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7 Tips for Better Amp Simulator Tones

1. Ambience

One of the reasons most guitarists disapprove of amp simulators is a lack of real air. Even if you close mic an amp in a room, you still hear some of the sound around it.

Some amp sim companies have become hip to this. I’ve been using the Softube Vintage Amp room and the UAD Marshall Plexi a lot lately. They both have some of that room vibe. Dig into your amp sims and see if there’s an option for more than one microphone. Experiment with moving the microphone(s) around.

2. Oxygen

Sometimes I still want more room tone than an amp sim provides. I might not even use it in the final mix. I may just need it to feel better while recording. In the same way a vocalist likes to hear reverb while recording.

Guitarists tend to get used to hearing their amp in a room. We never play with our ear directly placed up against the grill. That’s an unnatural perspective for us.

To help create “air” you can use a reverb plugin set to a small room setting. The idea here isn’t to go for a huge sound. It’s to give the illusion of some space.

Most reverb plugins come with small to large room options. I’ve been using the UAD Ocean Way Studios plugin a lot lately.

Tip: If you have the option, record the send from the reverb onto a second track. Because I monitor all my recording through Console, I can route the output of the verb to it’s own track and record it. I’m a believer in printing effects. You don’t have to use them in the end, but it’s nice to have them in the event that a really nice vibe happens during tracking.

3. Sim Settings

Volume

I find a lot of amp sims are set in an exaggerated manner when they’re first opened. They’re often set to what would be the amp’s peak settings.

I’m no stranger to turning up a lot of the knobs on a real amp. I like to work my way up there slowly though. There are many colors that can be missed along the way.

The first thing I do is pull the volume knob back to 2 or 3. I want to hear how the amp sim saturates as I turn up the volume. Remember, sims like Vintage Amp Room are meant to simulate preamp and power amp saturation.

EQ

To my ears, amp sims tend to be more chunky than real miked amps. Bass to guitarists is kinda like candy to a child. They always want more than they need.

Most of the starting presets have more bass than I would ever use in a real mix. That woof is going to muddy up everything around it.

The second thing I do is grab the bass knob and pull it way back. I tend to keep the bass knobs on real amps pulled back as well. I rarely set them past halfway on a real amp. Always less on an amp sim.

4. Gain Staging

One fundamental difference with using a sim is your relationship with the front end of the amp. Gain staging is really important when using a real amp. I could write an article about that alone.

It’s not uncommon for me to use a boost or a Tube Tape Echo to push the front end of a real amp. This is my secret special sauce. It can really make an amp come to life.

Obviously, digital converters don’t like this. They’re like the old neighbor yelling at you to get off their lawn. Real buzz kill.

You have to guard your meters when working in digital. This means you don’t want too hot of a signal. Messing with the gain staging in the opposite direction can yield some interesting results though. Depending on what amp sim you use, they can still be a little dirty on a clean setting. Giving the plugin less gain will further clean up the signal.

5. Front End

Though I can’t use a boost or Tape Echo as a preamp to push the amp, I can use other pedals as non-boost tone beds.

I often use an Effectrode Tube Drive as a base tone. It’s tube and not only sounds like a warm tube amp, but it feels like one too. I generally don’t use lot of gain on it. Just a little to take away some of those ice pick highs from DI signals.

You can also experiment with various overdrive pedals. It’s important to watch your levels though. It’s really easy to reach for a knob and start clipping your converters.

6. Effects

Apart from using pedals as a preamp, I also use pedals for effects. When it comes to guitar sounds, plugins still don’t beat pedals. Plus, if we’re trying to emulate a real amp sound, we wouldn’t be putting effects after the amp.

As a guitarist, I always like my delays before the amp. And now there are delay pedals like the Pigtronix Echolution that accept MIDI beat clock. Syncing to a song’s tempo is not a problem.

Other effects I use before an amp sim are phasers, UniVibes, wah pedals (watch your levels here to avoid nasty clipping), leslies and fuzz.

7. Let It Go

Keeping these points in mind has allowed me to get very acceptable DI amp sim tones.

There is no sense in comparing the differences between an amp sim and a real amp when you have volume limitations. It doesn’t matter. What matters is making music.

Don’t worry about what is better. If it sounds good, it is good.

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Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall is a producer, songwriter, session musician and instructor based in NYC. More at guitaristmarkmarshall.com
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  • Cyberdude

    Logic Pro X (and perhaps others) have the option of positioning the mic away from the grill. In your opinion, would this provide the degree of ambience/oxygen your referring to?

  • In most cases I don’t think gear or plugins are super important, but when it comes to amp/cab sims, they definitely are. There are a lot of crappy, boxy-sounding plugins out there, and choosing the right one will make it a lot easier to get good tones.

    The basic template I suggest is the same as you’d use for a real amp: overdrive -> amp -> fx -> cab

    Lots of overdrive sims out there, I like the TSE and Waves ones the best. For amps, the LePoulin plugs are the best I’ve used (their Marshall especially stands out), and they’re free. I highly suggest using Recabinet for your cab sim– it’s the most flexible and best-sounding virtual cab I’ve used (and I have tried ALL of them).

    It’s a little more complicated than an all-in-one solution like Guitar Rig, Amplitube or Podfarm, but you’ll get much better results by cherry-picking the best tool for each piece of your signal chain.

    Oh, and this might sound obvious but like you said, make sure that your gain is right at your interface. Clipping is one thing you can’t “fix in the mix” so be very very sure you don’t have any.

    • Frank Arena

      Thanks for the input.

  • Chris Wellz

    Good read.

  • Daniel Rose

    I like your videos. I suggest you demo a better amp sim, Logic’s amps sound horrible. Try the Scuffhamamps S-Gear or Softube ones. Throw a tubescreamer plugin or boost pedal in front of S-Gear and listen to what sounds you can make. Throwing dirt/gain in from of Softube might not result in the same quality of final sounds.

  • 245

    mmm, i don’t mean to be overly critical but i’ve been at this game a long time too and there isn’t much i agree with here in terms of objectively improving amp sims tones as a source material to be honest. Obviously putting very expensive valve pedals in front of a sim and using other analogue pedals is going to help but i particularly disagree regarding bass EQ. Amp sims have always been and still are too light on the bass once used with IR’s compared with tube amp – mic – preamp – converter. Even with tube derived IR’s there is an incorrect response ( see below ) but especially so with solid state power amp derived IR’s.
    “There is no sense in comparing the differences between an amp sim and a real amp when you have volume limitations”.
    I can’t agree with this. This is the first thing to do if you have this option at your disposal to see what the fundamental differences are between real amp and sim, Ideally comparing exactly like for like but most important is at least same cab size and port/no port configuration ( e.g. 1 x 12, close backed ) and same mic and position. Granted this is not going to be possible for many.
    Here are a few things off the top of my head :
    1. Make sure guitar is set up properly. Sims are less forgiving than tube amps.
    2. Always monitor with a cab or monitor if possible, to give some pickup – speaker interaction and feedback into the d.i signal. It is possible to get some of this interaction but not all of it due to the fact that it is a feedback loop and a real mic is needed to capture this response from the speaker eliciting the feedback.
    3. Record with max peaks of -12 dbfs. i.e. use analogue gain staging. Once in digital you can use a volume plugin to push the front end of any sim as much as you like. It will act like a booster in front of a tube amp.
    4. Use tube power amp derived IR’s. Solid state p.a I.Rs do not produce the right response of a tube power amp. Expecting this purely from the amp sim is impossible when the IR has already been captured and no amount of post eq impedance style curve can approximate that.
    5. Add a modified impedance style eq curve ( adjusted to suit sim – IR ) after tube power amp IR’s and forget any such feature in the sim – they don’t even get close. The perceived wisdom is that this is not needed with tube IR’s but that does not take into account the real interaction of a tube amp and cab ( not just speaker impedance curve ). Seems counter intuitive and against theory but it is needed. You are now effectively running through two power amp stages ( & therefore two low cuts are used ) via sim power amp and tube derived IR. This results in loss of high end. S-gear has power amp hi cut which can be disengaged but this has minimal effect from default ( modelled level ) and so is still very necessary. More importantly, power amp – cab interaction has still ( 2016 ) not been studied and modelled properly in software amp sims. Only now is it tentatively starting to happen. There is a low end boost especially with 4 x 12 cabs that needs help emphasising.
    6. Add a good quality saturation and non linearity plugin AFTER the IR. e.g. Reapers js saturation and non linearity plugins are good for this.
    7. Run your guitar tracks or even better the whole digital mix through any warm sounding analogue line level device or mic preamp equipment. Preamps obviously need the correct impedance and input level but it is possible to get a slight but noticeable improvement in solidity or realness even with cheap transistor grade equipment as long as it has the right sound. e.g. i use mackie onyx preamps and the desks master bus or even an old joe meek C2 ( not new meek ) because they have the right sound. Pushing them can help too. This is more complicated and requires some understanding of analogue – digital gain staging and impedance but it is worthwhile doing in my opinion once more advanced.
    and lastly,
    8. Record miked tube amps and room mic’s whenever possible as they are still usually superior with even a small amount of experience at doing it. Most decent sized room acoustics ( other than small square bedrooms or the odd crazy room ) are far less of an issue and often more desirable than artificial reverb ( even without a bit of make shift treatment – more relevant to vocals ) during the recording stage than many would like you to believe.

    end of rant he he : )