Gear talk for the GAS-afflicted.

Gearvolution (Part I) – Modelling vs Tubes

Gearvolution (Part I) – Modelling vs Tubes

Aug 27, 2012

First of all, hello and welcome to a new part of the site! We’re rapidly expanding and welcoming some wonderful new contributors who will be writing columns on their respective areas of expertise – you can look forward to some luthier talk from one of NZ’s best guitar makers, studio talk with a couple of guys in the recording  industry, some killer guitar lessons, and much, much more!! And not to forget, more fun gear reviews.

Hello!

So… this is my column! I figured that since I am after all the eponymous originator of the site, I’d give myself a little bit of license to let my mind wander, and have a chat with you guys about the random music-related thoughts that go through my head on a daily basis.

I haven’t quite figured out what to call the column yet, though.

We’re no longer called Sonic Death Monkey. We’re on the verge of becoming Kathleen Turner Overdrive, but just for tonight, we are Barry Jive and his Uptown Five. 

Five points if you got that quote reference. More on that in future.

 

As I think about overhauling my amp rig once again, my mind turned to one of the longest running arguments on gear that has raged ever since a red kidney bean-shaped piece of gear said “Hey, you know what? We have all your fancy ass tube amps, and we put them all into this chip!”…

Modelling vs tubes

So, what is modelling? Helpful as always, Wiki tells us:

Amplifier modelling (also known as amp modeling or amp emulation) is the process of digitally emulating a physical amplifier such as a guitar amplifier

Standalone modelling devices such as the Line 6 POD digitize the input signal and use a DSP, a dedicated microprocessor, to process the signal with digital computation, attempting to achieve the sound of expensive professional amplifiers in a much less costly and more compact device.

The way I see it, modelling is, in a nutshell, a solution to the following problems:

  • You want a wider variety of tones, but your wallet/wife/apartment/mum (pick one or more) prevents you from buying a whole lot of actual guitar amps.
  • You want to be able to record music easily without fudging around with microphones and preamps and recording interfaces.
  • You want to enjoy cranked amp tones, but don’t enjoy ruptured eardrums and angry neighbors.
But wait! Surely if modelling is a fix for all these things, then it’s a no-brainer – modelling rocks! No?
Here are a couple of common gripes about modelling:
  • Doesn’t sound as good as the real thing.
  • Doesn’t feel as good as the real thing.
  • It costs so much less than my expensive boutique amp – therefore it HAS to be shit. Right??

Alright, you got me – I like modelling, and that’s the side of the fence I’ll be sitting on today.

Your digital cork lacks complex oaky flavour

We’ve come a long way since the first days of digital modelling. However, a basic fact remains – guitar players are essentially cavemen, and are suspicious of any new technology.

To their credit, metallers are usually early adopters of new tech, especially for modelling. This is because high gain amps like the Mesa Dual Rec rely largely on preamp gain to get their distinctive tone, and preamp modelling is something that companies like Line 6, Fractal, etc have gotten correct early on. In fact, it would not be remiss to state that they had that shit down.

However, it’s poweramp drive that no one seems to have quite conquered just yet. I’m talking about amps like the Vox AC30, Marshall Plexi and so on, where you need to turn them waaaay up loud so that the poweramp starts overdriving. This was something that eluded the early modellers, but I think they’re on their way to conquering even that!

Here’s my current pick from the modelling crowd: the Line 6 POD HD500.

Note: I’m going to start experimenting with affiliate links here. Two reasons:

  1. A convenient jumping off point to check out specs and details so I don’t have to elaborate on them too much.
  2. Helping to fund the site. I don’t expect you to buy that specific thing, but if you are planning to purchase something from, say, Amazon anyway – I’d really appreciate it if you clicked on the link and followed through to your item.

Feedback on this is welcome – if you don’t like it or find it overly intrusive, please say so. However, I won’t be posting affiliate links of products that I wouldn’t recommend, so hopefully it won’t be too bad!

Okay, HD500:

A couple of reasons:

  • Affordability:  It’s a lot cheaper than alternatives like the Kemper Profiling Amp or the Fractal Axe-FX.
  • Tone: The tones from the HD500 are hands down the BEST of all iterations of the POD, and I’ve played/owned various incarnations, going all the way back to the POD 2.0
  • Touch responsiveness: A common complaint with modellers is that they don’t react or feel the same way as a real guitar amp would. Personally for me, the HD is about 90% there. It cleans up realistically whether you’re just rolling back your volume, playing a little softer or with your fingers, and so on.
  • The new Plexi model: Best. Thing. Ever. It’s got a heap of the Plexi bark, and it’s so dynamic! I could happily play a whole gig just using this one model, gained up and rolling back for cleans. For me, this goes a long way towards proving that they’re finally “getting” poweramp modelling.
  • Versatility: I use this to record straight to my computer, straight to the PA for band practice when I can’t be bothered with an amp, to my Marshall AFD100 as a “pedalboard” when I need more effects – you can use this for anything.

Naturally, everything has its weaknesses. Some real, and some possibly perceived…?

Let’s talk about a few of them. I’m going to pick out some quotes from a guy on one of my guitar forums who talked about the HD500 recently, because that was what actually sparked off this train of thought for me.

mr sooty wrote:

The whole time I had this I was using headphones. I’ve read that it doesn’t sound great through headphones, so this may have tainted my opinion of it. There’s also the issue of tone. Maybe it’s just my headphones (I’ve recently got some rather nice ATM50′s), but to my ear, as good as these things are, there’s always this brittle kinda ‘digitalness’. Maybe it’s my imagination, but it never quite sounds right to me.

Therein lies the problem. Does ANYthing sound good through headphones? The HD’s full signal chain models the signal of a miked up cabinet – if you ran your sweet tube amp through one mic to a desk, and sat in another room playing it through headphones, I daresay it wouldn’t really sound that good either.

As most people say, the presets are pretty average. I had much more success starting from scratch.

This is 100% true. Ditch the presets and start from scratch. Build up a virtual rig like you would a real one – start with the amp, then choose a cabinet and mic, then start adding effects.

Operating these things is always rather fiddly, and you definitelty want to read the manual! I found by far the easiest way of editing patches was through the computer software.

I gotta disagree here. To set up extreme effects chains? Sure, it might be a bit daunting. But to setup a basic, good sounding “amp tone”? It’s a piece of cake. They’ve actually put in dedicated EQ, gain, presence etc knobs this time, so you adjust it just like you would an amp.

 I would like to tell you how bad the 5E3 model sounded, but there’s no 5E3. What? No classic 50′s Fender Deluxe? Nope. Not included sorry.

Well… the idea behind the HD series is to focus on doing a smaller number of amp models really well, rather than having 200 half-baked models, as some of the previous PODs did (X3, looking at you). I’d rather have that, and to their credit Line 6 have been really good about releasing free updates as new models become available – to date they’ve added the Plexi, a bass amp, and some other stuff I can’t remember, as well as Soldano/5150 models and more in the pipeline.

So… I think the conclusion at this point, personally, is that some people just aren’t right for modelling. Also, you should probably adjust your expectations accordingly if you want to use one – it’s never going to sound like a half stack in your ears, if it’s really just coming from a tiny earbud. In your ears.

Put that in your ears

By now you’re thinking, man that guy talks a lot of game, but has he proven that the HD (and in context of this article, modellers in general) don’t suck?

As always, I’m an advocate for deciding for yourself. Most of the guitar reviews on the site have been done with an HD500, and I usually make a point of testing how well the guitar/amp combination react to volume dynamics.

Additionally, here are a few snippets of music I’ve made with the HD500. Feel free to have a listen, make a judgement, and let me know whether you think it’s good, bad, or really bad!

 

Cylon/human hybrid…?!

I did say that while poweramp modelling is getting close, I don’t feel that it’s quite there yet.

As usual, Line 6 is there on the forefront of things bringing new, innovative technology to the masses, at pretty affordable prices!

I’m talking about the Line 6 DT series of amplifiers. Realizing that people aren’t quite 100% happy with poweramp modelling, they’ve partnered with Reinhold Bogner to design a true tube poweramp which takes input from modelled HD preamps. It even changes power Class (A or AB), negative feedback loop settings and pentode/triode power stuff on the fly depending on which amp model you’re using.

It sounds awesome. But does it sound awesome? On my recent trip down to Christchurch to see Slash, I chucked an Audix i5 in my backpack and went to an old friend’s place to find out, using his DT50 head! Additionally, I now have a DT25 head to try out as well…

 

Make sure you check back soon for the review!

The way forward

I see a couple of things that will happen with guitar amplification as technology marches forward, tell me whether you agree or not:

  • 100% modelling: This is happening even as we speak – the Axe-FX purports to model entire circuits, which you can then fine tune or change component values to, in effect, virtually modify or design a whole new amp.
  • Tube amps get smarter: Cleverer electronic power scaling has already proven its worth in offerings such as the Marshall AFD100 and YJM100, allowing you to get cranked tones at sensible volumes. I’d like to see a modular concept (similar to Randall’s semi-successful attempt) come back as well. Versatility fights back!
  • The lines between the two just get more blurred: Imagine an amp fuelled by meticulously detailed preamp models, fed into a true tube poweramp, but also incorporating power scaling so that you can get  true poweramp overdrive at reasonable volumes. This I would like to see.

So what’s your experience/position on the modelling vs tubes debate?

Edit: Now with Part II!

 

 

Comments

  1. Rhett says:

    Don’t do this to me man.

    1. thesamurai says:

      Haha hey Rhett! Long time no see, glad to see you back.

      I can’t help it. I have a dream…!

      Where one day we will live in a world where your amplification methods will not be judged whether they be of digital or analogue descent, but by the character of their tone! Etc etc, all things being equal.

      *sorry for mangling your speech, MLK Jr.

  2. Clarky says:

    Modelling can get you there. I love my tube amp, but it stays home now while I gig in bliss with Tech 21 amps and ‘sansamps’.

    1. thesamurai says:

      Totally agree! I’m somewhere in between at the moment, partially because I’m hesitant to rely completely on the PA system/foldbacks to send me my guitar sound. But tube amps and digital modellers have equal place in my gear room. :)

  3. Sty says:

    I’ve got a lovely valve amp TSL601 combo and I’ve been very happy with it and love it’s natural valve distortion. When I wanted to start experimenting with effects though I floundered and I’ve never really got off the ground with it. Maybe I’m just a plain guitar and amp overdrive kind of guy, so I started thinking that things like delays, flangers and phasers would be interesting to experiment with.

    At this point opportunity presented itself and I bought an HD500 primarily as a decent platform to explore complex effects and also to start exploring the concept of a pedal board. If opportunity presented itself I’d also have a nice platform to look at modeling and experiment with more ‘types’ of amp, and of course it would make recording (for practice) much easier.

    I like the fact that the HD500 focuses on a small selection of amps and effects and apparently does them well, but to a novice like me it’s still overwhelming, and that’s before I even get into stuff like mic choice and placement…

    To make matters even worse as everyone keeps telling me the default patches are rubbish, so how and I expected to start from scratch and make something that works for me and isn’t crap?

    I think I need to find some decent tutorials, unfortunately last time I looked I didn’t find anything really suitable. Maybe I need a mentor.

    As an intermediate player I think modelers like the HD500 present an awesome opportunity to get some exposure to flexible kit without having to take a punt on a small number of boutique pedals.

    BUT – Why do Line6 make the default patches so shite

    AND – While trying to get something decent going on the HD500 it’s very easy to get side tracked and waste a lot of time that should be used practicing.

    There is a huge opportunity here, it’s the effects equivalent, if not the amp equivalent to a gearfest where you can play 10 or 15 different guitars and start to understand neck profiles and tone woods. We need an easy access plan that doesn’t simply involve downloading other peoples patches.

    Not sure where I go next, but there’s great potential here…

    1. thesamurai says:

      Wow!! Thanks for that really well thought out post, Sty.

      You’re absolutely right – for many, the HD500 will be an opportunity to have a large selection of effects at their fingertips to experiment with. I know that personally, I decided to buy a multi-effects board again when I looked at my pedalboard and realized how much it was costing me… :S

      Yes, unfortunately one thing the manufacturers haven’t yet learned is how to make an un-shite preset! I think it’s because the mentality still exists that they need to showcase as much of the unit as possible within each patch, so they cram it full of effects, which tends to end up sounding like arse.

      As I mentioned, for me the best way to build up a patch is to start from scratch. Most of the amp models on their default EQ/gain etc settings actually don’t sound too bad, so use those as a jumping off point. Once you fine tune the amp itself to your liking, then start auditioning effects, one type at a time.

      Yeah, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on how the learning curve could be improved upon!

  4. Interesting article. I’ve gone through a variety of different rigs, from classic modded JCM800s, to high gain 5150s and a variety of different valvestate/modelling rigs e.g. marshall mode four, line 6 HD147, Vetta to my current HD500/powered monitor setup.

    I must say that my main attraction to a fully digital rig is the ease of use and the practicality that comes with it. I never, NEVER had the effect GAS bug when I was playing a traditional rig. Now granted, at the time I was touring a lot and didn’t need a pedaltrain pro loaded with boutique effects pedal, but regardless of that the cost of jumping into even ‘experimenting’ with effects was way too high for me to even comtemplate it.

    I mean even if I wanted what I would now perceive as a ‘bog standard’ smooth metal lead tone…I’d be looking at a pedal board that has a delay pedal and reverb pedal in my effects loop..a tube screamer out the front, and a noise gate..figure out the four cable method and spend the time ensuring that all my levels are accurate….and the ability to turn on/off multiple pedals at once….this all sounds way too fiddly and expensive. Especially when again at the time I was touring and really didn’t want to worry about 10+ patch cables. I’d just had my entire pedaltrain jr board loaded with custom Freedom cables which was an expensive, but worthwhile investment.

    What initially drew me to digital rig was that I could have all the benefits of effects before/after preamp all in one unit, and with only two leads…one going from my wireless to my unit, and one going from the unit to the poweramp. This was simply, easy and in all honesty, with my ears and skillset, any tone I dialled up would be pretty similar regardless of what amp/system I used (that’s not a brag btw, I’m simply saying that my tone is based on my ears..as is most people actually haha)

    Anywho, practicality and cost saving was what initially drew me to digital modelling. Any notions of ‘difference in tone’ was outweighed by the benefits of having such a tidy, relatively easy rig to set up. Even on my most recent tour, I can set up my pedaltrain 2 (HD500 and wireless already setup ready to go on it) and run a single lead back to my powered monitor in about 2 minutes. Meanwhile the guitarist in my hardcore band has had all sorts of problems with his daisy chain, cheap patch cables and cheap guitar leads and fluctuating guitar tone depending on the backline guitar cab.

    Most soundguys I talk to have really enjoyed working with my setup. I mean apart from adjusting the gain level as it’s a direct line and not a mic…I’ve been told there isnt much difference.

    And the average punter? can’t hear the difference. or care. We tend to forget that the average guy in the crowd is a) not a tone snob and b) won’t know the difference between 6L6 and KT88 tubes ;)

    This is an interesting article with Dino from Fear Factory about his HD Pro setup

    http://line6.com/news/general/1313

    1. thesamurai says:

      “This was simply, easy and in all honesty, with my ears and skillset, any tone I dialled up would be pretty similar regardless of what amp/system I used”

      Haha that’s so true. I tend to dial in a certain type of tone regardless. For me it’s a driven/hotrodded Marshall style tone, and I’m happy as a duck in an aqueous substance.

      You’re right about ease of setup, too. I’ve run various incarnations of 4-cable method setups, using Line 6 M13, HD500 as well as just normal pedals running both in front of the preamp and within the effects loop. It’s just a bit of a pain in the arse, to be honest. This is why I’m gravitating towards the DT25, as well as just retaining a few single pedals for a “front of the amp” pedalboard consisting of all I really ever need – a dual overdrive, a wah, and a phaser. :)

      Yup, the average Joe won’t be able to tell the difference… but what’s the fun in being a guitar player if we don’t obsess over our gear?! That’s this website gone to hell! Hahaha.

  5. btw I’m also of the opinion that digital rigs have completely opened up the ability of creating ‘professional’ recordings at home.

    I used to lurk/post on the Meshuggah forums in 2002, back when guys like Acle were posting some amazing Meshuggah covers using simply Drumkit From Hell and a Pod XT. Bands like Tesseract (whom Acle went on to form) and Periphery seem to be pioneering that DIY digital process that the younger generation love. And it is exciting! I can remember even 10 years ago, for you to get a decent recording, you had to hire a studio for the weekend, hire an engineer, and possibly at the mercy of a producer that a) is just a hired gun and b) doesn’t like or understand your music (I grew up in Cambridge and enjoyed heavy metal…the closet studios were in hamilton and none of them are what I would call ‘experts’ in prestine metal production)

    Nowadays kids can get a working, acceptable tone using simply a pod/axe fx, superior drummer 2.0/metal foundry, and reaper/pro tolls. Hell, all my IDR albums have been recorded this way! Sure a tone snob might turn his nose up at this process….but the average kid isn’t going to want to spend 600% more money to have a difference he isn’t going to notice (or go for a method that NONE of his peers/idols are currently doing!)

    Interesting times ahead, specially with the likes of the Kemper system.

    1. thesamurai says:

      Kids like me!! Obviously not at “professional” level yet, but you’re right, having digital recording solutions like the HD500 has allowed me to concentrate on the important part of music – making it! And I think my recordings sound pretty great at an amateur level, if I may say so myself :D

      Do you guys really track all your drums with Superior Drummer?! Wow. Do you run it through an electronic drumkit and then trigger samples via MIDI?

  6. I’d say they sound great also bro!

    Yup our next album is going to be all midi kit and superior drummer. Our drummer has two beautiful midi kits and it’s a method he’s very comfortable with. Case in point – http://vimeo.com/nikolaskissel and http://vimeo.com/47572996 (videos are all stock samples from his kit I think)

    First IDR album was super drummer and programme via midi – no kit.

    Really siked with the upcoming record. Nikolas can record the midi drums in the comfort of his own home, Trajan and I can track guitars at my place on the weekends and then we reamp using either the HD500 or Axe Fx. Only thing we need to pay for is mixing and mastering. So the album will be done at a third of the cost of the last one!

  7. Percy Ottershaw says:

    Think a lot of guitarists spend a lot of time on amps etc searching for that ‘tone’ but over and over hear how BB King etc can get their tone playing on a Samick tranny amp using a Greg Bennet saturday night special. I reckon modelling will eventually get so good that it will seem like you are playing plexi, blackface, AC30, roland JC etc especially if they develop the feedback ‘feel’ these amps give the player BUT the question THEN is how interesting will your music be if ‘tone’ is/has been your prime focus??

    To me (and Rog) it’s all about developing voicings and distinctive elements so the audience goes ‘ooooh!! what the?’ at the right moment – to be sure you are going to play the goody bits in say ‘sultans of swing’ or ‘erruption’ the audience expects and love (try doing sultans without the ‘time bell’ chimes bit and see what happens!!) but hopefully add other interesting bits as well eg ‘Sunshine of your love’ cover by Living Colour with good ol Vernon Reid going apeshit on the fingerboard.

    Develop well enough and you too may find the amp becomes irrelevant!! Having said that I must admit to loving the Fretking guitar sounds at first hyearing.

    1. thesamurai says:

      For me it’s more of a means to an end. I kind of go “okay, I want an X type of voicing” and set it at that, and go. I don’t really obsess over the minutiae of EQing and such, because you’re right – playing should ultimately be more about the expression of YOUR voice, rather than the amp’s voice.

      But on the other hand, playing through a fuzzy piece of shit amp will definitely hinder that as well.

      1. Percy Ottershaw says:

        Really??? – what about Ray Davis and the hit ‘you really got me’ – he slashed the speaker cone to get that fuzz! LOL. Basically I feel you work with what you’ve got BUT agree a nice sounding amp helps.

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  11. Tom says:

    IF you own some great sounding amps, IF you own some great mics, not just 57′s, If you have some great pre-amps, IF you have a great interface… then no amount of modelling will ever come close to what you can achieve. I’m lucky to have all these at my disposal and an hd500 at our studio and you’re dreaming if you think it can out run the real thing. And most importantly, it’s a generic tone… not something you tweeked and toyed with yourself. Calling up a patch then adjusting a few parameters is not going to give you anything as unique as some good amps and a pedal collection will give you. Pods are great IF you don’t have the goods and place to get the real deal. Be realistic. The boutique amps available today are absolutely mind blowing. Forget about the classics and look at what the small guys (Carr, Divided by 13, 65 Amps, Jackson, Fargen, Savage) These amps are incredible. Driven hard into great mics (57 and a 414, my fav combo) through a tube pre and it’s got so much depth and colour, it’s astoundingly good. Maybe with the ultra high gain metal crowd there might be an argument, as that pretty much obliterates any natural tonality so anything goes. Jamming, bar gigs, laying down scratch track, sure HD500s are the ticket. Recording an album? Please do yourself a favour and go rent some gear or grab a well outfitted studio for a few hours and lay down your tracks with real amps. And if that’s not financially feasible use what you got. But don’t kid yourself, Analogue is king, it just costs a small fortune to do it right.

    1. Percy Ottershaw says:

      Ah but how about the argument generic tone may be the way to go?? After all it’s bringing the familiar to the masses and, as we see from the manifest evidence of covers bands, generic is what the punters usually want. All those that loved slash’s tone are going to relish your’s on ‘sweet socks o’ mine’ if it’s similar -likewise Gilmour’s strat sounds on your clone ‘comfortably pissed’. Originality is all very well in its way but ya don’t want to risk upsetting the gig audience with it – especially in Godzone where they tend to be small and inebriated anyway. LOL.


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