In the past 10 to 15 years, we’ve witnessed significant increases in digital technology as it applies to the guitar world. Digital guitar effects are hugely popular, and Digital modeling amps aren’t exactly a novelty either; there’ve both been around since the 1990s.
However, things are now at a whole new level with the Kemper profiler and Axe-Fx’s initial arrival, as well as Line 6 Helixes. And thus, we now have one of the hottest debates in the world of music: Are modeling amps better than the real thing? Honestly, we find it’s a tricky question to answer.
Digital modeling amps: what are they?
Amplifier modeling refers to any process that imitates the sound of a guitar amplifier using computer software analog hardware.
But digital modeling is where all the fun stuff is.
Instead of physically altering the signal, digital amp modelers convert the analog signal into digital information before processing.
Then those lengthy altered lines 1s and 0s are transformed into an analog signal before going to a PA system, speaker cabinets, or any other device.
“I had no aspirations to be a musician, but I picked up a guitar for two seconds and haven’t put it down since.” Slash
The first digital modeling amp (at least to my knowledge) is the Line 6 POD, released in 1998. It was a pretty compact unit, fitting easily on your desk. And yet, it came with an abundance of different amp and effects models. You can plug it directly into a guitar amplifier mixer or use your headphones.
Sure, this was all impressive, getting a realistic amp tone and a load of effects in a small-sized unit, all while going straight into a mixing board.
However, in the late 1990s and 2000s, things were still far from perfect. You could have fun with a compact digital modeler, but at best, it sounded just decent. It was still far from the “real thing.”
Modeling amps vs. the “real” thing: what is better?
During the 2000s, almost everyone was confident that microprocessors could never replicate tube amps’ warmth and dynamic response.
In 2011, Kemper GmbH released a revolutionary unit, challenging even the most hard-core vintage amp lovers.
Essentially, you got this easily portable amp head-sized unit that not only sounded good but you were able to capture and replicate the tone of any amplifier. Seriously – there’s a unique process that involves playing weird sounds through your amp and capturing its tone. And, believe it or not, it did pretty well.
Kemper was, of course, not the only one. During the 2010s, we got various stuff, including Fractal Audio Axe-Fx, Line 6 Helix, Boss GT-1000, and others.
But the most crucial part is that almost all of the experienced tube amp lovers failed blind tests. That’s right. Making simple A/B comparisons proved that even the most delicate ears could not notice the differences between a digital replica and the original. Plenty of famous guitar players started using digital modeling amps. Some of the names include:
- Paul Gilbert
- John Mayer
- Buck Dharma
- Synyster Gates
- James Hetfield
- Kirk Hammett
- Larry Mitchell
- Neal Schon
- Dweezil Zappa
- Alex Lifeson
Does that mean that digital information processed in a specific way can outperform actual tube amps? Has digital finally won over analog in the decades-long “digital vs. analog” debate? Well, it depends.
In favor of modelling amps
The most significant advantage of digital modeling amps is their convenience. You can use a single compact unit and replace an entire rig, making live gigs and touring way less insufferable.
Then we have the issue of consistency. Being digital units, one preset always sounds the same. You can’t say that with tube amplifiers, which change their tone over time, sometimes even during the same session.
And let’s not forget the obligatory tube replacement and re-biasing. Tube amps are kind of tricky and pricy to maintain.
The versatility of digital amp modeling units is probably the best part. These days, you can use the same model for any genre and any purpose.
At this point, they see a sharp increase in popularity.
Although mainly used for live settings, they’ve also found their way into studio work. Some guitarists claim they sound as good as the real deal, like Avenged Sevenfold’s Synyster Gates.
And even if, hypothetically, they’re not entirely there, the tradeoff is still pretty great. You get versatility and practicality along with a reasonably realistic and objectively fantastic tone.
Objectively, digital modeling amps are a pretty great deal, especially for frequently gigging musicians. They might be a bit pricy, but they’re incredibly versatile, they’re reasonably realistic-sounding, and they require no additional maintenance costs.
In favor of tube amps
At this point, it’s tough to say things in favor of tube-driven amps. But not to poison you with my personal opinions, the best way is to see what some well-known guitar players have to say.
For instance, according to John Mayer, there are a few things that the best modeling amps still can’t do. But, according to Mayer’s words, this mainly refers to the very nuanced dynamic response that the good old tube amps can still do.
And John’s onto something. Many vintage-oriented tube amps have their unique response to the way you attack the strings. Maybe the audience won’t notice it every time, but an experienced guitar player will.
So are tube amps obsolete?
Now, what’s interesting is that, despite everything, tube amps are still selling pretty well. So there are a few possible answers to why this might be.
- Some players are still emotionally attached to tube amps.
- Some guitar players can hear a difference.
- Occasionally some guitarists prefer to have only one specific type of tone. After all, why would you spend a ton of money on an abundance of options when you choose a particular kind of tone?
- Many people don’t feel like bothering with complex digital modeling amp interfaces.
Whatever is the case, tube amps are here to stay. They’ll always have a market, even if it’s just nostalgia.
Experience different amps by trying them yourself and making your conclusions. Our best advice is to try as many amps as possible and be objective. Do some blind testing, if possible, and make your conclusions.
Your experience may differ compared to mine. After all, it all comes down to personal preference.
GmbH, K. (n.d.). Profiler Overview: Kemper Amps. Profiler Overview | Kemper Amps. https://www.kemper-amps.com/profiler/overview.
Fractal Audio Systems. (2020, September 9). https://www.fractalaudio.com/.