Music app review – AmpKit+ by Agile Partners

Download from iTunes App StoreAmpKit logoAs a music app developer for iOS, Agile Partners go right back to the very first day of the App Store in July 2008 and, as I commented in a previous review, I’m a big fan of their Guitar Toolkit app. Of course, the company also produce AmpKit – a guitar amp, cab, effects modelling package – that is available in a free version or the paid ‘+’ version that includes extra amps and effects. In addition, there are a whole slew of additional amps, cab and effects available either individually or as part of various bundles that can be added via in-app purchases (oh, and a Mac OSX version if you want the same setup on your desktop).

Guitar players have some really excellent choices in terms of iOS amp modelling with apps such as Amplitube, JamUp Pro, Overloud THM (for use within Auria) and Stompbox being just some of the obvious competition. However, AmpKit has been around since 2010 and is well established in the market place. The relationship with Peavey, who produce the AmpKit Link guitar interface for iOS (now joined by the Link HD version which will use the dock connector for a higher quality audio signal), also means that between them, the two companies offer guitar players a complete hardware/software solution to go with their iOS device.

AmpKit+ comes supplied with an excellent selection of preset tones. If you want to see any of the screenshots in this review at full size, just click on the images.

AmpKit+ comes supplied with an excellent selection of preset tones. If you want to see any of the screenshots in this review at full size, just click on the images.

However, what’s prompted a review at this point in time is the release of AmpKit v.1.6 as this added Audiobus support for AmpKit. For guitar players wanting to record using the app as well as practice/perform, this is a big plus. So, let’s take a look at the AmpKit+ – the paid version of the app that is priced at £13.99 (or the equivalent $/€ price) – and see just how much tone you get for your money.

Feature presentation

While AmpKit has been around since 2010, amp modelling in general has been with us for much longer, in both dedicated hardware (such as Line 6’s hugely popular POD devices) and software for desktop computers (such as NI’s Guitar Rig). Over time, the format in which this modelling is supplied to the user – the key features and how they are accessed – has evolved into some fairly standard tried and tested approaches and, with one or two exceptions, most of these packages operate in broadly similar ways. That’s not such a bad thing because these tried and tested ways have become exactly that simply because  they work well.

Thankfully, AmpKit is no exception. What you get is a virtual recreation of a selection of amps, cabinets and effects pedals and a graphical interface to explore those pieces of virtual equipment that attempts to make configuring them as similar as possible to the same process with the real hardware. So, you get to see the control surface of your chosen amp, to pick between different speaker cabinets (including a choice and placement of a virtual microphone in front of the speaker) and the ability to chain together virtual effects pedals in any order you like and tweak their controls to shape your tone.

AmpKit supports both analog and digital inputs to your iDevice.

AmpKit supports both analog and digital inputs to your iDevice.

AmpKit+ is supplied with four basic amp models going from a Peavy model that can crush concrete at 50m through to both Marshall and Vox clones that can easily conjure up clean to crunch depending upon how you dial in the settings. These are allied by four related speaker cabinets and, as you can mix and match these, the potential for tweaking your sound is quite considerable. Equally, the six different microphone types and their three different placements (on axis, off axis and distant), just like the real thing in a studio context, bring very noticeable differences in overall tone. In short, while only four basic amps are included by default, a very broad spectrum of tones are possible.

All of these possibilities can be further enhanced by the included effects pedals. Ten of these are supplied in the base package and, again, Agile give you a sensible and broad selection from EQ, compression, noise gate, distortion/overdrive, echo/reverb and modulation. There are a lot of possibilities here even if you don’t feel tempted to dip into the app’s Gear Store to add to your collection. That said, the Store is pretty tempting; some 20 alternative amps, associated cabinets and a kit bag full of additional pedals, all of which can be purchased individually or as part of various bundles.

Access all areas

AmpKit's main tone tweaking screen on the iPad - not too scary for technophobic guitar players.

AmpKit’s main tone tweaking screen on the iPad – not too scary for technophobic guitar players.

Many guitar players have a traditional streak to them and, if you are going to get them to even try the world of ‘virtual’ amps, cab and pedals, you need to do two things; (i) make it sound good (no fuzzy bees in a tin can) and (ii) make it as easy to use as ‘the real thing’. Whether the second of these is actually possible or not, it is why the majority of amp modelling software now looks quite similar (the ‘tried and tested’ approach I mentioned above) but it still takes some skilful design to provide users with the most intuitive workflow possible. In my view, Agile have done a pretty fine job in that regard. And, in terms of convenience  software beats lugging this collection of hardware around hands down (unless, of course, you are super-rich and can afford a van and a guitar technician to do it for you).

On first startup, you are presented with a list of preset tones and selecting any one of these takes you to the main display where you can play and tweak that tone to suit your needs. This screen – where you will spend most of your time – is well thought out and the iPad version, in particular, makes excellent use of the additional display real-estate.


To hear some audio examples of the tones AmpKit+ can create, then watch the short video…

With your iPad in horizontal mode (incidentally, all the screen shots here are from AmpKit running on an iPad) is split into two parts. On the left is a visual representation of the current configuration summarising the amp, cab, mic and effects options currently being used. The friendly ‘real life’ style graphics would be comforting to those sceptical guitar players who need a little encouraging to embrace the whole digital modelling world.

Occupying the right-hand strip of the display are a set of horizontal slider controls. The control set shown here changes as you tap on any element in the left side’s visual representation of your setup. So, tap on the amp head and you see controls for the amp while tap on one of the effects pedals and the control display changes to give you those controls instead. These sliders are, frankly, way easier to deal with than virtual ‘rotary’ knobs – easier to grab and adjust.

Picking components for your virtual rig is easy within AmpKit.

Picking components for your virtual rig is easy within AmpKit.

Above the controls themselves is a graphic to show which component you are currently editing. Tapping the small double-headed downward arrow icon drops down a list of alternative components that could replace the current item. As you might expect, tapping an item in the list selects it, replacing the currently selected amp, cab or effect pedal. The small ‘+’ and pencil icons on the edge of the virtual cabinet display allow you to edit the effects pedal chain, adding pedals, removing them or changing their order; again, this works a treat and is easy to use.

With the iPad in vertical mode, or on the iPhone, things happen in a slightly different fashion in terms of this main display. However, the principles are the same and those suitably large horizontal slider controls are never far away.

The bottom edge of the main display also includes a record button (more on this below), access to the Options page and the Tuner/Metronome functions and, on the right, meters to check your input and output levels so you can avoid overloading your signal levels. Tapping on the meters opens the Input Options dialog with various useful configuration settings to adjust. The Options page includes various settings but, in the main, these are of the ‘set and forget’ variety, while the tuner and metronome are both simple but effective.

AmpKit includes both a tuner and a metronome.

AmpKit includes both a tuner and a metronome.

All in all, AmpKit’s main user interface is very well thought out and, while perhaps not quite as visually colourful as some apps, it is intuitive and unlikely to intimidate all but the most technophobic guitar player (although they probably don’t own an iOS device in the first place).

Sounding off

The mic options add some extra flexibility for tone shaping.

The mic options add some extra flexibility for tone shaping.

As noted earlier, provided you are willing to spend a little time tweaking, the four default amps supplied with AmpKit+ can be used to coax out a tone suitable for almost any occasion. I was particularly impressed with the Peavey ValveKing model. This features both lead and clean channels and, combined with the Elevenizer or Dirtotoise effects pedals, really can go from pingy clean through to monster metal all on its own.

In use, the sounds themselves are very good indeed. If all you want is a fun practice tool, then AmpKit+ will do that without breaking sweat. However, it is capable of more than that and I’d happily use these tones in a recording context. With the obvious qualifier that the audio quality is better if you have decent audio I/O hardware hooked up to your iDevice, feeding the output to a set of studio monitors produces some very convincing guitar tones. At a push, I could imagine doing the same with a PA if my amp went belly-up at a gig.

You can adjust the order of your effects pedals to suit your needs/

There is plenty of flexibility to adjust the order of your effects pedals to suit your needs.

Sure, perhaps in isolation, they might lack a little something compared to top-end (and top-price) amp modelling devices/packages, but this is a comment you could make of all the iOS amp modellers. Equally, any modelling doesn’t quite capture the physical magic of a cranked valve amp. However, the differences are not massive; sat within the context of a full mix, AmpKit’s tones are more than capable of getting the job done. If, five years ago, anyone had told me that I could get guitar tones this good from my phone, I suspect I’d have sent for medical help. But now you can, and it’s just brilliant.

Catch the bus

AmpKit's Audiobus support seemed very solid in my testing.

AmpKit’s Audiobus support seemed very solid in my testing.

As mentioned earlier, as of v.1.6, AmpKit is now ‘on the bus’. This is a huge positive if you want to use the app as part of your recording workflow with your favourite DAW. I tried AmpKit as an Audiobus Input feeding both Cubasis and Auria in the Audiobus Output slot and it worked very well in both cases. Incidentally, AmpKit can also be placed in the Audiobus Effect slot so, if you want to process the output of another app (perhaps a synth or virtual guitar instrument) through AmpKit’s modelling options, you can do so with ease.

AmpKit can also be placed in the Output slot of Audiobus. This is perhaps a less obviously useful option but the app does have a recording function accessed via the small red button located bottom-left of the main display. This is primarily there to allow the user to record their playing as an audio file and you can play along either to the metronome or a backing track. This recording could, in turn, then be copied to another app (or to a desktop computer) to be used in other ways. Given that I suspect most users interested in recording will probably now choose to use AmpKit via Audiobus and record to a DAW app, this feature is perhaps less important that it might have been previously.

The re-amping feature in AmpKit is a neat tool, allowing you to tweak your tone after recording.

The re-amping feature in AmpKit is a neat tool, allowing you to tweak your tone after recording.

However, it does still have one very neat little trick up its sleeve that can be very useful. When recording using the app’s built-in tools, two files are actually created; one that includes the amp modelling and one that is ‘dry’. From the Recording tab, you can access these ‘dry’ recordings and replay them through whatever amp settings are currently selected. This, in effect, allows you to ‘re-amp’ your playing, tweaking the guitar tone after the original performance has been recorded. As you can also select any of these ‘dry’ recordings as the input signal (see the screenshot for an example), you can then re-record the performance using whatever amp settings you might choose. Re-amping is a great way to tweak your tone after the fact and is often used to fine-tune a guitar tone to make it fit better in a particular mix as that mix comes together. I suspect some users will find this feature in AmpKit very useful.

In summary

When it comes to iOS amp modelling, guitar players are becoming spoilt for choice. AmpKit+ is, however, up there with the very best of what is currently available and, with the addition of Audiobus support, it really is very easy for recording musicians to integrate into their workflow. As supplied, the selection of modelled amp, cabs, mics and effects covers all the basic tones that you might need but, if you do want more choice, then there is plenty to be had within the app’s Gear Store.

Guitar tones are, of course, a very personal thing – one player’s Nirvana is another’s crock of s***e – but, with a well-thought out user interface and, to my ears at least, modelling that is up there with the best that iOS currently has on offer, Agile Partner’s AmpKit+ is unlikely to leave many users disappointed. It is also a universal app so it runs on both iPhone/iPod Touch and iPad with a single purchase.

Now with added Audiobus, AmpKit+ comes highly recommended.

 

AmpKit+


 

Update

30th May 2013; Agile Partners have released the v.1.6.3 update to AmpKit and, amongst the usual round of bug fixes, etc., there are been refinements to the way the app handles different audio I/O devices. This includes support for stereo USB devices so the problem of using the app with a device like the Focusrite iTrack Solo which I mentioned here no longer apply. Good stuff :-)

 

 

 

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