When Work is Play: The Making of AmpKit 1.2

September 6th, 2011 by Jack Ivers

I received the following email from Ben Fargen of Fargen Amplification a few days ago:

Hi Jack,

Thanks a bunch…I am really blown away with the amps and pedals as I spend more time with them…I thought the Super Collider OD would be really tough to model…you guys did a fantastic job.

Cheers!

AmpKit 1.2 Fargen Lead ScreenshotWe had been working with Fargen as Official Gear Partners for AmpKit 1.2 since early this year, and Ben had just had a chance to load the final 1.2 release. He followed up a few hours later with this audio clip; both guitar parts were recorded using the AmpKit version of Ben’s own Fargen amps, and the bass with our American Bass King.

Ben Fargen may not be a household name, but his customers–among them Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, John Rezeznick and Michael Landau–certainly are. So Ben’s opinion carries a lot of weight with us, and his comments were a welcome validation of the improvements we’ve made in AmpKit 1.2 on the eve of its release.

The story of AmpKit 1.2 really begins on December 10th, 2010, when AmpKit 1.1 launched. We already knew that 1.2 would include a lot of new gear. But over the next six weeks, we made a series of critical decisions that resulted in a dramatic improvement in AmpKit’s already best-of-breed guitar tone. First, we decided the time had come to take advantage of advances in Apple’s iOS hardware and operating system that made possible far more sophisticated amp and cabinet simulation. Our amps jumped from one to two simulation stages (preamp and power amp), and cabinet simulation was upgraded to apply convolution algorithms. The simulation code for every one of AmpKit’s 21 amp channels and 14 cabinets had to be completely rewritten. (By the way, with the new gear in 1.2, we’re now up to 35 amp channels and 20 cabinets.)

Second, we found a way to restore the original frequencies of an incoming guitar signal that had been lost while passing through an iOS device’s voice-oriented headset circuitry–a big challenge, since this frequency attenuation varies dramatically across the different iPhone / iPad / iPod touch models. The solution involved profiling every single model of iOS device ever made, and creating an adaptive input compensation algorithm that automatically applies the correct compensation for your device.

Third, we began to realize that guitar tone that is ideally shaped for studio use–mixing with other tracks–is very different from tone that sounds great when playing alone. Studio tone tends to beef up treble and cut back bass to help the guitar stand out when mixed; but that same tone sounds a bit thin when played alone. So we created an output shaping filter with Mix and Solo modes, and let the player choose between them. Solo mode makes an amazing audible difference on both clean and high-gain play.

How dramatically we had improved AmpKit’s tone started to become clear in March at the world’s largest music show, Musikmesse. I brought an unstable alpha build of AmpKit 1.2 with me to the show, mainly to get feedback from our show guitarist Rob Math, a great talent who has been working closely with AmpKit since the beginning. Rob heard the tone improvements instantly, and I knew we were onto something when he demanded that we use the 1.2 alpha build for all of his Musikmesse performances, despite the fact that it was crashing rather frequently. Rob especially loved the Lead channel on the upgraded Peavey Classic 30.

We received another great vote of confidence for AmpKit 1.2 in June, while in San Francisco for Apple’s WWDC event. We had arranged for the Alex Skolnick Trio to perform an all-AmpKit show at the nearby Marriott: both guitarist Alex Skolnick and bassist Nathan Peck used AmpKit and Peavey AmpKit LiNK on their iPads for 100% of their amp and effects tone. The only amplifier in use was a PA system, yet the audio quality was outstanding (check the video below to see for yourself). Alex Skolnick uses Budda amps in his real stage performances; when I checked out his AmpKit setups at the Marriott show, I enjoyed the fact that he was still using Budda — only this time, the AmpKit version. As if to say, yes, obviously this is the one I’d use, it sounds exactly like my real Budda amp.

AmpKit 1.2 Release Candidate 1 arrived on July 26th. You never know how many release candidates you’ll have to run through before you finally squash the last bug and are ready for launch, but given the extent of changes and additions in 1.2, we expected it might be a long slog. As indeed it proved: it took us until Release Candidate 6, issued on August 11th, to get a winner. Testing was just brutal: one bug, for example, involved losing a small fraction of a beat each time a recording was looped during playback. To even hear the problem required multiple custom-crafted recordings and a lot of patience.

I’m not complaining, though, because work is most rewarding when you’re scratching your own itch. I’m currently learning the Eric Clapton lead from Cream’s Sunshine of Your Love. Clapton’s tone on this lead is really unique; opinions vary, but the setup may have involved a ‘60s amp with every dial set to 10, an early fuzz pedal, and the guitar’s tone knobs turned all the way down, resulting in a silky-smooth fuzztone. If I wanted to recreate this tone with physical gear, I’d be out of luck. I do own a few amps – I love my 1976 Peavey Classic 50 – but no ‘60s Marshall or early-era fuzz pedal. And even if I owned all the gear, it would take some serious lugging and time to get a working setup, and I’d rattle windows throughout my neighborhood with a 100W amp cranked up to 10.

With AmpKit, in two minutes and for a fraction of the cost of a physical amp, I can choose among several amps with ’60s tone, crank everything up to 10, add an early-era fuzz pedal, throw in some EQ to kill the incoming treble, add reverb and a bit of delay … voilà, a wonderful approximation of Clapton in Sunshine. To support my learning process, I created backing track snippets for each segment of the lead, so I can work intensively one element at a time. I also set up a metronome and recorded the background guitar for the entire lead, so I can practice it end-to-end. Tune my guitar … record my practice leads … run AmpKit in background while I look at guitar tab in TabToolkit … all of this in my pocket, wherever I go. If you play electric guitar, this is nothing less than a revolution. Because the combo of AmpKit and AmpKit LiNK lowers the effort-to-play threshold so radically, we believe that many a dusty electric guitar is coming out of the closet and into active daily use.AmpKit 1.2 Sunshine Lead iPad Setup

So, no complaints: I’m part of the team that’s making a tool that isn’t just useful, it’s revolutionary. I get to scratch my own itch every day. And despite the agony of release testing and the constant threat of pinched nerves from attempting to type with a Stratocaster strapped on, it’s thoroughly rewarding.

My response to Ben Fargen’s email that day was:

Thanks Ben, this is why I love my job …

We can’t wait to hear what our AmpKit customers think of the 1.2 release! Read more about AmpKit 1.2 here.