Don’t overspend on new guitar amps: get these 2 great Mac apps instead

As a musician, I’m a bit of an obsessive gear collector and like to have a variety of tones when I record. If I spent money on all the various amps and effects I need, I’d be bankrupt. Thankfully modeling programs like AmpliTube and Guitar Rig 5 let me experiment with different sounds on my guitar without enriching the bank account of my local shop. Each of these programs allow you to create sounds from just about any amp manufacturer (Marshall, Carvin, etc.) as well as a variety of stomp boxes all on your computer. This gives you incredible flexibility to create whatever sound you need to get your creative vision recorded.

There are two OS X modeling programs I’ve become quite enamored with: AmpliTube 3 Custom Shop (free, with in-app purchases for virtual gear) and Guitar Rig 5 Pro ($199). Both can also plug in directly to GarageBand for use in recording. To access them, create a new track as a Real Instrument and choose Edit from the right-hand palette. From there, you can choose from a variety of effect sources. Choosing AmpliTube or Guitar Rig from this menu will allow GarageBand to access these programs via a plug-in.

Plugging in

Unless you have one of the new Fender Squier guitars that has a micro-USB port built in (I have one; it’s nice), you’ll need an audio interface. For these purposes, I’m a big fan of Apogee’s Jam ($99). I also found that I needed to create a separate Aggregate input in Apple’s Audio Midi setup (not the Audio Midi setup in the programs) so I could use the Jam as well as my speakers. Until I did this, I’d get input but no sound.

Guitar Rig 5

At $199, Guitar Rig 5 isn’t cheap. I also found it the more versatile of the two programs. With gobs of presets you’ll have no problems finding the sound you want. Guitar Rig has 17 amps and 27 cabinets, as well as 54 different effects that will really let you dial in your sound.

My style tends to run towards ZZ Top, rockabilly and heavy metal. There were presets available that gave me all those sounds, including a Vai-type pitch shifter sound, so I was thrilled. In some ways, I was having too much fun trying out the different presets to actually get any recording done.

It’s important to note that these amps are “emulations” of popular amps, not licensed models. For instance, The VAN 51 amp is an emulation of Peavey’s 5150 amp. This doesn’t really bother me too much since even licensed simulations are just that — simulations. Even the 6505 model on my Peavey Vypyr is a computer’s best guess of that sound. There is also a Control Room module, where you can model different microphones and their placement which adds an extra bit of customization to your sound.

Native Instruments also has an optional $500 foot controller that would make it easier to swap between presets while playing. You could also use this live, accessing Guitar Rig 5 on a Mac. It’s not farfetched for me to think about having a MacBook angled up next to my stage monitors while I use the Kontrol as my footswitch.

AmpliTube 3 Custom Shop

With AmpliTube 3, The base software is free, with a minimal amount of basic amps included. To buy more amps and effects, you can purchase credits, which can be used to acquire more virtual gear. About $40 will get you get 45 credits. Most licensed amps run about 30 credits, and effects ranging between from five credits onward. Once you’ve bought a piece of gear, you’ll run AmpliTube to use the gear. Note: If it prompts you to authorize the software, you’ll find the key on your Account page.

During my testing of these two packages, all sort of sounds and squeals were coming from studio without much mention from my girlfriend, who is also a musician. However, one strum from the Carvin V3M I bought brought a “wow, nice tone” comment. Given that she likes Carvin amps, I took this as an endorsement that their official model was pretty damn close.

The chief advantage I see that AmpliTube has over Guitar Rig is that AmpliTube has official models of Carvin, Fender, Orange, and some Marshall amps, and more. When I started an app to play my guitar through, more often than not I gravitated toward AmpliTube and that Carvin V3M amp. It’s not that Guitar Rig’s settings were bad, I just found that Carvin model to be so pleasing to my ears. So pleasing, in fact, that I’ve added a real Carvin Legacy 3 amp to my wish list.

IKMultimedia also has a generous demo period for virtual gear. You can try a piece of gear for up to two days, every two months. This really lets you compare the sounds and evaluate how well they fit into your style.

I liked the customization in AmpliTube 3/Custom Shop. You can throw amps, cabinets and effects into a preset at will. While I found it look a little longer to get a sound I liked from AmpliTube than it did with Guitar Rig, I preferred the sound I ended up with more.

How I use them

It’s impossible for me to recommend one over another. My usage so far seems to fall into this pattern: my rhythm and general practice sounds come from AmpliTube (I love the Carvin V3M and the Orange Dual Terror amps), while my lead and exotic sounds come from Guitar Rig (there’s a setting called 1993 Hot Solo Rig I use for a vague hint of David Gilmour’s Division Bell sound, as well as just a cool echoey distorted lead channel). If you can afford it, I’d suggest getting Guitar Rig 5, and about $50 worth of amps and the like from AmpliTube’s custom shop. I think this will let you get some great sounds.

With any of these programs, even if using signature gear and settings, you’re still going to sound like yourself, not a famous artist. This is true even in physical gear. My live amp has a model of Joe Satriani’s amp. When I play it, I still sound like me, but with a better tone.

I’m thrilled with these two programs. With them, I can get any sound I want, and the presets usually spark some creativity just playing riffs while randomly cycling through them.