There are a lot of benefits to going the amp simulator route as a guitarist. Cost and versatility are both huge advantages over real amps, because modelers can give you access to hundreds of different heads, cabinet, and effects sims in a single package. They’re also the most convenient and practical way to record guitars in your home studio.
Deciding between hardware, plugins, or both depends on what your needs are!
Amp Simulator Plugins vs. Hardware
If you simply plan to record guitars in your home studio, you can’t go wrong with plugins. Even stock amp modelers like Logic Pro’s Amp Designer can give you very high quality results. Plugins are also the less expensive option over hardware units, and you can collect a bunch of them for whatever tones you need—all for less money than a hardware amp simulator.
With plugins, it’s as easy and loading up your DAW and dropping it on a track. You can record or practice silently on headphones, or as loud as you’d like with studio monitors.
If you plan to jam with a band or perform live, or you just want the ability to connect to a physical speaker cabinet, you’ll need a hardware amp simulator. The best ones will cost about as much as a great tube head, but they also model hundreds of different amps, cabinets, and effects. As you can imagine, this is still a much, much cheaper option than collecting the ‘real’ stuff.
Hardware units make recording and practicing convenient as well, with seamless connection to your DAW via XLR direct outs (or even direct connection to your computer via USB), headphone outs for silent practice, and all the ease of a plugin but with an added tactile interface and the ability to play it like a real amp with a cabinet.
Fractal Audio’s Axe-FX series is the industry-leading hardware amp and effects sim. The Axe-FX III, released last year, is currently the most powerful and feature-rich guitar processor on the market. At around $2500 USD it isn’t cheap, but you have access to virtually any tone and combination of effects you could ever imagine.
The Kemper is a unique guitar processor. It’s a multi-effects processor, preamp, and optional power amp, with lots of connectivity to suit different playing situations from the studio to the stage.
It’s called a Profiler because it has the ability to accurately capture the sonic fingerprint of real amplifiers with a single button click. If you or your friends own a few tube heads you really love, you can capture and recreate them in the Kemper!
Line 6 is responsible for one of the first amp modelers ever created back in 1996. The Helix unit came out a couple years ago, and features 72 amps, 194 effects, 37 speakers, and 16 microphones for custom tone shaping.
It comes as a rack unit head, a floorboard unit, or even a native plugin!
Amp Simulator Plugins
There are tons of great amp sim plugins on the market. These are just a sample of some of the tops choices out there.
AmpliTube 4 is a guitar/ bass amp and effects sim as a standalone application or as a plugin.
AmpliTube emulates an entire guitar/bass signal chain from instrument to recording device in a realistic and intuitive way. It comes with 33 pedals, 25 amps, 29 cabs, 12 mics, and 15 rack effects units designed for recreating realistic analogue guitar tones in a simple plugin.
In addition IK Multimedia’s own amp and cab designs, Amplitube also comes with emulations of amps by Fender, Marshall, Vox, Mesa/Boogie, and Roland!
The developers over at Neural DSP have really blown up over the past few years because of their painstakingly accurate emulations of Fortin amplifiers. If you’re looking for a state-of-the-art virtual amp plugin, Neural DSP is definitely worth trying.
Their most recent release was the Archetype amp designed in conjunction with Australian virtuoso Plini. It’s a very versatile amp, from crystal cleans to high gain, suiting Plini’s eclectic playing style. Their Fortin emulations are also incredible!
Toneforge by Joey Sturgis Tones is a proprietary line of virtual amps “made for and by musicians, producers, and engineers.” Rather than attempting to emulate classic amps, Toneforge features all original designs for the highest quality virtual amp experience possible.
From JST, “Toneforge takes any direct input guitar signal all the way to fully mixed guitar tone with unique all-in-one design.”
Toneforge is geared more towards metal/hard rock players, with signature amps by Jason Richardson, Misha Mansoor, and even a bass amp by Rex Brown.
Native Instruments first put out Guitar Rig in 2004 and included three tube amp emulations. Over the past 15 or so years, Guitar Rig has naturally grown up quite a bit!
Guitar Rig 5 currently comes packaged with 17 amps, 27 cabinets, and 54 effects. Native Instruments’ award-winning Dynamic Tube Response Technology lets you create incredible tones with and natural-feeling virtual amp experience.
There’s also offers a free version called Guitar Rig 5 Player with one amp model, 17 cabs, and 13 effects.
BIAS Amp 2 by Positive Grid another fantastic virtual amp designer. Like the majority of amp sims, the plugin recreates the tone and feel of a real tube amp.
BIAS Amp lets you mix and match components to create your ideal amp. It comes with a feature called Amp Match which allows users to clone the tone of real hardware, or you can connect to the ToneCloud to gain access to thousands of custom amps from artists and recording studios.