5 Best Modeling Amps: Tonal Versatility
By Mason Hoberg
While modeling amps are a controversial piece of gear to say the least, you can’t argue with the fact that in recent years they’ve come a long way. The reason that modeling amps aren’t viewed very positively in some playing circles is that for a long time the circuitry necessary to get a good sound with a modeling amplifier was too complex to be affordable.
A dirty secret of the industry is that AXE FX rigs, or their equivalent, are actually pretty popular for many touring musicians. These are modeling amps that allow musicians to tweak a variety of different parameters in order to dial in a tone that’s as close as possible to that of the amps they own that are too fragile to take on the road. These rackmount units can easily cost thousands of dollars, so while they’re obviously not affordable for the vast majority of musicians we can use them as proof that there’s nothing objectively inferior with modeling amps.
So with the increase in the capabilities of digital effects, modeling amplifiers experienced a growth in capabilities similar to that of any other electronic device. They became more powerful, more responsive, and more accurate.
While modeling amps can be a great sounding component of your rig in the right circumstances, choosing the best one for your situation can be a challenge. Luckily for you, this article is going to give you all the information that you need in order to figure out how to select the best modeling amp for your needs.
- Modeling vs. Tube. vs. Solid State
- Hybrid Modeling Amps vs. Solid-State
- Top 5 Modeling Amps
Modeling vs. Tube. vs. Solid State
While modeling and solid-state amps are generally divided into different categories, they’re all somewhat similar. Modeling amps are to solid-state amps as a supreme pizza is to a cheese pizza. They’re still fundamentally the same thing, there’s just more features on a modeling amp.
Basically, solid-state amps boost the signal of your guitar to an audible level without the use of vacuum tubes. Modeling amps do the same, but they also color the signal based on the parameters you set. A simplistic way to think about a modeling amp vs. a solid-state is that a modeling amp is basically a solid-state amp with a bunch of pedals jammed inside.
The difference between tube and modeling amps is a bit more complicated, but not incredibly so. The basic difference is that tube amps create power with vacuum tubes. If you’re curious about how this works, feel free to do some research because it actually is kind of interesting. But since we’re sticking with just the knowledge you need to know to decide whether or not a tube amp is right for you we’re going to gloss over it.
Tubes are generally considered to create a warmer and more organic sound, especially when distortion is used. The reason for this is that the distortion introduced into a signal by tubes (of which there are always elements present, even if the amp sounds very clean) is more harmonic than that of a solid-state amplifier. Solid-state amplifiers produce inharmonic overtones, which is why they sound more digital.
However, the sound quality of solid-state amps is constantly improving. While distortion is still kind of tricky for a solid-state amp to pull off convincingly there are a ton of great solid-state and modeling amps that have incredibly organic sounding clean tones. It’s almost to the point now where the clean tones from a solid modeling amplifier are going to be basically indistinguishable from that of a high-level tube amp.
The bad thing about tube amps is that in order to really benefit from vacuum tubes you have to push a lot of power through them, which translates into volume. This means that for anyone who lives in a shared living space, or an apartment, odds are you’re not going to benefit from the higher quality of sound you’d get from a tube amp. They also require more maintenance and care.
Hybrid Modeling Amps vs. Solid-State
To further confuse matters, there are also amplifiers known as hybrid amps. Hybrid amps have a tube preamp, which is intended to give the warmth and dynamics you’d find in a tube amp with the lower volume and higher reliability you get with a solid-state amp.
The problem here is that the amount of benefit you gain from this is really up to personal preference. You get some extra warmth from the hybrid design, but it’s not an incredibly dramatic difference when compared to the tone you can dial in with a good modeling amp.
Like any other amp, the factors that you use to make your decision shouldn’t include snake oil marketing terms. Hybrid amps do offer a more organic tone in some circumstances, but it’s more a matter of every element of the amp’s design as opposed to tubes=better tone.
Top 5 Modeling Amps
Below, we've selected our favorite can't-go-wrong modeling amps that are a great value at different price ranges.
Fender Mustang I V2
When it comes to modeling amps, Fender’s Mustang series is definitely one of the heavy weights on the market. The amps come loaded with a ton of great features, allowing musicians to dial in literally hundreds of different responsive and organic sounding amplifier models.
The bad thing about reviewing an amp like this is that it has such an overwhelming amount of features that it can be a bit intimidating to try and list them all succinctly and in an easily readable format. So for those of you who already have a working knowledge of the amp, forgive us if we omit anything that you would consider an important feature.
With that out of the way, the most important thing to know about Fender’s Mustang series is that in order to truly shine they require a computer. The amps use a free software called Fender Fuse, which allows you to meaningfully edit the parameters of the amp. The key word here is meaningfully. You can do more than just edit the basics like the EQ. You can change things like emulated bias and power sag, as well as presence. This gives you a high level of control over your sound, as your able to select from a pretty hefty amount of effects and onboard amplifier models (as well as emulating cabinets). You also have physical controls for volume, treble, bass, mid, gain, and reverb. With that being said it should be noted that when it comes to modeling amplifiers the Fender Mustang I is not unique in the regard. There are other amps which offer the same level of control. So while the ability to edit the more technical aspects of your tone are important don’t let it be the deciding factor when considering this amplifier.
An unfortunate side-effect of the amount of features on the amp is that if you want to have control over your effects in real time you’re likely going to want to purchase a foot pedal for the amp. These generally run somewhere in the neighborhood of $40-$70 depending on which model you choose and where you purchase it from. The floor pedal isn’t a necessity, but it definitely does add a lot of utility to the amp. However, it should be noted that this is true with many modeling amplifiers on the market, so it’s not a flaw with the Mustang line.
The amp has both a headphone port and an aux in. This allows you to practice along with any supported file format as well as practice in near silence.
It’s hard to review the overall sound of this amp because you have so much control over your tone. The only true consistency in the tone is that because of its size (it only has an 8-inch speaker) it’s not going to have the depth of tone that you’d find in a larger amplifier. In general, larger sized amplifiers have a better response across low-end and lower-mid frequencies. The high-end is less of an issue, but because it lacks the depth offered by larger speakers it can sound a bit piercing at times. This isn’t so much a con as it is something that you just have to expect when you choose to go with an amp of this size.
A possible con is that it doesn’t handle high levels of gain as well as something like a Peavey Vyper, so if you plan on playing heavier genres of music you may want to look into a different modeling amp. The general consensus follows that of the various tube amplifiers of each company. Generally Fender is regarded to have the best clean tones, though just like its mid-range tube amps the Mustang series doesn’t perform as well as other amps with gain beyond basic overdrive. That’s not to say it’s bad, it’s just that if you’re going to be spending the majority of your time playing rock or metal odds are you’re going to be more satisfied with a different modeling amplifier. However, with that being said your experience with the amp is also going to depend on how in-depth you want to get with the presets as well as your guitar and playing style.
The Fender Mustang 1 V2 20-Watt 1x8-Inch Combo Electric Guitar Amplifier is definitely a fantastic option in a lightweight modeling amp.
Roland Micro Cube
Founded in 1972, the Roland Corporation is one of the most prolific innovators in digital instruments and instrument accessories. In its infancy, Roland designed and produced a variety of different products. The company made combo organs, guitar amplifiers, effect pedals, as well as rhythm machines.
A fun fact that many musicians may not know about the company is that it was actually found in a telephone directory, contrary to the popular myth that the company was named after the French poem La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland, which is where the protagonist of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower received his name).
Many Asian companies in the 60s and 70s wished to expand into Western Markets, and to do this they adopted names that were easily pronounced by prospective Western customers. This is why Roland chose a name with soft consonants, as opposed to a name that was a better reflection of their Japanese roots.
A reflection of the company’s long-standing reputation for producing quality digital products for musicians, the Roland Micro Cube is both a great option for guitarists looking for a modeling amp as well as a powerful and portable tool for quiet practice.
The key thing to note about this amplifier is that it’s a micro-amp, meaning that it’s an ultra-portable and light-weight amp intended for practice as opposed to performance. This is neither a good nor bad thing, just keep in mind that there are concessions made to aspects of the amp in order to facilitate its utility as a practice amp.
With that being said, there are a host of useful features built into the Roland Micro Amp’s diminutive package. The Roland comes with seven amp models (including the famed Roland Jazz Chorus), six effects (chorus, flanger, phaser, tremolo, delay, and reverb), as well as a digital tuner. Even better, the amp also supports headphones and AUX input as well as having a recording output in order to easily work with computer based recording software. The amp is powered through an included power supply or batteries.
A tradeoff with smaller amplifiers is that a smaller speaker doesn’t handle lower frequencies as well as a larger one. That’s not to say that they can’t sound good, you just need to keep in mind that these amplifiers are going to sound thinner than ones with a larger speaker. This holds true even if the amplifiers in question have an identical circuit and design.
In regards to this amp in particular, for the size the various presets and effects are sufficient for practice. The clean tones in particular have a high-enough quality of sound to be used during live performance or panhandling, The amp does have a bit of the “fizzle” when higher levels of gain are utilized, though this is pretty common on the majority of amplifiers of this size. However, its clean tones are pretty impressive sounding for its size. For example, the Micro Cube can pull off pretty pleasing jazz tones as well as lower amounts of overdrive (think 70’s country and bluesy grit).
Another important thing to note is that this amp is essentially loaded with BOSS effect, which are very highly regarded for a variety of reasons. In particular, the modulation effects of the amp are very high-quality.
Considering its size the gain settings are useable while the cleans are very admirable for the size. The only possible flaw is that the amp distorts at higher volume levels, though this is also a flaw common to smaller speaker sizes.
The Roland Micro Cube is a great option for the musician looking for a powerful modeling amp in a small package.
Founded in 1887 by Torakusu Yamaha, this multi-national corporation is a household name among both musicians and non-musicians. While today the company may be known more so for their motorcycles and electronics than for their musical instruments, something that many don’t know about the company is that in its infancy it was actually a piano and reed organ manufacturer. The company’s origin is reflected in its logo, three interlocking tuning forks.
The reason that the company expanded into other areas is that it produced products for the war effort, and following WWII they repurposed the machinery they used to support Japan during the war to produce motorcycles. The company then used the revenue they gained from this exploit to expand their business further and become the business we know today.
While Yamaha did expand their business into other areas, they never completely moved away from their musical roots. Currently, the company is actually one of the largest manufacturers of instruments in the world. They’ve also maintained a commitment to quality and providing musicians with powerful tools at an affordable price, a great example of which is the Yamaha THR10 Amp.
A key thing to note about this amp is that it should be thought of less as a modeling amp and more of a tube-emulation circuit. The key difference here is that modeling amps emulate specific amps while this amp replicates the response of different types of tubes while retaining a particular tonal flavor. With that being said, close approximation of different amps (Fender, Marshall, Vox, etc.) are within your grasp should you take the time to accurately dial in the settings appropriately.
The amp has more of a physical design as opposed to the digital interfaces common to other modeling amplifiers, which while that does lend it a certain aesthetic appeal it does mean that you don’t have quite as much control over the effects of your amp.
The Yamaha THR10 is powered through an included power supply as well as having a headphone jack. However, it should be noted that the desktop version of this amplifier does not come with a speaker out, so you cannot connect an external cab to the amplifier. However, the amplifier is also available in a head which functions exactly like any other amplifier head when used in conjunction with a cab.
Though the desktop version of this amp is smaller than most full-sized amps, for its size it actually does have a surprisingly good tone. It’s actually pretty impressive all things considered, because while it is slightly thinner than a full sized amp it does actually have a very resonant tone. The only flaw with the desktop model is that it doesn’t allow you to connect it to an external cabinet, which may or may not be a deal breaker for some of you.
The tube models present a very good approximation of the tone exclusive to these amplifiers, and the effects are comparable to what you’d find in a mid-level stompbox. The volume is a bit weak, but to be fair that may also be a selling point for those of you looking for an amplifier to use for practice in a situation where a louder amplifier wouldn’t be a viable option.
All of the different models available offer a high fidelity of sound for the size. A terrific aspect of the amp are the quality of the in-built effects, all of which seem to be held in high-regard by those who have reviewed the amplifier.
The Yamaha THR10 offers a great value for the musician looking for a small modeling amp with a very respectable tone.
Vox Valvetronix VT20X
Founded in 1947 by Thomas Walter Jennings, Vox is one of the “big three” amplifier manufacturers (with Fender and Marshall being its peers). Amps produced by the company have been used by some of the most important musicians in Western music, and they continue to be a favorite of both professional musicians and hobbyists the world over.
Something that many musicians don’t know about the company is that it was actually founded as an organ company, known as the “Jennings Organ Company”. The company was founded just after 1947, with its first successful product being the Univox. It wasn’t until 1958 that the company launched its first amplifier, a prototype made by Dick Denny (an acquaintance of Jennings, who served with him in WWII).The amp was dubbed the Vox AC15 and quickly became a favorite among professional musicians in England. Just like the AC series before it, the VOX Valvetronix VT20X has been widely celebrated by musicians of every skill level.
The most important thing to know about this amp is that it features a vacuum preamp tube. Essentially, the incorporation of this tube is intended to give the amp a more tube-like organic feel and tone. It does a reasonably proficient job of this, and we’ll get into the specifics of how the tube impacts the overall tone of the amp in the section below.
Another important feature of this amp is that it has a closed back cabinet. Basically, amp cabinets come in three varieties. Closed, semi-closed, and open. A closed cabinet delivers a tight and focused tone that projects very clearly. An open cabinet doesn’t have the same clarity and focus but it has a more open tone and (as a general rule) a better bass and low-mid response. A semi-closed cabinet is the middle ground between these two extremes.
The amp also has a few quality of life features for musicians, such as a built-in tuner, an AUX-in jack, a headphone jack, as well as USB connectivity. Vox also has a Fender Fuse equivalent, which allows you to edit your presets through your computer. The unit weighs in at 18.7 pounds (as according to Amazon’s specifications) and features one eight inch speaker.
Hybrid amps do generally sound a bit warmer, a general rule which is reflected in the Valvetronix. However, the difference between a hybrid amp and a solid-state isn’t very dramatic. It’s a nice feature to have, but because the amp is still largely a sold-state circuit odds are the difference isn’t going to make or break the amp’s tone.
With that being said, for the size the Valvetronix is a reasonably proficient sounding amplifier. It does suffer from having an eight-inch speaker as opposed to a larger 12-inch, but even with the smaller speaker it manages to avoid sounding shrill or overly thin. The low size also makes it a viable option for a practice amp, so while there are cons associated with the smaller design there are also positives.
The VT20X comes with 33 presets, 11 amp models, and 13 effects. Should you wish for a bit more utility when using the amp in live settings VOX also has an optional footswitch which you can use to switch between different presets on the fly.
The VOX Valvetronix VT20X Modeling Amplifier offers a great value to musicians looking for a modeling amplifier that has a touch of tube like warmth.
Kemper is one of the biggest names in modeling amplifiers, and for good reason. The goal of the company is in stark contrast with that of its competitors, because while many seek out to accurately produce existing amplifiers the goal of Kemper’s products are to truly make modeling amplifiers a viable option for professional musicians; both in the studio and on the stage.
Kemper’s products are a revolution in the world of guitar amplifiers. They are currently doing for the modeling amplifier what Fender did for the electric guitar. Provided that you have the time and patience to use one of their products, and pockets deep enough to afford them of course, there’s little doubt that a properly set-up Kemper modeling amplifier can prove to be the equal of any tube equivalent.
A perfect example of the capabilities of modeling amps, the Kemper Profiling Amplifier is an incredibly valuable tool for any musician who can afford one. The defining feature of this amplifier is that it’s able to profile existing amps to an eerily remarkable level of accuracy. Imagine this, you own a vintage Silvertone, Fender, and Marshall amp. Throughout your recording process you use all three of these amps. Now it’s time to play the songs you just recorded live, but because of the vastly different amps you used you’re having a hard time figuring out how to reproduce all of these tones live.
The Kemper Profiling Amplifier is capable of doing this, and more. It works by connecting the amp head to another amp as well as micing it. You then play through the amp your currently profiling and the Kemper analyzes and deconstructs the elements of your amp’s tone that makes it sound the way it does.
You can also edit the profiles you get from existing amps, tweaking them even further to the point where you’re essentially creating your own custom amp. You can dial in things like a more vintage response or power section sag, as well as add further equalization to great sounding amps that may not have the necessary controls to do so. Aside from the ability to capture and then reproduce the sound of existing amps, the Kemper Profiling Amplifier also comes preloaded with over 200 presets, as well as onboard effects. Up to four effects can be introduced into any one preset, not including the addition of floor effects (yes, you can also use your pedals with this amp).
To use the amp in live settings you can either plug it directly into a P.A. system or use a separate power amp. Unfortunately the Kemper Profiling Amplifier is essentially just an amp head, so in order to use it in live or practice settings you will need another piece of equipment.
The sound of this amplifier is decided entirely by which amps you choose to profile and the amount of tweaking you’re willing to do on the amp simulations you capture as well as the onboard presets. With that being said, the fidelity of both the captured amp models and the presets are both extraordinary. So as long as you have an amp that sounds good already, or you’re wiling to spend time tweaking a preset to work with your needs, odds are you’re not going to be disappointed with the sound that you get from this amplifier.
The Kemper Profiling Amplifier is a very powerful and musical modeling amplifier that allows you to accurately reproduce the sound of any amp you can get your hands on. The only downside is that it is pretty expensive, but considering all the equipment it replaces, it is an amazing bargain.