Perhaps you don’t want to disturb your neighbors while you are practicing guitar, or maybe you can’t fit a bulky guitar amplifier in a small space. Whatever the reason, having an alternative way to play your guitar without an amp is very helpful.
One device that has probably crossed your mind as an alternative to an amp is the audio interface. However, is the audio interface a good alternative? Can an audio interface replace an amp?
An audio interface in itself cannot completely replace an amp. That’s because amps give a unique tone to a sound in a way audio interfaces alone cannot emulate. To replace an amp with an audio interface, you need an audio interface, a computer, a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), and an amp simulator plugin.
I’ll walk you through the step-by-step guide on how to replace your amp with an audio interface and the pros and cons of this setup later in the article. For now, let’s look at some key differences between an amp and an audio interface and answer a few questions that might be helpful.
Is an audio interface an amp?
Short answer, no. An audio interface and an amp are two totally different gears. Let me briefly explain the difference.
An audio interface is a versatile and multipurpose device used primarily to record and playback audio from a computer. It has audio inputs that accept audio signals from microphones and music equipment such as guitar, bass, digital pianos, etc.
The received audio signals from the inputs are processed through the audio interface’s built-in analog-to-digital converter (ADC). After processing, they are converted into digital audio signals, packaged, and sent to a computer.
Audio interfaces also have audio outputs that can send audio from a computer to a pair of speakers or headphones. There are Digital-to-Analog converters (DAC) built-in audio interfaces as well, which receive digital audio signals from computers, convert it into an analog audio signal, and send it out through the audio outputs.
There are brand-specific features such as direct monitoring and more in some audio interfaces. However, this is the primary function of an audio interface, and every interface out there can do this.
What about amplifiers? What do they do?
An audio amplifier (or power amp) is a device that makes weak analog audio signals strong enough for further processing or to drive it through loudspeakers.
Two of the most popular amps are the bass and guitar amp. These amps run audio signals through two stages of amplification.
The audio signal from the instrument is first processed through a preamp. This boosts the signal from a weak instrument-level signal to a line-level signal. The line-level signal is further amplified by a power amp, which boosts the signal from a line-level into a speaker level signal.
Speaker level signals are very loud audio signals meant to be played through loudspeakers or PA systems.
Although there are unique features that enable you to “color” your sound on some amps, this is primarily what it does.
Can I Use an Audio Interface as Amp?
Some audio interfaces have a feature called direct monitoring. This feature allows you to listen to the audio interface’s input signal in real-time through headphones or speakers. This means you can plug a guitar or bass directly in the audio interface, play, and listen to it directly from the audio interface, just like a mixer or an amp.
So, yes. If your audio interface has a direct monitoring feature, you can use it as an amp by plugging in a speaker or headphones.
Fortunately, one of the best-selling audio interfaces of all time, the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 Audio Interface(on Amazon), has direct monitoring. For someone who simply wants to practice guitar or bass and listen through headphones or studio monitors, this is the option to go for. It’s one of the most sought after audio interfaces because it’s cheap and gets the job done for many professional musicians as well as hobbyists.
But here is the caveat. Musicians love amps because of the tonal possibilities they get with it. Playing a guitar or bass through an amp gives it a unique tone you wouldn’t get when you are playing through an audio interface.
In fact, there are hundreds of amps out there, but they all get their fair share in amp sales because every amp sounds different. Every amp sounds different because of the electronics and circuitry in the amp itself, as well as the choice of speakers used for the cabinet.
Some amps have built-in effects, which gives you even more ways to alter the sound. At the very least, on a decent guitar amp, you will find the drive channel, which gives the guitar an overdriven tone, and it sounds so good. You won’t achieve such uniqueness with an audio interface, which is why you can’t completely replace an amp with only an audio interface.
However, due to technological advancements, it’s now possible to emulate the sound of guitar amps with software. And that is what we’ll talk about in the next section.
How to Replace Amp with Audio Interface
If you are really keen on replacing an amp with an audio interface, it will require extra gear and software, and I will walk you through step-by-step all you need. So let’s get into it.
Here are the things you need.
- Audio interface (no brainer)
- Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
- Amp Simulator Plugin
Here are the four main components you need to mimic a real amp.
1. Audio Interface
Of course, the audio interface is the first gear to consider. You need an audio interface with ultra-low latency. This is extremely important.
If you don’t know what latency is, it refers to how long it takes for an audio signal to be processed and played back. A low latency audio interface will be able to send and receive audio signals to and from the computer fast and play it back in milliseconds.
When the latency is good, you won’t notice any delay in the signal from the time you hit a note on your instrument, and the time it is played back.
Nowadays, latency is slowly not becoming an issue as it once was. That’s because more audio interfaces are getting faster with every upgrade. Just read the reviews on any audio interface you intend to pick up.
However, if you are looking for recommendations, my no. 1 pick is the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (Amazon), as I mentioned earlier. I own one of the Scarlett 4i4, with more inputs and outputs, and I use it for live performance. And for years, I’ve never had an issue with latency. This audio interface is underrated because of the price. However, it handles and processes audio very well.
You just don’t need a computer; you need a powerful one. The computer will process all the audio and host all the necessary software.
The time it takes for the computer to process the audio from the audio interface and send it back will depend on how fast the processor is. A fast audio interface combined with a powerful computer is what you need to achieve low latency.
I always recommend to musicians starting out to get a computer with at least an Intel Core i5 processor, but a Core i7 processor is ideal. It doesn’t matter if the computer is a Mac or a PC. As long as it has an excellent processor, you should be good.
If you already own an Intel Core i3 or older processor computer, you can try it out and see if the latency is manageable before you consider upgrading.
Digital Audio Workstation
You need a digital audio workstation for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, it will be the software that interacts with your audio interface. You will have to configure the audio interface to work with the DAW. Digital audio signals from the audio interface will be sent to the DAW, and then the processed signal will be sent back to the audio interface by the DAW. Also, the DAW will host the Amp Simulator plugin (we’ll talk about it next).
Any DAW will work for this purpose, so feel free to use a DAW you are comfortable with. However, Ableton Live has the edge over the different DAWs if you are planning to use this setup for live performances. I won’t go into further details as to why because this post isn’t about DAW comparison.
Amp Simulator Plugin
What is an amp simulator?
Just as the name depicts, an amp simulator is software designed to emulate real amps digitally. An amp simulator may have one or multiple guitar, bass, and keyboard amp emulations. The amps will have all the knobs and buttons, just like on the real amps, which allows you to tweak the sound.
Many amp sims also give you the ability to try different mic positions just as you would with real amps. There are some amp sims with built-in effects, meaning you can have a custom-built effect pedalboard with an amp at the end of the signal chain. The possibilities are endless, and I have barely scratched the surface of what amp sims can do.
All these features are built into this software to make sure the processed audio signal sounds as close as possible to an instrument played through an amp.
There are many amp sims available. There are some free versions around if you are still on the fences whether to use amp sims. Some of the free versions are quite impressive, honestly, and maybe all you will ever need.
However, if you want an amp simulator plugin with loads of amps, extremely versatile, and gives you so much flexibility on how to design your ideal sound, you should definitely consider a premium amp simulator.
But it’s a good idea to try out some of the free options before you invest in a premium amp simulator.
Here are some recommendations for you to try out.
BIAS AMP 2
There are lots of things I can say about this plugin. However, I think I will reserve that for another blog post.
In a nutshell, the BIAS AMP 2 by Positive Grid is mind-blowing, and it sounds so good. Although the free version comes with some limitations, there are a ton of amp sims that can be tried out. Some of the amp simulators you get with the free version are ’67 Blackface, ’69 Duo Verb, ’77 Silver Tone, ’59 Tweed Lux, plus eight more amps. I think you should try it out first before you decide if you want to upgrade
Amplitube is undoubtedly one of the most popular multi-fx processor and amp simulator plugins out there. The premium option comes with tons of amp sims and effects to experiment with. You can build a custom guitar effect pedal board with amp simulators and route the signal however you want.
They also offer a free version for those who want to try it out.
How to Set it Up
Now that we have covered all the gear and software you need, how do you hook things up? It’s actually very simple once you’ve got everything you need.
- Connect the audio interface to the computer
- Open the DAW and configure it to work with your audio interface
- Plug your instrument into the audio interface
- Route the audio interface’s input to a channel in the DAW’s mixer
- Load the amp simulator plugin on that mixer channel
Now, at this point, it’s all about tweaking the amp simulator or going through presets/patches till you find a tone that sounds great to you.
Pros and Cons of Using an Audio Interface as an Amp
1. It is much cheaper compared to an amp
If you already own a decent laptop (which most of you probably do), the only gear you will need is a good audio interface. And there are a lot of great budget audio interfaces which are far less expensive than amps. Also, if you intend to record your amp, you may need a microphone and a stand. That also comes at an extra cost.
You don’t even need to purchase a Digital Audio Workstation if you don’t have one. You can use the free Garageband if you are a Mac user.
Ableton Live Lite may also be bundled with the midi controller or audio interface you purchase. That is also an excellent DAW for both Mac and PC
If you don’t have a license for Ableton Live Lite, Pro Tools First is an entry-level version of Pro Tools, and it is free. All of these free DAWs come with some limitations. However, if you are only using it to run amp simulators, you won’t have any problem at all.
Also, there are a ton of great amp simulators out there for free. For most hobbyists, the free versions are good enough to practice with.
2. More Flexibility
By purchasing an amp, you are restricted to the tone that it is capable of producing.
However, by going with an audio interface and amp simulators, there are literally hundreds of different amps and cabinets to choose from, and they all have their unique tone and character. This means you have the ability to easily modify your guitar tone into anything you want.
Here are some problems with using an audio interface as an amp
Latency has been an issue with using software plugins in real-time. If you don’t have a powerful enough computer, the time it takes to process an audio signal through an amp simulator plugin is very noticeable.
Certainly, you don’t want that to happen. You want to be able to hear the sound instantly as you play it. Hardware amps have no issue with latency at all.
However, if you have a powerful computer, a low latency audio interface, with the right buffer settings, this will not be an issue at all.
2. Excellent amp simulators are not free
If you want to get the most realistic amp simulators with more tonal possibilities, you certainly need to pay for it. The free options are mostly introductory level plugins, and you don’t get a lot of features.
So, keep in mind that if you want an amp simulator that sounds as real as the actual amp, you need to invest in a premium amp sim.
You can play your instrument and listen to the playback in real-time on some audio interfaces, just like an amp. However, you won’t get the unique tone amps add to a sound.
To mimic an amp’s tone with an audio interface, you’ll need a computer, a DAW, and an amp simulator plugin.