For the longest time digital amp modeling was seen by the guitar community as a bit of a joke, and for good reason! They sounded harsh, fizzy, unnatural, and were not used for much outside of bedroom practice.
It wasn’t until the mid-2000s, with the rise of digital home recording that we really saw the technology progress to where it not only could hold its own from a tonal perspective, but also afforded a plethora of conveniences that a traditional amp/cab setup could not.
So please join us today as we take a look at just how easy modern digital amps are making guitarists’ lives!
Works with everything
These days many digital amps are sold as almost complete guitar recording solutions, intended to be a one-stop shop for all your stringed instrument needs. And this includes bass!
While, in general, dedicated guitar amps are not designed to accommodate bass as you run the risk of harming the speakers, almost all high end digital amps have bass amp models included with them, meaning you can quite literally record both guitar and bass using a single unit.
It’s also been very common for mixers and producers to run the high end of a bass guitar through a guitar amp to distort it. This has also become a much easier process as software based amplifiers have become more popular, as you can simply send the DI track through them without issue.
The miracle of direct injection (DI)
The use of DI tracks wasn’t unheard of before the rise of digital amps. But we have seen that use increase exponentially over the last decade as more people use them to both record and play live with.
Previously, you would need a dedicated DI box to intercept your signal before hitting the pre-amp. But these days many digital amp units have the ability to record both an amped and a DI signal at the same time. Likewise, with software modelers, the nature of recording with them means your DI remains intact which offers ultimate flexibility if you decide to re-amp at a later date!
It’s common enough at this stage that a mixing engineer won’t bat an eye if you don’t have a real guitar track to send them, it’s very normal for them to re-amp a DI. This is wonderful because more and more guitarists than ever are recording their albums at home using digital amps, and oftentimes don’t have the experience or skill to commit to that ‘final album tone’ by themselves.
There’s really a lot that goes into micing up a cabinet in a live setting, if your cab is on stage you have to be careful with your volume so as to not anger your drummer, but it needs to be loud enough that it doesn’t pick up too much bleed from other instruments. Remember not to kick it by accident! And if you do require the cabinet to be off stage; you’ll need to acquire an expensive isolation cabinet.
Digital amps solve all of these issues, which is why the popularity of going direct (or silent stage) live and using in-ears to monitor your mix has become so popular these days.
With a hardware modeler, you can run your amped signal directly out to the front of house, completely bypassing the need for cabs. This also eliminates any risk of your own cab bleeding into the drum or vocal microphones. In addition, most digital hardware units are both compact and light, meaning you can set up and tear down your guitar rig with some serious speed.
All of the amps!
One thing that’s been a staple of digital amps is the fact you can have a lot of them in a single box, especially with hardware units like the Kemper or Axe Fx where you can have hundreds of completely unique amp models and patches at your fingertips.
Sure, tube amps might have 3 channels and a boost switch. But that is a far cry from having a 5150, an AC30, and a JCM800 at your disposal in a package that fits in your backpack.
This has provided guitarists unprecedented amounts of control over their tone, no longer being limited to a single amp or a very troublesome dual amp setup. You can simply have any amplifier you want mapped to any patch and have it immediately accessible at the push of a button.
Not only that, for many of the units there is dedicated software to organize these patches so you can easily plan out your setlists tones with ease.
Value for money
As digital amps from hardware units like the Kemper Profiler to software from companies like Neural DSP have chased at the heels of tube amplifiers in terms of tonal quality. We’re now at a point where a lot of these higher end units are commonly accepted in professional music settings.
With the fact they are tonally on par in mind, when we look at the value digital amps offer, we can see that they give you access to far more amps at a far cheaper cost than if you were to purchase their ‘real amp’ versions.
This has allowed players on much smaller budgets to have the experience of using either expensive or rare amps in their digital format.
In addition, it’s almost standard these days to have a plethora of effects built into the unit. From every delay, reverb, and weird modulation you can imagine. These alone would cost thousands of dollars in multi-effect units or pedal formats if purchased separately.
The future of guitar
Sometimes it can feel like the guitar is a slow instrument to innovate, and as musicians we can be equally as slow to embrace new technology. But when we look back over the last two decades, it’s clear to see the direction of the guitar has headed further over to the digital world. This has enabled musicians on tighter budgets to get access to high quality tones, play more shows, tour more, and record album worthy guitar tracks at home.
Digital amps have come a long way and we look forward to seeing where things will be 10 years from now!