By Jake Behr –
Review of: Atomic AmpliFire
Reviewed by: Jake BehrRating:4.5On December 4, 2016Last modified:May 13, 2017
At some point in our musical journey, we have to make a critical financial sacrifice to reach that elusive next plateau of tone that no simple effects pedal can help us reach. I’m talking, of course, about that special time when we have to upgrade the bigger, more static parts of our rig. Some of us blow our cash on the shiny Tele or Strat or even the Les Paul for the sake of aesthetics and playability, but the savvy guitarist knows that his or her amplifier plays as instrumental a role in producing their tone as their, er, instrument, and should probably be the first thing you consider upgrading. Even so, the most knowledgeable musician may struggle with which amp to pick when there are literally hundreds of great options to choose from, ranging from gritty tube amps to super clean solid states, and while the consensus tells us to err with our ear, our tone dreams are limited by the characteristics of that choice in amp. To cross the threshold of flexibility one begins entering into cost-prohibitive territory, and while we all lust after that sexy boutique half stack, the oft-four-digit price tag will have you looking at the cheaper options like rare, tolex-wrapped steak.
“But what about amp modelers?” ask primarily people from the future. “Why not those?” Whoa buddy, cool your jet-car.
The thought of simulating the sound and nuance of a real-world amp using artificial means likely makes the purists out there feel a sense of existential dread, and I have to admit, it terrified me for a long time, too. My philosophy was, if it didn’t glow a burnt orange and change noticeably in tone every time I moved it out of my practice space, I didn’t trust it. Despite my shroud of ignorance, my work at Best Guitar Effects has helped me build a real appreciation for things like MIDI and Digital Processing and lightbulbs. You know, the Devil’s work. The fact is that the world has moved on from the Luddite, tube-or-die ways of the past. In most cases, that mindset is just elitist dogma, anyway. Music technology has reached a shiny new standard through painstaking experimentation, the fruit of which must be shared with the world at large.
You’ve probably heard of Atomic Amps somewhere. Maybe you saw their logo out of the corner of your eye at an Animals as Leaders show, maybe your sound engineer buddy was hyped about this new pedal in the Atomic family featuring Studio Devil’s DSP, or maybe you already run a CLR monitor to get a super clean frequency response from your Axe FX. One way or another Atomic has fought their way from the back of all our minds to the forefront, boasting a well-earned Pantheon of elite artists in their roster. Their super sparse lineup of products implies that they are committed to making the absolute best and extremely specific products designed for not just the discerning guitarist, but the dedicated guitarist. Atomic’s ability to present third-party offerings that compete with or complement industry paragons is refreshing, to say the least.
Today I hope to offer you a glance into a collaborative piece developed by Atomic and Studio Devil, a white hot iceberg of an amp sim and multi-effects pedal: The AmpliFire. While this pedal has been out for some time, Atomic frequently updates the firmware, making community-driven improvements on the already potent framework in place. We’re on Version 4.0 currently, and I urge those of you who’ve played with it in the past but haven’t committed to take another look; Atomic might have added the functionality or tone it was missing the first time you picked it up.
- All new, state-of-the-art amp modeling based on Studio Devil’s highly acclaimed and patented technology
- Blazing dual-DSP powered hardware allowing for complex and detailed algorithms
- Stereo 1024 point cabinet impulses with ability to upload 3rd party IRs
- Robust effects selection including drive, modulation, delay, reverb, compression, eq, gate, etc.
- Dedicated, physical amp control knobs for intuitive tone adjustments
- Pristine studio quality audio and ultra low noise floor
- Versatile i/o options including 1⁄4” Hi Z input with proprietary processing, separate stereo 1⁄4” and XLR outputs and user programmable effects loop
- 3 fully configurable and rugged foot switches
- Robust external control of presets & parameters via MIDI and foot switch jacks
- PC/Mac editor
- 128 programmable presets
- Field upgradeable firmware
Sound & Performance:
The box the AmpliFire arrived in was so light, I thought that I had been sent socks as a prank. Come to think of it, socks might have been heavier. Removing it from its cradle, I was surprised by how lightweight and sturdy the AmpliFire felt, considering how massive a footprint it’s burdened with; a cumbersome “x” berth. The candy apple finish over brushed aluminum gives a very aggressive muscle-car sort of vibe, amplified by the spicy Atomic and Studio Devil logos emblazoned front and center. The wide front panel bears three programmable foot-switches, 7 sturdy amp parameter knobs as well as an Encoder/Preset knob for browsing and selecting presets, two arrow buttons, and a preset save button. The (unfortunately) tiny screen glows tube-orange, and fits twelve characters horizontally and two vertically. On the back panel is a cadre of ins and outs, including Stereo returns that double as expression inputs, balanced XLR outs for monitoring, MIDI In/Thru, and a USB port for the AmpliFire editor. Finally, the right side panel has a sole input and the left side panel features stereo outs and a headphone out for silent playing: my wife was very pleased with this bit. Without even plugging in I know that I’m in for a radioactive thrashing.
Oh, and Atomic also sent a fireball candy with the AmpliFire. Well played, guys.
The three foot-swtiches can all be reassigned to any effect/loop, recall and browse presets, or to function as a tap tempo. I was also delighted to learn when the Amplifier arrived that the effects loop returns could be repurposed as expression controls for any parameter on the AmpliFire (WHAT!) but was a little disappointed that I couldn’t program the mono return to receive signal from a pedal and the other to serve as an expression control. It serves perfectly well as a regular ‘ol stereo effects loop though, and makes integration into your pre-existing rig a no-brainer. Any mono effect will be split into dual-mono when it reaches the loop, but I encourage you to put your best stereo effects here. I’m really fond of using an all-wet reverb in stereo and chopping it up with the AmpliFire’s hard-panned tremolo. This block also includes the option to mute just the send when the loop is switched off, allowing the effect in the loop to decay to its logical conclusion, as opposed to being cut off by a muted return.
At the moment I’m writing this, there are 21 amplifier models, cleverly alluding to and inspired by some of the best amps in the industry. The models range from standard Marshalls to boutique Cornfords and Soldanos, and while I haven’t played with all of the physical amps being simulated, I can say with confidence that those I have played or heard in the past are faithfully recreated here, down to the way they sizzle at the end of a sustained note. Corresponding cabinet impulse responses are automatically matched to each amp, but you can swap out these for other stock cabs or third party impulse responses; this feature may be vital for those of you who already use, say, RedWirez impulse responses in the studio and don’t want to give up that tone in a live scenario. You can also set the cabinet outputs to Aux or Mains only, meaning that if you’re using your cab on stage as a backwash and using a DI for front of house, your cab won’t sound like there’s another cab trying to cram through it, and the signal going to the FOH won’t lack the color inherent in your choice of cabinet response.
On the digital front, the AmpliFire Editor for PC & Mac is a beautifully crafted utilitarian program that relies on the user’s technical knowledge or eagerness for blind experimentation to craft tones from scratch. Each stage of the signal is presented to the user in a “block,” a submenu with specific parameters to tweak for that amp, EQ or effect. In all 19 blocks in the chain parameters are presented as virtual trim pots, appropriately giving the editor more the feel of studio software than an ancillary feature for a piece of analog gear. That said, the sheer quantity of tweakable parameters, while admirably massive, is kind of daunting when presented in a series of menus to dive or trim pots to drag. I don’t mean the time spent learning the format and perfecting your tone isn’t worth it, just that there’s more of it. My advice is to use a loop pedal to capture your riff and tweak in realtime as you’re making presets, and even then, know that you’ll be in it for the long haul. Any number of the presets can be edited, filled and recalled from the pedal, albeit painfully; the encoder knob is the sole means to browse the presets from the pedal itself without relinquishing a foot-switch, making it a chore to navigate the menus. Beyond that you’ll need a MID controller to access the presets on the fly.
Enough minutiae! Let’s get to the tone. Picking the low-hanging fruit, I spent my first night with the AmpliFire making a shamelessly djenty, gain-laden rhythm tone from the 5051 voicing which I shamelessly named “Djake.” The 3 parametric EQ blocks offer studio-grade tone sculpting, making a boost at 14kHz as easy as typing it into the editor. This function requires some degree of mixing knowledge, as with most of the features in the Editor, there isn’t any real visual indication as to what you’re actually doing when you play with the parameters; without an understanding of EQ, you just have to trust your ear. It would be nice to see an actual EQ grid in the editor, but I can’t begin to grasp what would go into programming that, and what is there is perfectly functional.
Next, I played with the exponentially cleaner D’luxe, which sounds d’vine. This one is based on the Fender Deluxe Reverb and she rings with every bit of chime and luster as her benefactor. I pumped the sparkle with a bit of the onboard clean boost, added a bit of the Spring 2 reverb and slow tremolo for ambience, and I was in spaghetti western heaven. The D’Luxe sim takes effects very well, making it an excellent base amp for musicians with massive pedalboards to craft tones on.
With all this talk of amp simulation, I also want to discuss the effects briefly to give you a good idea of how flexible the AmpliFire is in the effects department.
Like most of the effects you’ll find on the AmpliFire, the Wah’s parameter bank is exhaustive compared to any physical wah on the market today. Armed with the benefit of choosing the exact place in the EQ the filter sits, auto-off feature, and lowpass/bandpass variants, the Wah encompasses everything you could possibly want in a Wah. More recently, Atomic added Touch Wah and LFO Wah modes: The Touch Wah is a note-sensitive AutoWah that reacts to the volume of your notes and filters it that way, and the LFO Wah is a super-flexible envelope filter you can use to dial in some pretty gnarly synth tones. These voices free up the effects loop for use by reacting to the amplitude of your signal, rather than requiring input from an external expression pedal. Strangely enough, Atomic chose to lock the wah in one place in the chain, making it impossible to use it as a filter over say, the fuzz. There’s always the (admittedly limited) option of setting the Parametric EQ to a Bandpass boost and programming an expression pedal to control its placement in the mix. Seems to me like a missed opportunity, but there’s always the potential for future firmware updates.
Hold up. A volume pedal isn’t really an effect, right? Is there really anything we need to discuss about a volume pedal when there’s so many effects in the AmpliFire already? Actually, yes. Atomic cleverly added an automatic swell mode to the block in the latest firmware update, meaning, like its Wah cousin, the Volume block no longer asks us to relinquish an effects loop to serve a purpose. I did notice the first time I played with it that it took a fair degree of work to get a consistent swell; if the “Sense” parameter wasn’t perfectly attuned to the mean amplitude, the swell tended to hiccup, resetting the effect in the middle of a sustained note. I moved on from and came back to this effect in the process of writing this review and haven’t encountered it again, so I’d just as soon chalk it up to a short-lived bug or something I was doing wrong.
The overdrive block is very utilitarian, offering only the essential components of overdrive. The current firmware includes Overdrive, Screamer, Distortion, Clean Boost and Fuzz voicings. Each features classic three-knob configuration, so you’re familiar with the sort of tones you’ll get out of these. Frankly, there’s not much more you could ask for, considering the myriad EQ’ing options made available to you right out of the gate, but you wouldn’t be a glutton for pining for a little more variety; germanium/silicon-style clipping or maybe a more modern voice would replace a pedal on most peoples’ ‘boards right now, I’ll bet. In my playing, I kept finding myself drawn back to the clean boost, pushing the front of the amps to see what sort of gain I could get without coloring my guitar tone.
This chorus block adds 1 to 4 voices to your signal, with controls for high-cut, low-cut, speed, depth, delay and wave shape. Each voice also has a sub-menu which includes trim pots for panning, phase and mix. At the more intense, wobbly side of chorus, the AmpliFire pulls off that classic, churning modulated tone we all know and aren’t sure how to feel about. With almost everything dialed back to its least extreme and all four voices active and panned in equal intervals from left to right, you can wield a mighty quadrupled sound, as if there were four guitars playing the same part. This is great for those heavier parts when a colored overdrive will just mud up your otherwise tight mix.
Fans of Through-Zero, Rejoice! The flanger block encapsulates the spirit of the effect and dissected each possible piece for our entertainment. Rather than a sweeping knob that ranges from negative feedback to positive feedback, Atomic chose to simply offer an “Invert FB” toggle that turns your lasery signal inside out, and an “Invert Mix” toggle to invert the phase of the wet signal without changing the nature of the feedback.
Ah, good ol’ phaser. Musicians both contemporary and avant garde have used the effect to evoke weird, bubbly sensations for decades, but somehow a tasteful phaser never gets old. Atomic has included a generous helping of 2 to 12 stage phasing and supplied us with the means to go deeper into this effect than any dedicated phaser on the market (are you seeing the trend, here?)
I had a lot of fun playing with this one. The tremolo features basic depth and speed controls as well as a width control for panning, but beyond the traditional trem vibe everyone uses, there are Phase, Taper, Wave and Duty controls, the latter two of which I think deserve a bit of explanation. The Wave parameter is a slider that converts the waveform of the modulation from Sine to Triangle to Sawtooth to Square wave. This yields a range of flavors, as you might imagine, creating at its outermost reaches a smooth fade in and out of silence or jagged holes where bits of your signal were. The Duty “knob” refers to the duty cycle of the signal, which, rudimentarily explained, is the area in the LFO waveform the modulation is taking place. Think of it in terms of Attack, Sustain, Decay and Release, affectionately abbreviated to ASDR by all: the earlier in the waveform the duty cycle takes place, the more Attack you’ll hear, and so on until you’ve reached the end of the waveform, or the Release, where all of the signal should be audible.
The Tremolo, Phaser and Flanger blocks all have slightly different Wave and Duty knobs, which means with a little bit of elbow grease they all can garner modulations you never realized you wanted. Tweaker heaven. I would have liked to have seen the modulation blocks slave to the global BPM, but some musicians have a knack for using contrasting off tempos to their musical advantage, so even imperfectly synced modulations washing over one another have overwhelming potential to inspire.
As a fan of reverb, I have a tendency to overdo it. In the case of the AmpliFire’s Reverb, I found it tough to do that in the “weird Blade Runner soundtrack” sort of way, but still put more than a fair amount of reverb on all of the presets I made, as the spaces this block has to offer are truly immaculate. The voicings in this block are classic space simulations (Small, Medium, Large,) and two spring voices, one simulating a classic spring tank and the other simulating a Deluxe Reverb. Nothing really stood out to me as far as experimental tones go, but if you’re looking for clean, studio-grade stereo reverb with all the fixings, you can’t go wrong.
At this point, AmpliFire owners have been bestowed WAY more than their money’s worth in beautifully rendered amp simulations, effects, studio tools, and MIDI. But now we come to the delay, which may be as close to icing on a cake as a piece of code inside a metal box can come. Here we have a truly protean delay algorithm, with bucket-brigade options and up to four perfectly synced repeat nodes in serial, parallel or 4-tap. There are two sliders that correspond to the depth and speed of a flutter effect, which, for the uninitiated, is the sound of time being bent into unnatural contortions via variations in delay time. If you also love increasingly thin and gritty repeats then the AmpliFire has you covered there too, with low and high-pass filters as well as a Drive (formerly “Grit”) and a Bitrate parameter to add distorted dirt to your repeats. Five voicings with the option for ping-pong repeats and the delay block is a fine replacement for almost any delay on your board. You’ll need to make room anyway. My only concern with this block is the inability to dedicate each node to a different delay type; it would be really nice to hear a short digital feeding into that dark tape, feeding into the soft digital, and so forth.
The Atomic AmpliFire is undeniably the least back/bank-breaking way to get incredibly realistic amp tones on your pedalboard and also shines just as brilliantly among its multi-effects peers as an all-in-one workstation. As far as offering high-quality amp sims and effects, it gives you more than you’ll know what to do with. The stereo effects loop and MIDI functionality makes the AmpliFire less of a puzzle piece on your pedalboard and more the table underneath the whole puzzle. All things considered, I stand by the gripes I’ve made here; the amount of work that went into fine-tuning each effect was a bit of a turn-off, making it fall back to its stellar amp sims as its strongest selling point. On the other hand, you’ll never beat the immaculate tones this thing can pull off compared to anything in its price range. If you can stomach the ubiquitous sliders, the editor is as deep and the tones as glorious as you’ll find in the industry today. And we’ve only just scratched the surface in this review! There’s something awe-inspiring about cramming any combination of amps and effects into a pedal, no matter how large, without relinquishing tone. Furthermore, the prospect of Atomic’s commitment to updating and improving the AmpliFire as time goes on and the improvements they’ve made so far is enough for me to say: she’s a keeper. Professionals who’ve already got it all should consider the AmpliFire for the raw tone; younger musicians who’ve just reached a home studio level should consider it to maintain a consistency from their recordings to their live set. And again, the raw tone. I’m starting to get buzzwordy, but I promise: if you should choose to trust the AmpliFire, the only sacrifices you’ll be making will be to the Dark Lord of Tone.
That concludes our Atomic AmpliFire review. Thanks for reading!
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