Modeling amp technology has been the holy grail for many recording artists, but has it ever lived up to its hype? I’ve been a recording artist for a long time now, and I was always a little skeptical of the manufacturer’s claims. Can you really get a similar sound to a $1,500 vintage tube amp with a $300 digital amp? Well, until recently, my answer would have been, “absolutely not.”
However, new modeling amps are much better at maintaining the warm, vibrant tones of classic amps, and I have been thoroughly impressed with modern modeling amps.
So, what is a modeling amp? How do they work? And should you be using one? I will answer all of this and more below!
What is a modeling amp?
A modeling amp is able to digitally simulate the sound of other guitar amplifiers. It uses sophisticated software algorithms to replicate the sound and behavior of different types of guitar amps, including vintage tube amps, solid-state amps, and hybrid amps.
What do modeling amps do?
One of the main benefits of using a modeling amp is that it allows guitarists to experiment with different amp sounds without having to purchase multiple expensive amps. This is particularly valuable for recording purposes, and its popularity has surged alongside the growth of home recording.
Modeling amps can mimic the sound of a vintage twin reverb or a Marshall half stack for a fraction of the cost. And while there are downsides, the digital technology of these amps has improved immensely in the past few decades.
Beginner guitarists will also benefit from using a modeling amp. Many beginners have not quite developed their sound yet, and using a modeling amp is a great way to play around with different sounds. There are also many beginner-friendly modeling amps that come at a reasonable price!
Why are modeling amps so popular?
Modeling amps have become increasingly popular due to their convenience, versatility, and affordability.
Modeling amps have come a LONG way since they first hit the market in 1982. The original modeling amp was a small headphone amplifier called the Rocketman Guitar Ace. This amp was pretty cool for its time, but it definitely lacked in sound quality. Plus, it could really only be used for bedroom practice.
Nowadays, modeling amps can have 20+ amp models and tons of built-in effects. Good quality modeling amps sound great and are almost indistinguishable to an untrained ear.
However, modeling amp technology still has some limitations. The quality of the sound depends on the quality of the software algorithms and the accuracy of the modeled amps. Some guitarists also prefer the warmth and responsiveness of traditional tube amps. As modeling amps use digital technology, they are almost all solid-state amps (some hybrid modeling amps exist). Modeling amp technology may not be able to replicate the exact sound and feel of the vintage amp. Additionally, the build quality of some of these amps can be an issue, as they are often lightweight and fragile.
Despite these limitations, guitar modeling technology is here to stay and continues to improve. With advancements in technology, modeling amps are likely to become even more prevalent and sophisticated in the years to come.
Are modeling amps as good as tube amps?
While modeling amps are getting much better at emulating the sound of vintage valve amps, they are not quite there. That said, if you don’t mind sacrificing a bit of sound quality, buying a modeling amp that costs ten times less than a tube amp might be a good option. Below, I have compared some key factors of modeling amps with tube amps.
Winner: tube amps
Tube amps are still king in terms of volume. A 10-watt tube amp has a lot more volume potential than a 10-watt solid-state amp. But modeling amps are definitely loud enough for gigging nowadays. The Boss Katana even comes in a 100-watt model, and you really would never need more power than that.
One huge plus about using a modeling amp is that you can mimic the crunch tones of a tube amp without reaching high volumes. This means you can get close the warm, authentic tube amp sound without disturbing your neighbors and even with headphones in!
Winner: tube amps
Compared to normal tube and solid-state amps, modeling amps pack a lot into a single unit in terms of sound diversity. And they do it all without the need for additional pedals or equipment.
They can be more versatile and convenient for guitarists who need to switch between different styles of music or amp tones during a performance or recording session.
However, the sound quality of modeling amps can vary depending on the quality of the digital sound processing algorithms and the speakers used in the amp. Some guitarists may find that modeling amps can sound sterile or artificial compared to traditional tube amps, which offer a warmer, more natural sound.
Size and cost
Winner: modeling amps
Under the hood, modeling amps are basically just software algorithms with a circuit board, so they come in all shapes and sizes. They can be desktop mini amps or massive 100w amps. They are typically lighter than tube amps as they require fewer heavy parts.
The main standout feature of modeling amps is the price. They are much cheaper than the vintage tube amps they model after.
For example, the Boss Katana 50w amp sells for around $269, and a Fender Princeton sells for over $1,400 – quite a price difference.
Winner modeling amps
Where modeling amps really shine is in their settings and versatility. While a tube amp may sound great overall, with warm overdrive tones and a vintage-sounding bite, modeling amps has many more settings. The digital technology used in modeling amps allows for a seemingly endless amount of settings, effects, and tones. You can go from playing out of a Fender Twin Reverb to a Vox AC15C1 in a matter of seconds!
Pros and cons of using a modeling amp
- Versatility: allows guitarists to access a wide range of different amp sounds and effects, often with the ability to switch between them quickly and easily.
- Portability: modeling amps are often smaller and lighter than traditional tube amps, making them easier to transport and set up for gigs or recording sessions.
- Affordability: modeling amps can be less expensive than traditional tube amps, making them a more accessible option for many guitarists.
- Flexibility: modeling amps often come with built-in effects and processing, reducing the need for additional pedals or gear.
- Consistency: with modeling amps, guitarists can achieve a consistent sound and tone, regardless of the venue or recording environment.
- Sound quality: some guitarists argue that modeling amps do not sound as warm or responsive as traditional tube amps and may lack the dynamic range and tonal nuance of analog gear.
- Latency: digital processing can introduce latency or delay into the guitar signal, which can affect the feel and responsiveness of playing.
- Complexity: modeling amps can be complex and challenging to navigate, with many different settings and options to adjust.
- Limitations: while modeling amps offer a wide range of sounds, they may not be able to fully replicate the unique characteristics and idiosyncrasies of specific vintage or boutique amps.
- Reliability: digital gear can be more prone to technical glitches and malfunctions than traditional analog gear.
Lev’s pick: best modeling amp
I chose this amp because it offers a range of amp models, effects, and tone-shaping options in a compact and affordable package. This is an amazing amp for both beginners and professional recording artists. It comes loaded with a huge variety of effects, amp models, and tone options! Here are some of its features and specifications:
- Power: The Katana 50w Mk-II offers 50 watts of power through a custom-designed 12-inch speaker, making it suitable for small to medium-sized gigs or rehearsals. It also has a power control feature that allows you to switch between full power and 0.5 watts, making it ideal for home practice.
- Amp models: The Katana 50w Mk-II includes a range of 5 primary amp models, including Clean, Crunch, Lead, Brown, and Acoustic, as well as variations of each model that provide further tonal options. These amp models are designed to emulate the sound and feel of classic tube amps.
- Effects: Boss is known for their effects pedals primarily. With this amp, you can complement the amp models with a range of effects, including delay, distortion, reverb, modulation, and more.
- Tone shaping: The Katana 50w Mk-II provides a range of tone shaping options, including a 3-band EQ, a presence control, and a tone setting switch that adjusts the overall character of the amp. It also has a dedicated effects loop that allows you to insert external effects pedals into the signal chain.
- Connectivity: The Katana 50w Mk-II includes various connectivity options, including a headphone/recording output with cab emulation, an aux input for playing along with backing tracks, and a USB port for direct recording and editing using Boss’s Tone Studio software.
- User interface: The Katana 50w Mk-II has a simple and intuitive user interface, with dedicated knobs for each parameter and an LED-lit panel that displays your current settings. It also includes a range of built-in Boss effects pedals, which can be customized and saved as presets using the Tone Studio software.
Overall, the Boss Katana 50w Mk-II is a good choice for guitarists who want a portable and flexible solution for practice, recording, and gigging. Its simple and intuitive user interface, as well as its connectivity options and tone-shaping controls, make it a good option for guitarists of all skill levels.
Love them or hate them, modeling amps and digital amp modeling technology are here to stay and will continue to improve. Today’s modeling amps can emulate the sound and feel of classic tube amps with impressive accuracy and offer a range of features such as power attenuation, USB connectivity, and intuitive user interfaces. With continued advancements in technology, guitar modeling is likely to become even more prevalent and sophisticated in the years to come. Will they ever appeal to the purist? I think so.