Blindfold Test: Amp VS. Plugins

There's been a lot of talk amongst my friends lately about the quality of today's plugin amp emulators. It's a polarizing subject; some people swear by them and others cringe at the very thought of using them for anything other than demoing purposes. Personally, I fall into the former category. I use amp emulators daily for demoing and real-deal tracking alike; though it took quite a long time for me to come around to them. These days I'll use them on just about anything actually: synths, drum buses, vocals, percussion, etc, etc. I think they've become a valuable "studio" tool for generating upper structure harmonic saturation and can significantly help in giving a more organic quality to an otherwise lifeless sound. 

The other day my good buddy Gavi Grodsky sent me some clips to see if I could hear the difference between guitar he had tracked at the Magic Shop, with tangible gear, and overdubs he'd been working on at home with his Torpedo rack unit. The Torpedo is manufactured by a company called Two Notes and they describe it as a "Digital Load-box and Speaker Emulator". Essentially, you plug into your head as you would normally and then run a line from the speaker output of said head into the Torpedo. From there the Torpedo emulates the sonic characteristics of various speaker cabinets and microphone combinations in what is touted to be the most accurate way technologically available today. Thusly one is able to track, silently, in their tiny New York apartment anytime of the day without pissing off their neighbors. The kicker is that the Torpedo retails for $1,850; did I mention that yet?

I've debated with Gavi about the necessity (or rather lack for one) of purchasing of a piece of hardware, such as the Torpedo. I've argued that, if you know what you're doing with gain staging, you can get fantastic results with plug-in amp emulators that exist these days. Furthermore, said amp emulators usually come stock with whatever DAW (digital audio workstation) you might use or are available as freeware on the internet.

Between the clips that Gavi sent me it was immediately obvious which recording was of a physical amp and which clips were made with his hardware unit; I didn't even have to listen twice. I figured it would be fun to try a similar test back at him; this time comparing an actual miked VOX AC30 and software emulations of AC30's. I figured it would be even more fun if I made said test public and asked more of my friends to take it. So, here we are. 

For this test all other variables besides the amp/amp emulators are constant. Recording was done in Apple's Logic X using a Focusrite Scarlett 18i8 audio/digital interface. The guitar, pickup selection, pick and cable used are all constant. The guitar is a 2005 Gibson Les Paul Custom using only the bridge pickup. For the real amp sound the guitar is going through a UK made AC30/6TB close miked with a stock SM57. 

For amp emulation I used both the amp simulator that comes with Logic (set to the AC30 setting) and the Native Instruments Guitar Rig (also set to it's AC30 setting). To put this into perspective, budget-wise, Logic X will cost you $200 for the complete soup-to-nuts version and the basic version of Guitar Rig (which is the one I used) will cost you $0; it's completely free.  I allowed myself to tweak the settings on the amp simulators but didn't allow myself to add any additional EQ to the channel-strips in an effort to get a sound closer to the actual AC30. It's important to note that both amp emulators employed here have SM57 options for cab miking; I restricted myself to using exclusively those options with both plug-ins. All channel strips have the same light compression on them (using the WAVS 1176 "Bluey" compressor) and are high-passed at 100hz using the Logic channel EQ. The order of all plug-ins is identical.

Just to make things a little more interesting I've added a wild card into this test; a T.G. Raxx preamp made by Peavey a couple decades ago. The signal is direct without any speaker simulation and only the same 1176 and EQ plug-ins on the channel strip. 

Here is a DI recording of the guitar as a control...

Below are the rest of the recordings. Their gains have been made uniform. Note that these are not the same audio file simply 're-amped'. Each is a different instance of me, for all intents and purposes, playing the same thing. I believe one tends to play a little differently based on what their hearing back from an amp/the computer. Therefore I think reamping is kinda bogus and something I tend to avoid doing it at all costs. If the sound is ultimately going to go through an amp simulator, or real amp, I want to track that way.  But I digress, here they are...

Take a listen and check back next week, when I'll be posting the answers, to see how you did. Feel free to send me what you think the answers are in the 'Contact' section of this site.  Just to reiterate, one of these is a real AC30, one is DI into Logic's Amp Designer, one is DI into NI Guitar Rig and one is DI into the Peavey T.G. Raxx unit.  Good luck!