I’d say no. The pedal in front of an amp is the sound for many applications, and sometimes high gain, master volume amps can actually feel more confining. Futhermore, digital modeling is through the roof and does both.
Huge topic, but that’s my brief two cents with all of the above in the room behind me.
Part of why I love the current state of digital is that it reduces this problem down to its essence. Historically, analog amps and analog pedals took an analog waveform from your guitar cable, and transformed it in some way to make it sound better. The properties of different analog circuits resulted in a variety of sounds, and any number of variables could affect the result in ways that might be difficult to intuitively predict. But at the end of the day, you had a waveform coming in from the guitar, and you wanted your gear to produce a different waveform that would ultimately go through a speaker (we’ll leave the speaker conversation aside for now).
Digital says “why do we need to mess around with specific physical components? We have one signal coming in, and you want to transform it into a different signal. Show me what your beloved vintage gear is doing to the signal, and I’ll do the same thing and save us all a bunch of hassle.” Early attempts at this sucked due to a combination of limits of processing power for digital signal processing, and naive/flawed/incomplete modeling of the desired transformations from beloved analog gear. But nowadays even the cheap digital gear does a pretty good job of faking things, and the higher end digital stuff (no more expensive than a classic “high end” hobbyist set of analog gear) is so good it’s insane.
@RyanMW, you might check out Leon Todd on YouTube. Does a lot of in-depth comparisons, is currently revisiting his old rack gear, comparing Marshall models, and he bought a Mesa TriAxis. Pete Thorn too. And maybe James Santiago demoing different approaches to Eric Johnson tone (With apologies to all the other fantastic YouTubers out there of which there are so many that I’m not mentioning here.) Those folks use both digital and analog solutions regularly in all different contexts.
Hybrid approaches with modern dynamic load boxes and impulse response technologies may blow your mind. I recommend folks enjoy what they have to work with, and caution that it pays to understand just how far things have evolved before chasing the next solution. Peace.
The go-to sound for distortion for decades has been to boost a amp’s front end with a TS9-like, gain at zero, volume to the max and tone to taste, to tighten the tone of the amp. So it’s not really an amp vs. pedal situation: both are used to achieve tone. However I’d argue that nowadays some amps are build to be just that tight without requiring a pedal in the front, sometimes because they have a boost included in them anyway. I’m thinking about the Mesa JP2C, Randall Satan, Peavey Invective among others. Ironically, those three all are signature amplifiers, which is rather telling of what relatively modern pro Metal guitarists want.
@Frylock What would you recommend as far as digital amp sim goes. Is Helix the new industry standard for that sort of thing? Or is it still axe FX/Kemper?
And were I to buy a Helix, what kind of speakers would I need? Could I, say, still use a fender clean channel or would that color the sounds too much? Would I be better off using my Adam A7 8" speakers?
With modeling gear your full range flat response speakers work best, unless you are going for a Fenderish power amp/cab sound. I’m fond of my AxeFX and run through a pair of QSC K8.2’s. Haven’t heard anyone with the opinion that the Line 6 unit is better.
I can’t claim to be a hands-on expert re: Helix vs AxeFX vs Kemper, but from what I’ve seen and heard, they all can be made to sound really good. I think it’s one of those situations where different offerings take different positions in the tradeoff of “ease of use” versus “ability to make very precise changes”. I’m happy with the not-so-state-of-the-art modeling offered by Peavey, so for specific, refined advice about the current offerings, I’m probably not your guy.
I will say that “FRFR” is just the current jargon for general purpose PA style speakers. The concept is that the type of speakers that became popular for use in guitar amps were selected because they were like a “hardware EQ” that colored the sound in a certain way, and with a modeling setup, you typically want to recreate that kind of color with your digital signal processing, and have speakers that aren’t adding a particular color to the sound. In most traditional audio applications, having a speaker that produces sound from the incoming signal without adding it’s own color has usually been the goal. Though in the case of home audio, recording engineers eventually started optimizing for the “typical” home stereo setup, which tended not to have flat FR, and then home audio companies started trying to tweak their speaker/cabinet designs to appeal to the tastes of customers listening to what recording engineers put out (often this means pandering to simplistic demands for “more bass!”). There are lots of opinions online about the various “FRFR” speaker options, but in a pinch, pretty much any “PA speaker” of suitable size/power should be fine.
One positive of using a reasonably flat full-range speaker with your modeling rig is that it encourages you to shape your signal with PA speakers in mind, so if you ever have to plug into a different PA-type setup (i.e. going direct to a house PA), you have a baseline signal that’s been tweaked to play reasonably nice with PA speakers, though I’m sure any pro sound guys out there can go on at the length about what kind of accomodations would need to be made to account for the size of the system, size of the room, how full the room is, etc. etc.
I suppose with an FRFR setup you perhaps need to be more mindful of how you set up your EQ, since full range speakers will make it easy for you to barf all over frequencies that you should be leaving free for other instruments in a mix.
Decent cabinet impulse responses (IR’s) generally will prevent that, but it’s common to roll off regardless, as it’s so common for guitarists to not play mix ready. That’s changing though, so sound gals/guys may compensate when they don’t need to/shouldn’t.
One issue here that I don’t hear people discussing very often is that most of these modeler devices are modeling the sound of a miked up rig. This is a super colored sound to begin with. Listening to a mic like an sm57 through your FRFR studio monitors is crazy different sounding than playing your amp and cab in the room. The modeler is giving you the mic sound, not the “amp head via cab in room” sound. Even a dead-flat mic like a measurement mic, when placed close up on the cab, is only giving you the output at that spot near the cone which, even though the mic is flat, has frequencies piling up in weird ways because of its close miking position that is no longer flat and quite colored.
The alternative to get a true amp sound is to model the amp DI. But there are issues. We have a Kemper and we have modeled the DI output of the amp head, with the proper load (i.e. its original cab) still attached, and run through IRs of that exact setup to add back the speaker. It is the closest you can get to an identical copy of our rig.
But… the “model” only holds for those exact tone settings, and the exact riff you played during the “refining” phase in the case of a Kemper - which is also kind of random and produces different results each time you model. And even then, the bass is usually weirdly off, to the tune of 10-15db around 100hz, which is no small amount. Like there’s some kind of high pass thing going on during the modeling. And it seems to struggle to reproduce high gain muted low notes, to the extent that the DI waveforms even look different.
The modeler thing is a great step forward but there are all kinds of little subtleties, and the model of one patch on one amp with one riff is not the same as having the amp at all.
A software model where the whole circuit was modeled as well as every control - that would probably be a much better all around facsimile.
This is a great point! Type of microphone or mic pairings and placement makes a huge difference in the sound. At the risk of being more off-topic is keeping in mind how the guitar is going to sit in the mix. Sometimes a distorted rhythm tone that sounds great on its own will muddy up a mix because it’s eating into the drum and bass frequencies. There’s some Zeppelin, Beatles, and Who tracks where the guitars on their own sound brittle but in the mix they’re so heavy.
Kind of what I was getting at, albeit vaguely, in mentioning sound people compensating at the board. Mics, preamps, channel strips, compressors, and the presence of other instruments factor in to define our sound.
Guitarists and engineers are evolving to hear and expect differently. Peace, Daniel
I’m personally an amp distortion guy - there’s something about the way a Mesa lead channel sounds and responds that works very well for me. You see plenty of other guys using a clean amp with a distortion pedal out front for their main tone, however, and lately you see plenty of guys doing BOTH, for example using a Tube Screamer as a clean boost in front of a Recto, a la Andy Sneap.
If I had to make a broad generalization it’s that this is something that’s changed with amp design and up through even the 80s you generally saw most rock players relying on pedals for their gain because amps alone just didn’t put out that much saturation, but with the advent of the modern high gain amplifier circuit(s) - Soldano SLO, Mesa Recto, Peavey 5150, etc, you suddenly have preamps capable of putting out almost unusable amounts of saturation, and you don’t NEED a solid state gain circuit outside of the amp to get sustaining saturation. In the case of the TS/Recto thing, for example, that’s less to juice the front end into additional saturation, so much as change WHERE it’s saturation by hitting the midrange higher and rolling off a little bit of low and high end.
Great point. Someone in a home studio forum pointed this out to me by sharing some guitar-only tracks off of a recent RHCP album. I was shocked by how brittle it sounded. It’s a tone I would have immediately rejected outright. Yet, in the context of the full mix, the guitars sounded outstanding.
I’m always shocked how bright and thin raw guitar tracks sound in hard rock and metal. It’s even worse if you get to here solo’d individual mono tracks rather than stereo pairs - you’re taking what are NOT big sounds, and between the stereo spread and the context of the bass and drums in the mix, turning them into something that sounds huge.
There is only so much sonic real estate to occupy. So I think of it like crossovers in a home theater setup. The total frequency response you are looking for is X. You can choose to cut that off high, where most of it is the bass, and only the tippy top is being provided by the guitars - pick attack and high-end harmonics, mostly. Or you can choose a lower crossover frequency, where the guitars get to occupy more mids, and the bass gets less space.
I like option 2. An ice pick guitar track is an unappealing sound, and just another element contributing to the super treblification of rock mixing, where guitars are slammed with 8k or 4k or something to make them stick out in the mix.
How are you handling the bass here, then, a lot of sub-lows and, from the sound of it, leaving some space for the “growl” and “clang” of the string to come through in, say, 1.5-2.5khz or so…?
Even this, though, kind of muddies the waters a little, since this is double-tracked, which makes everything sound bigger and fuller. You can kind of hone in on individual tracks by just listening to one side - I’m at work with one earbud in - but I guess what I’m getting at is the difference between a single, solo’d, mono guitar track, and what you hear when everything is double-tracked and in the context of a mix, is HUGE. I think a lot of people, when they’re first getting into recording (and god knows I was one of them!) wonder why their raw tracks sound so thin and lifeless, EQ them to hell and back, and then when they’re in the full mix, wonder why everything sounds muddy and indistinct.
I actually suspect our approaches aren’t all that different, at the end of the day - I think I may be a little more aggressive about carving out low end, but then again a Mesa Rectifier is going to be a lot more bass-heavy than the modded Marshall vibe you have going on here anyway, so I kind of HAVE to be. I’ll have to toss up a raw rhythm track for comparison, though I have a work event tonight so it may be a while.