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I am going to record music with the guitar and bass guitar. However, I am still undecided between using an amp with microphone, and an amp simulator. Which of the two would be a better choice when sound quality is concerned?

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When using an amp with microphone, it means that you play the guitar through a physical amp, and using a microphone to direct this sound into your recording system.

An amp simulator is software that literally simulates an amp; you plug your guitar into your computer (through an interface for better quality), and this sound is modified by the software that you use.

Quality-wise, you can't just say that one is better than the other, so I will try to give you a list of common advantages to each option.

Advantages of using an amp with microphone:

  • More possibilities & flexibility. The room's acoustics, the microphone's characteristics, the microphone's position,... there are numerous things that affect your sound, and that you can play around with to use your own unique sound. Once you get a hang of this, it can become vital in your recordings.
  • More natural sound. Since you're recording analogous sound, in a natural environment with acoustic characteristics, your sound will be more natural. It is a subtle thing, but something everybody's ear is able to pick up.
  • No latency. Software simply needs time to do whatever it's doing. An amp simulator may have a delay of just a few hundredths of a second, but that's already audible! When recording, there is the option to nullify this delay, but this will not work when you're simply rehearsing.

(Note: the first two points are definitely up to debate, as high quality amp simulators will allow you to closely imitate these possibilities as well.)

Advantages of using an amp simulator:

  • Other possibilities. When using software, you are usually not limited to the abilities that you have at hand. Many simulators allow for plugins to be installed, which can alter your sound completely. The same thing can be done with a regular amp of course, but then you'll have to run to your nearby music store with a hundred bucks each time. ;-)
  • Cleaner sound. When recording through a microphone, there is always the issue of unwanted background noise. Even if you're sitting in a professional studio, a microphone may be able to pick up your breathing and the rustling of your clothes. With an amp simulator, you will not have this issue.
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    @LeeWhite Quality of the tone equates well with the quality of the gear. For instance: A vintage 1965 Fender Super Reverb (not reissue) with a NOS Mullard GZ34 rectifier, matched NOS Genalex KT66 power tubes correctly biased, Vintage NOS preamp tubes e.g. RCA/Telefunken/GE, 4 P10Q WeberVST speakers, mic'ed with a Shure SM57 will kill anything Line6 or any simulation box can ever simulate. This is not unlike trying to compare a Hot Wheels version of a Corvette to the real thing. However, a crappy amp and crappy mic, will be trumped by a decent simulator configured properly. – filzilla Jul 10 '14 at 19:22
  • @LeeWhite +1 overall for identifying the key factors. Just added my comments for historical purposes. Let's not forget about some of the great guitar recordings with a mic'ed amp, e.g. Duane Allman's "Layla" tracks. – filzilla Jul 10 '14 at 19:42
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    @filzilla, Lee White: while I won't argue against mic-recording amps (like to do it myself), I find it quite unnecessary, indeed wrong, to denounce simulations like that. Have you properly made the test yourself, double-blind? A good amp/speaker simulation with multiple stages of well-designed nonlinearities plus highly resolved convolution can imitate any amp so well I bet you'd be hard pressed to tell any difference at all except in direct comparison. The main thing that feels better about real cabinets is the direct sound you hear without mic/monitor, but that doesn't go on the recording. – leftaroundabout Jul 10 '14 at 20:43
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    @filzilla: the credibility of Vacuum Tube Valley aside (the valve industry is making a lot of money from vintage craze / audiophoolery these days), even if they can tell two particular tube variants apart that doesn't say anything about simulations. Quite possibly these valves have significantly different response at some edge of the parameter space – this can certainly manifest in the final tone in a recognisable way. But just as well it would manifest in a simulation of the amp's setup. If these guys can tell two real tube models apart, they can also tell the respective simulations apart. – leftaroundabout Jul 10 '14 at 22:26
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    "I can tell you no one there would even consider blind test of tube amps vs. simulators, too obvious" well, refusing to do some scientific test on grounds of "too obvious" is often a good sign somebody's just scared to find out they've been wrong. – leftaroundabout Jul 10 '14 at 22:28
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The answer is: It depends.

A good amp connected to a good cab in a good room will sound good through a well placed good mic connected to a good preamp. I don't believe that any amp sim can beat that yet. But that's a lot of variables, many things can go wrong, it's not very hard but certainly not trivial.

To me, a good amp simulator sounds way better than a mediocre amp connected to a mediocre cab in a mediocre room through a mediocre mic placed in a mediocre way connected to a mediocre preamp. And as long as you have a good way to provide a good dry signal to the amp sim, it's also way more consistent and convenient.

Besides, amp sims are constantly improving. The earliest examples were just jokes and I think that's what gave them a bad name. But the latest generation amp sims are almost impossible to tell apart from a real amp when listened to. But they do still feel different when you actually play.

So, choice is yours; if you can, try both ways and listen.

  • Worth noting that depending on the details of the amp modeller, the amount of latency involved, particularly for monitoring, might make that approach less desirable. – Dave Jul 10 '14 at 16:47
  • @Dave Latency can be reduced to the point it is negligible. The problem is not latency, but that people often don't know how to control it. (a high latency setup has its own advantages, which is why latency can be controlled via the buffer size) – Jamm Jul 10 '14 at 21:23
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Why not do both? Use a DI unit such as a Radial JDV or similar and run one output into your amp which is mic'd and the other into your audio interface and record the direct dry signal at the same time, then simply add an amp sim plugin and choose a tone to complement your amp tone.

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The difference is - they sound different. Neither method aims for "accuracy" in the way a purist stereo recording of acoustic instruments in a beautiful-sounding room does! The idea is to grunge up the guitar sound. Don't worry about how closely one method copies the other, just about whether you like the result.

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