People complain about the absence of jetpacks and hoverboards in our daily lives, but one thing the 21st century has delivered is amp modellers – and, frankly, if you’re a guitar player, they’re every bit as exciting. These genius bits of kit use Digital Signal Processing (DSP) to imitate the sonic smarts of different amps and speaker cabinets – and, as you’ll see when you read this guide, the best amp modellers offer a huge range of options to help you nail the sound you want.
Amp modellers are compact and portable, and present today’s guitarist with a wealth of possibilities they could never have dreamed of 30 years ago. Early models weren’t quite there in terms of replicating the feel and response of a guitar amplifier - particularly a valve amp - but the distance between digital models and the real thing is closing all the time.
And let us not underestimate the value of convenience. Gains in convenience often lead to gains in creativity, as the less time you spend tinkering, the more time you can spend playing. To be able to load tones for a whole setlist of songs using one device is invaluable to the gigging guitarist, and the best amp modellers can be used as a nigh-on 100 percent reliable fly-rig – no lugging amps around. They’re handy for those in writing mode, too, since there’s nothing more inspiring than having a new tone to experiment with.
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Best amp modellers: Our top picks
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.
Priced similarly to the GT-1000, the Line 6 Helix LT is a scaled-down version of Line 6’s comprehensive Helix floorboard, and remains a formidable proposition with over 200 amp, cab, mic and effects models in one user-friendly package. It’s roadworthy, allows you to programme a whole setlist onto the unit, and is easily integrated with other Line 6 products.
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.
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 first thing you’ll notice when turning the HeadRush Pedalboard on is the brightly coloured lights. The vibe is downtown Shinjuku after dark, but the seven-inch touchscreen display and footswitch OLEDs conspire to help you easily navigate your way around the Pedalboard’s myriad features.
Like the Helix LT and GT-1000, this is a 12-footswitch, all-in-one fly-rig solution. It uses muscular Quad-Core DSP architecture to deliver glitch-free preset switching and has all the essentials covered, with an expression pedal built-in and the inputs to add another. It, too, can operate as an audio interface, and it has MIDI in/out/thru capability so that it plays nicely with other devices. Oh, and it’s built tough.
Read the full HeadRush Pedalboard 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
Arguably, the first amp-modelling unit to mimic the tone and response of a ‘real’ guitar amplifier was Tech 21’s SansAmp. Launched in 1989 and recently reissued as the SansAmp Classic, it was an all-analogue unit offering players convincing tube tones from a compact box, transforming direct recording in the process.
Digital amp modellers have taken this idea and run with it. What we can expect from an amp modeller in the 21st century would blow the minds of studio engineers of previous decades.
All this processing power and functionality means you can have a Dual Rectifier preset, set to flatten a city block with metal tone, and then, by stepping on a footswitch, access the tones of a vintage tube combo for smooth, warm ’n’ woody jazz tones.
The creative potential is there, you just have to grasp it – to be disciplined enough to sidestep option paralysis and dial in a tone that the song needs. Such is the technological maturity of the amp-modelling concept that when we talk of option paralysis, we are also talking about consumer choice. There is a lot on the market.
Modelling tech is becoming ubiquitous. Even with today’s valve amplifiers, old analogue tech is being augmented by a digital feature suite. Take Mesa/Boogie’s new Badlander series; its CabClone IR (impulse response) tech allows you to use the amp for direct recording – just choose your virtual cab and you’re away.
Then look at practice amps – the likes of Line 6’s Spider series and the Fender Mustang. All have modelling under the hood, allowing you to access tones from a number of different styles of amplifier.
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So what should you look for in the best amp modeller? Powerful DSP architecture is crucial for sound quality. The number of presets that can be uploaded and how the modeller organises them will have a huge impact on how much joy you get out of it. While factory presets are a great place to start with any device, the easier it is to edit them, the better.
When auditioning amp modellers, listen carefully when switching between sounds. The best will be smooth and glitch-free, with a latency so low the ear can’t pick it up.
Considering amp modellers now assume the role of guitar amp, cabinet, speaker miker, pedalboard and audio interface, those are the sorts of features you should look for. Units such as Line 6’s Helix LT can do it all. How many IRs can a unit hold, and can you upload third-party IRs? The ability to upload IRs can revolutionise your recording and direct-to-PA live performances.
Other considerations surround power amps. Do you need one to drive a speaker, or are you going to use an external power amp?
Ultimately, the decision can’t be made on numbers alone. Almost all amp modellers offer options by the score. What’s more important is the quality of the sounds, the user experience (do you need to read the manual?) and how configurable a unit is. And as with any other piece of equipment, the sounds need to inspire you.