Amplitube Fender Pre-release Beta

Saturday, February 28, 2009| by Jeff Baker

I'd like to jump right in to the review, but because this is a pre-release beta version of the software I do have to say that while it was very stable and, as you will see below, sounded very polished indeed to me, there is the possibility that something or things could be changed in the final version as this version has not yet been approved for release by Fender.

The first question some will have about Amplitube Fender, IK's newest addition to their “Powered By Amplitube” software suite, is a reasonable one: “Do we need more Fender models?” After all, in the powered-by-Amplitube suite there are currently two models of the Bassman (one in Amplitube 2, one in Jimi Hendrix, each modeling a different characteristic vintage of the amp); in Amplitube 2, a Deluxe Reverb 65 and a Super Reverb; and in Amplitube Jimi Hendrix a Dual Showman and a Twin Reverb. Going into this review process, I was therefore somewhat skeptical about the idea of an Amplitube product dedicated solely to Fender amps. However, within just a few minutes of plugging into the StompIO controller and audio interface and firing up X-Gear, the reality hit me: this isn't a retread of the same old amps, but an entirely new playing field, a product that provides what is certainly the definitive collection of Fender tones. IK Multimedia, with the help of Fender's golden-ear engineers, have given the digital world some of the most intimately modeled analog tones to date, not only old favorites but newer great-sounding amplifiers as well, and a variety of them which will satisfy any musician and give audio engineers an extremely powerful studio tool for sculpting the perfect sound “in the box.”

Before I get to the good stuff, I'd be remiss if I didn't say a few necessary words on what it takes to use the product to get good results. Of course you have to have a computer and a DAW capable of hosting plug-ins (as usual with any IK product, they provide plugins in all three prominent formats: VST, AU, and RTAS), and you need an honest set of monitors (speakers for non-studio-junkies). But one thing that is often overlooked is the need for a quality audio interface to go from your guitar to your computer. Now, if you've got a studio already, you know this, but many hobbyists who would greatly benefit from the flexibility, relatively low cost, and outstanding tones of this program might not be aware that you can't simply plug your guitar's output into your sound card. First, that would result in an impedance mismatch between your guitar and the input which would completely mangle the sound itself, but secondly and as importantly most non-professional sound cards have very high latency, or the amount of time it takes for the sound to go into your computer, be processed, and come out to your monitors. Needless to say, noticeable delay between playing and hearing the notes is extremely jarring. Thankfully there are a number of audio interfaces designed specifically for use with guitars. IK Multimedia's current product is the StompIO, a very high quality unit with a warm class A preamp and highly integrated control functions for their X-Gear plugin environment. They also have the upcoming, value-conscious StealthPedal, which will be USB-powered and which will be usable as a midi controller for anything in the DAW, with the same expansion options as StompIO. The advantage of using an IK Multimedia unit with their Powered By Amplitube software is clear enough: 100% seamless integration, optimized latency, and a “sound” that is designed from the start to complement their software. Though quality audio interfaces are somewhat expensive, they are very well worth it if you want to achieve realistic, professional tones using your computer-based modeling setup.

The amplifiers in Fender cover a wide variety of tones...offering a palate of Fender tones that would satisfy any aficionado, from the warm jangle of the Twin to the woody overdrive of the 6V6-powered Deluxe amps...

With that information out of the way, time to talk about Amplitube Fender! You may or may not know this about me (depending on whether or not you read my blog), but when it comes to amp modeling, I am a true tech geek. I love to know what's really going on “behind the scenes,” and I've found that many software companies – though necessarily limited in what they can talk about, given the competitive, secretive nature of the industry – are very proud of their accomplishments and are willing to talk about some of the details that make their products stand out. IK Multimedia is no exception, as anyone who has called their Florida-based U.S. office will know. After experiencing some of the tones that Fender has to offer, I called up the guys at IK and asked them a few questions. They couldn't answer all of them, but what they were willing to tell me, I'll relate to you.

One of the things I noticed very quickly on using the product is that the reverbs (the built-in original reverbs on the amplifiers, the before-amp '63 Reverb discrete unit, and the Ambience slider) exhibit a great deal of character and realism. When I asked IK about that, they explained that the reason for that true-to-lifeness is that the reverb is all one hundred percent convolution-based, using proprietary technology. Anyone who is familiar with Impulse Response technology knows that the most realistic reverberations available today (as well as some of the most realistic cabinet simulations on the market) are done via convolution, and Amplitube Fender takes full advantage of the power and authenticity of convolution in both their reverbs and cabs. While on the subject of authenticity, I learned that the amplifiers in Fender are modeled in such detail that even the potentiometers (or, for the electrically disinclined, the knobs) are electrically tapered identically to the real amps. All of this realism was necessary, they told me, because Fender used the same certification process that the use on their real amplifiers to pass or fail the modeled amps – more than just a license to use their name, Fender had the last word on certifying the virtual amplifiers, and to get that certification, the amplifiers and effects had to behave exactly as their physical counterparts would, down to the taper of the knobs. Before I got off the phone, I asked them a question I thought many readers would want to know: are all of these amps really completely new, done-from-scratch models? I wasn't certain they could answer that, but they did, and confirmed that in fact every model in the program is done from the ground up, without any cut corners. And thinking about it, I don't imagine Fender would have given their stamp of approval any other way. Whether the photorealistic graphical representations of the effects, amps, and cabinets were Fender's idea or IK Multimedia's, I can't say, but even though it's “just” aesthetics, I appreciate the attention to detail even in the way everything looks when you load it up and start adjusting. A good GUI earns some praise.

Now that you know a bit about the idea and scope of Amplitube Fender, I imagine you're curious about the nuts and bolts: how does it sound? The amplifiers in Fender cover a wide variety of tones, some of which you are probably familiar with and some of which might be quite new. Of course they couldn't release a product called Amplitube Fender without offering the classic Fender amps, and the classics are here: the '59 Bassman, the '65 Twin Reverb, the '57 Deluxe, the '65 Deluxe Reverb, and the '64 Vibroverb Custom are all here in top form, offering a palate of Fender tones that would satisfy any aficionado, from the warm jangle of the Twin to the woody overdrive of the 6V6-powered Deluxe amps. These amplifiers and all of the others, too, exhibit the pinnacle of IK Multimedia's biggest strength, which is the realistic and dynamic way in which the amps respond to your playing – just like a real tube amp, without changing a single setting you can go from sparkly clean to gritty overdrive just by playing softly or really digging in to the strings. I have played these amps for musicians who aren't guitarists or tech-savvy, and when I ask them what they liked about it the universal response has been something like “the way it can sound lighter or heavier depending on how you're playing.” That is a coveted facet that is necessary for a modeler to achieve realism, and Amplitube Fender has it big time.

Some of the amplifiers, like the '64 Vibroverb Custom, feature an interesting “Mod” switch (in addition to any other controls that were on the amp, such as the usual Fender Bright switch) which instantly changes the amplifier's circuit to include a popular or useful modification – in the case of the Vibroverb, it's a mod that Stevie Ray Vaughn had done to his Vibroverb which adds quite a bit of bite and gain to the amplifier's sound. Modern favorites are here, too, like the updated Champ 600 and the Pro Junior, both studio darlings that are as useful in this virtual world as they are in the real one. Another great modern amp is the Vibro-King, which has a built-in Fender '63 Reverb before the preamp and which has some of the most lush, glossy clean tones I've ever had out of any amp modeling program, as well as a distinctive overdriven tone which is flattering to a variety of guitar and pickup configurations.

Some of my favorite Fender amplifiers, though, are the ones which fall somewhat outside the usual Fender mold, and I think that many others will find themselves enjoying these amplifiers as well: take the SuperSonic, a very modern cascaded-preamp amplifier with a defined, smooth lead tone, powerful rhythm and a wide range of usable gain, or the MetalHead, an extremely high-gain, high quality solid-state amplifier which introduces a whole new tonal dimension to the arena of metal tones but which many passed by just because Fender is most associated with their classic, lower gain amps. And then there are the modern bass-intended designs that Fender is obviously quite proud of, like the excellent, all-tube Bassman 300 with a professional feature set that makes it useful both for a great variety of BIG bass tones but which also has a great array of warm, almost fuzzy guitar tones when overdriven, just like the '59 Bassman which was originally conceived to amplify the P-Bass but which quickly made its mark on the guitar world. And if the Bassman 300 somehow doesn't give you that specific bass tone you're after, there's the TBP-1 Bass Preamp which has an entirely different arena of sounds for the discerning bassist. My wife is the bassist in the family, and she really enjoyed playing her electric-upright through the TBP-1's “Vintage” channel, which has an open tone that flatters her bowed style.

All of the cabinets are extremely well modeled and fit their respective amps like a glove... However, there's one cabinet in Amplitube Fender which really stands out. The Vibratone cabinet is, without a doubt, the most impressive rotary cabinet simulation in any amp modeling product I have used...

Of course amp models wouldn't be very useful without speakers, and IK has really outdone themselves in the cabinet modeling department this time. If any of you have followed the development of their products, the growth in the quality of their speaker cabinet modeling from Amplitube 2 to the Amplitube Jimi Hendrix and Amplitube Metal plug-ins could be seen as foreshadowing the jump in authenticity that they have accomplished with Amplitube Fender. Each amplifier's own cabinet is modeled in as much depth as any Amplitube product to date, and the collection of mics (an integral part of the cabinet simulation module) has grown to include favorite microphones from their past products, including the excellent Neumann, Sennheiser, and AKG models that have been with them since the beginning, but also the lovely Beyerdynamic ribbon mic model that was introduced with Amplitube Jimi Hendrix and two entirely new Groove Tubes mic models which round out the collection with both modern and vintage-inspired tones. Between the variety and quality of cabinets available and the large collection of microphone models, the sound from the amplifiers can be captured any way you can think to do so.

All of the cabinets are extremely well modeled and fit their respective amps like a glove, not to mention the variety of tones that can be had from mixing and matching cabinets. However, there's one cabinet in Amplitube Fender which really stands out. The Vibratone cabinet is, without a doubt, the most impressive rotary cabinet simulation in any amp modeling product I have used (and that is quite a substantial list). It is a model of the Fender Vibratone 1x10, and uses a Leslie Model 16 speaker; the motor has switchable Slow/Fast operation, and the rotary effect is switchable between Stereo and Mono operation for the greatest variety of tones. While “Mono” mode provides an extremely realistic rotary effect that would fool the most picky guitarist in a blind test, “Stereo” mode really shines as the soundstage opens up and puts your guitar afloat in a sea of warbling melody. Since not every amplifier sounds best going into a 10” speaker, they have provided within the Vibratone cab module the option of an “Auxiliary Speaker,” where you can select any of the other Amplitube Fender cabs to receive the low and high frequencies while the crucial midrange is sent to the Vibratone. What this means is that you don't lose the impact of the Metalhead or the SuperSonic's screaming lead, the twang of the Twin or the bloom of the Bassman; yet you keep the beautiful rotary sound of the Vibratone cabinet as well. All in all, this approach is extremely clever and the results are really something special.

The effects compliment of Amplitube Fender deserve some attention, as well. In the Stomp Module (which comes before the amplifier), apart from the standard Volume pedal, you get the Fender Blender, a unique octave-fuzz with adjustable octave mix and effective tone controls; the Fender Phaser, a warm, smooth phase effect which recalls the psychedelic shimmers that often accompanied Fender tones in the '60s and '70s; the Fuzz Wah, a versatile combo-effect with individual on-switches and an adjustable order for the greatest variety of tones; the very cool Tape Echo sim derived from the Fender Cyber Twin with realistic modulation and feedback (including that awesome unintended consequence that guitarists have loved for decades, the capability to oscillate wildly); and my favorite, the Fender '63 Reverb module, which recreates the much-respected tube Fender Reverb “heads” that have powered surf rock's dripping, intense sound and warmed up pop recordings for nearly half a century. The Rack Module (coming after the cabinet sim) has a range of effects taken from the Fender Cyber-Twin, including a post-amplifier version of the Tape Echo; a flawlessly tracking, polyphonic adjustable Pitch Shift module with tweakable feedback and pre-delay that can build your guitar's tone into something as massive as a pipe organ; Triangle Chorus and Sine Flange effects with useful adjustments and very nice sounds; a post-amplifier Wah effect switchable between Crybaby and Clyde modes; and an easy-to-use Compressor with four switchable levels of compression. With all of these options, even as a stand-alone modeler Amplitube Fender gives you a great deal of tone-shaping ability. In the context of Amplitube X-Gear, with the rest of the Powered-By-Amplitube products and controlled via StompIO or another midi controller, the new effects, amps, cabs, and mics interact with ones going all the way back to 2006's Amplitube 2 just as though they had been there all along. And thanks to the signal routing options that IK puts into all of their guitar-oriented Powered By Amplitube plugins, you can get any useful configuration of pedals, amplifiers, cabinets, and rack effects with a few clicks.

No product is flawless, and Amplitube Fender is no exception. The biggest critique that I would level at it is the lack of a post-Amplifier (Rack Module) reverb effect. While most of the amps have the same built-in reverb as the originals that works very well with the amp, and while the Stomp Module Fender '63 Reverb is as lush as can be, there are some circumstances where it simply isn't feasible to use a reverb before the amplifier. For examples from both sides of the sonic spectrum, the Champ 600 is a low gain amplifier that really squawks when you push it, and the Metalhead is intensely high-gain. Neither of them have a built-in reverb, and it is totally futile to try to use the Fender '63 Reverb in front of the Metalhead as anything but a jarring effect, as the reverberated signal receives as much brutal high-gain amplification as everything else. The Champ 600, granted, is more manageable with careful adjustment of the reverb Mixer control, and in the context of X-Gear there are a number of Rack Module reverb units (including Amplitube Jimi Hendrix's great Stereo Reverb), but for those buying Amplitube Fender as their introduction to the line or as a stand-alone product, they'll have to get their reverb from a separate plugin at least some of the time. I also think it's a shame that the flexible Rack “wah” effect, with its switchable Crybaby/Clyde operation, isn't present before the Amplifier section. The Fender Fuzz Wah is great, but since the Tape Echo appears both before and after the amps it seems like it would have been possible to have the same flexibility for the Rack wah. I would also have appreciated it if some of Fender's Starcaster line of compact pedals could have made it in, especially the Starcaster Distortion just for the sake of added variety. And it would have been cool if the Fender 5150 III could have made it in, but I'm going to go out on a limb and guess Mr. Van Halen would have put the kibosh on that – interviews seem to demonstrate that he's quite the traditionalist.

But given the many ways in which Amplitube Fender succeeds, these are small criticisms. Amplitube Fender provides a virtual arena of realistic tones, capturing the dynamic responsiveness of 50 years of tube amp designs and offering musicians and studio hands tones from classic to very modern. IK Multimedia got Fender's seal of approval on every amp, cabinet, and effect in the collection – and now they get mine, too. Either as a stand-alone product or to integrate into your existing Powered By Amplitube collection, you will find that this software brings us even closer to the day when the most ardent critics of digital modeling will be forced to admit not only the expediency of software modelers, but their power and authenticity as well.

Filed Under: Fender, Reviews