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Discussion in 'Amp Modeling' started by NotScott, Oct 27, 2017.
I know one........
And, do tell
One can certainly have a lot of fun.
I am not an us vs. them type.
I love my Kemper, everyday is Christmas since I got it.
I sure do hear some nice tweed deluxe from my Amplifire, so, I'm guessing out loud that you're getting some of the same from Kemper.
If you haven't figured it out yet, I am the "one" mentioned in the OP.
Before I get to why I selected a Kemper, here is a little background on me so you will better understand where I am coming from, how I came to this decision and why this was the best solution for ME and MY needs. It may or may not be the best solution for you but, perhaps you may find something of value in the discussion regardless.
When I am not playing guitar, I am a partner in an engineering firm. We design large-scale audio, video and control systems for primarily corporate clients. My partner handles the video and broadcast side of the business. I handle the audio and control side. During my career, I have designed, tested, tuned and consulted on more audio and control systems than I can remember. I have done pro sports facilities for the NFL, NBA, NHL, NASCAR and MLB. I have done performing arts centers, churches, night clubs, major universities, government facilities and a long list of others all over the world. The tools I primarily use for aligning audio systems are software based and primarily perform transform analysis on a system's impulse response (yes, IR). So I understand the mathematics, theory, circuitry and the processing that goes on behind the scenes in digital audio systems and use that knowledge daily in my profession. I am also the guy responsible for designing the GUIs and functionality for our control systems. So I understand how important an intuitive user interface is to getting the most out of any system.
Before I finished school and got into engineering, I was a FOH and monitor engineer for a few audio companies and toured with several bands. While finishing school, I worked nights as the house sound guy for a large nightclub that had local, national and international acts. So I also know very well what life is like on the other side of the console too.
As for playing, I started when I was 13 and played professionally my last couple years in high school and my first year in college. I stopped playing professionally when I got into the audio business due to a lack of time but, I still played and managed to collect some cool guitars and amps over the years. When I formed my business 7 years ago, I finally had enough time to play again and I am currently in two bands now.
So now that you know a little bit about me, let's talk about amps next.
Nice, like the guitar and cab too by the way. You're life experience is quite similar to mine in many ways....I too was playing a band for several years before I joined the Canadian Forces as a electronics technician which led to me playing publicly very little and only being in one more band before ending up more or less a hobbiest. Then I left for the Defense Industry in my early 30s where I've been ever since, working my way up to a senior (highest) technologist position several years ago (8 or so). I don't have my own business though. But it looks like we both are into using technology when it works for our needs. What amps do you like that the Kemper does well enough for you? Are you going to profile your own amps or purchase some profiles?
Although I have been around digital audio since its inception and use it on a daily basis for my business, it has never impressed me enough to replace my tube guitar amps. When I say "my tube guitar amps" I am not talking about Peaveys, PCB Fenders, hacked Marshalls and Vox AC30CC2XVR123XYZ whatevers. Honestly, if I owned any amps like that, I would sell them all too and use a modeler. And although I don't claim to have "owned them all", the amps I do own are many of the grails that modelers are marketed as recreating.
In my vintage stable, I currently own:
1959 Fender Bassman
1960 Fender Deluxe
1964 Vox AC30
1965 Vox AC10SRT
1973 Marshall Super Lead
1987 Mesa Mark III Simulclass
I have a couple single-channel modern amps that are designed to provide much of the vibe of a vintage amp and add their own unique twist:
Peters JP-50 - An extremely versatile preamp coupled with a power section that will accept practically any octal-based output tubes. I currently have it setup with KT66s and run it as a hot JTM45.
80s Man Tech Mad Cow - Designed by a dentist who loved vintage AC30s and Trainwrecks, this is a beast of an amp that combines both of those amp designs very well but, with no master volume, it really needs to be LOUD before the magic starts to happen.
For the gigs that I have been doing for the past several years, I wanted more versatility without sacrificing tone and feel. For those situations I use:
RedPlate RP40 combo - This is a Blackface and Tweed preamp with a Dumble voiced stackable OD section feeding a pair of 6L6s. It is a small combo about the size of a Champ and weighs half as much as my Boogie but it will sing and rock with the best of them. This has been my small, grab-and-go amp.
Carol-Ann Tucana 3r - This has been my main gig amp since I bought it. The venue size determines what cabinet goes with it. It's not a Marshall, nor a Fender nor a Dumble tone. It is very unique. However, it has 3 very versatile channels, a simple layout, a very useful solo boost function and sounds great at any setting or any level. This one will also sing or rock and it feels like a worn-in pair of sneakers.
I have owned all of these amps for years and have gigged with all of them. I know how they are supposed to sound and how they are supposed to feel. So for a digital product to replace any or all of these, it has to be indistinguishable from the real thing, to both my ears and my hands.
So how did I get to a Kemper? Well, once upon a time ...............
I'm most interested to hear about your cab, and why you chose it and what you're sending to it.
Once upon a time, when MTV actually played music videos and the only thing more processed than the guitar sounds of the day were the hairstyles, there were some small, portable devices that caught my attention. One was the Rockman. It was a one trick pony headphone amp that ate batteries like candy but, it was very handy when travelling. If you wanted something with speakers that you could actually gig with, there was the Gallien Krueger 250ML. Both of these were solid state devices with only one sound that was gussied up more than a famous "Virgin" out cruisin' for underage Latinos in Manhattan. However, the promise of what could be there was obvious.
After a Rockman and a Pandora and the very limited tones they offered, I started down the modeling path with a POD XT about 15 years ago. I bought it to replace the Pandora as a portable, late-night practice tool. Marketed as the "world’s most advanced tone platform for guitarists" I figured it would be OK for my needs. And I was right. It was just OK. It did a passable overdriven Marshall tone but the cleans sucked and all of the other models were laughable. I never really dived into all of the effects or tweakable parameters. Once I found a decent Marshall tone that I could clean up with my guitar volume, I stored it and never stored another preset. I considered using it live. However, when I tried it through my studio monitors it sounded like a bad transistor radio. I even tried it once as an FX processor in a loop in one of my amps but, the cheap converters in the unit sucked all of the high end out of the amp. Regardless, I used it for many years as my primary practice tool and it did an acceptable job.
A few years later, when a few guitar forums started buzzing about how "real" the new breed of modelers were, I decided to investigate it for myself. Fractal seemed to be what everyone was talking about but, I wasn't about to drop that kind of cash based solely on Internet hearsay or endorsements by acts with heavily processed tones.
One of the things that kept me hesitant to embrace modeling was the rhetoric used by many of its supporters. Whenever I opened a review, the first words always talked about all of the effects and all of the tone shaping options. When tone was mentioned, it was always described as being "indistinguishable from a recorded amp". Rarely did anyone mention how the raw amp model feels and responds. Since I like to trust my own ears and know better than to believe everything I read in some Internet forums, I decided to try an AmpliFire as my first foray into this "more realer" modeling.
What captured my attention about the AmpliFire was that it was based upon the work of Mark Gallo, a very bright guy, and this video by Rob Chapman:
Granted, Chapman pimps gear for Anderton's and his preferred tones are on the metal side of things. However, the first words out of his mouth were "it feels like a tube amp" and that was what I was waiting to hear. When I then read some other reviews on other sites that compared the basic, raw amp models very favorably to the Fractal and saw the price of the AmpliFire, it seemed like the right time to upgrade into a better modeler.
When the AmpliFire arrived, I was a bit underwhelmed. I wanted to hear the pure amplifier models without any effects or "electronic duct tape" as I like to call them. Nearly every preset was buried in reverb and delay. Many of the presets had EQ blocks engaged and a compressor. I have never understood why anyone would need a compressor in front of a vintage tube amp and, if your amp models need it, EQ and other effects to sound right, then perhaps your model is not up to snuff. Regardless, the clean presets were too flat and cold. The overdriven sounds were very harsh. After playing with the cabinet settings, it sounded better but, the unit didn't start to sound like I wanted until I started loading aftermarket IRs. Once again, I was able to get some really good Marshall tones through headphones and the unit finally started responding to my playing very nicely. The Dumble models had a close enough tone after some tweaking but, the feel was too tight. The rest of the models weren't very convincing in tone and/or feel to me. In particular, the tweeds and AC30 tones were nothing at all like the real thing I had sitting right next to it.
I also tried the Amplifier through my studio monitors. It sounded OK once I jerked around the EQ for a while but as a gigging musician, IMO you really need a live outing with any gear to see how it will really perform for you. Madison Square Bedroom is great for getting an understanding for the operation of the unit and if you never intend to have the cops called on you. But, if you plan on gigging something, until you have a drummer banging away behind you and another guitarist/keyboardist competing in the same frequency range with you, you really don't know what you have.
I decided to try the AmpliFire live at a rehearsal with one of my bands. I thought I had a good couple presets so I plugged it into the available keyboard monitor. Granted, the keyboard monitor is not the equal of my Meyer HD-2s at home but, the AmpliFire live experiment was a dismal failure. It sounded harsh and way too compressed. After adjusting EQ and gain all evening, I was able to eliminate the harshness but, I could not find any happy medium between being too compressed or too linear. The unit just would not respond to my picking dynamics no matter how many parameters I adjusted. It works fine for me through some headphones sitting in a recorded mix with limited dynamic range, but in a live band situation where my picking primarily drives the action, it didn't work for me.
Recently I joined a new band. My old band was primarily an old-school Blues gig. I used Les Pauls and Strats through my Carol-Ann. A typical night would have me using two of the 3 channels on the amp and I would use a wah on a tune or two and reverb/ddl on one original song. Tonal and volume changes were done old-school, using my guitars' controls. I like simple. I like to focus on the show and the material and not whether I have the right stereo multi-tap delay using the proper midi patch so that it comes in exactly half a beat early. I am all about how my guitars sound and react to my playing, not how many effects I can bury my tone in.
My new gig is an AOR/Top-40 band that likes to rock from time to time. The tunes I am being asked to do require a bit more presets and effects to do them justice. Although I can do a good job and aced my audition with my current rig, it can sometimes be a funny tap-dance show trying to change channels, turn on/off effects and come back in on the right beat with the right volume and settings.
Here is where the Kemper comes in...................
I was perfectly content to do this new gig with my current rigs. It would be a little more work during the show but, I know it would sound great. About the same time I was planning to audition for this band, I decided to sell off some gear I wasn't using to make some needed space at home. I quickly sold some speakers, a 4x12 cab and a pricey set of humbuckers. I was considering buying another guitar but, I am happy with all of mine. I considered another amp but, I have all the bases I need covered. I then began to think about what I could do to make my gigs easier. I then realized I had enough funds for any modeler I wanted so I started my homework.
If I was going to go the modeler/profiler route, it would have to meet the following criteria:
1) Make my rig smaller and easier to transport
2) Make live gigs easier
3) Sound and feel at least as good as my tube amps
I started listening to clips and reading reviews and visiting all of the forums with relevant information I could find. The Helix was the first one out of the competition. From what I read, it was basically a scaled down Axe FX. I also remember my last Line 6 product and fairly or unfairly, I was not impressed.
My decision was down to deciding between the Axe-FX II XL+ with MFC-101 or the Kemper with remote. Right off the bat, the Axe fell behind on the first two criteria. The Axe remote was bigger than the Kemper remote and bigger than my current pedalboard and there was no way I would be able to access some of those middle switches with my clown feet. Also, the Axe is unpowered so I would have to bring an amp and cab or buy an FRFR cab, which I am not a fan of. The Axe would require a rack to house it. That makes it bigger and heavier than the Kemper. Finally, my eyes are not good enough to find the proper little black knobs and read some green display on a dark stage in the middle of a show. Granted, once I have my amps setup, I rarely touch the controls but typically, I will adjust the master volume, presence and bass a bit after the first song or two.
Regardless of the first two criteria, the most important thing to me is how does it sound and feel. If it sounds and feels like operating a buzzsaw with thick rubber gloves, I don't care if it is 2"x2" and works by telepathy. I ain't using it!
When researching how the units sounded, I found 3 useful videos that made up my mind. The first one was a comparison of the Kemper and the Axe by an Axe fan and owner. I wish I bookmarked the video. This guy has done several Axe videos but this one in particular struck me. When mentioning the Kemper, he first mentioned how good the unit sounded. Then he criticized it for being a "snapshot" of a particular amp setting and that its effects were limited. When he got to the Axe, the first words out of his mouth were about all the effects and all of the processing you could do with the unit. After he finished his effects orgasm he said, "The models are GOOD ENOUGH." Uhhhhh, excuse me, but if I am going to plink down a couple grand for a processor that claims to mimic every amp under the sun, those models better be damned PERFECT not just GOOD ENOUGH because you layer all those effects on top.
The next video I did bookmark. It is an interview that was done with producer Michael Wagener:
This guy has probably recorded more cool guitar tones than anybody and he said something very interesting about why he dislikes modelers and prefers the Kemper at the 5:30 mark. His comments about picking and control made sense to me and reinforced my opinion about the importance of picking dynamics in any device.
However, the clincher video for me was this:
I have no idea what these guys are saying but just listen to the amps they profile and the results they get. Another big reason I have been hesitant to incorporate an expensive modeler is that until I heard this video, I have never heard a convincing JMI Vox tone or Fender Tweed tone. I have heard several modelers do great Marshall type tones and I knew the Kemper could do them just as well but, I never heard any digital device accurately recreate the tone of my vintage Vox and/or tweeds. The Kemper in this video was close enough for me and I placed my order the next day.
So how does it sound......................
When I went shopping for my Kemper, I knew I wanted the powered head and I wanted the foot controller. I just didn't want to pay for the package at one time. However, Kemper does not offer the foot controllers through their dealers so, I would either have to buy a package now or buy the head now and wait for the slow boat from Germany. Fortunately while I was searching on Reverb one night, I happened by an ad for 15% off that happened to be a mistake. It was pulled immediately after I offered to buy the powered head/controller package for the "sale" price but, the dealer honored the sale price anyway.
Both units are very well built. I saw a video of a disassembled Kemper head and it appeared everything was modular, a very nice feature in this age of designed obsolescence for electronic appliances.
I turned the unit on, made sure I had all the latest firmware and updates, downloaded some profiles and went to town.
The cabinet in the picture is a tweed deluxe extension cabinet that is loaded with an EVM 12S. I LOVE pine cabs for their warmth and the floating baffle design adds some natural reverb. The EV is a very neutral speaker so it does not overpower the profiles like a Vintage 30 or other more colored speaker would. I did try the Kemper through my Meyer monitors but, the highs just sound too brittle to me. I was able to dial them back with the Main Out EQ but, I just don't like a mic'd guitar sound as my monitor. My plan is to use my tweed cab (or other cabs as venue dictates) with the cabinet emulation turned off. Then send the main feeds to the house/monitors with cabinet emulation on and some judicious EQ on my part. I think this is the best of both worlds and the Kemper makes it very easy to do.
As for the sounds, I tested about 300 profiles so far. Of those, disregarding the "novelty" profiles that do some strange effect I found only a handful that were not usable for me.
Let's talk about this "Kemper is just a snapshot" criticism. First, I and every pro guitarist I know, sets their amp to its sweet spot and it pretty much stays there. Nobody is twiddling knobs between tunes. I may adjust the gain, bass or presence a bit to compensate for room acoustics but, that is easily accomplished by the front panel controls on the Kemper. The Kemper offers a lot of methods to further shape any profile. Granted if you really start jacking those controls around, it won't sound much like the original profile but, that just means you picked the wrong profile to start with.
As for favorite profiles so far, I loaded up 5 basic tones for my band into a single performance. I like Michael Britt's Car Slant 6V for funky clean tones. I am not sure what Britt's fascination is with compressors on tube amps and he is also a reverb addict but fortunately the Kemper allows me to kill the effects on an otherwise beautiful tone.
I like the OLA Mars VM. I am thinking it's a take on a Marshall Vintage/Modern (I haven't read the descriptions. I would rather hear with my ears than my eyes. Know what I mean?). I took a bit of bass out, added a little treble and dialed the gain down a bit and it does a very nice crunchy Marshall thing that is very pick responsive. I took the Kemper to a rehearsal with my new band last night and I used this rig for a couple of the more bluesy numbers we do. If you have ever gotten in that zone when your sound is right and the amp is virtually playing itself and you just get lost in your playing, that's what happened to me last night, and it was without a single tube. The band even noticed it. So if you were wondering, YES, the Kemper passed its live audition.
For a warmer, crunchy Marshall tone, I like 1971 Mars Golub Crunch.
For over the top Blues leads, I like MB-Dumb ODS. Why anyone would put a compressor in front of a Dumble is beyond me but hey, whatever floats your boat in digital land.
For face-peeling 80s shred, I like LL German Grease. I have to work with this one some more as it is a bit noisy.
That being said, one of the primary reasons for me getting the Kemper was to profile my own amps. I hope to get started with that soon. The idea of having all of my amp tones with me in a small, portable rig is very appealing to me.
Despite it fulfilling all of my criteria, I do have some concerns, mostly because it is a new unit and I haven't established a comfort level with it yet. I am sure I will feel more comfortable as I use it more and more:
1) The software can be buggy. I read some reports of strange behavior with the foot controller and I experienced a glitch with mine when trying to load a performance from Rig Manager. Fortunately, as with any computer, there are always several ways to accomplish your task and I worked around it.
2) Reliability. Counting gigs I have played and worked, they would easily be into 4 figures. In that time, I can count on one hand how many times a tube amp failed on me and only one of those instances required something more than just a tube. In only the past month, I can count more issues I have had with my computers and software. At least with a guitar cab, should the Kemper fail, I can always use one of my tube amps as a backup.
3) Learning curve. For me, the hardest part of learning any new platform is learning the syntax and then applying it to the interface. There are many different ways to accomplish the same goal in a Kemper and I am sure I used the long way around the block when setting up my first performance. However, all of that effort is never wasted as you can store everything easily and recall it later, so learning the ins and outs of the device accelerates as you use it.
Finally, what did the Kemper convince me of?
1) Speaking solely from my personal experience with my Kemper and my vintage amps, digital is here. It has the feel and sound of vintage amps and adds the convenience of digital storage and manipulation. It ain't hype and slick marketing anymore boys. It's real.
2) Am I convinced tube amps are in their death throes? Not really. As long as modelers are marketed as sounding just like tube amps, there will always be a demand for those tube amps. That is just human nature to want the original. What I do see happening is guitar processors that create their own new sounds that are not tube-based and some form of computer interface for playing guitar. When that happens, then you will see the death of tube amps and probably a few other things you never expected.
3) Am I selling all of my tube amps now? I know you gear hawkers were waiting for this. But the answer is NO. I love the Kemper and it fits what I do well. However, I can still see uses for my RedPlate at small gigs where I just need to dial in one sound, plug in and rip away. And besides, all of my tube amps are FUN! Why would I want to give that away? I also see my tube amps still going strong 20 years from now. I think the Kemper will be landfill before then. And as good as the Kemper is at stealing the soul of an amplifier, it still can't create the creaks and groans of 50-year old cabinets or the flapping of a loose grille cloth on a jumping speaker or that gradual sag as the night wears on and by the 3rd set the amp is practically playing itself. Some may consider those flaws to be removed but, that is what makes Rock what it is. It is supposed to be noisy, living on the edge on the verge of blowing up. That's what gives Rock it's energy and separates it from all other genres.
Regardless, I have no dog in the tubes vs. chips debate and I am not posting to convince or debate anyone about what tools they should use to create their art. It's all good. As for me, I have one more tool that works for me and that makes me very happy.
Best real time review I have read. Thanks for posting. I was waiting for you to come play my AXE FX.. but your reasons for Kemper are clear. Cheers. Now I'll have to come over and play your Kemper.
As Frank said that was a fantastic review, thanks for sharing!
I definitely appreciate hearing your background in music and amp choices, and why you ultimately chose the Kemper. I thoroughly enjoy my Amplifire for what it is, but know its limitations and 100% agree with the critiques you have about it. If it weren't such a big investment I'd love to make the jump to a Kemper, the one I played was outstanding and would surely be more than enough amp for me. One day!
Good to see you Frank! I told you a while ago if I was doing another genre that required more versatility that I would be all over one of the better modelers. I just didn't expect the Kemper to be THAT good. We will have to get together and do some recordings of the Axe and Kemper for everyone.
Thanks BD. I know discussions can get a little "lively" in here so I wanted to be clear about why I chose what I chose for my needs and make it as inclusive as I could.
As for the AmpliFire, I still use it as my headphone amp and I still think it is a fantastic value for what it does. I have a few really good presets that sound great through headphones and I recently experimented with running it through the FX loop on the Carol-Ann. It sounded much better through a conventional guitar cab than through my studio monitors. Different tools for different jobs.
Regarding my rig being smaller and lighter now, here is a comparison. This was my typical pack for my Blues gig:
Here is my new pack with my new gig:
I am excluding guitar stands and backup heads here but, you can see the Kemper setup is about half the space and it weighs about half of my old rig. The Home Depot tool bag fits the Kemper, foot controller and all my cables, has built-in telescoping handle and wheels and costs about half what the Kemper bag costs. With my old rig, I was either making a few trips back and forth to the car or I was loading a small handtruck with me.
I didn't show a backup guitar with the Kemper rig. I will bring one for gigs but for rehearsals and non-critical events, I only need one guitar now, because of a neat feature on the Kemper. I have a tendency to work with singers who like to change keys based upon how their voice is feeling, how late it is, time of the month, etc., etc., you know how singers are. I can walk and chew gum at the same time so, impromptu key changes are not a problem for me. However, if I am doing a song that relies on open or cowboy chords to sound right, playing bar chords just won't cut it. In the past, I would always keep one guitar that was tuned to Eb for this job. It was quicker to switch guitars than to tune and re-tune. The Kemper has a neat transpose function that I have programmed into my foot controller. Now, I just step on a button and my guitar is tuned to Eb. There are no artifacts, no lag and no drama. It just works.
Ain't technology grand!
I had a moment yesterday that may help other players that are making the transition from analog to digital.
When I first jumped into the Kemper, I plugged into my guitar cab, put it in Browser mode and started checking rigs. I found a rig I would like, EQ it a bit from the front panel and then store it in a Performance. Since I was always intending on using a guitar cab for my stage monitoring, I didn't even bother to check how the line out to the FOH was sounding.
When I finished putting my performances together, I listened to my rigs through my headphones and studio monitors. I was not too happy. Most of the rigs had a buzzy high end that sounded nothing like the warm, fat rigs I heard through my cab. My first thought was to use the output EQ on the main outs to cut some of the highs. This helped a bit but, the main outs still didn't sound quite right to me.
I dug around on the Kemper forum and found someone with a similar issue. They said they solved it by turning off the Pure Cabinet function, not just setting it to 0. I tried that and it helped a lot. Apparently it is mentioned in the "more better" manual. Lesson #1 RTFM!
Although better, I still wasn't quite feeling it through my studio monitors while browsing through rigs. The high end still didn't sound quite right to me. As I was trying to EQ some of the rigs to make them sound right I finally realized what I was doing wrong.
When I first powered up the unit, I EQd the rigs to sound good with my guitar cab. By EQing the rigs instead of my guitar cab, I made all of the rigs brighter than they should have been. Realizing my mistake of trying to correct the overly bright rigs through the mains EQ, I went back to the original rigs, left their EQs intact and EQd my guitar cabinet to sound right with the original rigs I selected. I then put the mains EQ back to flat and that solved all of my issues. Now my guitar cab sounds great with cabinets off and a bit of a high end boost and my main out feeds sound like they were intended to sound. Lesson #2 If it isn't sounding right, it's probably you and not the technology.
There are still a ton of parameters that I haven't even messed with yet but, the more I play with the Kemper, the more impressed with it I become.