I love tube amps. After years of playing through a solid-state Polytone Mini Brute II in jazz school, I came to my senses and picked up a 1970 Fender Princeton from Craigslist for $500. There is nothing quite like pushing air through a slightly dirty on the edge of break up tube amp. Likewise, nothing can compare to opening a tube amp up and letting it scream. The feel of the moving air from the speaker. The warm glow of the tubes. Tone. One reason tube amps sound so good is that we like familiar things. Most of the classic electric guitar tones that we know and love were recorded with tube amps. This same mentality and love of tube tone can be seen with microphone preamps and amongst hi-fi vinyl enthusiasts. Tubes add a warmth that digital and solid state have, for the most part, been unable to recreate.
Tube amps are also heavy and loud. Don’t misunderstand- I gig regularly with three separate tube amps (a Morgan RV-35, a Suhr Badger 18, and the aforementioned Fender Princeton). I also find myself in situations that benefit from a quiet stage such as churches and wedding gigs. Stage volume, along with quick set up time, and ease of quick high-quality recording are the primary reasons I decided to venture to the digital realm.
We will take a look at the options, but first, allow me to share my back story with amp modelers.
In 2012 I got a Line 6 HD500, used it for a few church gigs, and promptly returned it to Guitar Center within the 45-day window. The tuner was awful and frankly, the sounds left a lot to be desired. Fast forward to 2013- between cruise ship contracts, I picked up an HD500x to minimize my rig and maximize my versatility while out at the open seas. While on the ship I used the HD500x mostly as a multi-effects unit into an amp or as a headphone amp for practice. This modeler also served me well back on land as a direct rig with cover bands until I decided to upgrade to a Kemper in 2015. The original plan was to sell my pedalboard and amp and go full on Kemper for all gigs. After one too many jazz gigs with the Kemper I missed my amp and decided to continue having digital and analog rigs. The Kemper sounded incredible but was ultimately difficult to tweak on the fly, the effects were okay at best, and it seemed to have way more routing capabilities than I would ever use. While I still owned the Kemper, I found a good price on a used Atomic Amplifire and thought I’d give it a shot. I spent some time A/B-ing the units, gigged with the Amplifire, and decided to sell the Kemper and use the price difference to buy my Suhr Badger 18. The Amplfire sounds excellent and also takes pedals extremely well. It is also capable of loading third party IR’s and I particularly like the M Britt Amplifire Pack.
After some time with the Amplifire, I am considering two vastly different options: upgrade to a Fractal Audio AX8 for better effects and more switches, or downgrade to the Atomic Firebox to use with my normal pedalboard. Fractal is running a black Friday sale throughout November which puts the AX8 at a $200 discount. This put me in GAS mode and I began scouring the internet while considering my options. Rather than continuing down that rabbit hole, I thought it may add more value to compile my options and put them up as a blog post (its been awhile).
I won’t go into full details of each unit- use the provided links to learn specifics about each option. Let’s take a look at those options.
The Kemper “lunchbox” has become a staple with many major touring acts and recording studios. It has extremely capable routing options and the sounds are incredible. The primary benefit of the Kemper over other options is its ability to “profile.” The Kemper uses some sort of witchcraft or magical fairy dust to recreate specific amps rather than relying solely on impulse responses and presets created by others. If you have a collection of amps that you love and want to make them portable, then the Kemper is probably for you. As I mentioned before, the effects in the Kemper simply aren’t that good but it does take pedals very nicely. Recording with the Kemper is a pleasure (likewise with the other modelers here). Simply plug it into an interface and you are guaranteed a good sound.The “lunchbox” comes in powered and unpowered versions in black/green and white/grey and they also offer a rackmount version and a floor controller.
Like the Kemper, you will see Fractal Audio’s Axe FX on many major stages. The routing capabilities of the Axe FX are even more versatile than the Kemper. You do not have access to profiling, but the sounds are incredible with stellar effects on par with the likes of Strymon, etc. Fractal also now offers a floorboard version called the AX8. As previously mentioned, I am considering upgrading from my Atomic Amplifire for one of these. While the AX8 has less processing power than its big brother, I think it just might fit my needs perfectly. The minimal setup time, routing capabilities, effect quality, and abiility to record easily make it an extremely viable option.
Line 6 Helix
Helix marks Line 6 really stepping up its game. Known for the many iterations of the Pod, they have finally added the ability to load third party IR’s. The Helix is also an extremely beautiful piece of gear with an almost Apple-like aesthetic. It also has impressive routing capabilities. I like the idea of incorporating additional pedals with the effects loop. Line 6 also offers a cheaper and less feature extensive version called Helix Lt. This might be a good option as an introduction to the digital world.
I currently own the original Atomic Amplifire (AF3). The sounds are incredible and the price and size are right. It takes pedals extremely well and has been super reliable for gigs. The three-button format is slightly limiting but it excels with a couple stompboxes or a midi-controller. The twelve button AF12 makes up for this but seems too large compared with the portability of the AF3 (especially considering that the effects are not particularly impressive). Atomic’s newest release- the Amplifire Box really has my attention. It is a pedal sized IR loader and can also run a hand full of the effects offered by the Amplifire. The primary benefits of the Firebox is that it is INEXPENSIVE and could be the perfect partner to a pedalboard to take your analog rig into digital.
There you have it. Switching over to a digital rig doesn’t have to mean giving up tube amps and pedalboards. Along with acting as a second set up, a digital rig can be a great and portable back up for your main rig. The amp modelers of today would be unrecognizable ten years ago. What a long way we have come and what a vast array of high-quality options currently exist.