Plugin Alliance is a relatively new kid on the block when it comes to developing plug-ins. Don’t let that stop you. Have a look at Alex Richardson’s review of Plugin Alliance’s BIG4 Guns bundle in Audio Technology Issue 87 (May 2012) and you’ll discover that being newcomers doesn’t mean they’re starting out by thinking small. Plugin Alliance offers only high-end effects that emulate serious, world-class studio hardware and Alex was well-impressed with the results.
So I was expecting similar, big things from Plugin Alliance’s foray into the guitar amp simulator scene and straight away, you have to admire the attitude behind the Brainworx bx_rockrack (let’s just stick with Rockrack from here, okay?). Plugin Alliance isn’t interested in offering you countless simulations of real-world guitar rigs. It’s all about giving you the tools to create exactly the guitar sound you need, based on the concept that most professional engineers and producers rely on a core collection of preferred rigs, too. There are five basic models to choose from, the Clean 530, Clean 800, Crunch 800, Modern Rock and finally Metal, all the models each having a small choice of microphone types, positions and cabinets to mix-and-match. Your own combinations can be saved as presets. Doing the math it still provides plenty of variety and versatility–but it’s a far cry from the long lists of guitar rig royalty that other plug-ins offer.
Neither does Rackrack give you a spread of gaily-coloured stompboxes to play with. Only a delay effect that, at least, has a Lo-Fi parameter that acts more like a high-pass filter to simulate the classic delays that did tend to smother the top end. Effects like reverb, chorus and the other usual suspects you’re going to have to dial in with your DAW. Considering that Rockrack can’t be run in stand-alone mode–it has to have a DAW host–PA is probably right in not cluttering the Rockrack GUI with effects you’ll already have aplenty.
By now, you’ll be having your doubts. It’s a bit thin on features? This plug-in better sound pretty good…
The verdict is that Rockrack can sound excellent, but you need to work at it–and that’s not a bad thing. You can’t simply plug your guitar in, select a “Rock God” model and blow your band mates away–although the factory model settings are cool. And this is exactly what Plugin Alliance wants you to do; tailor your own sounds and create something unique for yourself. Start tweaking and you discover that the clean sounds are only tame until you crank the gain up a little more and get some nice bite. The Modern Rock model has a smooth distortion sound that can really grunge without sounding like a chainsaw cutting sheet metal. Talking of metal, the Metal amp model isn’t too over the top. It’s usable in many hard rocking tunes rather than being reserved for manic-depressive Emo recordings.
There was one issue I had with the higher gain, distorted amp models and also on the “Crunch” switch you get on the Clean 530. The actual distorted volume levels are too attenuated compared to cleaner sounds. This shouldn’t be too much of problem with your DAW mix providing solutions, except that Rockrock does give you four (A,B,C & D) sub-presets to assign for each amp preset and there’s nothing to stop you creating four entirely different amps with each one. Which means for example, with this attenuation problem, if you to use the Clean 530 on “A” and the Modern Rock on “B” you’re going to struggle getting the distorted sound loud enough (believe it or not) without applying some kind of mix automation in your DAW. This same hassle made it difficult to set up a mild, tube screamer kind of sound. With lower gain keeping the distortion level to something that didn’t alarm the neighbours I was running out of noise. The volume knob needed a 12!
The Rockrack has a few extra settings you wouldn’t normally find on any guitar amplifier such a Smooth setting, which is separate high and low band-pass filters, a Shred setting that fattens up your sound… it’s a proprietary effect and you’ll need to experiment–but it works–plus Plugin Alliance have put a lot of work into an extensive Noise Gate. At first glance you’ll think it’s a compressor, but no–it’s a full-featured Noise Gate and there is no compressor.
This is also something of a disappointment. While I can understand that including a compressor would have moved further away from presenting a faithful guitar amplifier model, compressors are such an integral part of modern guitar sounds it would be great for Plugin Alliance to apply its talents to providing a custom compressor to suit Rockrack, rather than rely on a third-party comp in your DAW inserted before Rockrack.
But don’t be too put off by this. The strengths of Rockrack lie in its authentic sounds and the quality of those sounds. Plugin Alliance has chosen well in the models it’s included and you can hear the painstaking process employed in capturing the models. The simplicity of the Rockrack is a bonus, too. It’s a nice change not to feel somehow obligated to program something recognisable as a Fender, Marshall or whatever. Just dial up a preset you want–and quickly, too.
It’s a serious amplifier simulator for serious players and you’re kind of expected to know what you way around a guitar rig to get the best out of Rockrack. That’s okay, a lot of players are going to like that. And a lot of players are going to like how it sounds.
Price is US$199.00 directly from the Plugin Alliance website at www.plugin-alliance.com and 14 day demos are available for most of its products. There are a couple of tasty freebies, too.