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Next Gen Guitar Amps

Craig Anderton
|
03.19.2014

Many guitar players are discovering the advantages of the FRFR (Full Range, Flat Response) guitar amp compared to conventional amps. This isn’t to diss the traditional guitar amp; it’s great, and has its uses. But the FRFR option has some compelling advantages.

FRFR vs. Conventional Amps

A guitar amp does more than make soft signals loud. The cabinet is basically a filter; open-back cabinets reduce bass, closed-back types give more bass, and the high-frequency response starts rolling off at around 5kHz. Also, the preamp and power amp affect the sound dramatically—or Spinal Tap would never have praised the virtues of turning up an amp to eleven.

Guitar amps are wonderful not because they’re precision devices like studio monitors, but because they’re about character. Adding a pedalboard and some cool effects creates a setup that has served us well for decades.

However, conventional guitar amps are generally limited to a particular “signature” sound. Plugging your guitar into a different amp or direct into a PA mixer gives a different sound. Tube amps have their own magic, but also, some drawbacks: Tubes get “soft” over time, wear out, and can become microphonic.

An FRFR amplification system is like a PA or studio monitoring system—clean and accurate. You get your “sound” before it hits the FRFR amp, either through a quality multieffects with amp/cab simulation, or a laptop running amp sim software. This means you’ll get the same sound whether you plug into an FRFR system, PA, or recording setup because your tone isn’t dependent on the specific way an amp colors your sound.

Amp Sim Software? Seriously?

Amp sims have become much more realistic and flexible. Their biggest drawback is that if you just dial up presets, they likely won’t work because whoever designed them doesn’t play guitar like you do. Just as you wouldn’t walk into a studio, put a mic somewhere random in front of an amp’s speaker, and expect good results, you need to tweak presets. It sometimes takes effort to obtain warm, creamy tones that fit your playing style and guitar.

Also, in the studio amp sims can also be unsatisfying with monitor speakers or headphones. Neither of these “push air” like an amp. But a loud FRFR does push air, and returns physicality to your playing.

The Gibson Brands FRFR System

Companies in the Gibson Brands family make all the elements needed to put together a slammin’ FRFR system. Here’s how.

Powered speaker: Cerwin-Vega P1500X. This two-way, bass-reflex system has a 15" low frequency driver, so it provides the same kind of power and “oomph” as a closed-back amp. A 1-3/4" high-frequency driver handles clarity and brightness (Fig. 1).

Cerwin-Vega’s P1500X
Fig. 1: Cerwin-Vega’s P1500X packs a lot of amplification into a compact enclosure.

The amp produces 540W continuous and 1500W peak; this is more than most guitar amps and can cover most venues, but you can “daisy-chain” more units for more power (or use two for stereo).

The P1500X has several line inputs with gain trims, so any multieffects or audio interface can patch into one of the line inputs (Fig. 2). Because the FRFR system is clean, another advantage is you can also mix in a mic or backing tracks—it’s a guitar amp and a PA. (The P1500X doesn’t have a dedicated “guitar” input, but remember—the point is to do your processing before the signal hits the amp anyway.)

Cerwin-Vega’s P1500X rear panel
Fig. 2: The P1500X rear panel. Note the multiple inputs, and switches on the right for tailoring the sound.

Rear-panel switches can tailor the response. Turning on Enhanced EQ gives a more “meaty” sound that works well with distortion. Turning Vega Bass off and High Pass filter on tailors the response a little more like an amp cab. However these are just suggestions, and you can always edit sounds within your effects.

Interface: TASCAM US-322 or US-366. If you’re using a multieffects, patch it between your guitar and the P1500X, and you’re done. But with a laptop and amp sim software, you’ll need an audio interface. This receives your guitar signal and feeds it to the computer, then sends the computer’s output with the processed sound into the P1500X. TASCAM’s US-322 audio interface (Fig. 3) is inexpensive, has a dedicated high-impedance guitar input, includes some onboard signal processing (EQ, Compression, Exciter, Reverb), and is rugged and compact.

TASCAM US-322
Fig. 3: TASCAM’S US-322 is a basic, high-quality interface with a dedicated guitar input.

The US-366 is somewhat more upscale, works equally well, and includes additional features for recording.

Software: Cakewalk SONAR X3 and amp sim. You can run most amp sims stand-alone, without a host program. However, using the plug-in version of an amp sim along with a host program like SONAR X3 (Fig. 4) allows other tricks like playing backing tracks, recording your performance, or doing sophisticated parallel processing.

Overloud’s TH2
Fig. 4: Overloud’s TH2 Producer amp/effects/cab sim running with SONAR X3 as the host program.

Connecting It Together

You’ll need:

  • A guitar cable to go from guitar to interface input
  • Another cable to patch the interface output to the P1500X input
  • A USB cable to connect the interface and laptop

With most amp sim software, incorporating a MIDI footswitch/pedal controller lets you choose different presets with the footswitches and add expressiveness with the pedal. If the controller connects through USB, you won’t need an interface with MIDI capabilities.

Hey, What About Latency?

Going through an amp sim and computer produces latency—a fancy word for “there’s a very short time delay between hitting a note and hearing it.” Fortunately, today’s fast computers and audio interface drivers can cut latency to under 10 milliseconds. 10 milliseconds is the same delay you’d hear by standing 10 feet from a speaker, so it’s no big deal. In my years of using a computer onstage, latency has never been a deal-breaker—but the FRFR setup’s added flexibility has been a deal maker.

Will FRFR Stand the Test of Time?

When I was a kid back in 1968, for live performance I switched from guitar amps to an FRFR system using dual 50W keyboard amps and homemade effects to get my tone—and haven’t used guitar amps since. I think 45+ years is a sufficiently long evaluation period!

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