Best Guitar VSTs (2021): The Essential Tones - Careers in Music
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For many of us, micing up a guitar amp and cabinet is unpractical and very, very loud.

Fortunately, several plugins offer virtual amplifiers, cabinets and effects to give your guitar performance that much needed tone.

Most audio interfaces have instrument inputs for acoustic and electric guitars and so we can record the audio dry and add and change the effects when mixing. Or, with the latency set low, we can play through the effects in real-time and enjoy comparing amp and cabinet combinations, virtual microphone positioning and chain upon chain of effects. You can build your dream guitar rig right on your computer.

In this article, I’m going to single out those bits of guitar software that will add sparkle and energy to your guitar sound for both recording and live performance.

Our picks for the best guitar VSTs are:

  • IK Multimedia Amplitube
  • Softube Vintage Amp Room
  • Native Instruments Guitar Rig Pro 5
  • Line6 Helix Native
  • Overloud TH-U Full
  • Positive Grid BIAS FX2
  • Waves GTR3
  • LePou plugins

What are you most afraid of that is holding you back?

IK Multimedia Amplitube

Amplitube is the original guitar amp modeling software and has evolved into the extraordinary version 4 after almost a couple of decades of development. IK Multimedia says it has “Hyper-Realistic Tone” that gives you the authentic feel of hardware.

In setting up your rig you have 9 amplifiers, 10 cabinets and 29 vintage and modern speaker models to choose from. There are 5 British amps based on Marshall classics including the Red Pig Major. You’ve then got 2 American Tube Clean amps, a British Tube Lead, and a solid-state bass amp. Kick things off by selecting your preamp and then you can choose to mix and match the EQ and amplifier configuration. But that’s only part of the story. Over in the Cabinet section, you can go with the cabinet that matches your amp selection or swap out any of the other ones on offer. Then you can get into microphone type and placement, the room size and characteristics and start crafting your tone for that perfect sound.

In and around the amp are the stomp-box and rack effects. In the standard package, you get 10 stompbox models to go before the amp covering all the favorites, and 2 rack effects to go at the end of the chain.

IK has crafted “come complete” rigs for you in the preset section so you can try out some complex and classic tones without having to do all the hard work yourself.

The standard Amplitube 4 is just the beginning. It has a “Custom Shop” store built in where you can buy additional amps and effects and 100s of presets. There are bundles from the likes of Fender, Orange and Mesa Boogie and celebrity collections based on guitarists such as Jimi Hendrix and Slash where presets are built to match individual songs.

As a bit of a bonus, IK Multimedia has included an 8-track recorder for getting your music down and a very cool Looper for layering up your performance all within the same software.

Amplitube 4 is a comprehensive and versatile collection of guitar amps and effects that keeps on offering more with an authentic sense of quality and playability. There’s even a free version so you can try it out before you buy into any more models.

Street Price: IK Amplitube 4 – $179 (other versions with more or less models available)

Softube Vintage Amp Room

In some ways, this is the opposite of the endless expandability and complexity of Amplitube. Vintage Amp Room is just three great, classic guitar amps. They are straightforward and just like using the hardware. You don’t have to make any difficult decisions or trawl through presets. You plug in, turn a couple of knobs and you’re there — that’s why I love this plugin even though it is a bit long in the tooth these days.

Although they are not named, the amps in question are undoubtedly a Marshall stack, a Fender twin, and a VOX AC30. The “White” Marshall is all tubes with no effects or reverb. It’s modeled to offer screaming leads and warm, powerful distortion. The “Brown” Fender is a crisp and clear combi amp which can be both mellow and bluesy. And then there’s the “Green” Vox that houses a warm and intense distortion and edginess with 3 channels of clean, crunch and tremolo.

The sound quality is stunningly accurate and instantly pleasing. You can move the microphones around to get the sort of tone you’re after, but if you want additional effects well then you’ll have to add some either as extra plugins or re-amp the signal back out again. If these are the amps you want to play then this is the plugin you’ll need. And if you need something a lot heavier then check out their more recent “Metal Amp Room.”

Street Price: $199

Native Instruments Guitar Rig Pro 5

Native Instruments is perhaps more known for their creative approach to virtual instruments, effects and beat making. But their Guitar Rig software has been a fixture for many years and now in version 5 offers a comprehensive and edgy range of tools.

You start with a huge load of guitar processing components. There are 17 amps, 27 cabinets, and 54 effects and you don’t have to buy any extras. All are modeled on legendary guitar gear covering the Marshalls, Fenders, Orange, Vox and so on and you can mix and match what goes with what. The Guitar Rig interface is essentially a rack into which you can load up any combination or multiple combinations of anything you like. Just drag in the amp, cabinet or effect from the list and keep stacking them up to achieve what you’re after — or a complete meltdown.

The models within Guitar Rig are excellent but where it really excels is with the sound design and creative processing possibilities. Sure, you can get regular guitar tones out of this thing, but it can push the sound into all sorts of interesting places. Some of the effect combinations are amazing and you can keep on racking them up.

But when you need a bit more precision, then the Control Room section gives you control: up to 16 high-end microphones with 3 positions for optimum recording.

Guitar Rig Pro 5 is less traditional and more quirky with a huge range of sonic possibilities.

Street Price: $199

Line6 Helix Native

This selection of amp models originated in the Line 6 Helix hardware multi-effects processor. Now they’ve brought those tones to the plugin format in the shape of Helix Native.

The first thing you’ll notice is that the interface is a bit boring — they call it “clear and concise.” But once you’ve got over that you’ll find the sounds are superb. The interface is just what it needs to be. As it came from hardware it wasn’t designed with a fake GUI in mind to look like an amp or effect and so with Helix Native, you just get the facts. You can see how the signal chain is working, what the parameters are set to and a good long list of presets.

In the software, you get 62 amplifiers, 104 effects, 37 cabinets, and 16 microphones so you are bound to stumble upon the sound you need for your session if you spend enough time trying them all out. Routing options are versatile and complex, and you can keep loading up the effects and signal chains until you run out of CPU power.

One nice feature is that if you do have the Helix hardware you can share user presets and sound libraries between them. So, you can put your sounds together when recording and take it with you in a hardware floorboard when you gig.

Helix Native is a lot more expensive than most of the others on this list but you do get a lot for your money and it can also work well on other instruments and other areas of the studio.

Street Price: $399

Overloud TH-U Full

TH-U Full contains a massive selection of models. There are 89 guitar amps and 4 bass amps, 50 guitar cabinets and 2 bass cabinets, 77 effects and 18 microphones. It comes with over 1,000 presets that cover every conceivable musical style and you can model in your own amps if you want.

There’s a lot going on in here. Once you’ve spent a few weeks in the presets you could consider running impulses through your hardware rig to capture the response and use it as a software preset — that’s nuts! The Rig Player technology lets you sample in any hardware and reproduce every nuance. If that amp is not sounding quite right then get in there and change the tube; there’s an almost limitless combination of tubes, letting you forge your unique tone.

If microphone placement is your thing then in TH-U Full you can place it in any 3D space in front or behind the cabinet. Their ReSPiRe technology lets you choose between the real response of the cabinet or a specially processed one that is optimized to fit in your mix.

This thing has a crazy amount of depth, more amps and effects than anything, looks fabulous and has a built-in multitrack looper for when you find the time to play your guitar. It’s an extraordinary piece of software for people who love the detail and minutia of crafting tones.

Street Price: $269

Positive Grid BIAS FX2

Positive Grid says that this will turn your computer into an all-in-one guitar powerhouse while remaining simple and intuitive. There are 3 versions: the top Elite version has 100 amps and 100 stomp and rack effects. It can download thousands of more effect pedals from their online community and you create your own and share those with the world. So, it’s pretty comprehensive and yet manages to have an engaging and straightforward interface.

You can build everything from acoustic to high-gain amplifier rigs with full control over microphone placement. The cabinets are provided by officially endorsed Celestion Impulse Responses. Or you can bring in impulses from elsewhere. Then you build your pedal-board or download one from the community.

But there’s one standout feature that needs attention and that’s the Guitar Match. It analyses your guitar and then transforms it into any one of 18 legendary guitars. It’s an extraordinary thing. Your clapped-out old electric could sound like a Les Paul or Telecaster at the touch of a button.

Despite the size and scope of BIAS FX2 it somehow manages to hold it all together better than TH-U Full. The interface is less fussy and some of the effects are beautifully rendered. There’s an awful lot of good stuff in here.

Street Price: $99 up to $299

Waves GTR3

Waves are the Grand-daddy of plugin makers with a huge roster of effects and signal processing. Their guitar-based offering is called GTR3, has been around a while and contains 4 separate plugins.

GTR3 Amps is inspired by the usual suspects of Fender, Marshall, Mesa/Boogie, Vox and more, giving you 25 modeled guitar amps and 7 bass amps. With its simple amp-head interface you get to pick the amp type, up to 2 cabinets and 2 microphones. Each amp has Drive, Pan, a Phase switch and Delay controls and these are standardized regardless of which amp you start with. The whole thing is simplified and obvious giving you an easy way into the tones without having to learn how to be an Engineer.

GTR3 Stomps is where you’ll find your stomp-box effects. There are 26 models bundled in here covering all the distortion, delay, phasing and fuzz you could want. You can load up to 6 in the rack.

GTR3 Tuner is…. a tuner, which is useful.

GTR3 Toolbox brings it all together in a standalone version that can load up to 2 GTR3 Amps, 6 GTR3 Stomps and the tuner in one piece of software. You can get stuck into the microphone settings and start to craft your sound to a much deeper degree than in the individual plugins.

Waves plugins always sound great and the GTR3 models are no exception. It lacks the pizazz of some of the others, opting for solid usable sounds that are simple to use, leaving you to get on with the playing.

Street Price: Waves GTR3 – $129 but usually on sale for around $49, which makes this fantastic value.

LePou plugins

We’ll finish off with a selection of plugins that have achieved cult status amongst computer-based guitarists. Although LePou seems to have disappeared from the developer scene, the plugins are still available and are completely free from the archive website.

The plugins are individual models of certain amps and preamps with nicely rendered interfaces and impressive sound quality. there are two Marshall modeled “HyBrit” amplifiers, something more like an Engl amp, then a Mesa/Boogie and more. Each has its own set of controls, EQ, multiple channels and inbuilt drive, reverb and distortion, depending on the model.

They are dead easy to use, no deep or crazy functionality, just solid tone and predictably good results.

All street prices listed at the time of writing.

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