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What are guitar plugins?

New to guitar plugins and have a lot of questions? This plugin primer is your guide to the basics. Read on to learn about the components of a guitar plugin featuring Neural DSP’s Tone King Imperial MKII plugin. 

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What you already know

Guitar amps are awesome. The classic tones produced by tried and true amplifiers are at the very fabric of what we think of when we think of guitar. However, did you also know that amps are like really heavy, and often need to be really really loud to sound their best? Amps also take up space and cost money, meaning (hypothetically speaking) you can only own so many of them. So there are some downsides to a traditional amp setup. Luckily, we have technology on our side. All of that guitar amp goodness can be recreated in software form in painstaking detail, resulting in plugins that are audibly indiscernible from their traditional amp counterparts – with some extra bells and whistles to boot. 

Simply put, guitar plugins simulate all of the parts of a recorded guitar amp in software, allowing the player to call up any amp they want for recording in a DAW, practicing through studio monitors, or playing live through a PA. In addition to being able to recreate the classic amp sounds, with plugins, you can achieve setups that are impossible or wildly impractical with physical amps. Examples include stereo setups, wet/dry/wet, or running several amps in parallel (Or series for that matter. Sounds like a terrible idea, but you’re free to give it a shot).

A typical recorded guitar setup will include the following components in its signal chain.

  • A guitar

  • Guitar effects

  • An amp – including preamp, and power amp

  • A speaker cabinet

  • At least one microphone

Read on to learn how they all come together in a plugin.

How do guitar plugins work?

Once downloaded and installed, a guitar plugin can be opened inside of a DAW and applied to an audio track, much like effects such as reverb or compression. Alternatively, as is the case with Neural DSP’s plugins, a standalone version of the plugin may also be available that can be used independently , without the need for a DAW. The plugin takes the dry guitar signal from the interface, applies gain staging, EQ, effects, and a speaker simulation to create the sound of a complete guitar setup. Most guitar plugins will have a graphical user interface that mirrors that of an IRL amp, giving the user controls for volume, gain, and tone similar to the controls found on the amp being modeled. Additionally, controls for mic and cabinet selection and mic placement give the user supreme control over their sound. In the next section, we’ll go through each section of a guitar plugin using Neural DSP’s Tone King Imperial MKII plugin, and detail how each will contribute to the total guitar sound.

Components of a guitar plugin

Upon opening a guitar plugin, you will be greeted by a digital recreation of each of the components mentioned previously – aside from the guitar, but you’ve got that covered. I will be using Neural DSP’s Tone King Imperial MKII plugin as an example, but most amp sim plugins will contain similar components. What are those components you ask? Here’s a rundown of the sections in the Tone King Imperial MKII.

“Pre” effects

This section contains digital models of stompboxes that are placed before the amp in the signal chain. In the case of the Tone King Imperial Mk II plugin, this includes a wah pedal, and a stompbox section including a compressor and two overdrive pedals. All of these effects are those that typically are run into the input of an amp rather than the FX loop. Running a boost or a gain pedal into the front end of a traditional amp can really get the preamp tubes cooking, producing more breakup, and the same is true here. Algorithmically speaking at least.

The amp section

This is what we all came here for right? Here you will typically find volume, gain, and tone shaping controls, but much of the magic is baked in. How does the amp respond to dynamics? How does it break up when pushed? What is the character of the power amp break up? These are all things that are unique to every amp model, and each of these qualities must be carefully recreated in order to capture the character of the amp.

The cab section

Perhaps the part of the rig that has the greatest impact on the final tone is the cab. The cab section includes not only the speaker cab configuration (e.g. speaker size, number of speakers), but also the mic selection and mic placement. All of this is simulated using impulse responses (IR). In simple terms, an IR is a measurement of how a speaker cabinet (and also the mic that is recording the speaker, and the room it’s all in) reacts to an incoming signal. This measurement can then be applied to the guitar signal as a complex EQ curve that mimics how a speaker cabinet  (and the microphone and the room) will color the sound being run through it. 

When deciding which IR to use, experimentation is key, and plugins make that experimentation very easy. Swapping out speakers and/or microphones is a couple clicks away. No need to venture all the way into the amp room from the control room to move a mic slightly, or underpay someone to do it for you. So how do you know when you’ve got it right? Watch as Steven from Neural DSP demonstrates how he methodically dials in two IRs for a complementary two mic setup here.


This is where you scoop the mids. I mean, if you need to… Since the EQ section appears after the amp and cab, it will have a lot of influence on your final tone. Use the selected frequency bands to shelve off unneeded frequencies or accentuate frequencies for more presence in a mix. It’s worth noting that not all guitar plugins include a master EQ other than the tone controls in the amp section, but an additional EQ plugin can be used down-signal to achieve the same effect.

A post effects section

These effects are last in the chain, meaning they affect everything in the signal chain. This is a great place for effects that create space like reverb and delay, or for modulation effects that envelop your whole sound.

After hearing about all of the sections in the Tone King Imperial MKII, If you want to hear what it can do, take a look at John Connearn’s complete rundown for a more in depth look at how each section works, and hear some of the presets included with the plugin.

Getting started

Look, it has been really fun walking you through this and all, but really the best way to appreciate the magic of plugins is to experience it for yourself. Assuming you have a computer, an audio interface, and a DAW, your first plugin is only a few clicks away. You can try any of Neural DSP’s plugins free of charge for 14 days. To browse the selection, take a look at the whole selection of plugins here and choose whatever looks good to you, click “Free Trial” to download.

If you’re new to Neural DSP’s offering, you will find plugins based around, and created in collaboration with, many of today’s top players. These “Archetypes” each contain virtual amps modeled on that artist’s preferred favorites, as well as effects that define their tone. Apart from being able to nail the eponymous artist’s tone, the archetype plugins offer loads of versatility and tweakability (turning Cory Wong into Meshuggah for example). Download a free trial and experiment for yourself.

How to use guitar plugins

Assuming you have one of the above free trials downloaded and installed, you’re a few clicks away from plugging in and rocking out – provided you have an interface to plug into. An audio interface is a device that converts an analog signal – in this case, from your guitar – to digital, allowing you to record in a DAW. Interfaces come with a variety of features, and numbers of inputs and outputs, but for the purpose of using guitar plugins, you just need one input, easy peasy. Just stay away from those cheap USB to ¼” cables. A proper interface will provide vastly better sound quality and performance.

If you’ve already got the interface thing sorted out, take a look below to find out how to load plugins in your DAW of choice.

In Ableton Live 11, you can find plugins installed on your computer under Plug-Ins in the browser sidebar at the far left of the screen. Just select the audio track you would like to apply the plugin to and double click the selected plugin to add it to the device chain for that track. Alternatively, you can drag it onto the device chain from the sidebar. 

In Logic Pro and MainStage, guitar plugins can be loaded in an audio effects slot. In the channel strip for the track you want to apply the plugin to, click an empty audio effect slot, and choose the plugin all the way at the bottom under Audio Units. The process is similar in Garageband, but the Plug-ins menu is found in the Smart Controls pane that appears at the bottom of the screen when creating a new audio track.

Not using one of the above DAWs? A bit of Googling with “use plugin in [name of your DAW here]” will get you where you need to go.

Whichever DAW you’re using, loading a plugin will allow you to access a window where you can find all of the settings for the plugin. From there, you’re free to choose a preset or roll your own tone by manipulating the parameters in all of the sections referred to previously. And there you have it, you’re plugged in! Now it’s only a matter of actually playing the guitar, but you’ve got that locked down surely.

I hope you got something out of this basic guitar plugin rundown. We plan to bring you more in depth looks inside guitar plugins in the future, including practical tips and tricks, insights from the engineers who create the plugins and the pros who use them. Stay tuned for more, and whatever happens, just keep playing.

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