Amp Modeling Just Isn’t Good, Idles Guitarists Say: Here’s Why

According to guitarists Mark Bowen and Lee Kiernan of post-punk band Idles, amp modelers aren’t as nearly as good as the good old tube-driven amps. In fact, they argue that it all “sounds horrible.”

In the more recent years, it seems like all the modelers, profilers, or any other kind of amp simulators are getting more love. Even the most picky guitar virtuosos started accepting them. Steve Vai, for instance, used to be unimpressed by this stuff and he’s now a huge fan of Fractal Audio’s Axe-FX.

IDLES - GRACE (Official Video)

But Bowen and Kiernan just aren’t into it. Speaking to the Guitarist magazine in a new interview, they both openly said how put off they are by the whole concept of modelers. Bowen offered:

“I hate modeling, I think it’s wack. You can hear it right away.”

And it doesn’t stop there. As Bowen further adds, they even prefer to record their music on tape instead of going the conventional DAW way. Yes, we know — stuff eventually goes into a digital format, no matter what you do. But he had an explanation for that as well:

“One of the big things on [their latest album] ‘Tangk is that we recorded a lot of it to tape. Obviously, it goes into digital at points, so there’s going to be some form of dither or issues around the distortion and what occurs above the frequency range.”

IDLES - ROY (Official Lyric Video)

“But with an amp, and with tape, that is blunted because of the mechanics of it. And the distortion and what happens above the frequency range, that is taken care of.”

“If you’re not aware of that with modelling and using DAWs, you can get into scenarios where you’ve created something great, but it f***s with your head and sounds horrible.”

And there’s also a trap that many modern musicians can easily fall into. You’ll try to make it sound perfect, all the boxes will check out, but something will still be off. Well, there’s a reason for that. Bowen explained:

“You’re looking at the waveform on your EQ and it’s like, ‘There’s nothing horrible here.’ But it’s all the [near-inaudible] information that’s happening above that is really f***ing with your head.”

“And probably your dog,” he jokingly adds. But you get the point. And his guitar-playing partner in Idles, Lee Kiernan, also shares the same stance. However, he takes a more nuanced and, let’s say, a more pragmatic stance on the matter. Lee offered:

“I love real amps. I love the way a note feels. If you take that away from the speakers, it just starts feeling sterile to me. Like, I completely understand the usage of profiling, I think it’s incredible. But I have to think of them as two separate things.”

With that said, Lee says that it’s okay to use them in about 50 percent of the cases:

“For me, modeling is something you can use as a fail-safe for touring. But when it comes to sound, recording, writing – it has to be amps.”

IDLES - (Franklin Music Hall) Philadelphia,Pa 6.20.23

One of the musicians who would, to some extent, agree with the Idles guitarists is Eric Johnson. In an interview from last year, Eric said that he’s not entirely sold on modelers despite understanding some of the advantages.

“I think there’s a lot of new gear that sounds great, but it’s just a different sound,” he explained. “It doesn’t sound like my mentors and heroes that I grew up on with just that real kind of natural guitar sound. Or what I would consider a natural guitar tone.”

“So I’m pretty much into that, and I use a lot of the older stuff. I do experiment with new stuff every now and then… It’s really how it tracks when you play when you lean into it and really push the envelope of what you’re playing.”

IDLEs Stanford ReSet Festival, June 2, 2023- FULL SHOW

“How’s the envelope expanding and contracting with the dampening of the amp? How is it following suit with your picking technique?”

“And a lot of stuff, it doesn’t follow your picking technique… you can feel it kind of fighting you. And to me, that’s not as inspiring of a thing. So I look for something that follows the picking technique as much as possible.”

“I’m experimenting with the Neural DSP [Quad Cortex] right now, and we’re capturing sounds, and I’m gonna keep capturing sounds on it. The company has been gracious to allow me to work with a unit.”

Idles - 'Danny Nedelko' (live at Splendour In the Grass)

“I’m kind of encouraged. I think that concept gets better all the time. I don’t know if it’ll ever completely replace the [original] stuff but I’ve been working with Neural. We’ve done a few captures so far and I could almost use that – it’s pretty close. I’m going to continue working with it and see what I can do with it.”

Photo: Mr. Rossi (Idles – Southside Festival 2022 – IMG 5495 – 3)

  • David Slavkovic

    David always planned for music to be nothing more than a hobby. However, after a short career as an agricultural engineer he ended up news editor at KillerGuitarRigs, senior editor at, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor and brands like Sam Ash.