If you’re a DIY producer like myself, then you know how expensive good equipment can be. Guitar amps can cost a fortune, and unless you’re cranking it loud enough to get noise complaints, you’re not going to able to use them at the level necessary to reach their full potential. Amp simulators have become a popular alternative as they are budget-friendly, neighbor-approved, and can be accessed in your DAW within a matter of minutes. This post will help get you pointed in the right direction in discovering the best amp simulator plugin for you.
Spoiler Alert – if you’re in a rush and don’t want to read the full article I’ll go ahead and tell you I think AmpliTube 5 by IK Multimedia is the best overall amp sim. Although not the cheapest sim on the list it can’t be beat for the incredible arsenal of virtual gear and realistic tones.
What is an Amp Sim?
Amp simulators, or amp sims for short, are VST (Virtual Studio Technology) plugins. They can be bought online, downloaded, and accessed in your DAW instantly. Since they are computer programs and only take up a small amount of memory, you could eventually have a wide variety of these at your disposal.
In this list, I’ve condensed the vast pantheon of amp sims into a select few that are useful to the novice producer and the engineering wizard alike. No matter what your budget or level of experience is, you can find a simulator that will get you to the finish line of your project.
Matchlock by KUASSA – Best Budget Amp Simulator
The Matchlock by KUASSA is the best budget choice for realistic, shimmery tones at an affordable price. It doesn’t have as much versatility as other plugins, but what it lacks in versatility, it makes up for in tone.
The Matchlock is modeled after Fender combo amps and has an advanced tube simulator that replicates natural tube tones. I was surprised at the organic responsiveness this program has. It even picks up on the subtlest picking dynamics that left me with my jaw hanging open when I first heard it.
Fender amps are desired for their clean, crystalline tone, and this program has it. The trebly, glassy cleans can bring out the character of a Strat’s single coils. There are 3 channels to choose from that range from clean, crunch, and distorted. The Matchlock is not a high gain amp, so it’s more suited for country, classic rock, and blues players.
This plugin only includes a noise gate and limiter for effects, so its versatility relies on changes in subtle dynamics. The design is straightforward, an amp with 3 distortion levels, 2 channels, 4 knobs, an on/off switch, and 2 mics. It does, however, have multiple cabinet and mic options. You can even adjust the mic positions to mimic the changes of an actual studio setting.
The downside of this amp sim is that without outside effects, your tonal options are limited. Like the Guitar Rig 6 Player, the Matchlock is not meant for metal or hard rock players. Blues and country players will find a tone in this that suits their needs. With that said, I’ve included a top pick meant for metal players.
Helix Native by Line 6 – Best Premium Amp Simulator Plugin
If you’re familiar with amp sims and are ready to lock yourself in your room to experiment for days on end, Helix Native by Line 6 will keep you occupied. I’ve chosen this as my premium pick because of its high price and the enormous variety of tones.
This sim is Line 6’s virtual version of the Helix multi-effects pedal. It’s the software without the hardware, though the 2 are not separate. Presets can be exchanged between both hardware and software versions.
Right off the bat, I will say that this sim is advanced. The design is complex, and the sheer number of tonal options make it even more complicated. It’s more like a scientist’s lab than a simple amp setup.
The workflow may be complex, but the gear modeling is exceptional. Each piece of gear is modeled after analog circuitry down to minor components. The sounds are virtually indistinguishable even to unique pieces of analog equipment.
Any style, whether it is metal, rock, blues, psychedelic, jazz, worship, or a strange brew of them all, can be created. Just about any effect can be found and chained in a way that suits your needs.
It’s hard to find a downside for a program with such versatility, but there are a couple. One is the number of options. It can be tempting to want an array of gear to have all your tonal bases covered, but you could get lost in a sea of equipment if you aren’t ready for it.
Another downside is the price. It is not cheap, and it doesn’t have as many options as its competitor, the AmpliTube 5, which is listed later. Though, considering the price, it is still cheaper than most live amp options.
Ignite Emissary – Best Metal Tone Amp Sim Plugin
Ignite Emissary 2.0 by STL Tones is my top pick for metal players because not only does it have a killer tone, but it’s free! The crunch this sim can produce will have you chugging along all day.
At first glance, the design of this sim is sleek. The detail that went into it is something to be appreciated. The reflective chrome, 3D knobs, and warm glow of the tubes set it apart from most free sims.
There are 2 channels, clean and lead. They each have a brightness switch to add some shimmer and the lead channel has controls for depth and shape to add more dynamic range.
The download includes an extension called NadIR, which provides a selection of mics. It has 3 different models to choose from and 2 placement options. All can be interchanged and paired in a variety of ways. 10 presets make it easy to dive in and explore the subtle tones.
There are a few downsides to this sim. One is that the clean tone leaves something to be desired. It does the job when you need it, but it’s not as crisp as others. Another is that it doesn’t come with any effects. It’s a straightforward sim, and it doesn’t offer much experimentation.
Overall, if you need a suitable metal, djent, or hard rock tone, this can provide it at a price you can’t beat. Free!
Guitar Rig 6 Player – Best Free Amp Simulator
Guitar Rig 6 Player by Native Instruments comes in as the best free plugin. There is an option to upgrade, but this free version has the essential elements of what you would need in an amp simulator and more.
When you first open the program, you see 2 tape decks with a metronome. These are essentially loopers, so you can record a riff and have it play on a loop. You can even download files from your DAW into the tape deck to play along with riffs you’ve already recorded.
The effects section has 8 standard effects of the guitarist’s arsenal like an overdrive, reverb, delay, noise gate, etc. The overdrive, called the “Skreamer,” is modeled after the classic Tube Screamer, and it does not disappoint. Stacked with a light reverb, delay, and tube compressor, you can get a bluesy tone like John Mayer or B.B. King. You get the feel of a genuine Tube Screamer tone, like the crackling of a warm, cozy fire.
The drawback of this program is the lack of versatility which is understandable with free sims. You won’t find metal tones or beefy chugs with the free Guitar Rig.
It also doesn’t have as many cabinet options or effects as other sims, so you’re limited in tone options.
If you’re looking for a straightforward rock or clean tone and don’t need any bells and whistles, this will give you what you need. If you do want the bells and whistles, then you can upgrade at any time.
AmplitTube 5 – Best Overall Guitar Amp Simulator Plugin
Regarding price, versatility, and tone, I’m handing the crown to AmpliTube 5 by IK Multimedia. For a competitive price, this sim has an incredible arsenal of virtual gear and hyper-realistic tones.
They put workflow in mind when designing this sim. The layout is user-friendly, with 3 different sections showing current gear, available gear, and your signal chain. The graphics department deserves recognition for the realistic look of the effects pedals and amps.
The tonal options are endless, with an enormous collection of stomps, amps, cabinets, and mics. The individual tonal quality of the speakers can even be adjusted to suit the most subtle variations you might need. This sim also has mic placement capabilities and a multitude of rooms to choose from.
The amps are modeled directly from high-end amps like Marshall, Fender, Mesa Boogie, Orange, Vox, and many more. The effects pedals are modeled after big names like Electro Harmonix, MXR, Boss, Morley, etc. The mics included are vintage tube mics, the classic SM 57, dynamic compressor, and condenser mics.
No amp sim is perfect, and this one is no exception. Unless you’re willing to pay big bucks for its full line of gear, your options are going to be limited. Even so, you will still have a wide variety of equipment to experiment with.
The amount of gear can be overwhelming if you’re new to amp sims, so I would not recommend this one if you’re just getting started. A free version is a good option for someone with experience, but if you’re unfamiliar with these plugins, I would suggest one of the sims listed earlier.
Overall, this is the holy grail of sims, in my view. AmpliTube is a reputable company that produces top-quality virtual gear you just can’t beat.
If you’re also shopping for a new audio interface you can get AmpliTube 5 Max bundled with the IK Multimedia AXE I/O interface. At the time of this writing it, the cost of the bundle was less than buying AmpliTube by itself.
There’s a lot to explore in the world of virtual gear. Amp simulators are beginning to seem more and more like a solid alternative to analog gear. Although you don’t have the satisfaction of turning knobs on a real amp or stomping pedals, simulators offer much more for the price.
Whatever your style is, simulators offer new and exciting sounds to explore. Whether you’re looking for a straightforward amp to add to your DAW or you’d like to experiment in a studio setting but don’t have the money for studio time, VST plugins like these will give you sounds that can inspire your next project without breaking the bank.