Contrarian Guitarist: Digital Modeling Isn’t Bad, Your Expectation Of It Is.

lowered expectations

For those of you that didn’t automatically throw your digital reading device across the room or unsubscribe, allow me to explain.

Like it or not, digital modeling has been around for a few decades, it’s improving, and it’s not going anywhere.  Us guitarists for some reason tend to be a cantankerous, stubborn, and contrarian bunch of curmudgeons when it comes to how we make noise.  I understand the sentimentality, but logically it still just seems insane to me.  We’ll hold on to this specific antique technology, which will then get captured into a digital medium in hopes people will listen to it on their digital devices after the file has been compressed and magically transmitted through the air on technology we can barely comprehend.  I mean, to each their own, and if you want to hold on to your 100 watt/lbs tube amp until the last tube manufacturer goes out of business, by all means knock yourself out, have a blast, have a ball.  I have a few of those amps and I will cherish them forever.

There are two types of realms in the digital modeling fantasy land:
-Direct/Headphone/Cab Emulated Sounds
-Digital Modeling Amps

This will focus more on the Direct/Headphone/Cab Emulated sounds.

When using digital modeling in the form of a Direct/Headphone/Cab Emulated type of application (Line 6 POD, VST Plugins, Phone Apps, etc.,), it kind of plays a trick on us guitarists.  Most of us have spent countless thousands of hours playing through a “traditional” amp with the soundwaves hitting our eardrums directly from the guitar speaker.   This raw sound has become what we’re used to hearing when we’re playing our guitars.  Some of us even use this visceral bond with our gear to almost play off our interaction with the amp, which adds another layer of aural joy to our beloved hobby/job.

However, when it comes to listening to guitar, 99% of the “holy grail” guitar tones we’ve ever fawned over have been in the form of recorded music.  These recorded guitar sounds we hear could have 1,000 different factors affecting it.  It starts with the guitar speaker, which then hits a microphone (or 10) then through microphone preamps, compressors, outboard gear, EQs, effects, THEN it gets mixed, mastered, pressed, uploaded, converted, buffered, compressed, and THEN gets colored by your car stereo EQ or headphone amp on your digital device and THEN it finally hits your eardrums.  Digital modeling tends to replicate the sound AFTER it has been mic’d and processed.  Even 99% of live shows you attend today will have the final guitar sound you hear being the result of mic’ing and processing through the sound system.  It’s a completely different tone from the aspect of the player, but, it’s the tone we’re used to hearing as listeners.

Why is there such a disconnect between “playing” tones and “listening” tones?

It’s time to get down to the title thesis of this blog post.  If you plug into a digital modeler and expect to hear the sound of your amp’s speakers hitting your eardrums, that’s not what it is, that’s not what it is meant to be, and you will probably be disappointed.  When you think about it, most recording done these days will have the guitarist sitting in the control room in front of the studio monitors with the amp in a soundproof room down the hall.  Playing through a “direct” style of digital modeling provides that same type of playing experience, even without the million dollar studio budget.

Don’t throw the digital baby out with the modeling bath water.

A lot of today’s modeling technology has gotten so good at converting 1’s and 0’s into soundwaves that in a mix it is probably indistinguishable to 99% of the people who will ever hear it (most people aren’t musicians….).  High-end modelers like Kemper, Axe-FX, and Line 6 Helix have pushed the boundaries and nuances to the point that a blindfold test can trick even some of the best in the business.  Here is an older video of my band.  One of us is using an all tube amp.  One of us is using a digital modeler.  Can you tell which is which?

There are is also modeling in the form of guitar amps, such as the Line 6 Spider, Fender Mustang, Boss Katana, and Marshall Code, just to name a few.  These come with a completely different set of expectations.  These amps tend to be priced for entry level musicians and have a solid state power section.  Most amps in this vein tend to have some of the worst speakers on the market.  It doesn’t matter how good the modeling is, if its coming through a subpar speaker, you’re going to get a subpar sound.  Back to expectations, if you’re playing a $200 modeling amp, don’t expect it to provide the same experience as a $3,000 Mesa Boogie.  The same way you don’t expect a $200 Marshall MG solid state amp to sound like a $3,000 vintage  Marshall JCM800 Stack.  A speaker upgrade can go a long ways with a modeling amp like this.   So many guitarists I know played one of these amps one time and associate all digital modeling with that terrible speaker.

The trick is to know what to expect when using digital modeling.  If you expect to feel soundwaves rustling your underbritches which playing through headphones, you’re going to be disappointed.  If you expect the sound of raw guitar speaker to eardrum, you’re going to be disappointed.  If you expect a Line 6 Spider with an 8″ speaker to sound like a stack, you’re going to be disappointed.  But, if you expect to hear a polished “end product” type of sound when plectrum hits strings, then I think you’d be pleasantly surprised by how good this technology can sound.  Especially in the new world of Impulse Response (IR) cab simulation, the technology is only improving.  As the manufacturers recoup the return on investment from the high end modelers, the technology will become more affordable and accessible to even the most novice amongst us.

The future is looking bright.  And digital.


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