I’m a Bedroom Guitar Player, and I Love Digital Modeling

I have been all-in on digital modeling for over a decade now. Learn more about why digital modeling is a great option for bedroom guitar players, versus traditional amplifier and cabinet setups.

When I was a kid, I imagined myself owning multiple iconic amplifiers and a whole room’s worth of effects. I fully expected I would eventually own a Vox AC30, a Fender Tweed Deluxe, a Roland JC-120, a DigiTech Whammy, an EHX Deluxe Memory Man, a Korg A3, a Korg SDD-3000 — and I’ll stop there, as the list just goes on and on. Little did I know that what I’d end up with instead was a stomp box that could emulate just about any tone I’d ever wanted. Purists may snub their noses at it, but digital modeling has been life changing for me as a bedroom guitar player.

What is Digital Modeling?

I’m going to assume that most guitar players these days have a basic understanding of what digital modeling is. For those who don’t, I offer a brief summary below. Feel free to skip a bit if you just want to learn more about why I think digital modeling is the perfect all-in-one tone solution for bedroom guitarists.

In a guitar context, digital modeling is the process of digitally recreating effects, amplifiers, and cabinets. It differs from traditional multi-effects processing in that it emulates the entire sonic profile of specific pre-existing gear. Digital modeling is achieved through physical hardware or software plugins.

Digital modeling is still relatively new technology. The first digital modeler most people think of is Line 6’s POD, which was released in 1998. During the intervening years, digital modeling has improved significantly in terms of both sonic quality and design. We are now at the point where guitarists and general music fans often cannot distinguish between the sound of digital models and the real deal in blind tests. Best of all, even the most expensive hardware digital modelers are cheap enough to be accessible on the used market. It has never been this easy before for hobbyists to have so many pro-level guitar tones at their fingertips.

My Journey With Digital Modeling

I bought my first digital modeling unit, a Boss ME-25, about a decade ago. It sounded “meh” overall, to be perfectly honest. My solid state amp and pedals were superior to the ME-25 in almost every way. I would have returned it, if not for the fact that I often needed to play and record quietly.

Then, to help fund a move to a new apartment, I ended up selling my amp and most of my pedals. I was in university and on a tight budget at the time, so my next purchase was a cheap modeling amplifier, the Fender Mustang V.2. The tones I could create with the bundled software sounded a bit better than what I could achieve with the Boss ME-25. Even so, Fender’s models sounded nothing like the real equivalents to me. I was never all that happy with it, but it was all I could afford back then.

The first product that actually made me appreciate digital modeling was the used Line 6 POD HD500 I picked up a few years later. For the first time ever, digital models of the iconic gear I wanted to own sounded pretty good! I used my POD HD500 for several years, and was very pleased with it during that time.

SEE ALSO: Helix Native vs Helix Floor: Why You Actually Need Both

When Line 6 released the Helix in 2015, the digital modeling community could not stop talking about it. People claimed Line 6’s modeling was finally on par with Fractal’s. This was intriguing to me, as I really wanted an Axe-Fx II, but couldn’t afford it. When I was finally able to make my next upgrade in 2021, I went with the Line 6 HX Stomp. And what an upgrade it was! Modern digital modelers are in a league of their own, and make older modelers sound like cheap toys. Getting great tones out the HX Stomp was and remains a joyous experience.

What Makes Digital Modeling So Great?

Helix LT.
Photo by Joel Chavarría on Unsplash

We are in the midst of what many enthusiasts consider to be the golden age of digital modeling. Bedroom guitarists and professional musicians alike have any number of excellent products to choose from, and the list just keeps on growing. Besides sounding fantastic, here are a few more reasons why you might want to consider trying out modern digital modeling if you have not yet done so — especially if you play guitar at home for fun.

It’s Cheaper than Buying Individual Amps and Effects Pedals

Refer back to that gear bucket list I started when I was a teenager. The first amplifier on the list currently retails for CDN $2449.99 if you buy it new here in Canada. A used Vox AC30 will set you back around a grand usually, give or take a few hundred bucks. That doesn’t even factor in the cost of replacement tubes and amp maintenance.

My HX Stomp totaled CDN $950 after tax back in 2021. It includes a Vox AC30 model which, when paired with my favourite AC30 IR, fools listeners on the regular. It also currently has over 70 other guitar amp models on board, along with fifteen bass amp models. That’s just the amps! My HX Stomp also gives me access to over 200 effects — a number that increases a little more with every firmware update. Most of these effects sound identical (or at least very close to) the analog effects they emulate.

To buy the original amps, cabinets, and effects I have access to via digital modeling, I would have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars. I’d also have to purchase storage space to house it all. It’s mind blowing to me that I can sidestep that entirely and dial in any guitar tone I want for less than a grand. Even crazier to me is the fact that all of those sounds are stored in a 7″ x 5″ box.

It’s More Practical for Shared Living

Tube amplifiers usually sound their best when they’re pushed to the edge of breakup. For most tube amps, that sounds hellishly loud in the absence of output attenuators or voltage regulators. Always remember, a lot of classic tube amps, like the Vox AC30, were specifically designed for stage use. If you try to achieve edge of breakup tones with tube amps in a bedroom, you’re looking at a future of tinnitus and noise complaints.

Every single hardware modeler and audio interface has an input for headphones. That means you can enjoy the sound of cranked up tube amps without disturbing anyone around you. My partner, for instance, loves my guitar playing, but I think that even he would eventually tire of hearing me playing through a loud Vox AC30. I would also likely ruin our friendship with our neighbours if I often subjected them to the uncomfortably high volumes of a tube amplifier.

Thanks to digital modeling, you can be courteous to others without compromising on tone. And for those times when you do have the opportunity to play as loudly as you want, you can connect your modeler to studio monitors, FRFR cabinets, PA systems, or old school amp stacks.

It Takes Your Room Out of the Equation When Recording

If you play through a traditional amplifier setup, any recordings you create will be coloured by the unique characteristics of your recording space. This means that if you have not invested in acoustic room treatment, your recorded guitar tones may sound distant, muddy, or muffled.

Treating a room for audio can be a complex, expensive process. Check out this beginner’s guide to acoustic room treatment to get a sense of what you’re potentially dealing with. If that sounds like too much work, I don’t blame you. I personally could not be bothered with room treatment. Fortunately, since I record with my HX Stomp, it’s something I never have to worry about.

Digital modelers can be used to record your processed or unprocessed sound directly to your computer without a microphone. Microphones are what pick up your room’s characteristics, so eliminating microphones eliminates your room. When you record direct, you could record in a reverb-laden cathedral, and your guitar would still sound dry. Not having to account for the sonic attributes of your room makes recording a good tone so much easier.

It Increases Your Tonal Palette

This point hearkens back to the first benefit I discussed. I personally have rock star tastes on a bedroom guitarist’s budget. I’m the kind of person who watches videos like this one and wants everything in sight. For most of us, myself included, it’s unrealistic to want that much gear.

Before digital modeling became viable, bedroom guitarists would maybe buy a couple of combo amps at the most, along with a few essential pedals. If we grew tired of a particular amp or pedal, we’d sell it off and buy something else. The tones we could achieve were limited by the gear we had at any given time.

Thanks to digital modeling, all of that has changed. I have virtual access to more amps, cabinets, and pedals than I could ever dream of owning. It’s exciting to have so many options that sound so great. When I open Helix Edit, I feel like a child opening a box of 200 crayons.

What Are Some of the Drawbacks of Digital Modeling?

Stock photo of guitar pedals on a stage.
Photo by Abraham Osorio on Unsplash

I bet you’ve been reading along and wondering “OK, so what’s the catch?” If modern digital modeling opens up endless tonal possibilities at an affordable price, why aren’t more guitarists selling off their tube amps and pedalboards? As with all things in life, there are a few drawbacks to digital modeling you’ll need to consider before taking the plunge.

It Doesn’t “Feel” the Same as Analog Gear

“Feel” is one of those subjective things that varies from guitarist to guitarist and is difficult to quantify. Some guitarists claim digital amp models don’t respond to their playing like real amps, and this accordingly affects their “feel.” Some also say they enjoy flicking switches and turning knobs. Playing guitar is as much a tactile experience as it is a sonic one.

There’s no question that digital modelers are a bit lacking as far as “feel” goes. Latency is always a concern if you use software-based digital modelers with a computer that isn’t fast enough. You do get knobs and switches to play around with on hardware modelers, but you’ll still spend most of your time staring at your computer screen when you’re editing patches. And if you monitor your playing through headphones, you won’t experience the sensation of a speaker pushing soundwaves through the air or rumbling the floor.

At the end of the day, affordable, versatile tone matters a lot more to me than analog feel. It’s still something to think about before you list all of your old gear on Reverb, however.

It Can’t Simulate Feedback

To quote the esteemed David Gilmour, “Christ, where would rock ‘n’ roll be without feedback?” Unfortunately, digital modelers can’t easily simulate the sound of a guitar feeding back on itself. That’s because feedback (the musical, controllable variety) is created via proximity to a speaker. When we stand close enough to a loud amplifier, vibrations created by the speaker vibrate our strings. Those vibrations, in turn, are picked up by our guitar’s pickups and re-amplified through the speaker. So long as we maintain our proximity to the speaker, this feedback loop continues indefinitely.

Feedback loops are impossible to create when you play with headphones or through low volume studio monitors. A pedal exists (the DigiTech Freqout) that can kind of simulate the sound of harmonic feedback at the end of a sustained note. It’s just not the same, though. You can’t physically control the sound like you can when you’re standing in front of a speaker.

While feedback is generally unwanted, plenty of guitarists use it musically to create excitement or a certain moodiness. Try to think of Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” without feedback, or U2’s “Bullet the Blue Sky” without feedback. Those songs just wouldn’t be the same.

Perhaps a day will come when digital modelers will be able to simulate controllable feedback via expression pedal. We’re not quite there yet, though, so if you do use feedback frequently in your playing, digital modeling might not be right for you as an all-in-one solution. Plenty of guitarists, including The Edge, use digital modelers in conjunction with real amplifiers, so that’s always an option if feedback is crucial for you.

Some Effects Do Sound “Off”

While digitally modeled effects have improved dramatically, some still don’t sound as good as their standalone pedal or rackmount counterparts. I prefer my Eventide TimeFactor over my HX Stomp when it comes to modulated digital delays, for instance. The repeats on my TimeFactor simply modulate in a way that sounds more pleasing to my ears.

It is perhaps a little unfair to compare the quality of standalone pedals to digital modeling units. Standalone pedals only have to excel at one thing, after all. It’s still worth keeping this limitation in mind before you purchase anything, though. Do remember that you can always add pedals to your effects loop if you’re using hardware-based digital modelers and aren’t satisfied with a particular modeled effect.

Conclusion

Despite having a few drawbacks, digital modeling has been extremely liberating for me as a bedroom guitarist. It has given me access to more tones than I could ever possibly use, at an extremely affordable price. I highly recommend giving digital modeling a try, especially if you play and record guitar at home.


Questions?

Do you have a question about the subject matter of this blog post that I didn’t answer above? Feel free to leave a public comment on my YouTube channel by clicking on the button below, and I’ll get back to you there as soon as I can.

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