I am currently deciding whether I should buy a real pedal for overdrive/distortion or just stay with virtual pedals in my Guitar Rig 5. What are the pros and cons of using one or the other?
The answer to this will very strongly depend on the quality of your gear. Most often, I find that an amplifier with built-in effects ends up not being of very high quality. This tends to be the case with other types of products as well, such as a TV with a built in DVD player. When a company chooses to build in more than one thing and keep the price relatively low, the quality of both is sacrificed. This is not a hard and fast rule but if you are buying anything on the lower end of the pricing scale, it's significantly more likely. I have had and have played with people who had built in effects that they were very satisfied with but these were relatively expensive. The other issue that comes of this, is that if your amp decides it doesn't want to work anymore, you have no effects. In the case that you are playing a gig when this happens, you may be able to borrow someone else's amp to get through your show but then you don't have all the effects that you are used to and potentially can't accomplish your desired sound. A lot of gigs that have multiple bands playing throughout the night will end up having shared gear, so if you were playing such a gig, you may not able to share amps with others, which can be logistically annoying.
One thing that is particularly nice about a pedal board is that you have independent control over each effect, allowing you to turn on or off any pedal at any time, where a virtual setup will likely have a preset that you can only dial in through the amp. On the other hand, having presets can be helpful because you only have to hit one button to change all of your effects for another sound, where a pedal board may require that you turn off multiple pedals and turn on several others, so there is some practicality.
With all that said, if you are just learning and not gigging yet, getting everything built in may be easier for you to work with and a lot of the concerns don't apply. You can always buy pedals later if you find the quality is too low or start gigging and it becomes an issue.
I use both sim software on my IPad/Mac and physical pedals, depending on my mood and situation.
I use Bias FX on my IPad, Amplitube on my Mac; I use this when I am on the move, or sitting at home noodling in front of the TV, no need to worry about leads, batteries, and takes up very little room. In addition, you have a whole range of effects and amps that you would never have physically, however you can spend more time playing with your settings than actually playing.
However, when playing with friends or even just practicing in front of my amp (loudly) I prefer to make things VERY simple. An amp, a pedal (fuzz rather than distortion at the minute) and guitar. I enjoy how physical it is, more tactile and I get more out of my single effect than I ever would if it was virtual.
In the end its down to personal taste, and the quality of amp and effect sims are fantastic, however its just as easy to get a bad sound out of a virtual pedal as it is a physical one.
While Todd Wilcox is right in his comment that they will sound different and it's your opinion that matters, I think there are some points that most would agree upon.
- Many people prefer real pedals and real amps as far as sound and dynamics.
- Many people use virtual/digital amps and FX anyway because they are convenient and economical (low volume, many sounds for a cheaper price, easily recallable settings saved digitally, etc).
Opinions differ—and yours might—but if you polled a bunch of guitarists that have used both, you'd start seeing that pattern emerge.
So for you it probably comes down to whether you are happy with the sound you are getting and if not weighing that against the cost/convenience of software.
PS. If you meant staying with software for an amp but adding a gain pedal in front before your interface/DI, I'd be wary. I've never had very good results with using pedals in front of amp sims. It doesn't hurt to try it though.
I don't do gigs and I have been using a PC for a number of years now. I was using an old stereo amp with a decent size "2.1 speaker" setup which got loud enough and didn't color the sound too much. I also have bass and an electronic drum kit so I have a mixer I use to switch inputs and attenuate etc. That amp has since died, so I am now using my old Spyder2 amp.
I put together a reamper kit box (L2A/Line2Amp) which matches impedance for high-z guitar amp input.
Right off the bat, using a guitar amp means not using any of the cab and amp sims, as they sound pretty awful.
I have been using wah, compressor, gain, and fuzz sims and the main problem with all of them is that you need to be especially careful about the gain or volume. Virtually none of them have db meters or any kind of guidance regarding reference levels, and the software often has input and output gain knobs, preset knobs, knobs on the ADC (analog-digital converter "soundcard"), knobs on the PC volume.
So you need to do a lot of work taming the signal path.
If your sim software has any sort of metering (like built into a compressor sim), try using that to visualize the signal. I also found it helpful to toggle pass-through mode to ensure the guitar amp is receiving something very close to what it would see without the PC in the middle.
I don't play around too much with different pedals and sounds so I am actually pretty happy with the result, but I think that the distortion and fuzz tends to be kind of thin and cold sounding compared to real pedals. The basic overdrive and compression kick along with the real amp overdrive is not bad.
So TLDR; volume/loudness saturation; potentially excessive re-re-re-amplification (the wrong kind of distortion); cold & thin.
One other thing: this stuff is fragile and may not travel well without headaches or excessive fiddling on site.