Amp modeling now offers such realism and convenience it requires a special occasion to mic up an actual combo or stack. Plug-ins like Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig and IK Multimedia’s Amplitube evoke the essence of Fender, Vox, Marshall, and more. But having just depleted your piggy bank for Ableton Live, you may not be ready to shell out another hundred or two for amp modeling software. Fear not—if you bought the Live Suite, you can get a gamut of amp and effect sounds without any further spending by using the Amp and Cabinet plug-ins included with the DAW. Combining these two plug-ins with a few others—some included in basic Live, some available free on the interweb—you can dial up “virtually” any guitar sound. Let me show you how to build a software amp and effects rig that will have you thinking twice before throwing that SM-57 in front of your amplifier.
You are likely to find yourself using this rig on a variety of projects, so to make access easy, let’s set up an Audio Effects Rack containing everything you need. First create a track and call it Guitar input. This is where you will install the amp and effect modeling rack. By routing this affected input to any track that requires guitar, you can avoid multiple instances of the rack, saving CPU. If you have bytes to burn, you can, of course, use the rack on as many tracks as you like.
Drag and drop an Audio Effects Rack into the Guitar input track and click on its icon with the three dots and three parallel lines. Into the area that reads, “Drop Audio Effects Here,” drag the Amp and Cabinet plug-ins. If you primarily do clean funky rhythm work, set the amp type to Clean (read: Roland JC-120) and stick with the cabinet default settings. For traditional jazz you might want to change the microphone from Condenser to Dynamic, eliciting a warmer tone. Boost mode will put you in the Vox area, especially with the 2×12 cabinet setting. The Rock amp offers classic rock a la Marshall—here the 4×12 cabinet is suggested. Lead and Heavy also benefit from the 4×12 configuration to produce variations on heavy metal grit in the Mesa-Boogie Rectifier zone. The Blues option is particularly expressive, offering a realistic, dynamic response to pick attack, and adding tube-like warmth to clean and slightly gritty settings.
At lower gain settings, all these amps clean up nicely when you back off the guitar volume. Feel free to experiment by varying the Gain, swapping out cabinet configurations, or changing the mic type and axis. As with real amps, higher Gain can add amp noise, so if you live for more distorted settings you might want to add Live’s Gate plug-in to your rack.
Stomp On It
Place it in the Audio Rack in front of Live’s Amp and—presto—you have a Tube Screamer-type drive to add at will. This is where the rack configuration starts to come in handy. We have configured the TSTSE808’s drive and tone controls to the Live GUI by clicking Configure and rotating the knobs on the original GUI. It is easy to then set two Macro controls to modulate the amount, keeping these parameters available when collapsing the rack.
Overdrive is timeless, but these days fuzz is all the rage. The Saturator plug-in supplied in basic Live can be set up to add impressively dynamic Fuzz Face flavor. Start with the default, choose Hard Curve, boost the Drive to about 4 dB, and pull the Output down to -7 dB. If you wish to soften the sound, place it in front of a slightly overdriven amp setting, or combine it with the TS-999 set for low Drive. Here too, we map the Drive and overall Output to the rack controls.
Unlike Big Muff-style fuzz, Fuzz Face fuzz is very interactive; the sound you get varies greatly depending on the type and amount of amp and overdrive gain stages further down the chain. It is also affected by the guitar’s volume control level. The Saturator will clean up like a Fuzz Face when you back off your instrument volume, creating Hendrix-style rhythm tones unavailable any other way. This is all part of the fun, so experiment.
Like fuzz, tremolo has returned to favor after an absence. Live’s Auto Pan can be used as a creditable mono tremolo: reduce the Phase setting and Shape to zero, choose sine wave, and adjust the Amount and Rate to taste. Modern chopper effects are as easy as turning up Shape and Amount, and/or choosing a harder-edged waveform. You can pretty much place this effect anywhere you like in the chain. We have changed the Rate to synched mode, but for an authentic vintage effect you can leave it in the Hz setting. You will want to map the rate and amount to the rack Macro controls.
Basic Live also offers chorus and flanging plug-ins. The internet is rife with free pedal-style emulations as well, so build your rack up as much as you think you need, but like a real pedal board, the simpler the signal chain the better the tone.
Your rig thus far should a sound pretty good—provided you are using the best interface you can afford and making sure the input level of your guitar is not overloading or under powering the DAW. Still, a few things can heighten the realism of your virtual rig.
Live’s Dynamic Tube plug-in will very subtly enhance the warmth of your virtual valve tone. You don’t want to add so much drive that it distorts: you should just barely hear a rounder bottom and softer top end. Throwing in Live’s EQ Eight will let you fine tune any frequencies you fell need boosting or cutting.
The tubes in amps impart a subtle compression you feel more than hear. Add Live’s Compressor with a ratio of 2:1, an attack of about five milliseconds, a slow release, and a threshold of -26 dB. This will make your rig feel more like the real thing, and help it sound more like a finished record.
These last two effects needn’t be mapped as they are of the set-it-and-forget-it variety.
Air It Out
The true test of real amp is how good it sounds in a room, without artificial ambience like reverb or delay. Set properly, your rig should now sound pretty good dry—but who doesn’t like a little delay or ’verb?
Live offers a couple of delays, but for analog-aping awesomeness it is hard to beat TAL Togu’s TAL-Dub. This plug-in, available at kunz.corrupt.ch, does a great imitation of a classic tape echo. Whether used for a simple rockabilly slap, Pink Floyd echoes, or reggae dub effects, it offers analogue-like warmth, ease of use, and a beat synch option. Did I mention it is free? Set it for manual, bring the resonance way down, and link the delays together to emulate an analog delay pedal. For tape delay sounds you will want to increase the resonance; this helps model the changes in tone as tape delays repeat over time. By mapping the delay time and feedback to the Macro controls, you can link them with a MIDI controller to create cool dub effects. Be sure to map the blend control as well; you want to be able to quickly lower the volume as the feedback runs away, to avoid speaker and/or hearing damage. Unfortunately it is not available in a 64-bit version, so unless you can figure out a wrapper workaround you may have to spring for something like Audio Damage’s Dub Station.
Live’s Reverb makes a perfect final link in your rack’s chain. Use it on Eco setting to save CPU and mimic to the lo-fi sound of springs, or bump it to High for lush Lexicon-style ’verbs. Turning the Stereo setting down to zero will let you place your guitar precisely in the mix, while still adding air.
Once you have your amp rack configured to taste and mapped to the Macro controls, you can set up a MIDI foot controller to turn individual effects on and off in true stomp fashion, and/or an inexpensive hand controller to quickly adjust parameters, as if you were twisting the knobs on a real amp or pedal.
Elaborate, effects-laden amp modeling software like Guitar Rig, Amplitube, and Studio Devil Amp Modeler Pro, are certainly worth the money, but you can learn a lot, have great fun, and cover a wealth of sonic territory for a pauper’s price with this simple setup.