Amp sims for guitarists and bassists are becoming an increasingly viable alternative to traditional amplifiers in today’s digital world. The “tube amp vs. amp sim” debate will always be a point of contention, but it also misses the point entirely. So-called “real” amps and their digital simulated counterparts are each tools with their own set of pros and cons. That is to say, one isn’t objectively better than the other.
Amp sims in particular offer a host of benefits to the studio or live guitarist that differ from what tube amplifiers provide in terms of functionality (and not so much in terms of sound!). We’ll explore some of these benefits to help better understand what digital tone-shaping gives the 21st century guitar player.
1. Amp Sims are Cost Effective
On average, a brand new tube amp will run somewhere around $800 and only go up from there. Great secondhand deals can always be had, but when you factor in a speaker cabinet, a foray into the valve world will easily cost over $1000.
Amp sims, on the other hand, can be purchased for as little as $15. After a DAW and audio interface, the cost is still significantly lower than getting into the tube world. Right away, this opens them up to a much larger demographic of guitarists and producers.
2. No Maintenance Required
Tube amps are full of components that have the potential to fail. At the very least, you’ll have to replace the tubes as routine upkeep. In a sense, it’s almost like owning a car. To keep the engine running, you’ll have to invest in periodic maintenance.
Digital sims, however, are a one-time expense. As long as your computer is running, your amp sim plugins will, too!
3. Room Acoustics are a Nonissue
While room acoustics are only a minor factor when you’re close miking a speaker cabinet, you still aren’t getting the most out of your set-up in a poor-sounding room. This is even more evident when trying to capture room sound as part of your guitar tone.
Recording direct with amp sims completely takes room acoustics out of the equation.
4. You Won’t Need Microphones
Once you’ve dropped $1000+ on a guitar rig, you’ll need to invest a few more dollars into a microphone to start tracking. An SM57 is a great and inexpensive choice, but still costs as much as a decent amp sim.
5. Track Silently
Cranking a tube amp for guitar tracking is totally out of the question for the majority of bedroom producers. Sure, an attenuator is an option, but you’ll still have to push enough level to have your mic pick up with proper gain staging. Not to mention, attenuators aren’t cheap, further adding to the cost of “real” amp recording.
With amp sims and a DAW, you can throw on a pair of headphones and get to work in silence.
6. Amp Sims are Highly Efficient
It’s really as easy as plug in and go. Run an instrument cable to your audio interface and with a few mouse clicks, you’re all set for record-worthy tones. Forget fiddling with mic placement, deciding which speaker in your cabinet sounds the best, and all the rest.
Amp sims are by far the quickest and easiest way to start writing or tracking as soon as inspiration strikes.
7. Save Yourself Years Hunting Down an Amp Collection
It takes a long time to acquire a versatile collection of tube amps. Much of the time, we’re waiting for the right secondhand deal to pop up, or waiting to sell an amp we already own to try something else.
With an hour or two of internet research, you’re sure to find amp sims for all those unicorn pieces you’ve hunted over the years.
8. Live Tones are Consistent
For the gigging guitarist, so many variables factor in to how his/her rig sounds each night. Besides the room itself, mic selection/placement and how well the FOH engineer knows their job all contribute to guitar tone.
The variables involved in night-to-night tones are drastically reduced when running amp sims straight to FOH.
9. Amp Sims Respond and Feel Differently Than “Real” Amps
Digital amp simulators often “feel” different than playing a solid state or tube amp. Depending on how you view it, this might be a negative thing. However, the differences in dynamic response can also be inspiring, allowing you to explore alternate nuances of your playing that physical amplifiers never evoked.
All in all, sims and tube/solid state amps are equally viable. They’re each a tool for guitarists to chisel out an ideal tone. But if you favor inexpensiveness, versatility, and efficiency, amp sims are certainly the way to go.