Tonebridge review – practice tool with instant guitar tones and an AU twist

Download from iTunes App StoreA couple of weeks ago, I posted an article in the ‘less is more’ series looking at whether Audio Units (AU) plugin support under iOS was far enough along its development path to be considered as all you might need.

I put together my personal set of AU host (Cubasis in my case) plus a small selection of AU plugins – synths, drums, effects, etc. – that could form the basis of my iOS music making workflow. My conclusions – perhaps not surprising at this point in time – was that AU was nearly there but not quite the full deal. Of course, your own mileage will vary here depending upon the sorts of music you write and exactly where iOS fits into your overall musical workflow…. but, for me at least, there were a couple of version obvious missing ingredients; a virtual drummer and a guitar rig sim.

I was able to cope with the former in a round about sort of a way. However, as none of the popular top-end guitar rig sims currently support AU, there was a definite gap in my compact AU-based app collection.

After I published the post, a number of readers got in touch mentioning that Ultimate Guitar’s Tonebridge app does support AU. Hands up, I have to admit that, while I have the app installed on my iPad since it was launched about 12 months ago – it is a free download after all – after a couple of brief experiments with v.1.0, I’ve never really spent any time with it.

However, the app now sits at v.1.8.6, has added a number of new features since launch and, as mentioned by various readers, can operate as an AU plugin. So, could Tonebridge be the AU guitar rig sim app to fill the gap in my compact AU-only app collection?

Stomp on it…. Tonebridge brings you guitar tone presets in an app.

Guitar tone made easy

Ultimate Guitar are the organisation behind on of the best online sources of guitar tabs for popular (heck, even a lot of less popular) songs. Practically any song by practically any vaguely well-known artist can be found tabbed on their website and, while some of the tabs are perhaps not of the same standard as those found on some of the more up-market guitar tuition websites, as a way of getting an initial handle of a song or a riff, it is a great resource.

I’ve used the site for many years via my desktop browser but there is now an app (two actually; Tabs & Chords HD and Tab Pro) with different features. There are also a range of IAP options that allow you to access more advanced elements such as tab playback options. Anyway, for a keen guitar student, especially someone wanting to learn a collection of their favourite pop or rock songs, this is a very good place to explore, whether via your desktop or the two iOS apps.

So where does Tonebridge fit into this? Well, it is sort of a guitar rig sim….  but not quite in the same vein as something like AmpliTube, Mobile POD, Tonestack or BIAS FX. Essentially, what you get with Tonebridge is a huge collection of guitar tone presets all based upon well-known guitar parts from popular songs. So, amongst the presets you get, for example, a tone for the main riff from Welcome To The Jungle or the solo to Comfortably Numb or intro to Smoke On The Water. Well, you get the idea….  and there are lots of them.

The app contains a huge range of preset tones and uses a slick browser to help you find what you want.

These presets are organised into musical categories within the very slick browser which also includes search facilities, options to add presets to your own favourites list and, added fairly recently, options to build ‘pedalboards’….  essentially a small collection of tones that you can easily flip between on the fly….  and switching can be done remotely if you have a suitable MIDI footpedal (including Bluetooth MIDI pedals) talking to your iOS hardware.

Once you find a preset, you are presented with a very simple ‘single footpedal’ display. Many of these feature a nice graphic related to the original album art or artist upon which the preset is based. However, in terms of further tonal control, all you get is a volume knob, a ‘effect level’ knob (which, for the majority of patches, seems to tone own the amount of amp gain but also scales back obvious effects such as delay) and, via the Additional Setting button (located bottom left), you can access a Noise Gate threshold and feedback killer.

You can also build ‘pedalboards’ for easily switching between a collection of preset tones.

Clearly, Tonebridge isn’t in the same league as the amp sim apps mentioned above when it comes to sound tweaking…. but you can, of course, use your guitar’s own controls as you would with a real amp to get some further variation and the app does seem to clean up a little as you back off the guitar volume.

I’ll say a little more about the actual tones in a minute….  but this preset-based approach is perhaps not so far removed in concept from a preset synth such as SynthMaster Player (although I think that does offer more editing options than Tonebridge); pick a preset that fits your needs and just play. No fuss and no paralysis by analysis that endless virtual equipment can sometimes encourage.

What’s it for?

This ultra-simple approach to picking a tone is perhaps understandable when you consider that Ultimate Guitar see Tonebridge primarily as a practice tool,….  and a practice tool that links directly with the tabs on their website. Yep, located bottom-right of that pedal graphic screen is an ‘Open Tab’ button. Once you have picked a tone preset – for example, Wicked Game by Chris Issac – tapping this button will allow you to open the tab within Tabs & Chords HD, and off you go….  learn to play the song with a suitable guitar tone at (under) your fingertips.

In this context, the limited tweaking makes perfect sense and, for novice to intermediate guitar players, just looking for a practice tool and an instant tone selection, it works an absolute treat.

Tonebridge is really designed to give you instant sound to practice your favourite sones within Ultimate Tab’s guitar tab collection.

In use, you can hook your usual guitar-friendly audio interface up to your iOS hardware and the app will happily work with it. I used a Guitar Rig HD2 and, in terms of the basic audio quality, this produced very useable results. Less expensive interfaces that use the headphone jack connectivity can also be used….  although you might get a little more unwanted noise with such devices. Still, for a quick practice session on the move (or on the sofa), pristine audio may not be the priority.

More than this?

Given that the app is free – and perhaps created as an interesting add-on to the tab resources from Ultimate Guitar (and the IAP/subscriptions that are offered to access for full range of features associated with the tabs) – it isn’t a surprise that Tonebridge has a practice-centric feature set. Nor would it be a surprise if that was all it had….  but it’s not….

Yep, the app will work quite happily within Audiobus and, as mentioned earlier, also now includes AU support within its feature set. OK, so you are pretty much limited to loading and working with, the included preset sounds, but as these cover a pretty wide range of musical styles and tones, the odds are that you will be able to find something close to what you are after. If the requirement is for a quick dollop of suitable tone to capture a song or part idea, then Tonebridge might be all that’s required.

Tonebridge working within AUM…. multiple instances and all….

Anyway, the app worked well for me as an AU plugin within AUM and, while I did get a loading error displayed within Cubasis, the app itself seemed to be working OK. This included multiple instances….  so I was easily able to add multiple guitar tracks to a project and, if I wished, change the preset after making a recording to change the style of tone used. The app also worked well within Audiobus.

OK, so this might not be my ‘ideal’ AU guitar rig sim – I generally would want more control than Tonebridge offers – but it is at least an AU option. And, if you start with a fairly simple tone within Tonebridge (something without too many effects, just a basic clean or overdriven sound), then you could always use some of those other AU effects apps you have to hand to add reverb, modulation and delay that better fits the needs of your song. This also worked pretty well as a work-around.

I did get an error message displayed when using the app within Cubasis… but it worked anyway.

Classic sounds?

All well and good so far….   from a technical perspective, Tonebridge might not be my dream AU guitar rig sim app, but it is at least AU, which is more than can be said for the other guitar rig sim apps mentioned earlier. But how does it sound?

Well, not bad actually. Some of the presets are perhaps better than others and, like lots of virtual guitar rigs, I often find the presets to be a little over-cooked in terms of effects for my taste. For practice duties that’s perhaps not such as issue but, if you are on a tight budget and want to get Tonebridge to do double duties for song writing or recording, then you have to live with some limitations. Too much delay in an otherwise suitable preset? Not that much you can do about it at present….

The app also worked well within Audiobus.

But do remember this is a free app….  and whether it’s Maroon 5/Coldplay or Metallica/Killswitch Engage (or something in between these sorts of extremes), then Tonebridge will have a preset (and, quite possibly, several and many presets, for you to choose between. Some are very good and and the vast majority are very useable. As good as my UK£1000+ Line 6 Helix (or one of the other top-end guitar rig modellers)? No….  most certainly not….  but so much better than ‘free’ has any right to be.

Under the hood

I’ve no idea just what modelling technology/algorithms are sitting under Tonebridge’s simple, but very stylish, front-end. It’s obviously pretty decent….  and this sorts of begs the ‘what if….?’ question. It would be really interesting to see if Ultimate Guitar might broaden the appeal of the app beyond it’s very obvious ‘practice tool’ design criteria and make give it a few more features designed with performance in mind.

Some of the preset tones are pretty dry…. and could easily be used in other song contexts with external effects then applied as required.

I can’t see Tonebridge becoming BIAS FX any time soon…  but even if each preset had options for toggling on/off the main ambience (delay/reverb) effects and adjusting the amp gain, it would considerably open up the possibilities. I’m not sure that I think this is particularly likely….  but it would certainly be good to see.

In summary

Tonebridge is a free, 85MB, download. It requires iOS9.0 or later and is universal in nature. And, with support for AU, it is, remarkably, on that front at least, ahead of all the top-end iOS guitar rig sims. No, the app is not my perfect solution as an AU guitar rig sim….  but it is the only one currently available so, credit where credit is due, I’ll slot it into by AU core app collection until a more comprehensive solution presents itself….

Don’t look a free horse in the mouth though. For its prime function – simple practice of a few of your favourite tunes – Tonebridge is spot on. The fact that you can do anything else with it is simply a happy bonus. Anyway, check out the review video below to see the app in action but then hot the App Store download button to find out more.

Tonebridge

Download from iTunes App Store

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    Comments

    1. Nice review, John!

      I “discovered” this little gem about a year ago, and must say that some of the effects are quite good!

      They have made quite a few upgrades (like the pedalboard feature) that have improved the functionality, and they seem to add new song models fairly often.

      You can’t beat free!

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