Guitarists constitute an important basis of the home studio market. These excellent consumers do not hesitate to sacrifice a big part of their budget for legendary guitars and amps, much more actually than for the microphones needed to record these elements, and all of this of course to get THE sound.
Digidesign probably got annoyed by this increasing part of its target going for plug-ins like Amplitube, GTR or Guitar Rig, and therefore decided to make its own amplifiers' emulations. But not in the way IK Multimedia, Waves or Native Instruments would do. Much more like Line6 or Softube: doing one thing only but doing it well, without counting on racks filled with effects to compensate for eventual modelling weaknesses. A good intention that turned into a demonstration of know-how, with 14 emulations of legendary tube amps plus 2 creations, 7 convolutions of loudspeakers' cabinets and 8 microphones to pick them…
So here's how the plug-in roughly looks like: an amp emulation, a cabinet modelling with a Speaker Breakup variable that introduces some distortion coming from the speaker's cone, a selection of microphones to be placed on or off axis, a noise gate and the possibility to mix all these parameters or to make uncommon combinations. Let's add a well thought MIDI Learn (in Pro Tools, yes it's true) and you get a fairly good picture of the whole thing. No microphone placement though, indeed we'll never see more than the top of the cabinet in the plug-in window. Now all of this leads us to ask a few questions:
Does this type of emulation really replace a tube amp? No, it only replaces a recorded tube amp, which is not the same at all! Think of the classic disappointment of the Soldano owner, as he records with a small SM57 this huge sound that makes his whole studio vibrate: inside of the mix it'll probably sound great, but the take is nothing like the amp in itself. So forget about the majestic power of the Soldano, we'll be looking for its colour instead.
Will it be possible to get everything one should be able to get from a tube amp this way? No, for instance there won't be any feedback (unless you put the sound extremely loud on your own loudspeakers during the takes, which is not to be recommended), nor will there be any real headroom, as the plug-in "mike" compensates for any eventual level increase (you can't tweak its gain by yourself), which puts us sometimes in a kind of blurry situation. Anyway the differences in the playing on a tube amp are rather well rendered here, although less important than on a real amp where a soft play on a heavily saturated sound should give a warm and clear sound for instance.
So in the end, what's making the difference? Well it all depends on the way you record your amps: what choice, what placement of microphones, what type and what use of preamps for the microphones, etc. In the case of an emulation the possibilities are huge compared to what you'd get in a home studio with a single static Chinese microphone and a small Marshall Transistor amp… They are a lot less impressive for those who have more resources, a precise idea of the sound they want, and who will take some time to chose, place and tweak each of the components. Thus one could for instance place static microphones one or two meters away from the amp (everything is close-up here), mix them with dynamic mikes next to the side of the membrane with a 45° angle, place another microphone in the back of the cabinet, play with the phase on a centimetre basis, oversaturate the preamps and compensate with compression…
The testing conditions
To make it clear once and for all the reign of quantity is really a sign of our times: if quality increases on a regular basis, we can still see the original material (often more than 30 years old) as a theoretical limit. And whatever we do we're still looking at this limit from below, with of course some undeniable advantages: work at a low volume, portability, diversification of the sound colours and mostly availability to everyone for a correct amount of money. Actually we had to admit that this system works well with practically any guitar. In terms of sound standardization it also leads to a paradox to think of all these available sonorities and combinations without the guitar itself (or the way it was recorded) making any big difference…
In this case we tested Eleven LE with a Fender Telecaster Custom Shop '63 (simple coil pickups) through a tube preamp Universal Audio 2-610, then with an Aria Pro 2 Custom type Les Paul (Humbuckers). Then we tried to see what it would give with true amps, here both Mesa-Boogie Dual Rectifier Blue Angel and Dual Caliber DC-3, with different microphones. Of course these are not the amps referenced here (that is why we didn't record them), but in this case it was clear that the play was more subtle and enjoyable, and the sound more flexible, plain and round (especially with the Telecaster) on the real gear. On the other hand in a mix Eleven works extremely well and that's just what we need it to do, mostly when you tweak it. Be careful though, as is often the case the presets should be avoided as much as possible, as there is so many possible variations to explore…
Now let's talk about Eleven LE : here one can separate the amp from the cabinet and its mike, which makes it possible to do diverse things. Like takes with several mixed mikes, with several cabinets, or even put several amps on one cabinet. More astonishing, one could as well use the output of a real amp in Eleven's speaker cabinet, or even use the plug's amp on real loudspeakers - in this case though you should check for the right output impedance. You get it, the possibilities are huge. In the associate examples we first tried Eleven with a clean solo sound (Fender '59 Tweed Deluxe and its cabinet) with a nice plate reverb from Kurzweil.
Then the same recording with a saturated sound, with less reverb though ('69 Marshall 1959 100-Watt Super Lead – Plexiglas Head with a '64 Fender Black Face Deluxe Reverb 1x12" with Jensen cabinet).
The result is nice and well defined with the Aria and its Humbuckers; strangely enough it was less interesting with the Telecaster. One thing to note, we never used any equalization or compression on the guitar sounds, this in order to hear the sound "as is" out of Eleven LE.
After that we integrated a rock drum loop made by Igorrr with two saturated guitars, and this time we systematically doubled the cabinets with 2 microphones, one on and one off axis. A phase modulation wasn't necessary here but could have been obtained on a sample basis with a short delay, which once again increases a lot the sonic choices.
In one case there are two Aria guitars:
In the other there's an Aria on the left and a Telecaster on the right.
It is clear that the difference between the two guitars is remarkably smaller than on a true amp, but the sound is working very well in both cases. Is that a good thing, or should we regret it? Well it's just a matter of taste, a great advantage for small budgets and a noticeable loss for the owners of rare collection pieces.
Finally let's point out that the Power Chord play wasn't as good as on a real amp, the power you get on a Soldano for instance being somehow far above its emulation. Therefore we'll use our favourite stacks of pedals before the input for that special purpose. Anyway the whole thing remains very nice and smooth to use, and very natural sounding in a mix. Our favourites: the VOX AC30, JCM 800 and Digidesign Custom Vintage Crunch, a home creation which is a sort of best-of in its genre!
Particular mentions to the MIDI Learn, which is rare in Pro Tools and allows a truly more intuitive work on the sound, but mostly to the excellent Speaker Breakup parameter, which allows to make the speaker saturate more or less and adds an infinity of colours. Remarkable and unique, as far as we know.
Microphones and CPU
So we've got plenty of amps and sound colours, all tube designed and well recreated.
As well as numerous speakers' cabinets.
The sound is superb in many ways, but what a disappointment in terms of CPU consumption and price. $395 still, and on our machine working with an Intel Core 2 Duo processor (2GHz with 2 Go RAM) it was impossible to place more than 2 fully loaded Eleven LE without having serious problems.
Worse than Amplitube in this connection, although there are other things to consider… Therefore we had to record our guitars first when possible, and then bounce the tracks separately. Damn, it's really sad there's no Freeze function in Pro Tools…
Notice that at some points Eleven LE reached panicked peaks of CPU use that blocked our machine for 3 minutes before it calmed down. Weird, but an update should correct this bug. The microphones used are also quite close to the colours of the originals, and an SM57 will often work much better than a Neumann U67 for the simple reason that it has less restitution within the high part of the spectrum, where a guitar amp cabinet is mostly about medium frequencies. We were still globally surprised by the restitution of static microphones, as they usually are a lot more aggressive when used in close-up recordings (in general they need to be filtrated). Did Digi engineers do that for us?
The add of the Royer R121 is finally most welcome, this ribbon microphone being one of the newly favourite mikes for this kind of recordings in the US. Smooth and nice.
Then the whole plug is only available for Pro Tools, which already had exclusivity on Amp Farm and Chrome Tone, and it is sad for those who would have liked to use it live. Anyway Eleven LE is a success: a quick comparison with Waves GTR shows that the sound "out of the amp" is more natural in Digi's plug, although most of the amps, cabinets and microphones modelled are the same for all the guitar plugs. Of course all that Eleven doesn't have makes a difference in the final sound, but purists will get the best of both worlds by mixing these two plugs… if they can afford it. Now plug your guitars!
Eleven LE: $395
Amp models : Original / Version Eleven
'59 Fender Tweed Deluxe / '59 Tweed Lux
'59 Fender Bassman / '59 Tweed Bass
'64 Fender Black Face Deluxe Reverb – Vibrato Channel / '64 Black Panel Lux Vibrato
'64 Fender Black Face Deluxe Reverb – Normal Channel / '64 Black Panel Lux Normal
'66 VOX AC30 - Top Boost / '66 AC Hi Boost
'67 Fender Black Face Twin Reverb / '67 Black Panel Duo
'69 Marshall 1959 100-Watt Super Lead – Plexiglas Head / '69 Plexiglas – 100W
'82 Marshall JCM800 2203 100-Watt Head / '82 Lead 800 – 100W
'85 Mesa-Boogie Mark IIc + Drive Channel / '85 M-2 Lead
'89 Soldano SLO100 Super Lead Overdrive Head – Overdrive Channel / '89 SL-100 Drive
'89 Soldano SLO100 Super Lead Overdrive Head – Crunch Channel / '89 SL-100 Crunch
'89 Soldano SLO100 Super Lead Overdrive Head – Clean Channel / '89 SL-100 Clean
'92 Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier Head Modern Channel / '92 Treadplate Modern
'92 Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier Head Vintage Channel / '92 Treadplate Vintage
Digidesign Custom Modern Overdrive / DC Modern Overdrive
Digidesign Custom Vintage Crunch / DC Vintage Crunch
HP cabinets : Original / Version Eleven
'64 Fender Black Face Deluxe Reverb 1x12" with Jensen P12Q / 1x12 Black Panel Lux
'59 Fender Tweed Deluxe 1x12" with Jensen P12Q / 1x12 Tweed Lux
'66 VOX AC30 2x12" with Celestion Alnico Blues / 2x12 AC Blue
'67 Fender Black Face Twin Reverb 2x12" with Jensen C12Ns / 2x12 Black Panel Duo
'59 Fender Bassman 4x10" with Jensen P10Qs / 4x10 Tweed Bass
'06 Marshall 1960AV 4x12" with Celestion Vintage 30s / 4x12 Classic 30
'68 Marshall 1960A with Celestion G12H "Greenbacks" / 4x12 Green 25W
Musician for cinema, contemporary danse, television and theatre, but also producer, sound engineer, teacher and journalist. Music projects: -i snor (abstract/electronic) as a solo and Whourkr (death/electronica), along with Igorrr. www.i-snor.com / www.myspace.com/ovale / www.myspace.com/whourkr