The Best Guitar Software Plugins
By Shawn Leonhardt for Guitar Tricks and 30 Day Singer
Ever since the advent of digital technology, musicians and engineers have tried to make their gear and effects as portable as possible. If you have ever had to play a gig as a guitarist, you know the amount of audio equipment and pedals used can be a real hassle. Even though it’s never been easier to learn how to play the guitar with the advent of online guitar lessons. But now every amplifier and effects unit for the guitar can be found in software on your computer or even a smartphone!
Is Analog and Digital Better?
Guitar software aims to emulate original hardware, the goal is to make it sound as close of a reproduction as possible. The original piece of hardware is reverse engineered and then digitally replicated in the software code. Obviously, a plugin or audio app will never sound perfectly the same, as analog circuitry can fluctuate more. However, even the most trained ears can rarely hear the difference with new software.
Around 2010 a huge analog resurgence occurred and suddenly old pedals, amps, and even synthesizers exploded in popularity. Ever since, the topic of analog vs digital has popped up with some players taking sides. Frankly, if you can afford analog, that’s great! But it is possible to record all your music with guitar software plugins.
In fact, if you want to have access to every effect’s unit, the software route is much cheaper. The amount of digital sound sculpting you will have access to is amazing! The one downside of software effects is for live use, running a computer on stage can lead to problems. Otherwise, for practice and recording, software plugins are your best bet.
The Hardware Required to Use Guitar Software
Guitar software is affordable and accessible for most players; however, you need the right hardware to get the most out of it.
Computers and Smart Devices
Guitar amp simulators have existed for almost a couple decades now, but to run the newest versions you need a powerful computer. Some musicians prefer Mac, especially with the new M1, while others stick to PC. Both have DAW’s or Digital Audio Workstations, Logic Pro is the best known for Mac, while Pro Tools is the industry standard on PC.
You do not need a DAW for all guitar software, but it helps and will give you an idea of how well your computer runs. The software you want to buy will give you the computer specs required, make sure you have the bare minimum at least. Guitar software can also be run on apps on smartphones. Some allow you to record your work right onto your device! Remember, the better your hardware is, your signal will have low latency and minimal CPU usage.
The interface is what allows you to plug your guitar into the computer or smartphone. They can range in price from under $100 to well over $1000! And as you can guess, the higher quality ones are going to sound better. If you want to just practice and noodle around with different amp simulations and effects, your interface can be inexpensive.
But if you wish to record an album or get an authentic-sounding reproduction of older equipment, make sure to use the best interface you can afford. Many guitarists start with IK Multimedia and Focusrite before moving into higher-end interfaces like UAD and SSL.
Mics, Cords, and Other Gear
You can still use guitar software with your acoustic, you will just need a proper mic to plug into your interface. Depending on your needs you may need the mic or audio cords to connect the electric guitar. Regardless of the item you need, make sure it is not the cheapest to buy. You want a good signal going into the computer and software, so get reliable accessories.
Some guitar effects do not simulate volume and wah pedals the best. The actual human aspect of playing the guitar and certain sound changes is still hard for the computer to recreate. It may help to have a MIDI volume or wah pedal to help with such changes.
Awesome Guitar Software Plugins
One of the best things about guitar software plugins is that they are usually free to demo. In most cases, you can download the software and you get a certain amount of time to try it out, even on some easy guitar songs. This not only helps make sure it is the right format for your hardware, but it also helps you see if you even like the sounds. Always demo the product if possible!
Deplike Guitar FX
If you are looking for an easy-to-use and realistic software that will allow you to make music wherever you want, Deplike Guitar FX is your go-to choice. It allows you to create the perfect tone for any song in just seconds. The many amps and pedals you can choose from make it easy to play any genre of music. You can plug your guitar into GuitarFX and get the most realistic tones on the market with no latency. Deplike Guitar FX is compatible with Mac, Windows, iOS, and Android which allow users to play while producing professional-grade results.
IK Multimedia Amplitube
IK Multimedia not only makes synth and guitar software, but they are also known for their many smartphone apps. Amplitube is their signature guitar effects software and is now in its fifth iteration. Amplitube 5 is at the top of many guitar software plugins lists due to its affordability and huge array of past amps and effects to choose from.
Positive Grid BIAS Amp 2
Positive Grid came to the attention of many guitar players during the app storm of the mid 2010’s. Their first app JamUp was mostly a variety of amps and effects, but soon they released a specialized amp simulator. BIAS allows you to tweak individual parameters within the amp, which is awesome if you are looking to create very specific tones for your guitar.
Waves is a very popular plugin maker for all music production. Their guitar effects and amp simulator is known as GTR3, and while it is a little dated it is still reliably known for being a great amp simulator. One of the best features is the low CPU required to run the software.
Avid Eleven MK II
Avid is the company that makes ProTools and the music scoring software Sibelius. The Eleven MK II is their offering for realistic guitar plugins. It doesn’t have a huge selection of classic amps and effects, but all the major players can be found with very realistic modeling.
ML Sound Lab Amped
As the name implies this software is a little more amped up then the rest! It focuses more on heavier tone amps with higher gain. If you are a metal or fusion player this may be a better-suited amp simulation. There are clean tones to be had, but none that would really suit a country or pop rock style of music.
NI Guitar Rig Session
Native Instruments is one of the biggest names in music software, their Komplete range is known for replicating almost all instruments. They even have a Guitar Rig interface to use with the guitar software package. However, due to nice graphics, the CPU amount can get out of hand quickly.
Line 6 Helix
Line 6 was one of the most well-known amp modelers in the early 2000s. Their name became synonymous with those that couldn’t afford higher-end gear. Line 6 is still around and creating amp and effects simulations that sound great! Their simulations have fantastic tones and tons of effects to choose from, ignore all the haters!
STL Tones Tonehub or Amphub
This Tonehub software focuses more on easy-to-use presets rather than a huge variety of amps to choose from. It caters more to metal players who are just seeking a specific sound. If you are more experienced and want to do further tweaking, the Amphub will be more suitable.
Toontrack doesn’t just create amp and effect simulations, they make virtual instruments. Their best-known products are EZDrummer and EZBass, two great programs to use if you want to add bass and drums to your guitar tracks. But they also have EZMix 2 for amp and effect simulations. These mixing parameters can be applied to more than just the guitar.
Peavey has been an actual amp maker since 1957 and their virtual guitar effect modeler has been around since 2009, but it is still a useful option. It is cheaper than most other plugins and of course, will have some of the most authentic Peavey amplifier simulations.
Blue Cat Axiom
Blue Cat is another company that makes effects for more than just guitars. Their approach to amp modeling is a little different in that it gives you way more options for sound mixing. This isn’t the best if you have specific and classic guitar tones in mind. However, if you wish to sculpt some really insane and unique tones, this plugin may be more suitable.
If you are looking for a louder and heavier guitar plugin, this one is perfect for those into thrash and progressive metal. The amp simulator was modeled specifically for djent and those darker heavy metal genres.
Not all amp sims cost much, some are free like this one! However it is mostly for delay and reverb, and it doesn’t cover many other effects. It is free though, so worth a try to see if it can add any space and depth to your guitar playing.