Guitar Tones - Real VS Simulated

Hello all of you, welcome back to another blog post - after a short break due to an insane amount of sessions I’ve got a million and one things to discuss and wisdom to impart yet again.

This week, I wanted to stimulate the conversation on real vs simulated guitar tones, the pro’s and con’s to both, and decide on a winner if there can even be one!

So without further ado, let's dive in.

Real Amplifiers and Cabinets

IF you have the space or the facilities to blast a 100 watt Marshall or similar through a 4x12 cabinet with speakers of your choice, then you’ll know the pure satisfaction you get from the level of sound this creates. If you don’t or haven’t had that chance, let me try and paint a picture for you…

There’s something oddly satisfying about pushing air using sound; and when done with a riff that makes you want to hum it for a week straight after listening to it during recording, this process is made so much more satisfying hearing it in glorious, incredulously loud fashion.

The best example I’ve ever been demonstrated with in real life is a 100 Watt plexi that the guitarist Phil X (Bon Jovi’s guitarist) blasted in an air tight sound insulated booth somewhere in the middle of nowhere at a conference hosted by Thomann and Warwick Guitar and Bass. The SPL (sound pressure level) was close to that of a Boeing 737 engine at mid thrust somewhere near 126db’s!

(Above) This 1959 Marshall Plexi 100 Watt was similar to the one that nearly destroyed our ear drums

There’s often very little time you’ll need to do this and the ability to go that loud isn’t meant to be so you can, it’s more to allow for a generous amount of headroom for the valves to no only hit the sweet spot of voltage, but literal warmth as well as this greatly determines the sound and perceived ‘warmth’ of the sound.

To counter this ridiculous volume as well, you could use a load-box such as the Captor X from Two notes who actually pioneered and created the technology to allow you to dime out any amplifier you like, and reduce the volume with the attenuated output by a fixed amount of 20db’s. When we did this on the example above, it took it from being ear damaging and physically hurting our ears to just above a loud talking volume.

The pro’s here are that if you have more than one amp, more than one cab, several pedals, etc. the process of discovery when journeying into guitar tone and the sound you can achieve is nothing short of, in my opinion, a great example of what Sunday’s should be dedicated to, let alone that though this very hands on approach you feel you have a physical grasp on shaping ‘your’ tone and ‘your’ sound not just in terms of a bands overall sound but you as a musician.

Simulated Amplifiers and Cabinets

The flip side of how enjoyable blasting real amplifiers and cabinets is, well.. Blasting amplifiers and cabinets! Many engineers live in built up areas and have limited ability to raise the volume of a 100 watt amplifier to their ‘sweet spot’ in which they’re intended to run.

To this end, the technology of amp simulators and impulse response technology was pioneered very early on in the technological revolution many of us have been raised in during the 90’s onward. Line6 brought along (to my knowledge) the first real amp sim in the POD which is now on its 3rd generation with the Helix, however, there are some incredible competitors now available that offer many tools for the everyday guitarist. The downside of this, is that as it’s still relatively new in terms of technology, the market is heavily saturated with many companies to choose from and for most of us with a finite amount to invest when still learning or building studios (or bands, or similar) making an informed correct choice is somewhat difficult unless you know what you’re after.

(Above) The Original Guitar Sim Processor, The POD from Line6

This is where the advantage of having used real amps comes in to play a little more, but even with that extended experience, there’s a large amount of elitists waiting in the depths of forums ready to tell you that no amp sim is worth having or that it doesn't compare to the real thing, which simply isn't true in this day and age. In fact, I worked for Neural DSP who are at the forefront of this market and they A/B test with incredible professional engineers and musicians so make sure that they can’t tell the real one from their software; so if you’re new to this information I suggest trialling their software before any others - to my ears and many others, they are the best option right now, but there are others that offer a range of other amps like STL Tones who are equally advanced in their technology.

Neural DSP's Archtype Nolly Plugin, (Above) is by far to my ears the closest recreation of the amps within it.

Conclusion

In any case, there’s no clear winner or loser. In fact, I can see a clear winner, and it’s one we haven't discussed yet - the end user and the average listener. The normal everyday listener won't listen to music like we do, which means that our opinions of what's the ‘best’ option is largely irrelevant as long as it serves its purpose to a level we’re satisfied with, which is usually something that's representing what they imagine the sound of a overdriven guitar tone or a clean guitar tone from records they’ve listened to prior.

In any case, the more advanced amp sim technology becomes, the closer it becomes to the real thing. But the experience of a ‘real’ amp wont be matched due to the process, tradition and thrill - so both have a place in the engineering and live music worlds and will continue to do so.

And we as the end users continue to watch competing companies push the limits which in turn gives us better tools and more advanced capabilities to do our jobs faster, easier, and broaden our creativity above and beyond what's been done in the past, leaving the only clear winner to be us as engineers and musicians, and in turn the average listen continuing to admire incredible tablets like you all reading this blog each week.