Guitarists love a little volume simply because eleven is just one more than ten.
‘Loud is more good’
This is nothing new, because even a century ago when only acoustic guitars existed, guitarists opted for steel strings over nylon to increase volume and shortly after the guitars became a bit bigger just to get louder. When electric guitars emerged, they reduced in size, but only to make the amplifiers larger. Thinking about the slogan: 'A guitarist is thrilled when his eardrums get drilled', Jim Marshall made huge amplifier cabinets with 8 speakers especially for Pete Townshend of The Who. After Pete poked his umpteenth guitar through one of those walls of sound, his roadies begged him to go for two cabinets with four speakers each. And so the iconic and somewhat more compact *cough* 4x12 inch speaker cabinet was created with which Pete, Jimi, Eric, Angus, Slash and many, used to make their bell bottom trousers flutter nicely.
Alternative to tube amplifier
But those huge tube amps also have drawbacks. First of all, carrying them arouns is a disaster, because they are heavy, the tubes are not always stable and sometimes even downright unreliable and they start to sound really good when you open them a little bit/make them flair /on the edge of break up or other words to that effect. In plain language: it has to be loud. On a large stage that is not a problem, but in most people at homes it is a source of misery, in a rehearsal room it is impossible to work with, in a smaller venue or a theater they simply hate you, in a recording studio they are not always equipped to handle it and in a TV studio they want you to leave before the show starts. Over the years, guitar amplifiers have become a bit like vacuum cleaners: handy to have, but noisy.
Small but nice
Fortunately, there is a solution for all that: Amps in a Box, also called AIB or Amp Modelers and these offer guitarists an alternative to using a traditional amplifier, with which you can send your guitar sound directly to the monitor/mixing console/headphones/Audio Interface of your computer. They are relatively affordable, small and easy to take with you, work on just about any volume, they are super reliable and can be preset to perfection. Who wouldn't want that?
That's where we hit an important point, because the first Amps in a Box didn't sound great. They lacked the warmth and dynamics of a real amplifier. That is not surprising, because usually such a box gives a digital version of a guitar sound. This requires computing power and you can't avoid compressing the sound a bit. You could hear and feel that, because there was something lacking: these amps did not respond or reacted slightly different to a players attack. But that was years ago and the Amps in a Box of today can no longer be compared to these. Today, they sound extremely natural and even manage to capture some of the dynamics of a tube amps.
The best Amp in a Box
Over the years we have made many guitarists happy with these new boxes. The 'best one' is difficult to pinpoint, because that depends a lot on personal preferences. Do you want one device that gives you a lot of possibilities, including effects. Then the Stomp Box from Helix/Line 6 is an option, just like the MX5 van Headrush. Some guitarists swear by this, others get paralyzed by the abundance of choice and get lost in the menus.
Fortunately, there are now also manufacturers who opt for brilliant simplicity, such as Universal Audio. The Dream ’65 gives you a very realistic and compact copy of a fine American clean amp (hint: it starts with an F and ends with ender), with just a few extras such as a boost, choice of tubes and speakers, easy to operate with dials and switches and that's it! Under the hood you can go even deeper with presets, but you do not have to. Want a different amp? Then you just have to buy another pedal.
Sitting between 'almost everything' in one compact multi-effect pedal and the stripped-down version of Universal Audio, Strymon offers the now almost legendary Iridium.
There are three 'classic' amps in it, easy to operate, sounds great by itself and you can endlessly adjust the sound by loading your own Impulse Responses.
What is Impulse Response?
Your guitar and your amp are important for the sound, but it doesn't end there. The speaker, the cabinet, the room where the amplifier is located, the microphone, the placement of the microphone, even the current voltage: it all affects your sound. Impulse Response (IR) captures these extra elements in a smart, digital way and adds that extra layer to your sound. This 'cabinet simulation' is super handy, because you can capture the sound of, for example, an insane 8x12 speaker cabinet and reduce it to normal proportions and use it anywhere. More and more Amps in a Box offer the possibility to load these IRs, so you can shape the sound to your own wishes.
Analog Amp in a box
DSM Humbolt offers something similar with the Simplifier (DLX): it is a small amplifier in the shape of a pedal, but where others opt for digital simulation of sound (and all the possibilities that come with it), Humbolt created an analog circuit for a true-to-life sound and feel. As a result, you cannot load IRs, but there is a button on it with which you can choose different cabinets and mic placements.
Victory takes a slightly different approach and combines a tube circuit with the option to add IRs yourself. That makes them a bit heftier than a normal pedal, but you do get a very compact amplifier with endless expansion and connection possibilities.
Disadvantages of an amp in a box
This new technology makes neighbors happy, sound men and women happy and guitarists happy, because they really give you control is any environment. If you go from a stadium or club tour to theatres, this simply is a must have tool. And it works great for home recording and practice.
But does an Amp in a Box have no disadvantages at all? Yes they do, because no matter how faithfully they reproduce amp sounds, there still is something unique about a tube amp that sets the room in motion. That may annoy some, but it inspires the other and the other is usually a guitar player. So don't write off those tube amps just yet, because they have something magical that can't quite be captured in those super smart, handy and great-sounding boxes.
Do you want to try an Amp in a Box? Or compare it to a serious tube amplifier? In our Guitar Villa we have both in stock and the space to try them out. And yes: you are allowed to get loud in one of our insulated rooms.
The coffee and earplugs are ready!