Simulate This: Cakewalk FX2 Amp Sim and Tape Sim

PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on ProRec.com in March 1999, contributed by then Editor-in-Chief Rip Rowan. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!

FX2 is a DirectX package consisting of Amp Sim and Tape Sim. It is available from Cakewalk and will work in your DirectX-capable digital audio software. It is one of the latest in a sea of “warmth” simulators available in the digital audio world. Fortunately, this package holds its own and is not just another “me too” application.

FX2 Amp Simulator

Cakewalk FX2 Amp Simulator is a distortion processor and speaker simulator. It is designed to be used primarily on guitar tracks, but there are many interesting uses for it.

First off, guitar recording is my specialty. I love to capture guitar on tape. I guess it’s all those years of listening to bands like AC/DC. I just love the sound of blistering distorted guitars.

Secondly, I am NOT one of those people who will tell you there’s one “right” sound. There are millions of interesting distortion sounds you can get from different combinations of guitars, amps, tubes, speakers, microphones, and mic placements. In fact it’s the sheer variety of sounds achievable with such basic components that’s so fascinating to me. Each individual guitar is unique because of the particular construction of that unit. No two Les Paul Goldtops sound exactly the same. And each amplifier sounds unique, because of the unique mechanical characteristics of its tubes and speakers.

When it comes to “simulated” amps, I’m not easy to please. I’ve heard direct boxes and multiprocessors with distortion, and I have yet to be impressed. So I was pretty skeptical when I was asked to review the FX2 Amp Sim package from Cakewalk. “Cakewalk, huh. What do these guys know about distortion?”

Apparently someone up there knows something. FX2 Amp Sim is a musically valid and exciting-sounding piece of software for any engineer or guitarist. It can produce great sounding guitars from dry tracks, it can dirty up clean guitars, or add an extra edge or filter to existing guitars. It is also excellent to use on vocals, organs, electric piano, and pretty much anything that needs a little extra grit.

FX2 Amp Sim begins with several basic distortion simulations. These simulate the distortion sounds from different tubes and tube configurations found in different classic amps like Marshall, Fender, and Vox. These have been given generic names like “American Rhythm” and “British Crunch.” I guess they were worried about lawsuits from Fender and Marshall. Suffice to say that the generic names are very descriptive of the kinds of distortion you’ll produce.

Each distortion option uses a different algorithm that simulates the kind of distortion you’d expect to hear from that class of amp. For example, “British Crunch” has a classic “shattered glass” sound, “American Rhythm” has a characteristic smooth brightness, and “American Lead” has a familiar honk and edge to it.

Now for the classic front panel controls. FX2 includes controls for Gain, Bass, Mid, Treble, Presence, and Output Volume. The gain slider is used to increase the effect from no distortion to full blast. The three tone controls (Bass, Mid, Treble) operate as boost or cut controls with about 10 db of gain or cut available. The presence slider is an upper-mid boost found on many classic tube amps. The output volume can be used to boost or cut the signal out of the processor.

Now we move to the speaker cabinet options. You may select from 1, 2, or 4 speaker cabinets with 10 or 12 inch speakers. Each cab produces the kinds of sounds you’d expect. The 1×10 and 1×12 sims have the sound of small combo amps, the 2×10 and 2x12s produce the slighter larger sound of a large combo amp, the 4×10 sim has the classic sound of a Fender Bandmaster (more honk), and the 4×12 has the classic sound of a Marshall stack (more everything). Each one has its own unique sound and together with the different distortion flavors a host of distortion combinations can be produced.

Finally a few tweaking options. Each amp has a “Bright” switch, this adds some top end and is similar to the bright switch found on Vox amps. Each speaker cabinet has options for on- or off-axis miking. On-axis miking will have the full top end present, while off-axis miking is warmer and less harsh. There is also an “open back” option that adds a little high-end and loses a little volume and midbass, characteristic of open back amps.

Finally, a tremolo is provided. This is a cool tremolo which can be used in stereo or mono. Options are provided for depth and rate, as well as a cool Bias feature that allows you to dial in a “cut” tremolo (tremolo cuts volume) or a “boost” tremolo (tremolo boosts volume) or somewhere in the middle. I tend to go for the dramatic, full-cut tremolo.

Of course, useful presets are available which can be used to specify distortion flavor, cabinet type, and other parameters. I find myself using the presets and tweaking from there (ok, pick a Marshall stack, roll off the bass, and move the mic off-axis).

So that’s what it does. How does it sound?

The fact is: it sounds great. No processor is a substitute for a good-sounding guitar rig and I won’t pretend that it is. However, I have used this processor intensively and can guarantee that it will get frequent use.

Here are a few applications where this processor really shines:

Scratch tracks. Often, we’ll be kicking around song ideas and want to capture an arrangement while it’s fresh. We’re just writing and arranging, so we don’t want to kill time (or our ears) setting up and miking an amp. Instead we’ll just plug into the board and rip out the chords. As long as the performance is decent, sometimes we’ll find that by running the track through FX2, we get a “keeper” take. To be sure, the sounds FX2 produces are capable of standing up in any mix.

Touch-up at mixdown. How many times have I gotten a song ready to mix and wished that I could just add a little extra grunge? A rhythm track recorded on a small rhythm amp needs a little more “bite”. A solo is just not quite edgy enough. This is a great FX2 application. You can dial in a little more gain. Another great application I getting a different sound altogether. Perhaps the distorted lead guitar is too thick. FX2 is often preferable to EQ because it can change the character of the distortion altogether.

Special FX. This is a great plugin to use on those keyboards that are too digital, too glittery. Take an organ setting and pump it through this baby for an organ with bite. Or an electric piano. FX2 can make a digital keyboard sound really vintage. And don’t forget other cool applications: drum loops, filtered vocals, and bass guitar. FX2 can really “amp up” a bass guitar recorded direct.

I did a few A/B tests with some interesting results.

I happen to work with some real guitar nuts. I have access to a host of vintage and pseudovintage gear, such as a classic 4×10 Fender Bassman combo with Jensen speakers, a Matchless 2×12 combo, a Top Hat Vibrotrem, a Mesa dual-rectifier head with Ampeg 2×12 cabs, Trace Eliot Velocette Twin, and of course a Fender Pro Junior “little practice amp.” I have recorded these amps ad nauseum. I took the liberty of A/Bing some dry guitars through the Amp Sim with some close-miked tracks of some of the above tracks. Although the tracks don’t sounds the same, the Amp Sim sounds are definitely in the same ballpark with the real thing, and in some cases, the Amp Sim track actually has a better place in the mix than the real thing.

There are a few shortcomings in this package. First and foremost, I know that Marshalls don’t have output meters, but in digital audio, you need meters. This thing can crank out a lot of gain, and it can get difficult to tell if you’re clipping your DAWs mixer.

I’d also like to have a few more mic options. If would be cool to select a few mic types, like a 57 (the standard for cabs), a 421 (for more highs and lows), and a D1000 (for a more filtered effect). It would be cool as well to be able to move the mic closer (for more proximity effect) and further away (to roll off the highs and lows).

Also, you are only capable of getting a dry sound. Of course, if you play in live clubs, you know the difficulty of getting onto tape the space-filling roar of live electrics cranked up in a club. Cakewalk FX3 (reviewed in another article) is a room simulator that, when paired with FX2, offers the most hair-raising simulations of live guitars you can get from dry clean guitar signals.

In the end, I doubt that any digital effect will replace a miked guitar cabinet. However, if you are looking for a great distortion processor to spice up your sound – and to add more flexibility at mixdown – FX2 Amp Simulator is a first-rate plugin.

FX2 Tape Simulator

FX2 Tape Simulator is designed to simulate the EQ and compression effects available on analog tape. It is a simple and subtle plugin that can be used to “warm up” digital tracks.

There are only a few controls to be found on FX2 Tape Simulator: tape speed, EQ curve, Input Gain, Record Level, Warmth, Hiss, and Output. An LF boost switch is available with the EQ options.

The keys to the Tape Sim sound are found in the Tape Speed, Record Level, and Warmth. Tape Speed controls the “speed” of the sim, from 7.5 ips to 30 ips. Varying this control will vary the frequency response of the tape, the timbre of the hiss, and the graininess of the distortion. Record Level and Warmth work together to generate the distortion / compression effect. Warmth controls the transfer function. The higher it is set, the greater the distortion effect when the Record Level is turned up. Hiss adds tape hiss and I can’t for the life of me understand why you need this. If you want hiss, go get that old Portastudio out of the garage.

There’s not a lot to say about this plugin other than it works fairly well. It adds a little EQ coloration from the EQ curve and LF boost settings. Depending on the tape speed and bias, you’ll get variations of thickness and roundness. Depending on the record level, you’ll impart varying amounts of tape limiting.

I like using this effect on certain recordings. In particular, electric guitars, snare drums, and bass guitar can benefit from the limiting effect. In its most extreme settings the coloration can get pretty audible, and this is a natural setting for drum loops. It could also be used on an entire mix as a mastering effect, if that’s the sound you’re going for.

Unfortunately the effect is, well, just too harsh and grainy for many applications. I’ve done a bit of recording on 2″ tape at +9 and in my opinion the distortion is softer, warmer and less buzzy. Compared to other tape limiting simulators, FX2 Tape Sim produces more distortion and less limiting. However, Tape Sim is a unique and interesting process, and I find useful applications for it.

Conclusion

FX2 Amp Sim / Tape Sim is a great package. FX2 Amp Sim is easily worth the price of admission to the FX2 world. Think of Tape Sim as a bonus plugin. Treat your ears to this package and get ready for some new punch and bite in your rock mixes.

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