Your answers: have we reached the point where digital modelling can replace valves?

Are you onboard with Axe-Fx and co or can you only love an amp with tubes?
Are you onboard with Axe-Fx and co or can you only love an amp with tubes?

With the rise of bedroom recording and mobile guitar rigs, it's safe to assume that pretty much every guitarist has have had some - good or bad - experience with digital amp processors.

Once derided for limited dynamic range and questionable realism, digital guitar amps have taken such a leap forward over the past decade that guitarists' stigmas finally seem to be thawing.

Or are they? For some, the allure of valves is impossible to overcome; the playing feel of those glass bottles is something that can never be replicated. For others, the likes of Axe-Fx and Kemper profiling are the pinnacle of tone, and plug-ins are the key to great recorded sounds, rather than cranked-up tube combos.

But what do you, the highly informed readers of MusicRadar, think? Well, we've heard your responses and they're a mixed bag, to say the least.

If we had to determine some kind of consensus, it would be "nearly, but not yet", with a few hardcore Kemper advocates and valve purists on either side of the fence. A handful of open-minded individuals have even called for digital amps that don't attempt to sound like existing amps at all...

Below, you'll find our pick of the finest points posted on these here interwebs. Until next time!

Your answers: have we reached the point where digital modelling can replace valves?

"My personal opinion is that, it terms of sound quality, digital will always be inferior to tube amps. The main appeal of digital modelling is convenience; it's quicker and easier to run a Kemper to a PA than to hook up a rig and pedalboard.

"Tube amps will always exist in some capacity because there will always be guitarists who want to get the best tone possible. But I don't think it will be long before 90 per cent of bands are using digital modelling in at least the live setting."

Ben Starr

"I like both rack rigs and tube amps. I like to think it's about mood, emotion and what you had for breakfast. Who cares what people think what's right and wrong in tone; the music you play is about you."

Clay Robertson

"Eventually, yes, but not yet. I would say that we are in a point where digital gear can replace a bad tube amp, and for most recordings no-one can tell the difference. However, dynamics and feel is still not on the same level. I think the biggest problem with digital gear is that there is too much to tweak. People tweak their asses off and then blame the gear when the scooped sound does not cut in a band situation."

Jouni Sillanpää

"This is a very interesting topic, and one with many different factors. I am a Kemper user, and love it, but I can understand the different viewpoints, and it's always going to come down to personal preference.

"'Feel' is always a big factor, and one that differs from player to player, amp to amp. For me, the reason I switched from my Orange Rockerverb 100 to the Kemper initially was because I tried the Kemper, with a Rockerverb profile, through an Orange cab and my guitar in a friend's studio, and I could have been standing in front of my own amp. I could 'play off it' just like the real amp, rolling back the volume on the guitar and the sound starts cleaning up, etc. Others may have felt differently, but I was blown away. It was still MY sound.

"The other thing that I really like about it is the fact that, after recording an album, I could take all the sounds from the studio to the live show, without having loads of amps or a massive pedalboard, tapdancing through the set. But this is why I like it - the next person may be totally different, so which one people choose is, as always, down to individual feel."

Alexander McNair

"I can't even be arsed sticking a mic on a guitar so I'm in the box all the way. Someone needs to make it do some feedback then we're all sorted."

Scotty Russell

"Let's be honest here, anything relating to guitar and digital simulation/software is instantly disregarded, by default. Too bad. As software is up there."

Sebastian Komor

"Until someone starts to develop new-sounding digital technologies, the two are symbiotic - insomuch as the vast majority of digital guitar gear is modelling, and therefore needs something TO model. For me, thats why it's both invaluable in the studio - being ably to pay a (relative) pittance for access to the most sought-after amps and pedals is great - but it's also boring.

"But to play through - for me, a real amp has the edge every single time. Even a cheap combo and a couple of pedals has more spark to it than a flat model. I've never been able to put my finger on what this is; the best I can come up with is there's something chaotic about how a real amp behaves that can't be modelled yet."

Doxy Cycling

"I prefer the character and sound of old gear to that of modern stuff. I´m not saying one is necessarily better than the other, but this is just my preference. I think digital amplification works really well for certain things like metal guitar, but that's not what I need at all.

"It used to be that the main weakness of digital amps was clean sounds, or at least in replicating the sounds of valve amplifiers when they are just about to break into overdrive. I haven't yet managed to get a really great clean sound from a modelling amp; they just always sound a little bit too hi-fi and predictable to me."

Valtýr Björn Thors

"I don't have an issue with digital amps. But what I want is something new. I don't want someone to tell me they can exactly duplicate a Marshall. What I want new technology to do something new. If I want to sound like something from the '50s, I'll use something from the '50s.

"Do you remember when the electric piano first came out, and everyone laughed because it sounded nothing like a piano? Then they thought, 'Let's make it sound like something new' and, behold, the synth was born. I'm really looking forward to the day that someone does something new and creates a new type of amplifier that does to the humble guitar what a synth did to the humble piano. Then I'll start getting excited about digital amps."

Phil Asquith

"I think the one big mistake that a lot of people make about this is to completely assume that digital has to sound like analogue so one is finally entitled to take the other's place. The truth is that they don't have to sound the same.

"Digital is like a whole another slew of instruments that sound just like themselves, and you make the music with those instruments and whatever they sound like, with effects or not. And while there's a little bit of the analogue camp that we can't really bring to digital, there is a lot in digital that can't be accomplished in analogue.

"The pure, legitimate sound of a piano or a guitar enjoys some kind of royalty status only because they're among the first sounds that man could ever produce by blowing or rubbing one thing against the other and duly appreciate. That's it, they were among the first, and everything that comes out of the later digital era, no matter how groundbreaking, has to be treated like some kind of inferior resource for more or less the same reason a clock spins clockwise.

"It's only 'the wrong sound' if it's not what you want. It's like hanging around with a certain lover while you'd actually rather be with someone else. That's when your stomach keeps telling you that something is wrong. But that could go either way."

Luc Lic

"A week ago I tried for the first time to play live only using VSTs. The presets I used was the ones I worked on for a year or so, and I can sincerely say I am proud of the resulting tones. Heavenly clean tones and mature metal distortions were possible after spending enough time finding the right plug-in combination. Some of them were produced by Ignite Amps, Waves, Audio Assault and the others were the DAW's stock plug-ins. I believe that there is plenty of improvement left ahead for digital simulation, but it is already more than usable for both live and studio performance."

Andrei Chifan

"In a recorded context I find it harder and harder to differentiate these days. Of course, the method of recording and quality of listening device is paramount when making a judgement.... Personally, what I still experience as a big difference is the 'feel' of the amp when playing. It's hard to describe, however I find an all valve amp frequently has an intuitive response to the touch of the instrument - it just seems to respond in a more controllable/expressive way."


"In the early days of modelling the sounds available sounded waspish and harsh, and in no way realistic. Nowadays, the internet is awash with 'valve vs modelling' videos, and with your eyes closed, you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference. Only people with unreal hearing (I'm looking at you, Eric Johnson) would be able to absolutely say for sure. If you look at the Blackstar TVP range, for example, you need never use a valve amp live again!"

Stephen A Wilson

"I am a tube amp user with classic stomps that I use for regular live and recording, too. I have the friends with different digital modellers - Axe-Fx 1/2, AX8, POD HD (I used to own one of those). My answer would have been 'no' two years ago. Now it's a half-yes.

"It really depends on which modellers and the technique that they use to model the algorithms. Two companies with the same DSPs might not produce the same quality - it depends on how much they invest in research. The Axe-Fx Quantum firmware did really impress me a lot. There's still the price argument. And the Atomic Amplifire is great, too. The other brands still need to catch up! As for VSTs, we're not there yet..."

JP Fortuno

"Almost. We've reached the quality level in tone. Honestly, the Helix was as good as my hardwired preamps (going through a tube power amp). But the switching between patches is too slow, and there are other practical issues that prevent it from being a real winner. The same goes for the horrible 80s interface of the Axe-Fx. Once those types of issues are resolved, we'll have a true challenge to tube amps."

Joris Griffioen

"I use an iPhone rig for most gigs. Do I notice the difference between my real Bassman and my virtual Bassman? Of course! Does my audience? Of course not!

"Most importantly, I'm sick and weak. I know I'd sustain less damage carrying an iPhone than I would lugging my 274758282-kilo ultra-linear silverface monster and its cab around."

Aidan James Stevens

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Michael Astley-Brown

Mike is Editor-in-Chief of, in addition to being an offset fiend and recovering pedal addict. He has a master's degree in journalism, and has spent the past decade writing and editing for guitar publications including MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitarist, as well as a decade-and-a-half performing in bands of variable genre (and quality). In his free time, you'll find him making progressive instrumental rock under the nom de plume Maebe.