Updated on 02.15.2021
A Guide to the Best Amp Modeling Pedals and Cab Simulators in 2021
Once upon a time, most electric guitarists (i.e. those with a limited budget) had to pick an amplifier and a cabinet that would pretty much define their tone – until they got tired of it, and bought new gear. Settling on one amp/cab combo wasn’t easy, and generated a fair amount of anxiety.
Luckily for them, today’s six-stringers don’t need to face that conundrum, because technology has developed systems that allow them to carry dozens of amps and cabinet tones in a very small (stomp)box.
This is a guide to the best amp modeler pedals and cab simulators on the market, today. The article is focused on regular stompboxes, and doesn’t cover board-size multi-effect units nor tabletop devices.
Before we dive into the various offerings, a little bit of history is due…
A Brief History of Amp Simulation Devices
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Early Amp Emulation Pedals: Tech 21’s SansAmp
The first signs of in-the-box amp emulation can be found in the late ’80s: Tech 21 NYC in 1989 introduced their first groundbreaking (and fully analog) SansAmp pedal, which offered a DIP switch-based menu of 8 voicings replicating tones reminiscent of different classic amps and cabs that could be mixed and matched in any possible combinations. The pedal is extremely popular to this day, and was brought back into production in January 2021.
In the following decades, this stompbox approach to amp and cab simulation was bound to find a powerful ally in the fast-developing field of DSP technology applied to audio.
The Digital Game Changer: the Line 6 Pod
Line 6 in 1996 launched an audio plugin for Pro Tools called Amp Farm with dozens of (digital) emulations of amps and cabs. Soon after (in year 1998), the company debuted its first hardware product that embedded that software in a roundish red box called Pod. That day, the world could almost hear the jaws of the community of tone seekers drop in unison: that new effect was destined to widen the sonic palette of every single electric guitarist in the world (and, soon enough, of every bass player as well).
A new effect niche was born. In the following decades that technology evolved further in the direction of “modeling software” through Impulse Responses (IR), a system able to capture the sonic character of any existing amp and cab (including your own!).
Our Amp and Cab Modeler Pedal Categories
As usual, in our guides, we make an effort to organize the categories in ways that are useful to our readers. Here’s how we decided to lay out the content of this article, you can click on any of these titles to jump to the category’s list of pedals:
• Amp + Cab Modeler Pedals with Two Footswitches
• Amp + Cab Modelers with One or No Footswitch
• Multi-Mode, Full-Size Cab Modeling Pedals (No Amp)
• Mini Cab Modeling Pedals (No Amp)
• Single Mode Cab Emulators (No IR, No Amp)
• Stereo Amp/Cab Modelers
Amp + Cab Modeler Pedals with Two Footswitches
The devices in this list are all DSP powered (digital) and allow you to switch between presets right with your feet, thanks to their dual footswitches. They will all provide you with tonal options in both the amp and cab simulation realms. The more pricey ones also include third part IR compatibility, XLR out, headphones out, and, in some cases, dual outputs.
Amp + Cab Modeler Pedals with One or No Footswitch
If toggling between presets is not a priority for you, the pedals in this list are some excellent options in all price ranges. (Some still allow switching between preset through a separate switchboard). They all offer both amp and cab simulations, some through digital circuits, other through analog ones, while some employ hybrid circuits. A bunch of them feature an on/off footswitch, while many do not – at the end of the day, electric guitarists never need to bypass their amp and cabinet! The pricier ones include handy features like third part IR compatibility and XLR and headphone out.
Multi-Mode, Full-Size Cab Modeling Pedals (No Amp Simulation)
Considering that cabinets affect the tone a lot more heavily than amps and that many guitarists use overdrives that emulate amps, some of you may want to stick to pedals that only offer cab modeling options. If that’s the case, this is your list.
Multi-Mode Mini Cab Modelers (No Amp Emulation)
If size and budget are limited, and you only want a spectrum of cab sonic flavors, the tiny devices in the list might be just what the doctor ordered.
Single Mode Cab Emulators (No IR, No Amp Emulation)
The devices in this list provide cab emulation (no amp) without modeling technology: rather than emulating specific existing models, they provide the player with controls that allow to create original tones by experimenting with various settings affecting several sonic elements.
Stereo Amp/Cab Simulators Stereo Options
For the forward-thinking guitarists, we thought it would be handy to group together all the Stereo options from the previous lists!