Benefits of a digital guitar rig
I'm going to define a digital rig very narrowly as a digital processor plus a full-range amp and speakers. A processor connected to a tube guitar amp or to a tube power amp plus guitar speaker is a different kind of rig; these alternatives are no less valid or interesting but are not the subject of this discussion.
A digital guitar rig is an interesting thing. It's not, and will never be, the same as a rig that has a tube amp at its core. But the digital rig can in fact become part of your instrument, responding to playing nuances in a musically-beneficial manner, just like a good tube amp.
Frankly, I've gone through a lot of tube amps to find one that I think is really good for the way I play. I know that a lot of guitarists have gone through, or are going through, a long expensive search to find the amp that will somehow bring out the best qualities of musical expression from their own playing. The search for the "perfect" rig is certainly an attainable goal - one that most guitarists fulfill with a tube amplifier and a collection of effects pedals which are also matched to the player. However, I'm starting to believe that there's more than one way to reach that musical nirvana.
A great rig must sound good and respond as expected to the player's touch. The rig always has some influence on the player's techique - the player adapts in subtle ways. This adaptation happens regardless of the rig's underlying technology. When the adaptation becomes a conscious effort, the player says that the rig is "fighting" the nuances of his playing. This mismatch also happends regardless of the rig's underlying technology.
Digital rigs suffer from a stigma imposed by being engineered and marketed primarily as low-end technology toys, by overzealous marketing and by poor choices in sound design. Virtually every modeler ships with a bunch of over-the-top presets meant to trigger an impulse purchase, when what's really needed is a way to make the customer as comfortable with the modeler as with older, more familiar technology. The learning curve for any modeler is steep, and few guitar players will put in the hours of effort needed to properly evaluate a modeler in the store. But that effort, if made, is rewarded with a reasonably accurate evaluation of the suitability of the product.
Once past the initial learning curve for a modeling rig, the player has a vast number of choices to make. As with any rig, it is best to design one's sounds in the normal playing context. Volume and the presence of other instruments in the mix make a huge difference in the way the sound of the rig is perceived. It's best to start programming a digital rig very simply, with one core sound and a small collection of effects. It's easy to get seduced by the technology and create a lot of interesting sounds that turn out to not work in a mix. This is the same mistake that the products' designers make when creating the demonstration patches.
A digital rig has benefits which may not be immediately apparent but may be important to some players. Such benefits include:
- Compared to a tube amp plus a pedal board plus a gig bag containing the requisite spare tubes and fuses and batteries, a digital rig can be very compact. All you need is your guitar, a bag containing the processor and a few cords, and a small full-range amp.
- Getting rid of the big chunks of iron that are necessary in tube amps saves quite a bit of weight. My own rig lost almost thirty pounds by going digital.
- Even if you only use a few of the sounds that the processor can produce, the potential for many other sounds sits there - taking up no space, adding no weight, and consuming no disposable income - waiting upon the tap of a few buttons.
- Without stomp boxes you don't have to worry about batteries going out in the middle of a set. (The processor probably has a battery for its patch memory; these last about five years and the processor gives plenty of visual warning when the battery is nearing the end of its life.) Fewer connections means fewer cables to fail.
- Without tubes you don't have to worry about tonal changes due to wear, noises due to materials and manufacturing defects and microphonics due to vibration. With a full-range amplifier and speakers, you don't have to worry about how humidity affects the speakers - full-range speakers are much less susceptible than guitar speakers are to environmental changes.
- Your digital rig will produce the same sound at any necessary volume. No more worries about whether the venue will let you play at a high enough volume to push your rig into the sweet spot. (Of course the Fletcher-Munson effect, which describes how your ears perceive tonal balance as the volume varies, still applies.)
- Two cords - one from guitar to processor and the other from processor to amp - and you're done. There's no need to run special cabling to put some effects ahead of the amp and some in the FX loop. No need to hook up a power attenuator.
- A great digital rig costs a lot less than a great tube amp plus a great pedal board.
- Ease of replacement
- Some tube amps and stomp boxes have their own quirks and nuances. If you lose a piece of gear (to theft, failure, damage, etc...) you may have to re-optimize your rig for the replacement gear. If one of the components of your digital rig goes down, the replacement is going to sound and behave identically once you have loaded patches from your backup.
- EQ flexibility
- Although you can set up your digital rig and then forget about it, there are plenty of opportunities to accommodate different situations through taking advantage of built-in features of the processor. Most good processors have a variety of ways to apply EQ to affect the response of your guitar and the tonal balance at the output of the processor; you can use these EQs to tweak the feel of the guitar or tune your rig to the acoustics of the room.
- A good full-range amp (a necessary part of any good digital rig) can handle varied instruments (guitar, bass or keyboards) and can even handle multiple instruments simultaneously if necessary or desirable.