Analog Alternatives to Digital Modeling

You'd like to have a variety of amplifier tones but you (a) don't have the cash for a collection of amps and (b) you're sick of digital McModeling. What to do? There is an alternative that will not break the bank.

First, you only need one good tube amp, preferably something with enough clean headroom to work with and that sounds good on its own, e.g., a Fender Twin, Bogner Shiva, Mesa Boogie Express 5:50, etc., and so on. Obviously, speakers, cabinet sizes, power output, and tube varieties (6L6 vs. EL34 vs. 6V6 vs. EL84 and so on) all make a difference but what we're aiming for is an amp that will function as a good 'platform.' 

Second, I'm going to assume that you are familiar with the effects pedal concept. Maybe you own an overdrive or a delay, etc. Here, we're going to shift perspective a little and, instead of thinking in terms of a generic overdrive or distortion pedal (e.g., Tube Screamer or Full-Drive) we're going to think in terms of the "amp in a pedal." 

Over the last few years a number of effects have arrived on the market that do not simply offer up another flavor of distortion but provide emulations of amp-like tones, though, most are just tweaked clones of other overdrive pedals.

For example, let's imagine you're plugged into some Marshall 50-watt combo but would like to also have a Fender blackface Deluxe sound available: there's a pedal that will get you in the ballpark. Several, in fact. But you'd also like to have available the sound of an old Fender tweed amp from the 50s or maybe a Vox AC30: these are available as well. 

One obvious route is the Tech 21 Character series of analog pedals but I track guitar with amps,  microphones, and preamps already so I don't feel like paying for the speaker/mic emulation (which you can bypass for use in front of an amp) and, to my ears, these pedals sound only marginally better than a lot of digital modeling amps. 

So, what else is there? A lot as it turns out. In lieu of an encyclopedic rundown I'll simply provide a few proven examples from my own pedalboard (as well as some alternatives).

Blackface: Black '65 (also check out the Barber B-Custom Cool);

Tweed: Les Lius

Vox: Englishman (also, Wampler Cranked AC or Menatone TBIAC). Also, you might look at the Vox AmPlugs -- not pedals but headphone practice amps that sound not just good for the money but simply good. You can use an inexpensive adapter (mini to quarter inch jack) and run that into your combo. I got the little 'AC30' plug and it's pretty damn cool sounding. Indeed, the AmPlug just blows away the Lovepedal Englishman (see my review). 

D-Style: Zendrive 1 or 2 (also consider the Ethos)

Marshall chrunch: OCD

And for the Boogie Mk IIC+ lead sound I don't use a pedal but a Mesa Boogie Studio Preamp from the early 90s (the drive channel is an actual MkIIC+ preamp circuit that has been slightly refined).

If  you're looking for a Trainwreck tone but don't have, say, $30K laying around you might check out the Wampler Paisley Drive (a tweaked 808 design that's supposed to get you into the Rocket area and the discontinued Menatone Kar Krash was supposed to take you on the Express) but I have no experience with these. 

Are these pedals going to get you an exact replica of, say, a Vox or a Marshall? Well, not really. They're virtually all just tweaked clones of other distortion pedals you're familiar with. However, minor alterations to old designs really can have dramatic effects (no pun intended). And some of these pedals are just minor tweaks of other pedals by the same outfit, e.g., the Les Lius and the Englishman are just minor variations of the same pedal. But when you operate them at their max range you find real tonal differences. For example, the Englishman only really gets it's thing going with the gain cranked all the way up.  The Boogie StuPre is a bit different as the circuit is nearly a dead on replica of a real MkIIC+ but your choice of amp will make some profound differences.

Even though these devices will never get you the 'real deal' playing live, recording is a realm of deception. This is what a lot of people do not realize. Recording electric guitars is very different from playing live (or by yourself in your den). A lot depends on the amp, obviously, but room, mics, mic pres, and your skills as a recordist and mixer are decisive. In my experience, a decent 'character' pedal and a little work and experimentation can definitely yield good results and all with only one amp, not a fleet of them. And by passing your signal through real vacuum tubes, transformers, magnets, and by pushing real air in an actual room you're going to be able to sound much better than a lot of software emulations.

On a parting note, you might also look at the Analogizer as a 'finishing' pedal to add a rich, gooey complexion to your sound

So, there you go. You don't need (though, you may want) a massive amplifier collection and you don't have to resort to using digital McModelers for a variety of believable and useable sounds.