I have to use a modeling rig!
At some point you may be faced with having to use a modeling processor whether you want to or not. Perhaps you travel a lot and want a predictable sound without carrying your own backline. Maybe you live in a city, don't have a car, and need to take a bus or taxi to gigs. Or you might simply be tired of lugging a heavy rig.
This past January I put my favorite amp, the one I had been playing 99% of the time for four years - a Vibro-King - into storage because I got tired of lugging a hundred pounds of gear even on the fairly infrequent occasions when I do play out (rarely more than twice a month, normally a lot less than that).
I spent a few months at the end of last year trying to find a tube amp that was small, lightweight and sounded as good as my VK the way I normally play it. Everything was a compromise. I finally gave up on the idea of spending even more money on an amp that was expensive, too large, too heavy and not quite as good as my VK.
I'm no stranger to modelers. I've owned and gigged several over the past seven years and have auditioned quite a few others. Some were not bad, but the tube amp was always "better"...
This time around I tried one more modeler with an ear toward getting one good sound out of it. It took a lot of research up front: downloading and reading the manual (twice, because it barely made sense on the first reading) and checking online for hints and tips.
I spent five hours (over two days) with the unit in the store learning how to program it to sound the way I wanted, first through some studio monitors and then through a PA. I didn't buy it until I was convinced that I could get my sound.
Once I got the unit home I spent another few hours over two more days fine-tuning the sound I had gotten in the store. And then I left it alone. I've been using that same basic patch (with a few minor changes to FX settings) for the past six months. And I haven't been at all tempted to pull the VK out of storage.
When I play somewhere that has a PA I bring just my guitar and the processor. When the room has no PA I bring the guitar, the processor and either one of two keyboard amps (sized for different applications) or a mini-PA.
Is the processor exactly the same as my old rig? No, but it's close enough that I can get almost the same sounds and the same response that I'm used to. The difference is small, but it's there. You learn to play to the response of the processor to get the most out of it, just as you would with a different tube amp than what you'd usually play.
In summary, if you want (or need) to work with a modeling rig:
- Do your homework. A modeling rig does not give up the goods by walking up to it and twisting a few knobs until you find a sound you can live with. You can probably make a buy/pass decision on a tube amp in ten minutes or less. Plan on investing at least a few hours to evaluate one modeler.
- Buy nothing until you find the modeler that can give you at least one very satisfying sound. Every brand has its strengths and weaknesses. Just like with tube amps, you'll find one brand that "speaks to you" more than the others. If it doesn't float your boat in the store, it's not going to improve once you get it home.
- Don't fall into the trap of believing that all those knobs and buttons give you "limitless" possibilities. They don't. And do not make the mistake of believing the labels on the knobs. Use your ears.
- Get over the fact that there are no fire-bottles inside (Vox notwithstanding). Treat the processor as you would any other amp: get it dialed in first, then stop tweaking and learn to play it.
- Finally, do set up your patches so that they'll sound good through a PA. A lot of modeler users plug into a guitar amp and get away with it. (There's still a lot of superstition about needing tubes to warm up the sound.) But if you want a truly "portable" sound, make your modeler sound good through a PA or a keyboard amp. It can be done.