Walrus Audio recently posted the question asking which is preferred, digital modeling of guitar amps (such as the Kemper) or the actual tube amps themselves? As technology nears the seemingly exponential approach to the Kurzwellian singularity, musicians and audio engineers with a keen ear have a tangible way to experience what this coming tide feels like. My humble answer to this question is what Terence McKenna used to say when asked a seemingly paradoxical question, “Both, and…” 

I recently upgraded my setup to Universal Audio’s Apollo series and I am amazed with their digital modeling of seemingly esoteric qualities that analog equipment has on an audio signal. Playing with the Fender Deluxe ’55, and the UA1176 collection, it is of my opinion that, as far as recording audio goes, digital has basically caught up with analogue* as far as tone and feel is concerned. Personal preference/ workflow / inspiration is now what the decision is based on in my humble opinion. Yes, there is and always will be a place for analog; summing to get tracks out of the box, the magic of partially malfunctioning analog units, and so on… that to me is where analog truly shines. 

As many agree, when playing in a room live, digital modeling still doesn’t touch the movement of air and frequency coming out of a tube amp. I don’t know how else to describe it, but there is a feeling in your chest that only comes with the direct connection between your strings and the sound waves bouncing off your eardrum that was sent from the speaker, pushed by a tube, reverberated by a spring, transferred by a rectifier…. and so on. 

This is why my current rig incorporates both ("and..."), digital modeling using Apple’s MainStage / UA Apollo and a vintage “analog” 1968 Fender Pro Reverb (&) 1950’s Bell Howell Filmosound 285. Overkill? Perhaps, but it sure makes that lifelong tone quest feel satiated, at least for now. While I enjoy the elegance of simplicity in life, my guitar rig is definitely not minimalist. With this setup, digital is for recording / going to the house PA, the amp is for stage sound, feel and rehearsal / writing / inspiration and is mixed in with the FOH. Since my current project is electronic based at it’s core, I have the flexibility to create sonic qualities of my guitar that are more atmospheric than with traditional genres. This allows me the freedom for the set-up that I currently have.

My pedalboard starts off with what I consider my desert island tone centric pedal, ZVEX’s Box of Rock. Back when I was mainly using Logic’s guitar modeling, using a BOR on the front end was the only reason I could even begin to attempt to like a “direct” guitar sound. Not to mention it is the key to getting the right tube breakup and upper harmonics out of my Pro Reverb.

I take this signal into a custom buffered splitter that I found a builder on reverb.com where each signal is able to be switched on/off independently. One split continues on into the pedalboard, one split goes directly into the UA Apollo where the 610B in Unison kicks in. This goes into MainStage through my digital signal chain and everything ends up back in UA Console hitting the Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor. When live, this goes to the house PA and when at home, this all goes through a pair of ADAM A7X Monitors. I also have a USB footswitch for controlling effects in MainStage. In MainStage, my go-to reverb is the Valhalla Shimmer Reverb. 

But back to the pedalboard…

This signal then travels into the ZVex Distortron for times when I need to crank up the gain and volume of my amp signal. For me (and most), having varying levels for dynamic builds is essential and again I look to using Zvex’s distortron / SHO engine.

The signal then travels into 80Tape’s Limbo II analog delay. This delay has the best modulation of any delay pedal I have heard. It’s murkey and brooding but not muddy or soggy. The sweet spot indeed. I don’t current use the ARP setting but it sure is fun to switch on when I’m making noise at home.

After the Limbo, I then hit the Strymon Blue Sky on Room setting with a nice long tail. I previously was using the Context by Red Panda and while I loved the “Cathedral” setting, it couldn’t handle the high end coming out the Distortron. Too digitally crispy on the high end. I set the pre-delay to be rather late behind the dry signal and when combined with the first hit of the delay from the Limbo, the sound has the right “space.” 

The stereo out from the Strymon feeds into the Filmosound 285 projector amp (a goodwill score, no joke!). I use a SourceAudio EQ to push the 285 with a little more top end but mainly, the presence comes from the Pro Reverb. This amp has so much gusto and I absolutely love it.

After the Big Sky, I hit one of my favorite pedals, the ZVEX loFi Junky. Running this signal going into the Pro Reverb (via the ubiquitous Ditto Looper) while the “dry” signal hits the 285 creates this wall of sound texture that is hard to describe. The pro-reverb gets the fully modulated and compressed signal while the 285 gets the “dry” signal… when they mix, the chorus is unlike anything I have ever heard. True spatial chorus indeed.

After seeing a few pedal boards incorporating a custom cable loom, and after playing numerous shows with too many cables, I fell in love the idea of having a single cable that runs power, RCA line for the spring reverb footswitch and my instrument cable to my amp. Crafting one of these takes a little it of planning but the reward is rather satisfying indeed.

I also use a Strymon Ojai to power the pedals. I use a Dr. Z Lite Brake on the Pro Reverb and find that the 1 attenuation setting is the sweet spot. I could dig into each piece of gear and write a whole post on each one and maybe I will one day…

Thanks for reading.

//d