If you’re looking for amp simulators, there’s a good chance you’re recording from home and looking to create more tonal possibilities for yourself.
Playing with an amp is good and all, but if you only have one or two amps, the tones you can dial in are certainly going to be limited. Not to mention all the extra attention that goes towards room, mic selection and placement for optimal tone.
Amp simulators give you the opportunity to get started fast, dial in great tones, and record yourself without much friction.
In this guide, we’ll look at the best amp simulators with ultra-realistic sound – free and paid options included.
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Free Amp Simulators
We’re going to kick off this list with what we think are among the best free options available (if you’re looking for more, you can always refer to an earlier guide on free guitar VST plugins).
Let’s get into this!
IGNITE AMPS – Emissary
Take our word for it – the IGNITE AMPS Emissary shows up on every “best-of” list like the one you’re looking at right now.
Quite simply, it’s amazing value for a free simulator. It’s based off a real two-channel tube guitar amp, it sounds great, the controls are responsive, and just check out that graphical user interface (GUI) – it’s insane!
Combined with other IGNITE AMPS plugins (they’ve got Impulse Response or IR loaders, effects pedals, a tube power amplifier, and of course other amps) you can achieve some amazing things.
I think of the Emissary as a metal amp, and that’s how most users use it. So, it may not be versatile, but what it does, it does well.
We’re not going to be covering everything IGNITE AMPS has to offer here, but if we’ve piqued your curiosity, we do recommend heading over to their website to download anything else that strikes your fancy.
Other IGNITE AMPS amp sims:NRR-1, The Anvil
LePou – HyBrit
If you’re looking for free amp sims, then another name that’s sure to come up is LePou. LePou has several amp sims modeled after popular Marshall, Engl, Mesa Boogie, Bogner, and Soldano amplifiers, in addition to their own creations.
Here we have the HyBrit, and as you can probably tell, it emulates a Marshall – namely a JCM800.
While the sounds you get may not strike you as stellar out of the box, with a little tweaking, they sound great in a mix. I have some personal experience with this one, and I thought it worked out great for the recording project I was engaged in at the time.
The GUI is solid, and certainly looks professional. You will need to combine it with an IR loader for best results, though, because it does not have a default cab.
For more options, though, we recommend checking out the LePou website. There’s bound to be something there that meets your needs, regardless of whether you play rock, blues, country, metal, or otherwise.
Other LePou amp sims: LE456, Lecto, Legion, Lextac, Solo C
Nick Crow Lab – 7170 Lead
Nick Crow Lab primarily focuses on creating amp sims inspired by popular tube amps – mainly the amp head the late and great Eddie Van Halen came to be known for. If you’ve been playing guitar for any length of time, I probably don’t need to say a whole lot more.
Here’s the thing about that EVH amp though. It isn’t just Van Halen fans or hard rockers that came to embrace it. Metal guitarists love the 5150 – because it’s warm, it’s meaty, and it’s got some serious gain.
No, nothing will ever replace a real 5150. It’s stunning. But you can still get closer with an amp sim that you might be inclined to think, and the 7170 proves that.
And the GUI, while quite simple, doesn’t disappoint either.
If you dig this one, then you’ll certainly want to check out what other tube goodness Nick Crow Lab has got to offer.
Other Nick Crow Lab amp sims: TubeDriver, 8505 Lead
Here’s something that’s good to know about amp sims – while some are free, freemium options are also available in abundance.
Meaning you might be able to download some of the components of the software to experiment with, but not the whole thing, which is behind a pay wall.
So, in this section, we’re going to look at both freemium amp sims as well as those that cost a bit of money. Read on!
TSE Audio X50
As with LePou and Nick Crow Lab, TSE Audio has more than one offering. Here we’re looking at the X50, but just know that you can also get all the goods in the form of the Rock/Metal Suite for a complete set of tools.
And yes, this suite is ideally suited to rock and metal, just as advertised.
After all, if you couldn’t tell, the X50 takes after the 5150, which as noted, is a popular and beloved amp among rock and metal guitarists.
You can get this baby sounding mean, and the GUI is also decent. It’s available for Mac and PC as well.
The demo version of the X50 is free, but you don’t get all the functionality and you will also experience the occasional silence, as if the amp sim is glitching. You also can’t save plugin states with the demo.
The full version costs $69.99.
Komplete – Guitar Rig 6 PRO
It’s amazing what you can find for free these days. Komplete’s Guitar Rig 6 Player is a free amp sim and effects rack, based on Guitar Rig 6 PRO, which costs $129.00.
So, yeah, we had to put it under the freemium category, but if you just want Guitar Rig 6 Player, and not the PRO counterpart, you can go and get it for free now.
So, what’s included? A matched cabinet, 13 effects, and 50 presets. This is a great tool for building unique guitar tones because the whole thing is basically modular, comprised of various effects and routing tools.
So, if you were looking for a multi effects pedal in software form, you’ve found it.
We think it sounds great, and while the GUI, a little clutter-prone, is still awesome, especially if you love to tweak endlessly!
ML Sound Lab – Amped Stevie T
ML Sound Lab’s Amped Stevie T is an exciting newcomer to the market, and it’s catching on fast.
But if you’re asking yourself “who is Stevie T?” then you aren’t in on the joke, and you may need a little convincing before picking up this amp sim.
Stevie T is a popular Canadian YouTube guitarist known for his comedic antics. Some call him the Jim Carrey or “Weird Al” of djent guitar.
Now, while the Djent God amp is free, if you want to get access to three more amps – Calalalean, Rectalfier, and Shredeemer – as well as the pedalboard (with noise gate, drive, delay, and reverb), as well as an IR loader (the amp sims come with default cabs), then you’ll want to get the full license for $59.99.
Overall, Amped Stevie T is awesome and convenient right out of the box, and in the “freemium” category, it is highly recommended.
Oh, and ML Sound Lab does have other amp sims, so you can check out their website to see what else they’ve got.
Positive Grid – Bias FX 2
Interestingly, the previously mentioned Stevie T has been shown comparing Positive Grid’s Bias FX to Fractal Audio Systems’ hardware amp and effects modeling unit, Axe-FX. And what’s surprising is, Bias FX is comparable in many ways. It’s not as good in some ways, and better in other ways, all while being a fraction of the cost.
The latest edition, Bias FX2, is available in three configurations – Standard at $49, Pro at $99, and Elite at $149 for access to all the features.
Bias FX2 is worth every penny, and here are some of the reasons why.
First, it comes with guitar effects, Guitar Match emulation, amps, pedals, racks, and even advanced modelers. If you love to tweak, then you’re going to love Bias FX2, because you can select amp heads, tubes, cabs, microphones, microphone positions, and a whole lot more.
And yeah, in case I didn’t get this across – it sounds B.A. too.
With all the features (which I’ve barely even touched on), access to a near limitless variety of tone, and support from people in high places, it would be hard to go wrong with Positive Grid’s Bias FX 2.
Other Positive Grid amp sims: Bias Amp 2
IK Multimedia – AmpliTube 4
With AmpliTube 5 soon to be released, AmpliTube 4 is IK multimedia’s popular amp sim for guitarists.
This one also falls under the category of “freemium,” since you can get the AmpliTube Custom Shop amp sim for free. And it’s kind of a “try before you buy” program where you’re given the opportunity to test out different aspects of the full version of AmpliTube.
Worth checking out if you just want to get a sense of what the full version of AmpliTube 4 is all about.
Available for Mac and PC, AmpliTube 4 gives you access to a cab room where you can select, set up, and position microphones (a lot like Bias FX). You can even choose your speakers.
Amplifier models are available in abundance, and you also get am acoustic simulator, effects loop insert slot, built-in eight-track Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), looper, tuner, and more.
Again, this is a tinkerer’s dream, and yes, we have confirmed that the tones are quite legit too – both clean and dirty.
You might be sitting for days dialing in your perfect guitar tone, but if you don’t mind, it’s unlikely you won’t like AmpliTube 4. It’s just a matter of whether to get AmpliTube or Bias FX (or maybe even something else on this list)… that’s a tough one.
Scuffman S-Gear is another immensely popular option among guitarists, and some would even consider it the best. It’s available for $129.
S-Gear comes with a collection of guitar amps, speaker cabinets, and effects and is compatible with Windows or Mac.
As is the case with any gear you use, the results you get are highly dependent on the user. That said, we are beyond impressed with the quality and variety of sounds and options available.
The interface is great because it feels like you’re using real amps. Which is kind of true of the other amps too, but it’s executed in a different way here. You feel like you’re looking at the top of the amp (where the controls are), versus the front of the amp (where the controls can also be).
This one is certainly worth messing around with.
What Should I Look For In An Amp Simulator?
It’s mostly up to you. The style of music you play, the tones you like, and the functionality you need. These are all going to affect your buying decision.
But here we’ll offer a few criteria that can help you narrow in on an amp sim that’s right for you:
- Tone and versatility
- Interface and workflow
- Skill level
Tone & Versatility
Every guitarist has go-to tones. But even if your name is Eddie Van Halen (R.I.P.) with a trademark tone, you’re ultimately going to want to access to more than one.
Free amp sims generally only do one thing well. Some have multiple channels, so at least you get different versions of the same thing. But for the most part, what you see is what you get, and beyond tweaking gain and EQ (and maybe your IRs), you can’t expect too much.
Meanwhile, freemium, and paid amp sims generally have a lot more to offer. In the case of Bias FX and AmpliTube, they are near infinitely tweakable.
There are “different strokes for different folks” as it were, but what you end up with is certainly going to be swayed by how plug and play you want it to be, how it sounds, how many sounds it makes available to you, and whether it works for your production needs.
Tone is very much personal, and we can’t necessarily tell you what’s right or wrong, but read the descriptions again, check the video reviews on YouTube, ask a few friends, and we think you’ll settle on a plugin that matches your needs.
And don’t forget – when it comes to free amp sims, you can download and install as many as you want!
Interface & Workflow
We certainly can’t deny the importance of the user interface, which has a big impact on workflow.
If you just want to “plug in and go,” then a simpler amp sim with a streamlined interface is probably going to suit you better.
Meanwhile, if you like to spend a lot of time tweaking, getting a multitude of “perfect tones,” then there isn’t a whole lot of choice. You’re going to sacrifice some workflow for better tones. It’s just a matter of what workflow suits you best.
Again, we’d recommend checking out demos and online reviews, as you can clearly see the interfaces as well as how they operate.
In the case of free plugins, though, just remember – you can download, install, and start messing around with them right away.
Though not always talked about, we do think it important to consider skill level as applied to amp sims.
If you are inexperienced, then it’s unlikely you can tell much of a difference between different sounds. Its far more likely that you’re in an experimental, explorative stage, trying to figure out what amps do, what effects do, and so on.
As a newbie, you’re probably going to get the most out of a “middle of the road” freemium option. There’s enough to keep you interested and allow you to grow without overwhelming you.
A free amp sim might not do much for you, especially if you aren’t familiar with IRs or how to use them. You’ll get access to a tone, sure, but without knowing how to tweak or use it, you might not enjoy yourself all that much.
A more comprehensive solution like Bias FX or AmpliTube is likely to be overwhelming for a beginner who doesn’t understand amp heads, cabs, microphones, mic placement, tubes, virtual cab rooms, etc.
So, if you’re just getting started, see if you can find an “in between” solution that gives you a chance to mess around and have fun.
Just because you have money doesn’t mean you should consider a freemium or paid option, and just because you have no money doesn’t mean a free solution will be ideal.
With that in mind, if you’re comparing paid options, then don’t forget to check your bank balance.
We always recommend against overspending where possible. So, save up if you’re thinking about buying an amp sim that costs more than you have right now.
Otherwise, just have fun exploring the range of options available.
Real Guitar Amplifiers vs. Amp Simulators – Which Is Better?
As you’re looking to record and capture the best guitar performances possible, this question is inevitable.
Better is always going to be in the eyes (and ears) of the beholder. And let’s be real – when it comes to anything music related, there are always elitists and purists who will tell you, “accept no substitutes!”
For many reasons, we don’t think the battle between real amps and amp sims is so cut and dry.
Now, if you’re looking for the best, most authentic tone possible, then yes, amps are your best bet. The only problem with this is that you’ve got to choose a guitar, dial in the amp settings, select a microphone, and optimize placement of said microphone for best results.
If you’ve got some experience doing all that, great. Otherwise, you can throw this advantage right out the window, because some amp sims sound good without any tweaking whatsoever!
But amp sims have other significant advantages. Here’s an overview:
- They sound good. What’s interesting about the sound quality debate is that by the time the guitars are in a finished mix, many effects have been applied to them, giving them a “recorded sound.” Amp sims tend to give you that recorded sound by default.
- Some people can’t tell the difference. Roughly 50% of people can’t tell the difference between the sound of a real amp and an amp sim. When it comes to the general listening audience, it’s probably even less than that!
- They’re less noisy. This is somewhat subjective, since some amp sims can act a lot like real amps and still be noisy. But it’s true that you’ll generally get less buzz and noise from an amp sim than a real amp, which can aid in the recording process greatly. After all, the goal is generally to get a clean, undistorted signal wherever possible.
- They’re generally cheaper. Amplifiers begin in the $50 range. But depending on what you’re looking for, they can easily cost $5,000 or more, sometimes just for the head, never mind the cab. Amp sims start at free and usually don’t cost a whole lot more than $300.
- You don’t need as much gear. It all starts with the amp (combo or stack). From there, you will still need microphones, mic stands, and XLR cables to capture your guitar. With an amp sim, all you need is a DAW, the amp sim, and an audio interface.
- You don’t require a sound treated room. Even home recordists often use DIY methods to treat their rooms to lesser or greater degrees. If you’re using an amp sim, though, you never need to worry about the room. Some sims have built-in room functionality, and even if they don’t, you can still simulate the sound of a room with reverb and other effects.
- Famous players use them. Malcolm Young (AC/DC), Bob Weir (Grateful Dead), Lemmy (R.I.P. – Motörhead) are all known to favor amp sims in the studio.
- Work faster. There’s less work involved in dialing in tones using an amp sim compared to using a real amp. Working faster is important to musicians who produce a high volume of music.
- You can record just about anywhere. If you want to record in the studio – guess what? – you’ve got to record in a studio. There’s just no way around it. But with an amp sim, you can wear headphones, so assuming you’ve got your laptop and audio interface with you, you can sit down and record just about anywhere.
We’ve featured what we think are some of the best amp sims available, but at the end of the day, you win some, you lose some.
But it's important to know that skill level and experience does make a difference.
Some experienced guitarists can take what might seem like a “lame” plugin and make it sing!
Meanwhile, you can have the best gear as a beginner and if you don’t know what you’re doing, you might end up with something that sounds a little “funky” (and I’m not talking about groove here).
As it has been said before, most of a guitar’s sound is in the pickups and in the fingers of the person playing it. Someone with sound engineering and production experience has an even greater advantage because they know how they want the guitar to sound and how to “place it” in the mix.
Again, I will refer you to the earlier section on real guitar amps vs. amp sims because there are many advantages to using sims.
Both are great, and on that point, don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying amp sims are always better. But for someone like me, who likes to work fast and spend less time messing around, they are perfect.
So, if you want to get better at the craft, work at it. Don’t just play guitar. Study sound. Study mixing. Figure out how professional producers and mixing engineers mix guitar. Ask them lots of questions. Understand why they do what they do.
If you do all that, I promise, you can get as authentic and ultra-realistic as you like. And if you don’t mind a little bit of inauthenticity, you can probably figure out how to do that too!
Have a listen to a variety of releases. If you haven’t listened to Def Leppard’s Euphoria album yet, go check it out. The guitars sound like they’re being played through amp sims or multi-effects pedals rather than real amps. Which isn’t a bad thing in the context of that album at all!
Again, it could just be the “recorded sound” of guitar like I mentioned earlier. Post-processing, that’s how they ended up sounding. And it still works.
Either way, just work on your craft and have fun with it!
Best Free & Premium Amp Simulators, Final Thoughts
We hope you enjoyed our guide on the top guitar amp simulators. There are plenty more out there, to be sure, but if you’re looking for the best, the above is a great place to start.
Guitar is highly individual, and there are so many ways to record these days. Sometimes going direct into your audio interface can produce cool results (I did this with a funky guitar part recently). If you’re unsure, then just experiment!
There is no right or wrong way – only what works for you!