Recording Guitar - Simulators or Real Amps & Effects?

Jason Horton's picture
Hardware amps and effects vs software

Most people involved in music production are also musicians in their own right - and the same goes for me. As a child I learnt a few different instruments in school, but the one that really stuck with me and became my instrument of choice is the guitar.

Now when it comes to recording guitar there is an ongoing debate about whether it's better to use real hardware for your amplifiers and effects, or to use simulated cabs, modeled amps, and software emulating your favorite effects.

Personally I think this whole debate is a bit silly, but you see it raging on in forums with comments like "It just doesn't sound right unless it has that warm sound of real tubes", or "My guitar sounds best with the warmth of real tube emulations", or "I much prefer the harsh grittiness of digital distortion"... and so it goes.

I'm going to put this debate to rest once and for all....

All that matters is if YOU are happy with YOUR sound!

Really, it's that simple.

Music technology is in a state of constant evolution, but the gear which often gets used is dominated by something other than tech.

That latest gizmo that's all the rage today will often be forgotten about and left unused in years to come. And then sometimes that 'old sound' will become popular again and you'll find that prehistoric tube pre now costs more to buy second hand than it did when it was new years ago.

So what changed?

The answer is fashion.

For example think of Auto-Tune. It was a new technology that found it's way into the studio and used in secret. Later a couple of artists started using it as the dominant effect on their recordings. It then got done to death and later it largely disappeared back into the arsenal of post-production clean up tools.

So what should you use when recording guitar?

Just use the best gear you can afford which allows you to most productively achieve the sound you're looking for.

Let's break that statement down and look at the individual parts...

best gear This doesn't mean the gear everyone else says is best, it means the gear you get the best results with for your desired sound and hopefully your own personal style.
you can afford If you compare the cost of the leading software options against the best physical amps and effects, you'll quickly notice that the software option is cheaper. If the cheaper option works for you then use it subject to your productivity...
productively Sometimes when you've got a new piece of gear, or a new app, you can spend ages tweaking settings in search of your sound. I've noticed this tends to be more of a problem with software - you can burn up days going through 37 different cabs in combination with 54 amps and 92 emulated effects pedals. Sometimes it's more productive just to work with one guitar, one amp, and a handful of effects. If you get to know your guitar and amps & effects well you might be surprised at the versatility of a simple set-up, and you'll find your pre-production is more efficient as you quickly find the sounds you're looking for. If you don't believe me, here's some homework for you - go and find out how many different guitars, effects, and amplifiers Jimi Hendrix used on each album - the answer may surprise you!

A word of caution

I remember when desktop publishing first became popular. No training or skill was necessary - or at least it seemed. People with computers and laser printers everywhere were suddenly churning out letters, posters, flyers and all sorts of promotional material that looked like a dozen different people had all chosen their favorite fonts and forced them into the final product. The result was often a total mess.

Be careful when using software based effects that you don't go overboard and throw everything at your tracks just because you can. This can become a problem particularly when recording EPs or albums - the collective work can seem schizophrenic as you go from track to track. Instead, make sure each effect applied has real justification for being there, or as my Grandmother used to say about cooking - "When in doubt, leave it out".

Here are some tips on recording acoustic guitar and vocals together.