You have so much experience with both hardware and software amp modeling. Do you recall the first software based amp sim you tried?
It was back in 2008/9, I think; Amplitube by IK Multimedia. Then there was Waves GTR (still great) and NI’s Guitar Rig.
Since then what are some of the amp modeling products / plugins that have made the biggest impression and perhaps some that have remained in your collection?
I’ve tried most of them along the way, although the Kemper stuff has eluded me for some reason. Plug-in wise, I still favour the GTR by Waves and IK’s Amplitube. NI’s Guitar Rig is still fun but it hasn’t had a serious update in almost 10 years, which is a little unfortunate. I started using Fractal Audio hardware (Axe-FX II) about 6 years ago and I’ve never looked back. I run an AX8 on stage and an Axe-FX III in the studio. The two are some distance apart in terms of sounds and quality however, as the Axe-FX III features much newer firmware. I see an updated floor-based Fractal machine in the not too distant future…
In the past 10 years, just how far do you feel the technology has advanced and evolved?
There are only a few companies making real inroads into the software side of things. Some are just drawing on legacy code (HeadRush – Eleven Rack) and sticking it in new armour. Fractal are the exception I believe as the fortunate user might see a significant firmware upgrade once every month or so – for free! That makes the considerable investment well worth it. It’s cool to see some of the older companies like Roland/Boss having a shot at it too, although on a much smaller scale.
What aspects and areas do you feel amp modeling software and hardware have struggled to properly produce over the evolution of the tech?
Most people compare what they’re hearing from a modeller to their real-world amplifier. The difference is, of course, that a modeller is fundamentally a ‘recorded amp’ tone, one that is not dissimilar to what an engineer or indeed the guitarist would hear in a studio’s control room.
When the same engineer or guitarist walks into the room where the amp resides and is presented with all the sound pressure and physical attributes of, say, a 100W SLP through a greenback loaded quad box, that same amp is going to sound significantly different in the two different environments – studio and control room. However it’s the ‘recorded amp’ tone that the listener hears on the recording, right? And it is the recorded amp that both the engineer and the guitarist hear while tracking the amp in the control room, right? That same listener is oblivious to the hair-blowing power of that quad box because it’s in another world. A modeller gives you the recorded sound. And that’s why live engineers LOVE them – because they only have to turn you up or down! No microphone placement, no stage spill … no fuss.
But I digress.
The one thing that it seems even the most advanced algorithms struggle with is the transient aspect – that initial punch from a note as heard through a guitar speaker. It’s a fickle thing and is the difference between a realistic experience and one that might seem a little ‘foreign’ or unrealistic. But I’m confident that tiny but important element will be perfected sooner rather than later.
Let’s talk about your primary live and recording setups. With all the gear you demo and review, do your setups change often?
For live stuff I like a mixture of convenience, portability and power. I fly often so weight, size and reliability are my main criteria when packing a rig. For that reason it’s been two guitars and an AX8 for the last two or three years. Lately I’ve been using a Boss GT-1000 as well because although it has far less amp/cab/effects models, the few it does have are good enough. And it’s small and light. So that’s it, really – a couple of guitars and a floor modeller when I’m on the road. I haven’t used real amps or stomp boxes for over 6 years and not for one second do I miss the hassle, unpredictability, weight and stress of them. They’ll always mean something to me but it’s time to move on. And move on I have.
At home I run an Axe-FX III, Logic, Final Cut Pro around 40 guitars, 10-12 ‘real’ amps, hundreds of stomp boxes … all of the spoils from my Youtube exploits, really. But guitars are the only thing I’ll change up a lot. Most of the amp/cab/effects work is handled by the Axe-FX III which is for me the greatest guitar product on the market today. It’s a creative monster.
Reviewing gear isn’t always a positive experience. When you get a piece of gear you aren’t overly fond of to review, how do you handle the process?
I’ve demoed/reviewed over 2000 pieces of gear in the last 10 years. Fortunately only a dozen or so pieces have not made the grade. This can be for various reasons such as poor controller functionality, dodgy software, terrible tones, hardware not working as prescribed, bad transistors … all sorts of stuff. My first action in this scenario is to contact the manufacturer and let them know all is not well. I suggest possible revisions in the hope they’ll implement them and send a better version back to me. This is in their interest as they want to convey the best possible impression of their brand and work to their potential customers that they can. A tough situation is when you have a friendly relationship with a builder due to their past products, but the latest product is so bad you can’t possibly demo it – for their sake and the sake of their potential customers. That can be a testy situation because I know how much time and money have been invested in its creation. But that, as they say, is life.
When reviewing amp sims, what sort of things are you looking for and in addition, what sort of things create a positive experience for you?
I guess the common target with amp sims is to recreate the authentic recorded tone and feel of any given amp as closely as possible. Most of the big players do this very well and most listeners would be pressed to determine the real from the modelled in a blind listening test. Then there’s the interface, latency and CPU drain. These are all important factors as they directly affect the user experience. A poorly designed interface can make for a frustrating experience and vice versa. Latency is counter-productive because it negates any chance of a realistic playing experience. CPU drain can mean limitations with your creativity. So to answer your question, I’m favouring authentic tones and feel, an easy and no-fuss interface, imperceptible latency and low CPU usage. But mostly I’m looking for inspiration. If any given product can inspire me to play and create, it’s already a success.
If you were approached to collaborate with a company on your own amp sim suite, what sort of gear would you want modelled for it?
Fractal Audio products already give me far more than my meagre expectations. I guess the only other thing I’d want would be to have some of my gear modelled – Laney, MI Amplification, VASE products. Nailing models of old fuzzes like the Tonebenders would be a plus too.
You are constantly go-go-go! What does 2019 have in store for you and what sort of things can your supporters look forward to this year?
Every day some new product is left at my home by a courier. I have a large backlog of work and products to work through and for that I am grateful. There are a couple of short tours with Australian artist, James Reyne, booked through the year but mostly I’m at home with my wife and daughter making a living doing the things I love – reviewing, demoing, consulting, preset writing and creating. I am a fortunate fellow, but it’s been hard work getting to this point.
Chatting gear with a guy like Brett could actually be a week long conversation or perhaps a month long conversation. Brett has tested pretty well everything on today’s market and he’s done so with an open mind, a love for all styles of guitar and a great skill set to boot so it’s not a surprise that his reviews were part of the influence and spark for me to start this page. I have purchased many a product because of Brett’s stamp of approval and I can say for me, there is no reviewer I trust more. On top of that, we are talking about an accomplished touring and recording musician so his opinions carry a lot more weight than most. Thanks to Brett for doing this and we hope to have him back in the future.
Hit up his YouTube for some of the best reviews in the business.