For the gigging musician, they can be a lifesaver, super-portable fly-rigs with enough sounds to get you through a set. And at home or in the studio they can be a potent tool, particularly the digital modellers that can be used as audio interfaces and accessing a huge array of quality amp sounds for recording.
And end-of-year list for frontier guitar tech such as the digital amp modeller is always going to get better year on year, and 2021 sees one of the most talked about floor units take top spot by considerable distance.
Your Top 10 in our poll tells us where the floor-based amplifier is at. At one extreme, there are pioneers such as Victory who are finding new 21st-century applications for 20th-century tech, and then those who offer put their own spin on what digital can do.
There are some commonalities across these designs, as we’d expect. New standards are determined by those shaping the technology’s future. But what seems common to all of the digital units is who close the amp sounds are getting to the real thing, and how easy this technology is to use.
Here we are going to take a closer look at at the Top Five and run through the results in full...
1. Neural DSP Quad Cortex
Neural DSP’s transition from guitar plugins to hardware arrived to a lot of fanfare hype, but the Quad Cortex’s performance justifies the hype. Much of its success rests on its design. It is a supremely intuitive piece of kit, with its seven-inch touchscreen is easy to see, and offers great access to the Quad Cortex’s many features.
The stomp+rotary actuators are a tactile and welcome feature, allowing the footswitches to double as knobs for hands-on adjusting of parameters. These little nods to traditional amp and effects design help the neophyte acclimatise to this brave new digital world.
The unit is robust, too. Its anodised aluminium chassis is road-worthy. And yeah, the tones are not bad, not bad at all. You might even call them biomimetic, in the sense that they were tuned using a digital platform that mimics the human ear. Whatever, it sounds incredible.
What else can we say? Well, it is about the size of a laptop and weighs 2kg. You've got plenty of connections as well, with a pair of XLR ouputs, MIDI in/out, two expression pedal inputs, USB, two effects loops, a Capture output, stereo outputs and two combo inputs with high-grade mic preamps, phantom power supply, and variable impedance controls. That's right, you can run your vocals or a synth through it.
Read more: Neural DSP Quad Cortex review
2. Line 6 HX Stomp XL
Another variation on the Helix theme? Surely it’s all been done. Well, you’d think so, but then Line 6 keep on finding clever new ways of presenting their flagship digital modelling tech, and for many players, this might just be the best yet.
Think of the HX Stomp XL as a HX Stomp with an extra five footswitches. It’s still a compact unit but the expansion of its floor setup might make it the platonic ideal for live performances.
It certainly does not lack for processing power, using the same SHARC DSP and HX modelling engine from Line 6’s flagship Helix units, and you have easy access to all of the the same amps, cabs and effects from the same high-quality 24-bit/192kHz converters.
The connections are all top-mounted, meaning you could integrate this with your pedalboard quite nicely – yes, of course there is a stereo effects loop for that sort of thing, too. The HX Stomp XL comes loaded with over 300 HX and legacy amps, cabinet sims and effects. You can upload your own IRs. Those familiar with the Helix format will know the drill. The unit organises its modes and patches similarly.
Line 6 gives you plenty of options how you would like to route the signal. You can send drive pedals to the front end of your amplifier, and time-sensitive effects such as delay and modulation through its effects loop. You can send the signal direct to your DAW for recording. You can control it via MIDI. Oh, and you will be able to see what’s going on even on a darkened stage, with the halo LED rings lighting up the footswitches and an LED screen that makes the most of its footprint.
Read more: Line 6 HX Helix Stomp XL
3. Boss GT-1000 Core
If you have ever coveted the signal processing power and sounds of the mighty Boss GT-1000 but your budget and floor space would not quite cover it, the GT-1000 Core is for you. Like the XL Stomp XL, it features all of the sounds and power of its larger sibling but delivers them in a more compact and fiscally accessible format.
The GT-1000 Core looks the business. Use it as an all-in-one rig, or expand your rig with all its digital possibilities. The choice is yours.
The range of amp sounds and effects – the latter culled from Boss’ superlative catalogue and from all corners of pedalboard culture – are top quality. And recognising a pedal addict when they see one, Boss has kitted out the GT-1000 Core with not one but two effects loops.
Again, like the other digital devices on your Top Five, this can be used as a 6-in/6-out USB audio interface, with which you can re-amp your signal.
It’s the sort of tool that might take a bit of time to work out exactly how you want to use it but once you find a place for it in your set up it could transform your sound. Or, of course, simply be a super-compact rig that you can throw into a ruck sack.
Read more: Boss GT-1000 Core review
4. Fractal FM9
We would like to see the stats to back it up but anecdotal evidence would suggest that Fractal’s Axe-Fx modelling tech is the number one choice of the touring pro. But up until recently there had been a gap in their range for something FM9-sized – ie an expanded version of Fractal's FM3 a that similarly offered floor-based functionality and a more convenient, cost-effective version of its rackmounted units.
The FM9 is Fractal all over. Those who have used Axe-Fx will be au fait with how the FM9 will present its bounty of amps, effects and cab sims. It utilises the same signal path as the Axe-Fx III, with four DSP cores powering Fractal’s next-gen modelling tech engine, Cygnus.
Fractal promises more realistic amp models, with better breakup and dynamics, almost daring analogue diehards to climb aboard.
The FM9 has the same UltraRes IR speaker cab sim tech as the Axe-Fx III and comes loaded with 2,200 cabinets and the space for 1,024 user created or third-party IRs. You’re only problem with all this is dealing with option paralysis. Ditto: the effects. The list of stompbox models is obscene. Bravo.
5. Victory V4 The Kraken
Rounding out the Top Five we have a floor-based fire-breather that proves there's life in the vacuum tube yet – and also that Victory Amp’s V4 series of pedal amplifiers is one of the most inspired developments in recent guitar amp history.
You will all be aware of the Kraken’s tone. This is the ‘metal amp’ option from the British boutique amp brand, and here this tone is housed in an enclosure the size of a small chocolate box.
What makes this V4 particularly clever – and to be fair, they have all been hugely impressive – is how Victory has bridged both worlds, the analogue and the digital.
For the analogue enthusiast, there is a valve-driven preamp, a Class D solid-state power amp, and chickenhead controls for each of its two channels. It feels familiar, time-honoured, and dependably guitar amp-like, except that it is mounted in a floor-based unit.
But then you’ve got the onboard Two Notes Torpedo cabinet simulation technology and the balanced line out making the V4 Kraken a powerful option for the studio or for sending your signal direct to a mixing desk when playing live. It comes preloaded with 10 Victory Virtual Cabs
The tones are incredible. Okay, maybe a little bit Metal Up Your Ass for the jazz/blues purists among us, but for that you’ve got the The Duchess. This one metaphorically goes to 11 and deals in top-quality tones for the hard rock and metal player. Note: it is also available as a preamp pedal, too.
Read more: Victory V4 The Kraken head review
6. Walrus ACS1 Amp + Cab Simulator
MusicRadar verdict: The ACS1 lets you expand your amp sounds the easy way, with a form and design that fits neatly into your rig. It's super-practical for the gigging musician, but will also find its uses in the studio.
Read more: Walrus ACS1 Amp + Cab Simulator review
7. Blackstar Dept. 10 Dual Drive
Blackstar blurs the boundaries of distortion pedal and preamp and describes the Dual Drive as Dept. 10 series as “the best valve drive or distortion pedal you will ever own and a world-class valve recording preamp.”
Featuring clean and crunch/overdrive voices, you could run the Dept. 10 into a powered cab and use that as your rig. Featuring an ECC83 triode in the preamp, Blackstar's ISF control, an effects loop and Cab Rig tech, this is like the next evolution of the drive box.
8. Electro-Harmonix 15Watt Howitzer
The most portable back up rig ever? It could be. Plug it into the speaker and this compact Class D amp in pedal form will do the rest. It even has an effects loop.
9. Orange Acoustic Pedal
A DI box with bells and whistles and tech taken from Orange's Pre TC preamp and Crush Acoustic 30 acoustic guitar amps, the Orange Acoustic Pedal has a low-noise JFET circuit for an all-in-one pedal-sized acoustic amplifier, complete with effects loop.
10. Blackstar Dept. 10 Distortion
The second pedal from Blackstar's new Dept. 10 series in the Top 10 bodes well for its next-gen amp-in-a-box distortion pedal format.