One of the great inventions of modern recording is that of guitar amp simulators. Early designs by Line 6 were OK but sounded very “fake”. Fine for live gigs but for serious studio recording NOT A CHANCE!
Fast forward to 2017. Computer processors are much faster and digital signal processing programmers have become much better. Simply plug your guitar into a direct box (or audio interface instrument input) and start playing! Even if you live in an apartment, you can record electric guitar with ease without getting the cops called on you.
First, the freebies. Don’t be put off by their price. Many of these can compete right alongside the paid plugins. If you like them a donation is much appreciated!
No doubt I missed many others but those are the ones I could think of off the top of my head. When I think of more I’ll update this article.
As for the paid simulators, I’ll break it down into three categories. Cleans, crunches and high gain distortion (heavy).
Most amp simulator plugins have nice clean sounds, but just a few of them react like the real thing. These are my purchase suggestions:
For lighter classic rock distortion and blues crunches I love the sound of Scuffham S-Gear. S-Gear’s cleans also sound excellent! PRS SuperModels sounds great with crunch tone as well. Overloud TH3 is a great all-around guitar amp/cab/stomp box plugin. The Rock 64 amp in particular is just stellar. Another alternative if you love Marshall amps is Mercurial Spark.
Speaking of Mercurial, their ReAxis plugin is a great all-arounder. It’s an emulation of the Mesa Boogie Triaxis rackmount preamp which itself is very nice. ReAxis also includes a few stomp pedals and cabinets as well.
For you hard rock/heavy metal players I’m a fan of the following:
Neural DSP’s Fortin Nameless Suite (the best heavy metal/high gain amp plugin as of November 2018)
Joey Sturgis Toneforge
Positive Grid BIAS Amp Desktop
Mercurial Tube Amp Ultra 530
If you can only buy a handful of these due to a tight budget, I would get Scuffham S-Gear (covers crunches and cleans), Bluecat Audio Axiom (good all-arounder including Bass), Neural DSP’s Fortin Nameless Suite for heavy distortion and Kuassa Cerberus for bass.
One plugin type you’ll run into is something called cabinet impulse responses (IRs). A lot of plugins can emulate guitar amps well but fail at speaker cabinet emulation. This is where the third party solutions come in.
Two of my favorites are the Rosen Digital Audio collection and Kazrog Recabinet. Others swear by Sigma Audio IRs. The speaker company Celestion has their own official IRs as well. Any of these would be excellent choices.
Many guitar amp plugins have built in IR loaders. If they don’t, you’ll need to disable (bypass) the built-in cabinet emulator and then put something like Rosen Digital Audio’s Pulse after it.
If you have deep pockets and want a hardware solution then the Kemper Profiler Amp is the one to turn to. It has a large community and third party profile support base around it. Many famous guitar players use it while touring and to my ears it sounds fantastic. The competitor to the Kemper is Fractal Audio’s Axe-Fx III.
As for stomp box effects, Positive Grid Bias FX makes the top of my list. For quality and variety, it is hard to beat. Kuassa’s recent offering called Efektor is very nice but the variety isn’t quite there yet. Want free effects? TSE has a few to check out.
This article was updated on September 30, 2017 to add Ampeg SVX2.
This article was updated on February 2, 2018 to add Sigma Audio IRs and Mercuriall ReAxis.
This article was updated on May 4, 2018 to add Waves PRS SuperModels and Bluecat Audio Axiom.