According to Steve Vai, there’s one digital amp modeler to rule them all and is “a beast” in the game.
Technology has gone such a long way since Line 6 introduced their POD modeler back in the late 1990s. With all the digital modelers and profilers today, even the most experienced and demanding guitar players are having a really hard time with all the blind tests. And despite initially being very reluctant about them, even Steve Vai is now into that stuff.
According to what he said in a recent interview with Dean Delray as part of the Let There Be Talk podcast, Fractal Audio’s Axe-Fx is the best option these days.
“The Fractal Axe-Fx is a rack-mountable signal processor,” he offered while discussing his choices (transcript via Ultimate Guitar). “So, the moment you take your analog guitar, and you stick it into a digital signal processor, the quality of what comes out is based on the converters, the expense that’s applied to the unit.”
“And I’ve tried many times,” he added, “and I’ve taken my beautiful analog sounds and put it through these rinky-dink things. They just don’t come out the other end what I’m expecting.”
There’s a serious practical problem with some of these “rinky-dinks,” as he calls them, and that’s latency. As any digital-oriented guitar player may know, a few milliseconds over a certain threshold can be a serious dealbreaker.
“There’s latency, which means there’s a delay,” he explains. “You know, I can detect like a three-millisecond latency. And a lot of these gears, I got 12-15 milliseconds.”
But with Fractal, things are working smoothly. Vai continued:
“The Fractal is a beast. It’s the one piece of rack-mount where I’ve found that the quality of the signal that goes through it is the best that I’ve heard. It retains the integrity of the signal the best that converters can do in digital gear these days.”
“It’s a spaceship,” the guitar legend added. “I mean, when you open up the hood on the Axe-Fx, it’s a space station, man. You could do anything. It’s bulletproof… The lag time is virtually imperceivable.”
But although Fractal Audio does make impressive stuff, guitar pros will always find at least one aspect where it may not entirely be capable of reproducing actual amps. For instance, Steve Vai’s old teacher and close friend, Joe Satriani, is still adamant that there’s one aspect where digital can’t beat the analog stuff.
“The big difference is that when you play the G or the B string into almost any amp, and you go higher, things happen,” Joe said in an interview. “There’s a transient response — it’s just totally out of control, beautiful, analog. Everything you put into it is coming out in real-time.”
“All the modeling things — again, fantastic leap into the future, and convenience for musicians —but, if you just put any one of those right next to your Champ, or your JVM, and you switch back and forth, you’ll go, ‘Oh, my God, there’s no comparison.'”
“They can’t possibly capture it to make the performer sitting like in this room going back and forth feel like it’s anywhere near the same.”
But things can be a whole lot different if you’re in a studio. Joe continued:
“However, if it’s on a recording, it doesn’t matter, because the recording already has limited dynamic range. I watched a lot of shows by the different performers to see if I could tell that there was modeling going on or not. And I realized that I could not at all.”
“Once it’s mixed in with the instruments and the sounds complement each other — suddenly, I’m just a fan enjoying the music and liking the guitar playing! It’s really about the performer, isn’t it?”
“Like, if you step on a wah pedal, is that your favorite wah? Is that making you inspired? Because the audience is going to pick up on your inspiration and how you play. They couldn’t tell the difference between different eras of Vox wahs; they just want you to do something really cool.”
“So, I think that’s also a really big part of it is — when you plug into these modelers, are you being inspired enough to turn on the audience?”