out of this unit without struggling. Red Valve It is an easy‑to‑use, great‑sounding product, but the cost of the hardware needed to use it will place it out of reach of those people who could best benefit from it.

Amp Preset Types

  • Crunch It
  • Heavy Rock
  • Dark and Heavy
  • Rock It
  • British Crunch
  • British Rhythm
  • British Solo
  • Warm and Bluesy
  • Clean Blues
  • The Razor's Edge
  • Sharp Crunch
  • Clean Tube Amp


  • Wide range of surprisingly convincing tube amp sounds.
  • Dead simple to use.


  • An expensive way to create tube amp effects
  • Preset modifications can't be stored as a user patch library.


A remarkable piece of programming, but the hardware overheads required to use it may limit its appeal.