Recently, I stumbled across a video on YouTube where a dude “re-boxes” his Fender Mustang GT40 amplifier. Of course, there’s no mystery to why unboxing videos are so popular on YouTube; they are attempting to provide a secondhand simulation of that anticipatory excitement of opening up a newly purchased something. It shouldn’t be surprising really, because the internet is currently a gold rush of virtual experiences.
Anyhow, this guy put a clever twist on the unboxing genre… because he hated the GT40; and, after producing something like five amp shoot-out videos with it, he decided to make one last video explaining again why he hated it… as he packed it all up to send back to Amazon.
Well, it got my attention. I even found myself having to add a comment, because I’m fairly underwhelmed by the GT40 too. But, seriously… what do you expect if you a buy an amp from Amazon? There’s every chance you’re gonna hate most amps you buy online if you don’t get the opportunity to plug one in and listen to it before you lay your money down. I mean, isn’t that what guitar shops are for? Who would be so stupid?
Well, me actually. Because that’s exactly what I did.
why I bought a modelling amp without testing it first
The answer is YouTube. Specifically, YouTube guitar amp reviews. There are a rapidly expanding number of YouTube videos with any number of guitarists giving any number of reviews, overviews, comparisons & opinions on any number of guitars and guitar-related equipment.
These videos are catnip to gearheads like me who can easily become obsessed with all the paraphernalia; rather than breaking a sweat and doing any real kind of music practice.
I went down this rabbit hole, and watched enough of these videos to feel convinced to buy a GT40… “ear unheard” (if you will)… I had even watched several YouTube reviewers who gave the whole Fender GT series the big thumbs down.
So, I bought one online and had it delivered… but when I put the amp through its paces, using the standard presets, I was left scratching my head wondering what went wrong… especially given my (considerable) experience with buying stuff.
In my defence, I have to say, I’m not so underwhelmed by the GT40 as to want to return it. Also, low end modelling amps are incredibly cheap to buy, so it wasn’t a huge loss.
In any case, I became compelled to share my thinking about this; so here I am, writing this article, which is attempting to answer two questions:
- Should I buy a modelling amp?
- Should I trust YouTube amp reviews to guide my choice?
To begin, we have to back up a little…
what’s a modelling amp?
A modelling amp is a standard guitar amplifier combined with audio processing software that emulates the tonal characteristics of both classic, “real-world” amplifiers; and, the multitude of effects pedals that are typically used in combination with them.
Perhaps the grandaddy of all modelling amps is the Tom Scholz Rockman which was released in the early ’80s. This was an electronic headphone amp that instantly delivered the heavily-produced guitar sounds that Scholz made popular in the late ’70s with his band Boston.
The Rockman instantly became a source of intense interest (and ultimately) frustration for three distinct groups:
If you were content to practice with headphones on, you had access to the Tom Scholz sounds blasting in your ears. But, the Rockman didn’t quite deliver the musical freedom of its namesake the Sony Walkman… the headphone, guitar and power cables just kept getting in the way. Playing along with music tracks on the Rockman required more cabling; and the whole thing ended up being a rather fiddly, solitary experience.
Bedroom audio engineers––with a bit more fiddling––could hook up the Rockman to their recording equipment and get the Tom Scholz sound to tape. Of course, the Rockman didn’t sound like an amp… the Rockman sounded like Boston… and that sound had its moment, and got tired fairly quickly.
Live players had a tougher time of it. I suspect it was never the intention for the Rockman to be used live. The sound didn’t translate to the live environment without spending a shit ton of money on power amps and speakers. Even Scholz himself used a much more complicated rack system.
After all that trouble and expense… playing––I dunno––Brown Eyed Girl with the guitar sound of More Than A Feeling never quite worked.
going back to classic
Guitar amp emulation of classic amps and effects was the next logical progression. The Line 6 company probably got the marketing category lead with their AxSys 212 modelling amp in 1996 which finally met the needs of live players. Their POD products came a couple of years later which was targeted at practicers and recorders.
Modelling really started taking off in the 2000s, as it became standard with Digital Audio Workstations such as Apple’s Logic and Garageband. With these software variants, the guitar is recorded “clean” using some kind of studio preamp; and all the amp and effects sounds are applied by an audio engineer via the software. These applications offer mind-bending options, even emulating the tonal characteristics of various studio microphones and placement positions.
These days, guitar modelling amps include multiple real-world amp simulations; all the usual guitar effect suspects; editable and save-able presets; tuners; and, bluetooth streaming.
Here’s a quick rundown of the more popular (low-end) guitar modelling amps available at the time of writing:
N.B: I have not tested all of these amps. (But I’m well on the way).
so, which modelling amp should I buy?
The short answer is: the one that sounds the best to you; with your guitar plugged into it (at a guitar shop somewhere); after comparing a number of modelling and non-modelling amps; in the style of music you want to play.
This represents the tried and true method of buying an amp. It takes a lot of time and trouble.. and even then, you can still end up unsatisfied. Welcome to the club.
Now, for the long answer.
Modelling amps tend to be designed for either one of two types of guitarist:
- Live Players, who want an amp with modelling included;
- Recorders & Practicers who want modelling with an amp included.
It’s really just a matter of how you order your priorities. What splits guitarists into either of these types has to do with the difference between ears and microphones.
what your ears hear versus what a microphone hears
My mate John hooked me up with a reproduction ’57 Fender Champ amp. Except for the lack of a Fender logo on the front, this amp is identical in every way to buying the amp brand new in 1957.
The 5F1 (as it’s also known) is hand-wired, valve powered, and has nothing but a single volume control that goes all the way up to twelve! (Take that, Nigel Tufnel.)
The amp really only has two sounds; “quietly clean” and “loudly breaking up”. But both of those sounds are classic… and absolutely magical.
However… what makes the amp so awesome to play through is the combination of two, equally important factors:
- The amp
- The room that the amp lives in
This is what’s known as a live guitar sound; and it’s made up of three components. There’s:
- the sound of the amp that my ears hear;
- the sound of the amp as heard through my whole body; *
- the sound of the amp bouncing around the walls in my house.
* put in earplugs and wear industrial hearing protectors; then play guitar; and you’ll get a demo of what sounds can be delivered to your ear drums via your body.
The live guitar sound is virtually impossible to emulate, because it reflects a human experience. The sound of my guitar, through that amp, in my room cannot be copied… you just have to be there.
Sure, a genius audio engineer can take me, my guitar, and my amp to a studio. They could lovingly record my performance with the best equipment in the best sounding room; and then add studio effects like compression and reverb to simulate the sound of my set-up in my room… and it might even end up sounding absolutely amazing on playback… but it will never be the same sound as being in my room and hearing me play live.
The more you become accustomed to the sound of real, live guitar; the higher the chance you may become dissatisfied with guitar modelling amps.
the sound of recorded guitar
There is a channel on YouTube called In The Blues, which is a bunch of equipment reviews by a bloke called Shane, who is a card-carrying gearhead and accomplished electric guitarist. He makes exactly the point I want to make… here at 4:20 and at 9:50.
To Shane, the GT200 reproduces the sound of a recorded guitar. In his words, it sounds “hi-fi”. In a subsequent video, Shane talks about having to return his GT200 after taking it to a pub gig and–amongst other problems–not getting the sound (in that room) he was accustomed to getting from a regular guitar amp.
Perhaps ironically, at around 10:30, Shane then compares the Peavey Bandit (a “regular” guitar amp) with the Fender GT200 (the modelling amp) and completely fails to make his case that ‘the Bandit wipes the floor with the Fender’… because Shane is recording both amps with microphones; and you the listener are hearing the comparison back on some kind of Hi-Fi speaker/headphones… where the modelling amp sounds perfectly fine compared to regular amp.
To a microphone, and your playback speakers, the two amps simply sound different.
Really, all you should really take heed of here is that the Bandit sounds better to Shane, and that’s his personal advice… (provided you identify with Shane’s style of guitar playing, I guess. Personally, I dig it, but results may vary.)
There are loads of “amp shootout” videos online where a presenter uses an A/B pedal to switch between amps; but for whatever reason, makes no comment about the sounds, instead leaving it up to you to decide. (Shane even has a few of these.) But these videos are fairly useless to you without some kind of personal opinion or advice.
After 50 minutes of comparison, can you honestly say that you can actually make out any meaningful difference between these amps? I seriously doubt it.
The things that amp purists tend to love about old school valve/tube amps is their dynamics; and the way the sound varies as you adjust the volume on your guitar… all things that a microphone just can’t capture… especially the mics they use in amp shootout videos.
At best, all you really discern is tonal variations between rigs. But the human ear, being what it is, quickly adjusts to these variations; and within seconds each amp sounds perfectly acceptable. And that’s not even accounting for personal tastes. Maybe you like muddier, thicker tones? Who knows?
Even then, if an amp sounds––I dunno––”boxy” to you… then simply turn down the mids. If it’s not bright enough, just turn up the treble.
getting back to baseline
Just as colours can change hue, so can sound tones. Many of the greatest sound engineers have reference music that they continually listen to so that can re-set their hearing. In all truly scientific/comparative endeavours, you have to have a baseline.
I can play guitar through my actual ’57 Champ, and I can get that great sound in my music room in the time it takes for the valves to warm up. I consider this sound to be my baseline… a critical way of establishing a reference tone in any room.
With a little bit of tweaking, I can get a Blackstar ID: Core to sound similar to my ’57 Champ in my music room. (Interestingly with the ISF tone thing all the way around to “British”. But I digress). Not an exact replica, but satisfying enough for a cheap practice amp.
If I select the Champ ’57 preset on my Fender Mustang GT40 I get… well… I get what a recorded Champ ’57 sounds like. To be fair, the sound can be improved somewhat… but only after a fair amount of EQ’ing.
Depending on your circumstances, this may or may not be a problem for you… meaning, it’s time to summarise and go through those variables.
should I buy a modelling amp?
- you’re a beginner and you want a cheap, flexible amp system
with heaps of effects to get you started: YES.
- you want a guitar amp that sounds like a real guitar amp in a real room: NO.
- you want a guitar amp that you can use for practicing (especially at low levels),
that kinda/sorta sounds like the real thing/s: YES.
- you want a guitar amp that you can use live,
in a band that is trying to sit within a specific genre of music: NO.
- you want a guitar amp that you can use live,
in a band that plays a wide variety of cover songs: YES.
- you want a guitar amp that you can use to record authentic genre guitar sounds,
for a discerning, musically literate audience: NO.
- you want to very quickly (and cheaply) record any number of guitar sounds
for speedy band demos and songwriting purposes
without getting bogged down in high level audio engineering: YES.
(however, your recording software probably already has everything you need included in the package.)
- you’re a music purist; you hate effects pedals;
and you love just plugging straight in: NO.
- you love effects processing,
and you just lerrrrvvvv multitracked, highly produced guitar sounds: YES.
should I pay attention to YouTube reviews?
- the presenter presents comparison videos,
but leaves it up to you to decide what sounds better: NO
- the presenter plays in your preferred genre/s of music;
seems trustworthy (i.e: isn’t paid to spruik a product);
and offers personal opinions about what the product feels/sounds like to them: YES… but follow the next set of steps:
how to buy the right guitar amp
- Search online for music stores in your area with competitive prices that stock the amp you’re interested in… plus a good range of alternatives.
- Take your guitar to the store. (And if you can, a baseline amp… or, ask the sales rep to suggest a good baseline amp).
- Play your guitar through a selection of possible amps, compare them to the baseline amp.
- Buy the amp from that store. Don’t be an arsehole and go and buy that amp from some online discounter.
As I said earlier, if you want an amp with modelling, that makes you more a live player.
If you want modelling with an amp, that makes you more a practicer or recorder.
- Live players: look for amps that have an open back where you can see large, regular guitar amp style speakers inside. One or two, 10 or 12 inch speakers with big magnets on the back. That’s a fairly good starting-point indication that the designers intended this amp for you.
- If you’re more a practicer or recorder… and “HiFi” is exactly what you’re looking for… take along your bluetooth phone loaded with music on it that you like. These modelling amps typically have Bluetooth connectivity, or an AUX in socket. If the amp can playback your music loud and awesomely, that’s a pretty good indication you’re on a winner.