A more authentic playing experience

By Mats Nermark

Digital modelers sound better than ever. But according to many there still is an element missing. That is the feel you get when playing a tube amp. We have therefore investigated if we can approach a more authentic playing experience using some tools together with digital modelers.

There are many good digital modelers on the market today. Boss GS-10 and Line 6 PODxt are just two of them. In the care of a guitarist with a sense of how it should sound it can be hard to say how “real” it sounds when listening to it in the context of a mix. Personally, I’m satisfied with the way the two units mentioned sound when I use them.

What I’m not happy with however, is the way these units respond to my playing. It just doesn’t feel like I’m playing a conventional amp. They don’t react the same way to differences in pick attack or to changes to the guitar volume and tone controls.

Train of thought
Old brochures are fun and I found one about the Hughes & Kettner zenTera amp. It told of the time and effort spent on creating a proper input stage. The zenTera is the modeler I think has the most authentic feel so there is probably something to the idea of a good input stage. What products could then be used to aid the modelers in the right direction?

Restore the dynamics
It is obvious that the manufacturers make design compromises to hit certain price points. Discussions on the Internet reveal that many guitar players are trying to solve the problem of inferior “playing feel” and that they are willing to pay for it.

One way to restore the dynamics to some degree is to hook up a good clean boost pedal in front of the modeler. Preferably with tone controls if you feel the need to tailor the sound a bit further. My opinion is that you can play with better dynamics this way. It’s like the guitar is happier with a boost in the signal chain. Just make sure you don’t set the boost with the gain too high, as that will distort your modeler.

I think the Zoom PD-01 gives good results. As that isn’t in production anymore there is the Xotic RC Booster, which is a notch better. If you think that is too expensive then the Barber Electronics Launch Pad may be better. It doesn’t have any tone controls but it has an A/B function so you can switch between to amps or modelers.

One particularly nice booster is the Switchbone (SEK 3.495:-) from Radial Engineering. This unit has a very flexible class-A boost where you can chose if you want a volume boost, midboost or both. The Switchbone also has an A/B function for switching between amps as the name implies.

Impedance
How does it work if you want to use a computer sound card and a software modeler like Amplitude or VST Warp? Not at all well, unfortunately. This has a lot to do with impedance. A guitar signal with high impedance doesn’t go too well with the input on a sound card or a mixer that has high impedance. The guitar usually works a bit better into a mixer but due to some factors you will get less than optimal sound.

In these circumstances I have tried the Radial Dragster (SEK 595:-). The purpose of the Dragster is to provide the guitar with an input it “likes” before the signal goes on to a wireless system. I connected the Dragster between my guitar and my DI-box and got both better sound and playing feel when using Amplitude and such like. I also noticed improvement with the Dragster in front of a Boss GS-10 and PODxt. Not the least when playing electric bass. The Dragster has a wheel so you can set the amount of influence the Dragster will have for each individual instrument. The Switchbone has a Dragster circuit built in if you want it all in one package. A Dragster is recommended to all users of digital modelers.

So you can get a more authentic playing experience if you experiment a bit to see what fits your personal sound preferences and playing style. Best of all, it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg.

 
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