Despite the fact that moon bases and flying cars are pretty far away from becoming part of our daily lives, the future really is here when it comes to amp modellers. It’s an exciting time to be a guitar player, where Digital Signal Processing (DSP) is able to faithfully recreate the sound and response of many a vintage and modern amplifier, all within one handy unit. As you’ll read in this guide, the best amp modellers give you a huge array of options to help you find your perfect guitar tone.
Compact and portable, amp modellers offer a possibility the guitarists of the last few decades could only dream of. Early iterations weren’t quite there tonally and were often looked down upon by tone purists, but it seems with every new release the gap gets smaller, and it's only a matter of time before a modelled amp and the real thing becomes indistinguishable.
Tone isn’t the only thing on offer here either, the best amp modellers are also incredibly convenient. You can pop them in your backpack or add them to your existing pedalboard, meaning no more lugging around that heavy valve amp. For live players, you can load a whole setlist of tones for your next live show, no more tap dancing around your pedalboard. If you’re in writing mode, just think of how inspiring it could be to have every amp tone imaginable at the push of a button or twiddle of a knob.
Best amp modellers: Our top picks
It’s been topping best-of lists for a while now and for good reason. The Neural DSP Quad Cortex is one of the most powerful floor modellers available today. The ability to run simultaneous amp and effects chains alongside a powerful profiling function that utilises machine learning makes this amp modeller a force to be reckoned with.
For players on a budget, we wholeheartedly recommend the Line 6 HX Stomp for your amp modelling and effects needs. Many players are already using these to augment their existing pedalboards, thanks to the small size and huge selection of realistically modelled amps and effects.
Boss’s flagship GT-1000 amp modeller is exceptionally well put-together, its AIRD (Augmented Impulse Response Dynamics) technology offering some of the most realistic amp sounds we’ve heard. For the money, it offers an incredible all-in-one solution for amplification and guitar effects and can be used either as a fly-rig or a USB/MIDI audio interface for recording.
Best amp modellers: Product guide
Powered by a 2GHz Quad-Core SHARC DSP, Neural DSP’s profiler-cum-modeller might just be the unit to give Fractal and Kemper a run for their money. Its power move lies in being able to run multiple amplifier and effects chains at once with a latency unnoticeable to the human ear.
As the name suggests, you have four independent signal paths to play with at any one time, and you can direct one to feed into another, creating complex wet-dry setups, or layers of textured gain to dig into as a song progresses. If you feel like sharing the love, another guitarist can plug in and use the unit simultaneously. You can run the unit in Stomp mode, just like a pedalboard, in Scene mode, which brings multiple blocks of effects into play, or in Preset mode, in which you can assign tones to a footswitch for quick access.
Elsewhere, there are dual expression inputs, full MIDI capability so you can automate switching and parameter control, plus two effects loops for inviting your outboard hardware to the party. You can save up to 256 presets, which can be tagged for easy search and recall, while live performances and rehearsals can be programmed in advance.
Finally, there’s the Neural Capture profiling function, which uses machine learning to let you make digitised profiles of your favourite amps or stompboxes.
Read the full Neural DSP Quad Cortex review
The Helix LT might be the diet version of Line 6’s flagship modelling floorboard, but it still has a Starship Enterprise-esque amount of next-gen features, which are laid out in a mercifully user-friendly way. With over 200 amp, cab, microphone and effects models, you won’t want for options, and Line 6 makes it easy for you to save and recall your favourite sounds.
You can switch instantly between Preset and Stomp modes, the latter of which is ideal for toggling effects on and off mid-song. Line 6 allows for total control of the signal path, from guitar through to effects, amps, cabinets and mic positions. All this can be controlled on the unit or remotely.
On the rear of the unit, you’ll find two effects loops that can be used to incorporate external effects and save them to a preset, plus all the analogue and digital I/Os you would expect. At this price, the Line 6 Helix LT is a no-brainer, and for many it’ll be a toss-up between this and the Boss GT-1000.
Read the full Line 6 Helix LT review
The Fractal Audio Axe-Fx III will be too expensive for many of us, but if you’re a professional musician who needs reliability and functionality, there’s no better amp modeller. It’s not just for the progressive tech heads. Sure, Devin Townsend uses one, but so do Jimmy Eat World. Speak to any of these artists and they’ll tell you the same thing: Fractal units have changed their lives.
What do you get for your money? Well, studio-quality performance for one. Also, the user interface has been revised from the first editions to offer players an easier ride. The colour display helps. With four separate sets of stereo inputs and outputs, the Axe-Fx III doesn’t want for connections, and it can be used as an 8x8 USB digital I/O for professional recording and re-amping. Its MIDI capabilities allow you to use it as a hub for a complex rig.
If you are taking the Axe-FX III on the road, the FC series of foot controllers are expensive, but arranging your setlist will be easy with this amp modeller’s scenes – you can simply create a scene for a particular song, and cycle through different sounds for each section.
Read the full Fractal Axe-Fx III review
Kemper’s bit of kit can profile any amplifier in the world and store its response, to be recalled at your leisure. It does this so effectively that guitar techs have slowly been persuading the world’s touring guitarists to retire their crotchety old Bluesbreaker and take a profile of it instead.
All you need is an amp and a mic to capture the profile. The Profiler comes preloaded with 200 amps, and there are heaps of effects to access, too. There are four Stomp effects and four stereo post-amp effects slots.
What’s great about the Profiler is that you can split the DI signal when recording so that one is recorded with the amp profile and the other is dry, allowing you to reamp painlessly afterwards. Other neat features include delay spillover, which makes changing presets as smooth as a baby’s head, and the ability to lock settings – this means you can have the same spring reverb and slapback delay when switching between the profiles of, say, an old Magnatone and a Fender Tweed.
The Profiler is available with or without a 600-watt power amp, in a rack-mountable unit or as a floorboard unit. Its Rig Manager and Rig Exchange software help you to keep track of what’s what.
Some players don’t need amp profiling, 8-in/8-out USB audio interfaces and all that jazz, and for beginners and those on a budget, the GE150 is impossible to beat. The build is of high quality, the effects lineup is generous and well realised, and it has lots of practice tools that’ll be invaluable if you’re just starting out.
If the pro units are all-in-one performance and recording solutions, the GE150 presents an all-in-one practice and performance unit for beginners, with an onboard metronome, 40 drum rhythms and an aux input for playing along to your favourite songs – all features that’ll help you to quickly whip your chops into shape. Oh, and there’s an 80-second looper, too.
Once you’ve got your playing into shape, why not record it? The USB connection allows you to record directly to your computer. This is where the cab sims will come in handy, with the ability to upload third-party IRs very impressive at this price, and something that will add space and quality to those recordings.
Read the full Mooer GE150 review
The Profiler Stage brings all that Kemper magic to a floorboard unit. Does it translate? Well, the tech is the same, the sound quality is the same, and the Profiler Stage has everything needed to be the heart of a digital rig.
There are some things we’d like to see in a future update. A built-in expression pedal would be one, and the LED screen could do with being bigger. But in terms of sound, the world of guitar amplifiers is your oyster, and if you aren’t fussed about a power-amp option, this is a great choice for a self-contained Kemper experience.
Read the full Kemper Profiler Stage review
A compact, pedalboard-friendly 3-footswitch version of Line 6’s ever-impressive Helix units, the HX Stomp has a lot going for it. There are a lot of presets – 126 of them, arranged in 42 banks with three presets a piece. To create those presets, you’ve got over 300 onboard amp, cab and effects models to play with. What more do you need?
Teeny it may be, but the HX Stomp’s MIDI connectivity makes it easy to integrate within a larger rig. There’s an expression pedal input to make it more of a performance tool, and you’ve even got an effects loop for bringing stompboxes into the mix. The stereo-in, stereo-out sound quality is unimpeachable, and you can also upload third-party IRs.
Like its larger siblings, the HX Stomp can be used as an audio interface or for reamping; just connect to your DAW via USB. Though it only features a single SHARC ADSP-21469 processor – one fewer than the Helix – this piece of kit nonetheless packs a jaw-dropping amount of power.
Read the full Line 6 HX Stomp review
The Boss GT-1000 offers a 10-footswitch, pro-quality setup at a price that’s more than tempting to the serious amateur. Operationally, Boss arranges your sounds into patches, each containing the full signal chain from amp through to cabinets and effects. The amplifier models are breathtaking, fleshed-out and organic thanks to AIRD technology that builds upon the Tube Logic paradigm. The 32-bit, 96khz sampling offers superb sound quality, and there’s an abundance of headroom. Switching between patches is super-quick. Effects are exceptional, too, and are derived from the algorithms powering the DD-500, MD-500 and RV-500 units. It’s little wonder Boss lays them on a little thick for our tastes in the presets – these effects are something to be proud of.
Thanks to the latest software update, the GT-1000 now offers up to 16 onboard impulse responses (IRs), four simultaneous FX blocks and 10 input memories so that you can save optimised levels for different guitars – ideal if switching from a guitar with single coils or one with high-output humbuckers.
As for the fundamentals, there’s a cornucopia of connections that allow you to hook up external effects and expression pedals, and to use the GT-1000 as a fly-rig or recording interface. There’s wireless via Bluetooth. The Boss Tone Studio app is free and offers deep editing. You can upload 250 user patches to complement the 250 presets. If you’re looking for something more compact, the GT-1000CORE has all the same DSP power but is housed – like the Line 6 HX Stomp – in a super-compact three-footswitch enclosure.
Read the full Boss GT-1000 review
The HeadRush MX5 takes everything that was great about the larger HeadRush Pedalboard and condenses it down into a unit that will fit into the front pocket of your gig bag. Detailed amp models and high-quality effects are the name of the game here, with an intuitive touch screen that will have you up and editing in no time.
The amp models are incredibly realistic, giving you everything from boutique tube amps to monster high-gain stacks. Thanks to regular firmware updates, you’ll be the recipient of new amp models as they’re added to the HeadRush database, ensuring you’ll never get bored of playing around with this one.
It’s an absolute breeze to get acquainted with this unit thanks to the responsive 4-inch touch screen that lets you chop and change your presets with ease. Handy features like hands-free parameter adjustments and gapless preset switching with reverb and delay tail spillover ensure this gig-ready tone machine stands apart from other compact amp modellers.
Read our full HeadRush MX5 review
Now for something completely different. Or is it? Sure, the Pocket GT is about the size of a mobile phone, but in practice it simply scales down some of the processing power we see in the GT-1000 for a unit with over 100 onboard amp models and effects to choose from.
Like the GT-1000, deep editing can be performed via the Boss Tone Studio app, which also enables you to access YouTube and create playlists for strumming along to. The sound engine is carried over from the impressive GT-1, and comes loaded with 99 presets that you can edit and replace with your own sounds.
The Pocket GT also supports Bluetooth audio streaming and can be connected to your DAW via USB.
Read the full Boss Pocket GT review
Best amp modellers: Buying advice
How do amp modellers work?
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Amp modellers have come a long way since the early days of the Tech 21 SansAmp but the basic idea remains the same. Circumvent the need for carrying around multiple amplifiers and effects by utilising Digital Signal Processing to emulate the sound you need. To understand how the best amp modellers work, first, we need to understand how sound works.
Soundwaves are a physical phenomenon caused by vibrations travelling through the air, water, or even solid objects. Put your chin on your guitar and play a chord and you’ll see what we mean. These soundwaves are all totally unique from one another, with a rate, frequency, and depth that defines how our ears interpret them.
DSP could have an article on its own, but the basic principle is as follows. First of all your soundwave, in this instance, an amplifier is recorded via a microphone. Using an Audio Digital Conversion (ADC) chip, your signal is turned into 1s and 0s that a computer can understand. This signal is then transferred to the Digital Signal Processor itself, typically some form of computer processing chip whereby the signal can be stored, edited, or transferred. Going the other way the signal then passes through a Digital Audio Conversion (DAC) chip to convert it from 1s and 0s back into a soundwave before being passed to your speakers and back out to your ears.
As ADC, DSP, and DAC chips get more powerful, they’re thus better able to accurately recreate the sounds we feed into them. This means eventually the technology will become so good that it will be nigh on impossible for humans to determine the difference between the two.
What to look for in an amp modeller
So now that you understand how the best amp modellers work, what should you look for when purchasing one? Well, we know that DSP is crucial to how an amp modeller works, so the more powerful this is, the more accurate your emulations will be. You’ll also want to look into how your amp modeller handles editing and patches. Some of these modellers have some serious depth to them and manual diving will be a requirement. If you’re the kind of player that balks at this kind of thing then you may want one of the simpler offerings in this guide.
Amp modellers now replace your entire rig, so looking at the options you have here is a must too. Bearing in mind pretty much every amp modeller will have a feature list the length of your arm, one of the most important of these is something called Impulse Responses (IR). IRs are models of guitar cabinets and the space they occupy and can seriously beef up your recording capabilities and live sound when used correctly. Have a look and see if your chosen modeller allows you to edit or upload your own, as this will be crucial to getting a great sound.
There’s so much choice here and so many features that it can be a little daunting trying to pick one, but at the end of the day the sound is the most important of all. Plenty of the manufacturers here have sound demos on their websites so if you can’t try one out in real life, grab a good pair of headphones and find the one with the sounds that inspire you the most.
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