A little while ago, Daft Paragon’s Generalissimo Jay Ratkowski posted a piece about how modeling amps are bad for you and bad for America1. It’s a good piece, all in all and if you haven’t you should go read it now. Jay comes into it from a pretty open minded place, despite the fact that he just likes (tube) amps. There’s really only one issue that I have with the piece: the conclusion he draws is wrong.
But it’s not all his fault.
Overpromise and Under Deliever…Wait What?!?!?!?!?
So, one of the problems, the big problem, with modeling amps is this. In the early days the promise was that you could get an amp that sounds exactly like these 15 different amps for the cost of one amp that was the size of the plate they bring your painfully small desert out on in an expensive restaurant. The problem here is that this never happened.
You were lead to believe that a $200 box would accurately reproduce the sound of a vintage, 1961 Garglewhopper through a 4×12 loaded with Celestion Moneybacks. You know what, it was pretty close. In fact, as Jay pointed out, what you got was more of an idealized version of a 1961 Garglewhopper through a 4×12 loaded with Celestion Moneybacks. No real amp would ever actually sound like the model. The model, however, would probably sound like you wanted the real amp to sound. Or it would except…
Guitar Players Love to A/B Things
This is the crux of my issue with Jay’s totally unfair hit piece against modeling amps that proves that he is bias2 and, blah blah, blah malformed internet rant.
Guitarists love to A/B things. If given a choice between an amp and an identical amp we will want to play both of them to see which one “sounds better.” This is dumb, right? They’re identical amps, of course they sound the same. 3
If you’ve played guitar for any length of time you know that no two guitars play exactly the same and no two amps sound exactly the same. Two amps from the same assembly line made on the same day by the same guy will sound subtly different. The same amp played by two different people on two different days will sound subtly different. Why is it that we then expect an amplifier made out of ones and zeroes to sound exactly the same as an analog amp? 4
This is where I think Jay’s argument falls down. Sure, you can show that an AxeFX model of a ’72 Toofreakinloud doesn’t sound like a recording of a ’72 Toofreakinloud. That being said, a ’72 Toofreakinloud with new tubes won’t sound like a ’72TFL with old tubes won’t sound like the exact same amp played at a higher volume 15 minutes later.
If you’re going to A/B two amps a better move would probably be doing what Yamaha UK did for their never ending onslaught of THR promotional videos. 5 It’s not so much whether or not the amps sound the same, it’s whether or not the amps sound good.
So, What Are Modeling Amps For?
Well, I think we long ago passed the time where “do modeling amps sound good?” was a valid question. Ty Tabor and the guys from Meshuggah recorded albums with the first generation rack mounted PODs. I’ve been listening to The Best of King’s X all week, there’s no point where I think “that sounds terrible.”
However, I don’t think that we’re ever going to get to the point where a modeling amp will please your typical, neurotic guitarist 6 as sounding exactly like a physical amp. Roland and Yamaha seem to have gotten this. They’ve released modeling amps that don’t attempt to sound like other amps, they just attempt to sound like good amps.
I think that’s where we’re going with this whole modeling thing, and we can’t get there fast enough.
- I may be exaggerating a little ↩
- Dear Internet, you have “bias” but you are “biased.” ↩
- They do not sound the same ↩
- Overpromising. Did you not read the first section? How did you get this far? ↩
- Seriously, I think Julian Ward’s job consists 50% of playing blues rock through a tiny amp. Nice work if you can get it. Are you hiring? ↩
- Redundant ↩