How To Pick the Right Amp Sim or Virtual Rig

Whether you’re a guitarist that’s been using live amps for years and are just looking to see what the hype is about or you’re well-versed in a bunch of different amp sims, one thing is certain – there is a TON of variety out there to choose from.

The selection can be a bit overwhelming. Do you go with something that simulates some of your favorite amps of all time or do you venture into uncharted territory with all-new designs that aren’t as much modelled on amps of the past as they are designed to fit a modern sound? Is there a happy middle ground out there for people who want a bit of both?

Today, we’re going to talk through the main contributing factors to choosing the perfect amp sim or virtual rig for the job, starting with our top selection criteria: flexibility. 

Flexibility in Amp Design

One of the biggest reasons today’s top guitarists are switching over from live amps to digital ones comes from the need for flexibility. It’s just not economical anymore to maintain a huge collection of amps for studio use that require constant maintenance and upkeep. It makes even less sense to tour with that many amps… so we’re seeing a huge shift in both camps.

Modern guitarists understand that flexibility in tone is one of the greatest assets they can have, especially when playing across multiple styles and genres. Virtual rigs enable just that by combining effects and amps with various cab and microphone options. Today’s session guitarists don’t even need a pedalboard anymore – simply load up a preset with a DI and go to town! 

In-The-Box Benefits 

A great virtual rig is going to have a lot of options for you right out-of-the box, starting with a great amp and sometimes including all the post-processing you need to mix your guitar track too. But the best of the best take things a step further – allowing users to import their own impulse responses. This goes for software like our Toneforge lineup, but even some of the newer hardware modelers are adding IR support.

With IRs, you can effectively expand your tonal options to include as many sounds as you can get your hands on. When the stock options start feeling stale, you won’t have to find a completely new amp to feel inspired again. Bring in your favorite cab and mic combos with a front-end that’s already familiar to you!

Don’t Overlook the Effects

While you can technically record your DI with effects printed to it, that’s often not the ideal option. There’s a reason many higher-end amps add an FX loop rather than having you stack effects in front – it just sounds better when you stage things correctly. Seeking out plugins that support a similar structure and include the FX right within the signal chain for you can be a huge time-saver and benefit to your overall sound.

With Toneforge Jeff Loomis, we really got a chance to experience the difference first-hand. While we considered keeping all our pedals together at the front end of the amp’s signal chain, it just made so much more sense to break them up. So just like a high-end amp in the real world, your signal flow goes through dynamics processing, then the amp, then the FX loop, before going through the cab and out for post-processing.

Finding a plugin that supports the same flow as you’d use in real-world situations is paramount if you’re hoping to make the shift to a fully digital workflow in the future.

Putting Your Virtual Rig Through Its Paces 

Of course, the biggest way to tell if a virtual rig or amp sim is right for you is to use it! Between software trials and super affordable plugins, virtual rigs are more affordable than ever and even if you need to go through a few of them before you land on the perfect one (or perfect ones), you’re still saving a ton of money in the long run.

Check out this video of Ben Elmer putting Toneforge Menace through its paces for some inspiration on what to do:

At the end of the day, you might choose to keep some hardware around and that’s completely fine. There’s no real need to switch to all digital and having the availability of both options has panned out great for many musicians and studios. If it helps service the music you’re working on, then it’s the right choice for you.

Tone Matching & Design

If you’re really serious about finding the perfect tones for your songs, then knowing how to design a sound and match other tones that you hear is an invaluable skill to have at your disposal. Check out the Toneforge Bootcamp for more info on developing these skills!