Re‑amping has the potential to give us infinite choice, but is that always what we need? Studio Devil's amp modelling plug‑in concentrates on getting the sound right.
Over my many years as both a guitarist and an engineer, I have learnt a few hard truths. The most pertinent of these is that no single guitar, or amplifier, will give you all the sounds you desire. Having owned a multitude of different amps, and numerous guitars, I resigned myself to the fact that most make one classic sound, and at best two, everything else tending to be a variation on the above.
In this digital age, though, software emulations promise a feast of sounds ranging from clean to dirty, in all manner of 'vintage', 'classic' and 'modern' permutations, all right there within our DAWs. Studio Devil's Virtual Guitar Amp 2 is one such plug‑in, designed primarily for treating DI'ed recordings in the process commonly known as 're‑amping'. This is an ever more common way of working, in which a clean DI track is recorded alongside, or instead of, a miked amp sound. This can then be processed during the mix to create whatever sound is desired. This can be a more flexible approach, and Studio Devil provide a good selection of hints and tips on how to record a clean track in their notes, alongside a reasonably clear and concise description of how the plug‑in and its controls work. I did take time to read it, but not before fully testing the plug-in on my laptop!
VGA II is available in VST, AU and RTAS versions on Mac and PC, and a downloadable demo exists so that you can try before you buy. The layout of the plug‑in will be familiar to most guitarists. From top left you are given a choice of three styles of amplifier, named Classic, British and Modern. These respectively equate to a vintage valve amplifier without a master volume, giving a cleaner, less distorted sound; a Marshall‑style amp; and a more modern, high‑gain type of amplifier. Within these amp styles, you're given two variations, which are similar, but add sufficient variety to provide a useful increase in choice. Each amp also offers Clean, Crunch or Lead channels. These are pretty self‑explanatory and live up to their names.
Level is controlled by gain and volume dials, and, as you'd expect, increasing the gain increases the level of distortion, saturation and sustain. The EQ section is a simple four‑band design, but the controls adapt to the amplifier choice and react very similarly to their real‑life counterparts. After this sits a single‑control noise gate, which is adequate in most cases, and easily removes background hiss and hum; if you have a more serious problem, you should probably turn to a more specialist plug‑in.
The second row of controls provides a drop‑down menu of cabinet types ranging from 1x12 cabs to no fewer than nine different types of 4x12! All have distinct characteristics, and it's well worth checking them out before reaching for the tone controls. There is also a default mode called 'auto match', which matches one of the cabinet types automatically to your chosen amplifier. I found this reasonably handy and was often happy with the default choice. I did, however, occasionally wish I had a cabinet with a tighter bottom end, such as a 4x10.
The icing on the cake is provided by a basic effects section offering tremolo or chorus and reverb or delay. These all sound good. The tremolo and chorus are nicely matched to the amplifiers, and feel more closely integrated into the sound than you'd get by adding another plug‑in. The reverb is understated and more 'spring' than 'digital' in character, adding more colour than effect. The delay sound is in a similar vein, not able to stand on its own, but complementing the overall sound nicely. Here, however, I do have a gripe, as I was looking for some form of tap tempo or time display for sync purposes, but there is none.
To test the sounds, I took some clean, DI'd recordings and looped them in Logic running on my MacBook Pro. As Logic comes with a reasonably comprehensive guitar-amp simulator, how would VGA II justify its extra cost? To decide, I chose a few standard styles of playing and then tried to get the best sound, subjectively speaking, that I could with each plug‑in.
Both were reasonably flexible, but Logic had the edge in this regard, thanks to its very wide range of amplifier and speaker combinations. However, when it came to sounds, I preferred VGA II. The simple interface is exactly that: simple to understand and use. I found that with the basic controls I could dial up a sound quickly and easily. Once I'd got used to the sounds of the different cabinets, shaping the tone by choosing a speaker would get me to a good starting point straight away, and I could use the tone controls to tweak the sound from there.
As for the sound of the plug‑in, I think its strength lies in its mid‑range frequencies: the sounds all have a solidity to them that comes from having a well defined mid‑range. So many emulation plug‑ins I've tried have tended towards fizzy top ends and hollow mids, but here is a plug‑in that has a sense of place, and the ability to sit in a mix without disappearing in rumble and hiss. I personally preferred the cleaner, more bluesy sounds to the all‑out overdriven tones, but all are workable and of a good standard.
So does VGA II stand up as a purchase? Well, surprisingly (for me), it does. In a world of almost endless choice, it's nice to have a simple, straightforward interface that's fast and easy to use. I didn't miss the innumerable mic placements found in other plug‑ins any more than I missed a pedalboard or rack of effects. This plug‑in attempts merely to emulate valve amplifiers and, to my mind, does a reasonable job. I can see it becoming a default choice for me, as much for speed and convenience as for its nicely detailed mid‑range.
Does it have all the sounds? Well, no, I don't think so, but it has character and qualities that set it apart, like any good amp does. And if you do need extra effects and more control, Studio Devil's more comprehensive Amp Modeler Pro may be worth looking at.
There are too many guitar amp modelling plug‑ins around to list, but if you're after something that concentrates on sounding good rather than offering a million choices, two that spring to mind are Magix's Vandal and Softube's Vintage Amp Room.
Point your web browser at /sos/mar11/articles/vgaiiaudio.htm and you can hear some audio examples of VGA II in action.We recorded a Gretsch Duo Jet guitar that was to hand directly into Logic, via a Metric Halo interface. We bounced each clip with the VGA II plug‑in inserted on the channel. As there are many different sounds available, we just chose four we liked the names of to give a taster of the palette that VGA II has to offer. The clean sound is entitled 'Chief Clean', which we felt had a nice ring to it. We then chose a slightly more coloured 'Vox Crunch', a 'British Crunch', and to follow, a 'Supercharged Lead'. I then spent a few minutes dialling in a sound I thought suited each clip, changing cabinets and levels to match. No more than a few minutes was spent on each clip, as I believe one of the strengths of the plug‑in is its ability to deliver a reasonable sound quickly and easily.
During this brief experiment, it was the changing of the cabinets that produced the greatest variations. I must admit that, in a purely partisan way, I did tend towards anything called British or Vintage... but that's just me. Many thanks to Martin Smith of MU Studios at The Laundry Rooms for the playing, and the tea and biscuits.
- Easy and fast to use, with an uncluttered layout.
- Sounds pretty good, especially in the mid‑range.
- Doesn't have the endless choices of other plug‑ins of this type (which may also be its strength).
A good all‑rounder and a great starting point for treating DI'd guitar parts, VGA II works well on all recorded guitars, adding a good punch and bringing out detail.