Where are We Going with Amp Modeling?

axe fx ii front panel

Honestly, amp and effects modeling should be a great thing.  It’s the logical next step in guitar technology.  We can’t keep relying on World War II era technology made in Chinese sweat shops by grade school kids.  Those tubes and transistors aren’t going to be around forever, we’ll have to evolve.  Right?

It’s just so hard to imagine that we’re going to ever get a suitable replacement for the communist technology.

This is not an indictment on the quality of the current high end modeling machines.  They’re really amazing.  They just don’t sound like guitar amps.  This might even be intentional.

Check out this demo:

That distorted sound is incredibly unnatural.  It’s like a Triple Rectifier with the pre-amp gain turned to 37.  And it has to be intentional.  You can’t get a sound like that out of a conventional tube amp.  You’d have to push the power tubes beyond their limits for that amount of compression, and no pedal would suitably get you there.

If you got an amp to distort like that, to where chords are kind of a mush of sound rather than collection of notes, there is no way you could then play single notes that ring out so clearly.  That same heavy amount of distortion would create an overwhelming buzzsaw, reducing the clarity of the single notes quite a bit.

And the clean sound is quite unique as well.  It’s difficult to pick out exactly what’s happening as there are a lot of extra effects, but the tone sounds like it’s been shaped by a 12 band EQ, taking out any unoffending frequencies1.

There’s also this…

Sorry, can’t seem to embed individual clips, but there are recordings of a Fender Deluxe model in there.  Two of them.  It’s supposed to be a tweed era Deluxe.  For comparison, here’s the real thing:

Not going to get into whether the Axe-FX version is a good or bad replication of the original.  Because it’s nothing like the original in any way.  And this brings me to my greater question…

Are we even trying to replicate analog technology anymore?

It seems we’ve moved somewhere else.  It’s no longer about trying to get a computer to sound just like a tube amp or germanium fuzz or anything else.  It seems it’s more about trying to create a whole separate thing.  It’s like the modeling companies are saying, “this is how we think the guitar should sound.

So that seems to leave us with a line in the sand.  It’s no longer a futile attempt to get the fussy old tube guys to convert by making something that kinda sounds like the real thing but ultimately disappoints everyone2.  It’s now about setting a whole new course for guitar sound.  Something free of imperfections3, something that blends properly with the rise of synths and electronic percussion.  Something that pushes us further toward purely electronic music not just being something you listen to when you’re zonked out on ecstasy.

Is that a good thing?  Probably not yet.  While the manufacturers have realized that trying to sound exactly like a guitar amp is the wrong route, the players aren’t all there yet.  At some point the musicians will start using these tools in different ways and get sounds that aren’t possible from traditional equipment.  That could get interesting.

For now, there’s just a lot of people using Plexi models that sound nothing like a Plexi and it’s kind of awkward.

It’s also worrisome for folks like me, who are on the side of the line that favors analog gear.  What happens when prices come down and entire generations of people grow up using this stuff?  If you’re in your 30’s or 40’s right now, will there be a time in your life that guitar amps as we know them don’t exist?  At least in the mainstream?  Right now the vast majority of amps use analog technology, could that flip around in 10 years?  20?  Will demand for traditional amps become so low that companies like Dr Z or Bad Cat or Victoria can’t make it?

That’s a scary future…

  1. whether or not the end result is offending, is up for debate.
  2. Sorry Line6, you’re out of luck.
  3. Except those in your playing