As an avid home recorder. I love the convenience of amp sims but also love the final product and process of recording a real tube amp.
And for this reason, I decided to make this comparison post comparing recording amp sims and real amps from my years of home recording.
In this post, I will compare the sound, convenience, cost, and the flexibility of both recording options. Let’s dive in…
My Short Answer
Amp simulators offer realistic tones, more convenience, less cost, and more options for guitar tones due to amp emulation software. On the other hand, recording a real amp provides the true experience but costs more for analog gear while being less convenient and flexible.
Which Sounds Best (Realism)?
With an immense advancement in technology, amp simulators can perform and in some cases offer better sounds than real amps. How is this?
The reason is they remove the recording technique required such as optional microphone placement when recording a real amp.
And because of this, amp sims offer authentic guitar tones without the optimal gear, technique, money and recording environment for sweet sounding guitar recordings.
Some amp purists will argue that you can not get the same tonal response from an amp sim compared to a real cranked tube amp. And in some cases these people are right.
However, when comparing the tonal authenticity of an amp sim and a real amp, you cannot argue that sound amp simulators sound pretty exact to their real life amplifier counterparts.
Even free amp simulators can do a good job of modelling a Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier without dropping over $4000 on a real Mesa Boogie.
For a detailed comparison watch the video provided to see what I mean.
Amps Sims vs Real Amp – Sound Compared (Watch Below)
When it comes to clean tones However, I must admit a real amplifier comes out on top in this battle. Although amp sims do a good job of creating sparkling clean tones.
The problem is there is a digital nuance to the sound which becomes apparent when recording a clean guitar tone.
The one thing I found makes a difference with amp simulators is the digital noise it creates when using high gain. In a real amp, that noise might even give some character to your sound. In amp simulators, it just sounds unappealing.
There are many ways to go around this. You can screen your guitar and/or use humbucker pickups.
You can also turn off as many electronic devices as possible in the nearby area while recording. Once you have plugged in, a noise gate is always a good extra to add to your signal chain.
Guitar amplifiers have been around since the 1930s and for many, many years have been the gold standard way for guitar performance and recording. It is until now that amp simulators have been able to catch up and become another viable option.
There is certainly a difference in how real amps and amp simulators sound. This holds especially true with tube amps. This is because their sound quality relies on overdriving the tubes to get a vintage, analog sound.
For me, nothing beats the analog sound of a real amp and it is something that a simulator cannot replicate. However, as I mentioned before, this does not mean that real amps are better.
First of all, the difference between them in sound quality is very much so minimal. In reality, it is pretty hard to differentiate a real amp from an amp simulator (that is if you set the parameters correctly).
There are also many factors besides sound quality that we have to take into consideration. Price, versatility, and convenience are just some of the other things we must look at. Ultimately, this boils down more to personal preference and what are your recording or performance needs.
What Option Is More Convenient To Record?
If we solely talk about convenience, there is no real debate on whether to use real amps or amp simulators.
For starters, an amp simulator has so many different amplifier options and microphones in one plugin.
Even if you had all the money in the world and had every one of them, that would take insane amounts of space.
Second, the setup of an amp simulator is incredibly easy and accessible. You only need to plug your guitar into your interface, open the plug-in, and voilá! The great thing is that you can also change all of the parameters and presets with just one click.
Finally, since amp simulators are inside the box (a term used when you work solely within the computer), you can do this in any room without having to worry about acoustics and such.
Convenience is an important factor, especially in the hectic life of a musician and amp simulators are a great tool to have.
I don’t necessarily think that should be your #1 priority when deciding to go either for a real amp or an amp simulator. Having said that, there is no debate here on which one is more convenient.
When recording a real amp, there are some factors related to its convenience that are not necessarily better ways to capture your sound.
An important part of recording a guitar performance is all of the rituals that need to take place to get to that point where you have found the right tone and are ready to capture the essence of your performance.
Of course, it is more convenient to just plug into your amp simulator, find a preset and go for it.
But finding the right space, the right angle for your amp and your microphones, and fine-tuning your process is a great way of getting into the vibe of what you are doing. It also makes you a much more complete musician/sound engineer.
Having said this, treating the room you are planning on recording music is a long, hard process that might not be something you are interested in.
I believe acoustically treating a specific room has many other advantages than just recording your amp but it is understandable to not want to jump through all those hoops.
Another thing to take into consideration is that getting all of the proper equipment to record quality music with a real amp will require a lot of money.
Not to mention the fact that there are many more things that can go wrong with said equipment that might deter you form recording.
Which Option Is More Flexible?
When I speak about flexibility, I’m mostly talking about how versatile your sound can be.
I’m also talking about how much you can alter your sound even after you finished recording and how experimental you can get with altering your sound.
Amp simulators are much more flexible in this sense. First, the great thing about using a simulator is that you can change virtually any parameter (amp cabinet, amount of distortion, FX) that you wish at any given point. This is possible even after recording.
Secondly, you can use all sorts of effects within the amp simulators to make unconventional sounds. The great thing is you can always go back to your original sound if you didn’t like the new one.
Finally, there are many free plugins out there that you can purchase or add for free to your simulator library. This gives you an endless array of possibilities to find that unique sound you were looking for.
By the way, you can always use an amp simulator to shape your sound even when you recorded through a real amp. There are no wrong paths and, ultimately, you should let your ears guide you. If it sounds good, it sounds good.
Once again, flexibility is not particularly favorable to real amp situations.
You can have a lot of versatility with your sound but to get to that point, you’d have to at least purchase many pedals.
You could take it even further and get different guitars to get different sounds. I’d personally love to have a huge selection of analog gear, but the amount spent would be insane.
Another downside is that after recording, there is not a lot you can do to drastically change your sound. There are many plugins and software designed to shape your sound. This, however, is way less flexible than an amp simulator.
Now, speaking in favor of real amps, I’ll say that having a few options is not necessarily a bad thing.
It might be that using very few pedals can make your sound consistent across an album and give it continuity. You might also want to keep your sound as simple as possible to enhance other aspects of the songs.
This is always a matter of taste and using all-analog gear will definitely give you a specific vibe and feel.
Which Option Costs More?
There is a wide range of amp simulators in terms of their price range. Some are free, stand-alone amp simulators such as LePou Plugins and Amp Designer. The latter comes with recording DAW Logic Pro X and works very well.
Some companies have free versions of their plugin. The most popular is BIAS Amp, which has several versions with more options. The great thing about BIAS Amp is its sound quality. You also have AmpliTube’s free version, which is very popular.
Lastly, you have premium Amp Simulators such as the paid versions of BIAS Amp and AmpliTube 4. To this list, we can add Native instrument’s Guitar Rig Pro 5, Overloud’s THU Full, and Line 6 Helix Native.
The latter is the most expensive Amp Simulator out there and it has a price of $399. This program is slightly more complex than others and I would not recommend it to beginners.
However, in terms of price, this is as high as you get and it is still considerably cheaper than premium real amplifiers.
Check Out My Related Post
The 16 Best Amp Simulators (Free & Paid) For Epic Tones
This postIs my ultimate round up of the best amp simulators you can grab right now. Ranging from simple free programs to massive tone libraries.
Unfortunately, even to get your basic needs met for recording real amps is quite expensive. Let us consider a good sounding Fender Amp:
The Fender Blues Deluxe Reissue 40-Watt Combo Amp (a fantastic-sounding amp) costs $799.99.
The most popular microphone for recording guitar is the SM57 by Shure. This one costs around $99 and without getting into recording techniques, using one microphone limits your tonal options.
Add a guitar cable to your price and you get a total of around $900-$950 to get your basic sound. Not to mention having to treat your room and getting pedals to expand your palette will add. You get the point.
Mind you, I would not consider this a waste of money.
I would much more see it as an investment in your search for getting all the tools you need to record quality music. This, however, is very dependent on your goals, both short and long-term.
Amp Sims vs Real Amps – What’s Best For Beginners?
This one is a bit more difficult to answer as every beginner reacts differently to both options.
This holds true both to recording your guitar or finding an optimal practice environment. That is why I would say experimenting with both is crucial.
On one hand, using amp simulators give you more options when it comes to sound. This is a fantastic tool to keep yourself interested and motivated.
You can also shape your practice routine depending on your sound. You can practice arpeggios and picking techniques with a nice, clean, lush sound. Alternatively, you can practice bending and soloing with a cool, lead distortion type of sound.
The main potential problem you can encounter as a beginner is being able to shape your sound to something that sounds good to you.
This takes practice and patience but some people might be discouraged if they don’t quickly find a sound they like.
On the other hand, having a real amp can help you learn how to get a good sound on an actual amplifier. This is very helpful for those who are thinking of performing on live gigs at some point.
The downside can be your lack of tonal versatility and having to spend more money to get a nice sounding amp. Both options will have pros and cons and I would recommend experimenting with both.
Amp Sims vs Real Amps – What the Future Holds?
It is no secret that technology plays a huge aspect in music-making nowadays. It is very likely that the more we progress, the more important will technology be.
I do believe that amp simulation will continue to develop, making it hard for analog gear to keep up.
However, recording a real amp, especially in a professional studio situation, will always be part of the magic. This holds even more true to live shows. This is where much of the energy of a guitarist relies on the power of their sound.
Having said that, amp simulation is an incredible tool I would recommend to anyone. I sure hope it continues to advance towards where the quality is undisputed and allows us to create more unique sounds.
As I mentioned before, the real debate between amp simulators and real amps should be according to your necessities. For home studio scenarios, the convenience, and versatility of an amp simulator are ideal. For professional recording studios or live gigs, nothing beats a real amp cranked to 11.
Keep in mind, if you go for amp simulators, you will have to face a learning curve when it comes to creating nice sounding tones. Don’t let that discourage you and keep on rockin’!