I will start with a disclaimer: I am not in any way associated with the companies I’m going to mention here, other than being a paying customer for them.
Over my years as a professional musician, I’ve invested a phenomenal amount of money in musical gear. Amps, pedals, guitars, effects systems, you name it, I’ve probably bought it, beat it up, and traded it off in my search for “that sound.”
After about 40 years of playing, I’ve arrived at the combination of analog and digital gear that presently outfits my studio, and a few choice instruments. I was pretty happy with this too, except it isn’t very portable, and the setup is complex enough that there are times when I spend more time twiddling knobs than I do actually playing or recording.
Well, I’ve found something rather extraordinary. So much so I thought it was worth telling the world. As it turns out, there’s an easy, sensible, cool way to go that costs very little and gives you the world. Here’s the scoop.
Hardware: M-Audio JAMLAB
This is a USB-connected guitar interface with a 24-bit guitar input and a stereo audio output. You plug it into a primary USB port (left hand side of the Macbook or Macbook Pro as the notebook faces you, or a front port on the Mac Pro – you can’t run this through a hub, either internal to the Mac or elsewhere – too much data.)
Basically, you download the latest drivers from m-audio.com, install them, and the interface is ready to plug in and go for clean guitar input. Not that most of us are looking for such a thing. More on that in a bit.
I got my JAMLAB some time ago for about $60 at thinkgeek.com; It came with software called “GT Player Express”, the latest version of which is called “InTone Guitar Express (and Pro) which is, in my musical opinion, not very good. Nor is the upgraded version, intone Guitar Pro, which I also bought, any better. The current release as I write this has a relatively simplistic view of what an “amp” is, and some of the stompbox emulations simply don’t work. But not to worry. This software isn’t what you want to use anyway, though it is there if you decide to try it.
Software: Flying Haggis (No, really — that’s what it’s called.)
This comes with quite a few stompbox emulations, and they are excellent — I’ll come back to them. But the most important thing here is that the amplifier and speaker cabinet emulations are nothing less than superb. You want a little blues amp? It’s in there, and it sounds right. You want a Marshal stack? It’s in there, and it is right. The range of preset emulations is outstanding, and you can tweak any one of them in a number of very, very cool ways. You have an early stage gain, a distortion control, compression, cabinet emulation, cabinet miking and a master output level — all of which can be varied from the preset amp settings or from custom ones.
So once you’ve got the amp sounding just the way you want it to, you can save it under a new name, and it’s a permanently available setup. This is just primo, and though that may sound over-excited to you, it sounds not excited enough to me. That’s just how good the amp and speaker emulations are. You can even control the mike placement in front of the amp. Did I mention this thing sounds absolutely, unbelievably primo? Well, it does.
The stompboxes extend the fabulous sound into the usual areas, but they do so with the same quality as the amplifier emulations. You get a noise gate [threshold] (which you will use with some of the high gain amps);
You get an auto-wah [depth / speed / tone], which does a very credible job of keeping up with heated leads or mournful picking;
You get a phaser [depth / speed / tone], which goes from flange to gentle wash with authority;
You get a tremolo [depth / speed] which does just what you’d expect, just as you’d want it to;
You get an Echo [time / feedback / width / mix] which serves as a quiet, studio quality system (though one thing you can’t make it do, as near as I can tell, is make it act like an old Echoplex… it’s too clean for that.)
And you get a Chorus [depth / speed / mix] which again, is ultra-clean and does just what you’d want.
Up on the amp system, there’s a Reverb — just a single control, seems to do just the right thing. Initially I thought I’d be wanting more control such as how deep the room was, how hard the surface, but as it turns out, this thing acts just right and I have no complaints.
Flying Haggis is $99, however, they’re perfectly happy to let you try it for free without anything disabled. So you should do that!
One sour note: Flying Haggis is copy protected, so you are at risk to some degree if they go out of business. They claim otherwise, but frankly, if you don’t have control over the software, you’re at risk and there’s no way around that fact.
Having said that, I say buy it anyway. It’s that good. They’ve let me authorize the software for my main desktop, a Mac Pro, and my laptop, a Macbook pro; no extra charges, no delays, easily done. The copy protection is a little annoying to get going, authorization requires one more step than usual, but once done, it hasn’t bothered me any further.
Now, this system is the type of thing that doesn’t need a guitar amp. What it needs is a wideband, high-fidelity amp and speakers. That’s important. If you feed this combination to (for instance) a Fender Twin, then *everything* will sound like it’s being pumped through a… yeah, a Fender Twin. In order for things to work as well as possible, you’re going to want a few hundred watts per channel stereo amplifier, and two wide-range PA-class speakers.
You doubt me, I know, but you’ll see. The system does *not* use the amp or the speakers to color tone; if you try to do that yourself, you’ll severely limit the type and quality of sound you can produce. An easy way to convince yourself is to plug in a pair of stereo headphones into the JAMLAB output and play. Those headphones are wideband, right? Now listen to the various amps. Each one has a totally different character. You will lose that character if you use, for instance, a Marshall cabinet or a Fender head.
You can plug Flying Haggis right into Garage Band, too; which gives you recording and solo-oriented jamming capability immediately. It’s just a very well integrated, ultra-high quality experience from start to finish.
I am deliriously happy with this setup. I play jazz, blues, rock, metal, classical and folk; everything I want is right at my fingertips. Perfect. I just drag my laptop, a stereo amp, and a couple speakers out, and I’m good. Aside from the Mac, amp and speakers, the outlay is about $160 in total, which is a screaming bargain for what you get. I highly, totally, ultimately and without quibbling recommend this setup. If it weren’t for the copy protection, I’d rate it stone perfect.