By Jim Miller

Up until recently, getting a really good guitar sound in your recording studio depended upon equal parts skill and luck. No matter how great your tone might be on stage, capturing that sound on tape has always been pretty elusive. In the late 1960s, like a lot of young people, I got hooked on music by playing guitar. In 1973, my band booked time at Criteria Studios in Miami, the same studio where Eric Clapton recorded 461 Ocean Boulevard. I can tell you from personal experience that the single most time-consuming part of that particular session was getting a good guitar tone down on tape. Despite the fact that we had two exceptional engineers working that session, as well as a great room and tons of mics, I never heard anything close to what I considered my signature "live" sound on tape. It's not that it was bad — it just wasn't accurate.

Over the years I tried a number of times to lay down some killer guitar tracks. Some attempts were more successful than others, but like many other guitarists I've talked to over the years, I was rarely completely satisfied with the end result.

A couple of years ago, not long after I began writing this column, I got my hands on a beautiful ivory Stratocaster 12-string. I wanted to record this instrument, as well as sample it, and I spent several frustrating days trying all sorts of different amp and mic combinations before doing what I probably should have done to begin with: call Sweetwater! Surely by this time I figured, somebody would have come up with a dependable way to record a decent guitar sound without adding to my overall 1990s stress level.

A few days later, a package arrived on my doorstep. Inside was a SansAmp rackmount module. I hooked it up to my system, and in all honesty, really wasn't expecting a whole lot. I doubted anyone else could be as picky about a guitar sound as I was. And truthfully, I was not immediately blown away by this box. It took me the better part of a day to try out the various unfamiliar controls like buzz, crunch, punch and drive. But once I started to gain control over this thing, I found I could dial in all sorts of cool tones, including one that made my Strat 12-string sound terrific.

Over the next week or so, I tried out several more of my guitars with the same results. The SansAmp worked and it worked well and I was finally, after all these years, confident that my guitar recording nightmare was over. I had access to that crisp, tight Fender Twin Reverb sound, as well as the classic overdriven Marshall sound. I could even get a tone that was pretty darn close to my sweet old tweed Fender Deluxe which self-destructed back in 1972.

If the unit had a shortcoming at all, it was that once you carefully set up a particular sound (like a screaming lead guitar timbre), you'd lose it when you changed the settings. It was sort of like the old MiniMoog days: no presets! Well, now those talented people at Tech 21 have released the latest version of this marvelous machine, the SansAmp PSA-1, and it's fully programmable! It's even got full MIDI implementation and XLR outs.

This latest SansAmp incarnation offers 98 programmable sounds, including 49 factory presets that pay homage to the likes of Hendrix, Santana, Stevie Ray, Queen and Metallica. There are also programs that duplicate specific amps like "Fender Champ" and "Fender Princeton" (and they really do sound different). Another nice thing about this box is there's absolutely no lag time between program changes.

I can't say enough good things about the SansAmp or the job Tech 21 has done in giving us guitar players fewer sleepless nights. They've even got several floor-standing "stomp boxes" in their line, including the SansAmp Classic, GT2 and Bass Driver DI, each of which combine ground-breaking Tech 21 amp emulation in portable, affordable packages.

Now, having said all this nice stuff about the SansAmp, in fairness I should say that it was designed to do one thing well: amp simulation. I feel it's incumbent upon me to mention that there are several other amp simulators/guitar preamps on the market, some of which include superb digital effects like reverb and chorusing. Example: two excellent units from DigiTech, the Valve FX and GSP-2101 Guitar Preamp/Processor.

Both of these outstanding modules incorporate real 12AX7 tubes in their circuitry to provide the kind of warmth and smooth distortion characteristic of vacuum tubes. And both include the amazing effects Digitech has become famous for. Powered by their proprietary S-DISC technology, both units offer far more effects than I can possibly list in the little space that's left on this page — great stuff like clean multi-reverbs, lush chorusing, phaser, pitch shifting and unique, built-in "whammy" effects. Both also come standard with switchable cabinet emulation circuitry, which is very cool. The GSP-2101 also includes noise reduction, auto wah and even a sampling module!

I haven't had as much time to work with the Digitech modules as I have with the SansAmp. I can say from my limited experience that if you want a programmable guitar preamp and multieffects processor all rolled into one, you just plain can't go wrong with either of these two units.

As to what has the best sound — the SansAmps or Digitechs — well, I can only say that everyone's tastes vary. Sweetwater's resident Grammy-winner, Mitch Gallagher, happens to really love the GSP-2101. Picking an amp simulator is like picking an amp. Me, I'm a Fender amp kinda guy. Others won't use anything but a Marshall or a Mesa/Boogie or a Vox. I've always felt that the looks of a particular amp had as much to do with the perceived sound as anything else.

So only you can be the judge of which of these modules is right for you. They all sound terrific and do the job. And by the time you read this, there are sure to be other units available (like the A.R.T. SGX 2000 Express which I haven't had the opportunity to audition as yet, but you can read more about it on page 6). So, for more detailed information and personalized assistance in choosing exactly the right unit for your needs, my advice (as usual) is to call your Sweetwater Sound sales engineer today.

See you next issue!