There was a time when virtual guitars and bass amps were only used for demos. These days, there’s probably more virtual guitar and bass on mainstream radio than live instrumentation. Although some producers still love to record guitar and bass amps, it’s much easier to do it through amp models. So, this begs the question, can plugin guitar and bass amp models replace real amps – to answer’s not surprising.
In the studio, they already have. There are certain kinds of music where the performers may insist on using real guitar and bass amps, and recording through a microphone going into the board. Rock bands, acoustic acts, and more live instrumentation-driven music may prefer this method. Then, there are others who will insist on plugging directly in and using an amp model to achieve their desired sound.
In music like hip hop where there’s an eclectic mix of sounds that need to feature in the mix, a guitar or bass is only one of several sounds which need to fit. Therefore, to have more control over the sound of a guitar or bass, musicians must plug in. That way, you get a purer signal and then, applying a guitar amp model or bass amp model over that, a lot of producers will say won’t get you a sound any different from if it was recorded through a microphone.
Now, add to this the portability of music and the ease of recording music direct in a laptop or computer. No one is going to lug around a big amplifier just to record a guitar part or bass part. They’re either going to plug in directly or choose to use a virtual instrument to duplicate the sound, which is especially effective if it’s a bass part. As the algorithms have changed, amp and effects processors sound better than they’ve ever been. There’s almost no incentive to use a real amp, unless it’s to capture a live performance on the floor or on-stage.
Will plugin guitar and bass amp models replace real amps on-stage – well, here’s a more difficult question. The only guitars and basses being played in contemporary live music scenes rely predominantly on chemistry among musicians, either in rock, blues, jazz, country, or whatever the case. In some styles played live, real amps sound better. It’s why Beyonce still frequently will use a band live to back her up despite the fact that she could perform all of her music to a backing track and it would make her audience just as happy.
In the studio though, the war has pretty much been won and it’s in favor of amp models. In the same way, no one is lugging around analog EQs, reverbs, and filters, you don’t need a real amp to craft a hit song. Technology has progressed to the point where you can have an entire acoustic drum kit installed in your workstation, craft a bass line by inputting it through your keyboard, and plug in the guitar direct to cover some of those mid-frequencies. It’s easier to create a song using a two-input audio interface than it is to set up an amp and work tireless to achieve the sound you want.