It seems like the world and his concubine are in the business of providing homo dawis with ever more complex and detailed digital processing options, both for live and studio use. Guitarists are one of the target audiences and there are a few front runners in the field, IK Multimedia's (hereinafter IKM) Amplitube being well established and having a deserved good reputation. The competition includes Native Instruments Guitar Rig, Peavey Revalver (for obsessive fiddlers amongst other things), Line Pod Farm, to name just a few. Not to mention the more limited emulators often built in to the DAWs themselves.
Amplitube is now in its fourth iteration (hereinafter APT4). On the off chance that you didn't already know, it is stand alone, VST 2 and 3, and AAX 'hyper realistic guitar amp and FX software' , now with a built in 4 track looper and basic 8 track audio only DAW in the stand alone version.
It is 64 bit only, so dont be tempted if you are still using a 32 bit OS. With Windows (I am using Windows 10) you will need an ASIO interface. With a Mac a thunderbolt interface would seem to be the way to go, although I am not familiar with the current Mac range of options. I am using a Saffire Pro 14 through a motherboard firewire card. The firewire interface roughly halves the latency compared to my old USB interface, and at double the bit rate.
I also have some additional Fender models that were provided with a Fender custom version of Amplitube 3 accompanying my Mustang V2 combo. I shall be comparing some of the Amplitube modelled sounds with the DI output from the Mustang V2, Zoom G3, Cubase's Amp Rack, and additionally for the bass (my first instrument) the DI sounds using Hartke and Trace Elliot amplification.
Although it is principally aimed at guitar players, there is a limited range of bass amplifier models available, skewed towards the Ampeg range, along with a classic Orange valve head. Amplitube 4 comes in a variety of flavours, so have a look at the IK Multimedia website HERE. I shall not list what is and what is not included in each version as this is likely to change over time as new modules become available.
The base price is €149.99 at the time of writing, and works its way up from there. The version tested is the Deluxe bundle, at €299.99 (both plus VAT for EU customers).
As a Plug-in: As a plug in the interface and functionality is different to the stand alone version. The looper and the mini DAW are absent, but apart from that the rest of APT4 is the same. The first line of the window displays the name of the current preset, a click label to open the preset browser, file management tools and a tempo display - linked to the DAW project tempo by default. The second row shows the signal path (8 different preset paths are selectable from the left hand numbers box) starting with the tuner and working along through to a double bank of rack effects. New in this version is an effects loop between the pre and power amplifiers. Clicking on one of the signal path labels opens the graphical interface for the relevant item, stomp box, amplifier etc.
What controls are available is obviously dictated by the piece of gear (to use IKM's nomenclature) is chosen. In order to access a list of the pieces of gear you can choose either left click on the menu boxes - in the image above there are three, identifiable by the arrows adjacent to the name boxes - or scroll through the choices with the up/down arrows. The amplifier and other gear controls are clearly labelled and you adjust them as you wish. OK, let's go through the signal path and see what we can find.
Tuner: APT4 has both the tuner from earlier versions and a new Ultra Tuner. Choosing 'tuner' opens the older tuner, which is bypassed by default. Two things here: why open the tuner bypassed? Who would open the tuner and not be intending to use it? Secondly, the ultra tuner is so much better than the old tuner I would rather the tuner button open with this by default. Once you have used the ultra tuner you won't want to use the older version again, really it's that good - fast and very accurate.
Stomp Boxes: What you get depends upon the version you have, and, of course, the gear that you have bought from Custom Shop. There is quite a range of famous and IKMâ€™s own effects available. There are two stomp insert chains, and each one can accommodate up to 6 effects. For me the effects are one of the highlights of APT4. To my ears they sound realistic - smooth where smooth is required, hard and edgy where more oomph is desired. But why no reverbs?
Not recently having been a user of individual stomp pedals I cannot confirm the authenticity of the sounds, but the suite of stomps supplied with APT4 Deluxe is pretty comprehensive. The effects are all listed under the Amplitube sub menu. There are also 5 rack effects that can be inserted here. All the branded effects are listed but most only available after additional purchase from the Custom Shop. Some effects and their parameters can be controlled via MIDI controllers (ie wah, volume, bypass). Automation of all parameters is possible - right click the relevant control to access this.
• Not all rack effects can be used in the stomp arrays. • Automation is only possible when APT4 is used as a plug-in within a DAW.
IKM feature the new Acoustic simulator in their advertising, so I thought it appropriate to have a quick look at that.
Like the other acoustic simulators I have used it has body and top voicings, but these are stepped and not inifinitely variable as with other acoustic emulators for example. You do have the bass and treble controls, as well as mix, for fine tuning.
The question is, does it work? The answer is yes, like all acoustics sims, up to a point. It will definitely sound convincing in a mix.
I have added a couple of sound clips so that you can hear for yourselves.
Amplifiers: As with the stomp boxes automation of all parameters is possible - right click the relevant control to access this.
1. Guitar: APT4 Deluxe comes with 25 guitar amplifier models. This premium version has a selection of branded models and most of the IKM in-house models. It comes with the 'Classic Brit' collection of Marshall tops (as does the basic version, and if you are a rock player maybe that will be all you ever want), one Orange and one THD. Visit the Custom Shop to enable any additional gear.
The complexity and fidelity of APT4 is both its strength and weakness, as it can take a while a quite a lot of knob twiddling to get exactly the sound you want. With the guitar amplifier emulations the sound quality is most definitely there and like the better modelling 'real' amplifiers (Fender's Mustang V2s for example) the amplifier tones are varied according to playing style, just like the real thing. It sounds to me as if the gain amplitude between quiet and loud playing has a greater gain range than the Fender modelling with the crunch and driven sounds, ie JCM800, a major plus as you have real control over dynamics.
Just about every tone you can imagine can be configured from the options in APT4, and they all sound professional. The basic modelling engine in APT4 is simply excellent. There is so much flexibility with the amplifier and effects available that it is pointless trying to describe what you can do - try it for yourselves.
2. Bass Guitar. That APT4 is primarily for guitar is quite clear when we come to the bass guitar section. For bass there are just 4 models (1 in the case of the base version). A house model, and, in this Deluxe version, additionally one each from Gallien Krueger, Trace Elliot and Ampeg. Nothing, from other iconic bass amplifier manufacturers like Ashdown, Eden, Fender, Hartke, Markbass, Peavey, or Warwick. There are a fair few bass guitar presets, but many of them rely upon the purchase of additional pieces of gear, notably a range of Ampeg head emulators. The Trace is very close, but it is just not quite right and just slightly pipped by the 'Green' bass amplifier model in Cubase's Amp Rack which really grinds. Listen to the samples and see what you think. In a blind test I think you would be hard pressed to tell the difference. On the other hand the house solid state bass amplifier is very good, flexible with a wide tonal range, so unless you are a dedicated bassist this should be more than enough. The 'free' Bass Amp Rack in Cubase Artist and upwards, however, offers far more for the bass player than APT4 does, with what sound like more accurate emulations. But after 30 years of gigging the subtleties could well be lost on me.
• Automation is only possible when APT4 is used as a plug-in within a DAW.
Insert and Rack Effects: These share the same effects modules, with both many of the rack and stomp effects being available to run either before or after the cabinets section. Too many to list, and a few greyed out for subsequent purchase. Again, they are very good. But there is only one reverb unit in the racks, and that cannot be used in a Stomp array.
Cabinets: More than 40 guitar cabinets, and 6 bass (including the Gallien Krueger 1x12 combo cabinet).
This module really is the house of fun and the icing on the cake. You choose the cabinet. Big choice, lots of variation there. Then move on to the speaker chassis selector to refine how the cabinet is loaded.
Then the microphone choices and placements, then the room size, and then the microphone and room mix control. You can really fine tune the sound you want here. Brilliant.
Stand Alone Version: Just like the plug-in version, but with the addition of an 8 track mini DAW and a 4 track looper. The manual for APT4 is, at the time of writing, hard to find.
This has four tracks, so is capable of multi-layered noodling, the outcome of which can be exported. The only limited to the length of a loop is the available disk space. The length of loops 2,3, and 4 are set to the same as the first loop. There is an auto start feature, which quite frankly is essential. I for one have only two limbs normally usable at desktop height, which means I cannot play my guitar and start the looper at the same time. Unfortunately there is no 'auto end' feature to detect silence or sound at a low or customisable threshold, so to move on to the next loop or to stop altogether you have to stop playing to hit the space bar, which leaves a gap at the end of the phrase. There is no trim feature (that I have found). So for me this is a not a usable addition. With a looper pedal for example you can start and stop the looper with a press of the foot - that makes sense.
The Mini DAW:
This is an 8 track audio recorder dedicated to APT4. Potentially of use for jotting down ideas perhaps, but most customers who buy APT4 will have a dedicated DAW of some ilk and run APT4 as a plug-in. Really it takes only a few seconds to open a DAW template in any and all such software. I always use Cubase to jot down ideas - I can easily expand ideas with the tools and instruments within it. And this applies to all the other DAWs out there, from Protools down to Ableton Live Lite.
The APT4 recorder is limited. It is audio only (ie no MIDI event recording). There is a metronome, but a basic rhythm box to play along to would be better. There is no possibility of adding external instruments, although you can import external audio to play along with. It is also much simpler use the recorder as looper notepad, because the tracks are editable and can be easily looped.
The looper and mini DAW seem rather superfluous to APT4. I could be wrong, but I suspect that most users will not be firing these features up more than rarely.
• The manual can only be found under 'my products' 'pdf manuals' in Custom Shop - not on the product page. • MIDI transport control is an option for both the looper and recorder, (using a MIDI learn function) but would of necessity need to be foot controlled at least in the case of the looper, and so additional hardware is required.
Preset Browser: In the preset browser choosing for example 'Electric Guitar' will filter to list all of the Electric Guitar presets. But they are not shown in a logical sequence. For example there are 3 Jimi Hendrix presets called Third Stone from the Sun - the first one is separated from the latter two by three other presets, two of which are metal core ones (as an aside the second one of those is jolly convincing). On the other hand, just typing Jimi Hendrix into the search box will bring up all the presets with that tag.
And then . . by the time I get to the 7th Jimi preset I am presented with what is for me is an annoying feature in APT4 - an error message box telling me that the preset can't be loaded because one or more of the component pieces of gear is missing.
There is no facility, however, to have a time limited preview to see if it is worth laying out for the missing gear. You just have to guess how the preset might sound. Other presets also have one or more pieces of gear missing, sometimes even the whole chain. I would like to see either the provision of a time limited trial from within the browser, and/or the option to hide the unavailable presets from the user. It is possible to search for just the free presets by typing 'CS free' before your search term in the search box. Unwanted presets can be deleted, but it is not clear if they will be reinstated as part of any extra gear purchases if the new gear would make the deleted preset viable. As it is, it's irritating. I counted 76 such unavailable presets in just the 'A's. There also doesn't seem to be any way to mark the presets as favourites, or to star rank them for example.
The preset browser window also give access to the 'Preset Exchange', which enables the sharing of presets with and from other users - just like Fender Fuse ¹It is possible to try pieces of gear via Custom Shop, but you have to sign in and select them all individually. ²According to the manual, but this did not work for me, always returning no results.
Custom Shop: This is an integral part of the package and will install along with the Amplitube applications. It provides direct access to the range of add-on pieces of gear available from IKM. The categories are shown in the left hand column, giving you various search routes to find what you are looking for, as well as various highlighted products.
There is a lot of emulated kit available, although many users will have their preferred set ups and will not be buying the whole lot.
Each item has a graphic representation, description and price, together with the option to either buy it or try it. Try it is 72 hours and you have to have the Custom Shop window open for the duration of the trial period.
Alternatives: I have already mentioned the availability of a number of software rivals, but that is by no means the end of the alternatives that you have to chose from.
There are dozens of modelling pre-amp pedals on the market, from Line 6, Zoom, Boss, and Digitech to name but a few. Many of these come in at less than £150 (€200). I have a Zoom G3X, which has 95 effects but only 21 amplifier models, bizarrely missing some of the later classic Marshalls and the models are a bit primitive - so it might be time to trade that in for a Digitech 500. But I digress. The point is that if you do not need that DAW plug-in or stand alone interface you can record from these pre-amp pedals, and even use them via your interface to modify a previously recorded guitar sound, just as you can with a DAW plug-in. The signal routing is not difficult to do, as long as you have more than one input and one output bus available on your interface. You will, however, potentially be doubling up on latency even though there is effectively none within the pedals themselves. and usually the DAW will automatically adjust monitoring to eliminate latency delay.
The other alternative is to use either a DI or USB interface from your modelling amplifier. I have a Mustang 3 V2. I record this from the stereo DI outs. This has 18 models and 37 effects split into various categories. Not, clearly, as comprehensive a suite of available sounds as in APT4, but it actually costs less for this 100W combo than for the APT4 Deluxe software. And, of course, it can be used with the Fender Fuse software to display the parameters on your screen as you work with it.
The Fender modelling of their own brand amplification is outstanding, The other brand modelling is not so good - which is where APT4 comes in. It simulates its range of gear with considerable accuracy and fidelity.
Two things to consider, common to all software emulations. Firstly, you can't play feedback like you can with your real world amplifier. Secondly, the L word: latency. The signal from your guitar has to go through the audio interface to APT4 and back out again, being converted to digital on the way in and analogue on the way out. Suffice it to say that you will not believe how amazingly fast your ears and brain work. Even a few milliseconds can be disturbingly obvious, not to mention distracting. You can play through headphones with low latency and get away with it, but run through speakers from your DAW and the delay is obvious. I can just about cope with 256 samples (a round trip of around 7 milliseconds), but even then the 'echo' is apparent. Lowering the sample rate too much will lead to dropouts, pops, and clicks. You need extremely high end audio interfaces to make live use of APT4 (or any of the competition) a viable proposition.
Recommended: If you are a home user then start with the base version and add the gear modules that you want. This is the most cost effective way of getting exactly what you want - duplicate your hardware in a virtual environment.
If you are a professional or semi-professional engineer then the Deluxe version would probably be the one to go for, as there is a large range of gear included covering just about every conceivable need, and you can always customise with add on purchases as required. Summary: A significant upgrade with a bagful of new features, excellent sound quality and dynamics.
Plus Points: Sounds as good if not better than ever. The enhanced Cab section is quite brilliant. Hours of fun and so many variations. Easy to use and configure. Incredibly versatile and very expandable through the Custom Shop.
Minus Points: In place of the speed trainer in version 3 (which I never used) we have a basic audio only DAW and a looper which really needs additional hardware to come into itâ€™s own. Bass guitarists will find their choices limited. Only one external reverb effects simulation, in the rack effects. Not practical for live use unless you have access to the necessary hardware. Preset browser could do with 'favourites' and/or 'rating' column(s).
Sound Samples: I have fumbled my way through a few small clips to give a very brief introduction to the sounds from APT4 and compared them with sounds from both Cubaseâ€™s Amp Racks and DI from amplifiers.
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