Can a product be expensive and still represent great value for money? When it comes to the ultimate in guitar-amp and speaker modelling, the answer would appear to be yes...
If you haven't heard of Two Notes before, that's probably because they're not easily visible on the international stage. Hailing from the Languedoc‑Roussillon area of France, the story of Orosys (the company's real name) began in 2005, when Guillaume Pille and Ivan Cohen met on a sound forum. The full story of the company's inception and development is told on their web site (www.orosys.fr), but suffice it to say that, in collaboration with a couple of research labs and an engineering polytechnic, and with the support of national and local government initiatives and the French Research Ministry, by 2009 Orosys had developed and brought to market their first product, the Two Notes Torpedo VB101, which I reviewed in SOS June 2010.
The VB101 essentially combined a powersoak with mic and cabinet emulation to produce an extremely effective interface between an electric guitarist and his amplifier, and a mixing console. The VB101 was almost ideally suited to my needs, and I'd considered buying a pair of them to act as recording and PA interfaces. Unfortunately, my wallet couldn't justify that cost in the face of some perfectly adequate software emulations, and the fact that I'd more or less stopped doing live gigs with electric guitar.
Since I'm one of those people who likes their software in boxes that just switch on and work, rather than having to spend time booting up computers and loading configurations, my electric guitar playing has been, for the last year or more, based on a small combo amp and a couple of pedals, with a TC Electronic G‑System, power amps and cabs coming out once in every blue moon or so.
The VB101 has remained a temptation, as it has a line‑level input to its simulations, but the fact that it is a mono unit has kept that idea in the realms of "one day”. Last year, though, Two Notes announced their second product, the Torpedo VM202, a two‑channel, line‑level device that adds valve power‑amplifier emulation to the mic and amp emulations of the VB101. In other words, it's a device that should appeal to a much wider audience than its older sibling — and which appears to be absolutely ideal for my own purposes!
The software that drives the Torpedo VM202 uses convolution algorithms designed to accurately replicate the sound that your real‑world guitar‑driven preamp would make in a recording studio, through a virtual selection of four valve power amplifiers (6L6, EL34, EL84, KT88), guitar and bass loudspeaker cabs, and microphones and mic placements. Convolution‑based signal processing (in simple terms) superimposes the impulse responses of an acoustic system — be it a cathedral or a power amp/mic/cab combination — on the original audio signal to construct a simulacrum of the sound of that original signal in or through the acoustic system. The VM202, though, like the VB101, is based on Orosys' unique adaptation of convolution techniques.
Starting with the measured impulse‑response of a real cabinet and a real microphone combination (which, by definition, also includes the microphone preamp) in a real space, the algorithms employed by Orosys enable the VM202 to accurately reproduce the system as it was measured and simulate the position of the microphone in space, and also the natural distortion of the loudspeakers themselves.
To take full advantage of these algorithms, the design of the VM202 employs high‑end analogue and digital techniques, to produce both highly accurate A‑D/D‑A conversion and a wide dynamic range, in order to give the musician the best possible playing experience.
Internally, the VM202 is a true two‑channel unit that offers the possibility of mono, stereo or dual‑mono inputs. Output routing options are 'dual‑mono', where both channels are totally independent; 'mix', which enables cross‑mixing between the channels; and 'stereo', which brings up the usual level and pan controls. In addition to all the convolution‑based simulations of power amps, cabs and microphones, there's also a virtual five‑band graphic EQ, aural exciter and compressor, all of which sit after the simulation processing and act independently on the two channels.
This basic architecture opens up the possibility of running one instrument and its preamp in mono or stereo through two, perhaps differing, power amp, cab and mic simulations or even running two different instruments (say, guitar and bass) simultaneously and independently through the VM202.
In physical terms, the VM202 is a black‑bodied, 2U, rackmount device, with a silver and grey front panel that sports the distinctive purple Two Notes cipher on a white background. Control‑wise, as you'll see from the photographs, the front panel is a relatively sparse affair, with a stereo bar‑graph meter and associated volume control on the left, a central panel that is dominated by a large, dual‑digit, numerical display, a blue dot‑matrix display and a large, rotary encoder. Arranged in the central panel are the 11 momentary switches that give front‑panel access to the menu system. On the right sit the individual bar‑graph meters and level controls for the two outputs, with the headphone socket, its volume control and the mains power switch.
The rear-panel connections exhibit a similar asceticism on the connector front. The mains input, the blanked-off space for a forthcoming optional Ethernet port, word‑clock in, MIDI In and Out/Thru, S/PDIF and AES/EBU digital I/O sit in a line above the two paired sets of balanced XLR analogue inputs and outputs.
Despite its complexity, the VM202 is actually pretty easy to get set up and running, but there is a hurdle at the start that you need to pay attention to: the VM202's inputs are on balanced XLRs, so if your chosen preamp has only jack outputs, you'll need a pair of jack-to-XLR converters (I used a couple of Maplin's finest!). For the life of me, I can't understand why Two Notes simply didn't just fit jack/XLR combination connectors, which would have made life so much simpler all round.
As the comprehensive user manual is available for download from the Two Notes web site, I don't intend to go through the detail of every aspect of the setup and operation. However, since in many ways the operation of the VM202 is extremely close to that of the VB101 that I reviewed last year, you might want to take a look at that review, which you'll find at /sos/jun10/articles/torpedoVB101.htm. Nonetheless, there are aspects of the VM202's operation that are worthy of special attention, the first of those being the Safe Gain Adjustment (SGA) that can be activated to keep control of the input gain.
A‑D converters give of their best when faced with a healthy level of input, and Two Notes advise keeping peak levels at a maximum bar-graph level of ‑6dB. The input gain applied to the incoming signal to reach this level can be stored either globally or at the preset level. Obviously, in a playing situation, guitarists can get excited and push volume levels up to (and beyond) input saturation — which is the one essential thing to avoid in digital systems. If this begins to happen on the VM202, its SGA function can intervene to reduce the input gain back to a safe level. While this may produce a drop in output volume, that minor embarrassment is probably less damaging than the sound of digital distortion.
The output volume should also be set up to peak at ‑6dB on the output bar‑graph meters, and should your excitement lead you to exceed that level, SGA can also be activated on the output volume, to ensure that the VM202 never really misbehaves sonically.
The 24‑bit A‑D converters run at 192kHz, potentially giving greater accuracy in the conversion process. The sample rate is then obviously halved, as the internal digital signal processing runs with 32‑bit floating‑point precision at 96kHz. The digital output sample‑rate can be set at 44.1, 48, 96 or 192 kHz, while the analogue output D/A converters are always run at 192kHz. As a point of interest, all floating‑point DSPs use a minimum of 32‑bit registers and data busses, and in the musical world, the advantage of floating point over fixed point is that it introduces less noise into the signal.
The standard signal latency through the VM202 is 5ms — which is the same as you'd experience standing about five feet from your amp — but this can be reduced to 3ms by forgoing the Overload (loudspeaker distortion) simulation. This is a global setting, so it's worth giving it a bit of thought if you routinely drive your loudspeakers to the limit.
On the simulation side, the factory preset emulations allow for a fair degree of movement of the virtual microphone, as it's possible to vary the microphone's distance both from the front of the cab and from the central axis of the loudspeaker. The microphone can also be moved to a position behind the cab. There is also a microphone function, exclusive to the Torpedo, that Two Notes call Variphi, which simulates the phase-relationship changes that come from varying the individual distances between two microphones and their source. This gives the opportunity to fine‑tune the character of the sound.
A final sonic tweak that's available is the ability to vary the amount of wet (simulated) signal with the original unprocessed sound, which can prove very interesting, especially on clean sounds.
The front‑panel controls, logical and functionally comprehensive though they may be, are a bit finicky to work with, especially if the unit isn't at eye level. Fortunately, Two Notes supply, via download, the Torpedo Remote software, which gives access to all the VM202 functions on one screen, allowing you to vary parameters in real time. This is particularly useful when auditioning the audio effects of, say, microphone placement parameters. There's not much to say about that, other than that it works well and seamlessly.
The second piece of software is called Torpedo Capture — and this is a whole lot more interesting! It gives you the ability to capture and store on a computer the impulse response of any amplifier, cabinet and loudspeaker system. You can then upload the result to the VM202 and store it as a user preset. So, if you've got a favourite vintage amplifier and microphone combination that you love the sound of, you can have that combination sitting in the VM202. But Torpedo capture doesn't stop there, as it also enables you to upload third‑party impulse responses in WAV or AIFF files, plus, if you're into sonic experimentation, you can upload any WAV or AIFF file that takes your fancy and see what you get as a result.
The Torpedo Capture software is simple to use, works like a dream and gives superb results. The great thing about having this facility is that it allows you to really experiment with the combination of microphone, mic placement, mic preamplifier, guitar amplifier and speaker cabinet. Since every single one of these can be extensively varied, you have the possibility to really develop the sound that you want to get. Obviously, you can't vary all the parameters in a captured user file in the same way as you can in a factory file, but spending a bit of time experimenting more than compensates for this minor restriction.
While we're on the subject of software, it's worth noting that you'll soon be able to get the Two Notes Torpedo technology into your Mac or PC DAW via the Torpedo PI101 channel strip plug‑in. The PI101 also uploads IR files from third parties and Torpedo Capture. To ease your impatience while you wait, there's a completely free, one mic/one am/one cab version, the PI Free, available for download from the Two Notes web site. It's what you might call a no‑brainer, really.
Like the VB101, the VM202 does exactly what it says on the tin. Whether I was running my Mesa Boogie Triaxis, Groove Tubes Trio and Groove Tubes Studio preamps through my G‑System Limited or directly into the VM202, I just didn't get an unusable sound. The power amp, microphone and cabinet simulations are, to my ears, as good as, if not better than, many that I've heard, and the amount of variation you can introduce, the infinite possibilities that arise from combining different amps, cabs, mics and mic placement, makes them unbelievably flexible in use. One favoured setup that I found myself spending a lot of time playing with was a 'Vox AC30' with one microphone combined with a Variphi-ed 'Marshall 4x12'.
Great though that combination was, there always has to be the caveat that nothing sounds like real amplifiers pointing straight at you in a real room. Still, the simulated environment inside the VM202 is exceptionally good at creating very believable, very usable sounds with all the signature characteristics of the originals.
One thing in particular that I really liked and that added significantly to the flexibility of the VM202 was the fact that the power‑amplifier simulation can be switched off, allowing you to use your own favourite amplifier and loadbox combination as a preamp.
The only real criticism that I can make of the Two Notes VM202 is that I would like to see a wider range of factory amplifier and loudspeaker simulations as, for example, there are no 6V6 power amps or 2x10 guitar cabinets. A bit of time spent by Two Notes in broadening the range of power amps and cabinets would, I feel, be a worthwhile investment that would extend the appeal of the VM202.
With a technology as good as the Torpedo platform, in the future I'd hope to also find Two Notes offering IRs based on boutique amplifiers of the standard of Dumble, Trainwreck, Komet, Divided By 13 and their like, not forgetting a few high‑end, hyper‑clean jazz and acoustic‑guitar amps.
The VM202 is an extremely impressive unit that exhibits an extremely high level of quality in its design, build and operation. As a hardware device very obviously designed to a functional specification for professional users, rather than to a price point, it carries a high price tag that will tend to lead potential customers to believe, somewhat erroneously, that its appeal is focused on the professional end of the market. I happen to think that the VM202 represents real value for money, not only for professional guitarists, but also for semi‑professionals like myself, whose electric guitar playing is nowadays confined largely to the studio. On the rare occasions that I have to take an electric guitar on stage, the idea of replacing amps, cabs and mics with a preamp and a VM202 in a rack has just become an amazingly attractive proposition.
If Two Notes are able, in the future, to widen the range of factory simulations to include a few more of the more common amplifiers and cabinets, and to offer a range of IRs based on high‑end, boutique guitar amplifiers, the VM202 is going to become one of those units that any guitarist will feel they just have to have in their amplification armoury.
This is a relatively expensive, professional‑quality tool for guitarists — especially those who use rack or floor preamps as a major component of their sound — who want or need access to a wide variety of power amps, cabs and mics. In the more general market, the VM202 has plenty of competition from hardware and software products by other manufacturers at significantly lower prices, and often with significantly more features and facilities. However, for those whose needs are answered by the VM202, I don't think that there's any realistic alternative, especially when you factor in the ability to create and store impulse responses from amps, cabs and mics that you already own.
When I reviewed the VB101, I ended up being not quite convinced that it was ideal for my needs. The VM202 is entirely another matter, and I'm going to find it pretty much impossible to convince myself that I should send it back, especially now that Two Notes have announced the LB202 dual‑channel load box. If that particular unit is as good as it seems it should be, it would enable me to run a couple of heads as parallel preamps to the VM202 — and as I've got an original Vox AC50 just about to come out of restoration, that could just be the clincher.
It's difficult to think of a directly equivalent product to the Two Notes VM202. If you base your sound on amp heads and cabs rather than on preamps, power amps and cabs, the same company's VB101 should definitely be on your audition list. You'd possibly want to take a look at the combination of the VM202 with the LB202 load box, when it is released. If you're primarily a DAW user, you might want to check out the Two Notes PI101 plug‑in, which should be available by the time you read this.
- Accurate, great‑sounding simulations.
- High build quality.
- Easy to use.
- Users can create their own impulse responses.
- Can be driven from your own amplifier(s) and loadbox.
- Worth the money in spite of the cost.
- A wider variety of factory simulations would have been nice.
Although not exactly cheap, this is another innovative and impressive device by Two Notes for the gigging and recording electric guitarist.
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