In modern live music, technology is playing an increasingly vital role in helping musicians get the best possible sound and performance experience.
For guitarists, creating the perfect live rig has always been an essential part of the musical journey. It’s about creating a setup that consistently represents your unique sound while providing the creative freedom for expressing yourself live.
While traditional amplifiers and pedalboards still have their place, more and more musicians are shifting to computer-based setups because of the numerous benefits they offer. Modern digital audio technology and advancements in computer processing power has made this approach a reliable alternative that gives you unparalleled versatility, control, and sound quality.
In this article, we’ll show you how to set up a computer-based live guitar rig that gives you perfect tones, flexibility, and limitless creative potential.
The benefits of using guitar plugins live
Before diving into the details of setting up a computer-based guitar rig, let’s go over the numerous benefits this approach gives you.
Portable and easy to set up
You can easily fit a computer-based live rig in your backpack. Setting the rig up is quick and easy no matter what venue you’re playing in.
The wide range of guitar plugins available allow you to experiment with different tones and effects with the click of a button. This opens up a world of tonal versatility that is very difficult to achieve with traditional amp and pedalboard setups.
With digital rigs, you can use completely different setups for every single song on your setlist if you wish. Traditionally, it wouldn’t be feasible to lug around four different amps, multiple cabinets, and a multitude of pedals for each amp to a gig. Digital setups let you effortlessly do just that.
Our catalog of guitar plugins have options suitable for any genre and playing style. Additionally, our plugins come bundled with a comprehensive cabsim module and wide range of guitar effects, meaning you can use a single plugin for amp and cab simulation as well as guitar effects processing.
A consistent tone every time
A digital rig will give you a consistent sound no matter where you’re playing, be it live, at home, in the studio, or in your practice space. You can use the exact same tones live that you used on your recorded material. Additionally, you no longer need to worry about your amp behaving differently in varying conditions or your pedalboard settings getting accidently changed.
Computer-based rigs let you seamlessly integrate click tracks for both you and your band, or play backing tracks and sequences to enhance the audience experience in your shows.
You can also use your DAW to automate tone and preset changes during your set. By automating all your preset changes, you can focus entirely on your performance rather than having to manually engage footswitches during key moments.
With your computer at the heart of your rig, you can easily record your performances. This is invaluable for creating live albums and demos, or simply reviewing your performances for improvement.
Guitar plugins are budget friendly
Guitar plugins are significantly cheaper than traditional analog hardware. Take for example Archetype: Petrucci, which features four distinct amps, 11 stompbox effects, and three cabinets with six virtual mics. This entire rig costs under 160 dollars. Buying the equivalent hardware versions of all this gear would cost tens of times more.
With the savings, you can invest in multiple plugins, allowing you to experiment with a wide range of amps, cabinets, and effects. Many of the amps modeled in our plugins are close to impossible to find on the market these days, like the Mesa Boogie Mark IIC+ or the Fortin NATAS for example.
What equipment and software do you need for using guitar plugins live?
No two guitarists are the same, and thus there is no one-size-fits all solution for creating a digital rig. That’s why we want to give you a starting point for setting up your rig that you can customize based on your personal preferences and needs. Here’s a list of equipment and software you’ll need to get started.
Your entire rig will revolve around your computer. Make sure you have a powerful machine that can process your guitar signal smoothly without hiccups.
Most modern laptops should be suitable for this job. Make sure that you have plenty of RAM available and that it's compatible with the software you’ll be using.
The number of, and types, of connections are also crucial for your live setup. Make sure your machine has a sufficient amount of USB / Thunderbolt ports for the connections you’ll need in your rig.
A reliable audio interface is another crucial piece of your setup. An audio interface is used for connecting your guitar to your computer. Look for one with high-quality preamps and a Hi-Z input to connect your guitar to.
Also, pay attention to connectivity. Interfaces running on Thunderbolt 2 onwards or USB-C provide faster communication between the interface and the computer, benefiting a live rig.
A compact one-input and stereo-output interface will be enough for a simple setup. You need to connect your guitar to your Hi-Z input and send the output to the front-of-house (FOH) desk.
However, consider a more extensive interface with a higher I/O count for a more intricate rig. You’ll need more versatile I/O options if you want to create independent monitor sends, process more than one instrument simultaneously, or create split sends of your sounds for the FOH.
You’ll need a DAW to set up your live rig. DAWs, short for digital audio workstations, are music production software programs that have a comprehensive set of tools for recording, editing, and producing digital audio.
Some popular choices for live performances include Ableton Live, Logic, and Reaper. For more information, read our guide on choosing the best DAW for your needs.
Any DAW will likely do the job if you run a basic setup with a single track running your guitar amp modeling plugin and effects. Ensure that your DAW is compatible with the plugins you’re planning on using and that you have control over your buffer size (more on that later).
Amp modeling and effects processing plugins
You’ll obviously also need a guitar plugin to process your guitar sound. Invest in professional-grade amp modeling plugins like Neural DSP guitar plugins to get the best possible tone and make sure everything works flawlessly.
Neural DSP plugins are widely regarded as some of the best in the market for several reasons:
Superior sound quality and feel: the attention to detail in recreating amps and effects, combined with advanced DSP (Digital Signal Processing) technology, results in unparalleled sound quality and playing feel. The tones in Neural DSP plugins sound and feel remarkably authentic.
Versatility: our wide range of plugins cater to any genre and playing style. Check out Archetype: Petrucci, Archetype: Rabea, Archetype: Plini X, Archetype: Mateus Asato, and the Mesa Boogie Mark IIC+ Suite for examples of highly versatile options.
User-friendly and reliable: our plugins are incredibly easy to use, with a clean, intuitive interface that makes tone-shaping fun and easy.
Neural DSP guitar plugins are full rigs: instead of buying an amp simulator, IRs, and effects separately, all Neural DSP plugins feature full rigs with everything you need bundled together in one piece of software. This means you won’t need to juggle through multiple pieces of modeling software when setting up your rig.
Finally, you’ll need a MIDI controller with assignable knobs and footswitches if you want hands-on control over your computer-based rig. A MIDI controller lets you switch presets, turn effects on and off, and control other parameters on the fly.
MIDI controllers also let you create loopers, control your DAW's transport, or trigger backing tracks and sequences during your performance.
All Neural DSP plugins support MIDI, meaning you can use MIDI controllers such as footswitches and expression pedals to control parameters and UI components within the plugin. For more information, and a list of controllers we recommend, read our article on setting up MIDI connections.
If your controller is not connected via USB, you’ll need a MIDI connection in your audio interface or a MIDI to USB adaptor in order to connect it to your rig.
Setting up your live rig
Here's a rundown of the signal chain for a computer-based live rig.
Guitar, audio interface, and computer
Setting up your DAW
Open your DAW and create a track. Assign the track to receive input from your audio interface. Make sure the track's output is set to go to the audio interface's main outputs. Load up your chosen guitar plugin onto the track (see our guide on how to install plugins to your DAW for more information).
Setting up your MIDI controller
Connect your MIDI controller to the computer via USB. To connect a non-USB MIDI device to your computer, you will need an audio interface with a MIDI input or a separate MIDI interface / hub.
In your DAW, map the MIDI controller's buttons, knobs, and switches to the desired functions. This could be changing presets, toggling effects on and off, or controlling parameters like reverb depth or delay feedback.
You can easily map MIDI messages in Neural DSP plugins using the “MIDI learn” function. For more information, read our guide on setting up MIDI connections.
Connect the outputs of your audio interface to the front-of-house (FOH) desk
The front-of-house, or FOH, refers to the main mixing board and sound system that projects to the audience.
Depending on your audio interface and the FOH mixer's inputs, you'll likely need balanced XLR or 1/4-inch TRS cables. Ensure that you’re using high quality cables.
Before connecting to the FOH, make sure your audio interface's output levels are set to an appropriate level. Avoid sending a signal that's too hot to prevent clipping on the FOH mixer.
Plug your cables into the output jacks of your audio interface. The other end of the cables will go into the mixer's line inputs.
Once connected, work with the FOH engineer during the soundcheck. Play your guitar and adjust levels both on your interface and on the FOH mixer. Remember, it's a collaborative effort between you and the sound engineer to get the best possible live sound.
Crafting your tone
Once your computer-based rig is set up, it's time to craft your sound. Ensure that your gain staging is optimal so you don't overload the preamp on your audio interface and get unwanted clipping or distortion.
When crafting your sound, it’s important to start simple. Experiment with different amp models and find a sound you can build from. Then, create a setlist preset library for all the presets you're going to use in your live set.
Save the DAW session as a template to streamline the setup process.
What else should be taken into consideration?
Working in the realm of digital audio means working with latency. Latency is the time a signal travels through the audio interface to the computer and back to your monitoring system.
The total latency of the system can be adjusted by increasing or decreasing the buffer size in your DAW. The buffer size determines how much time your computer takes to process the audio data it receives. Decreasing the buffer size reduces the amount of time it takes your computer to process the audio data, reducing latency, but demanding more from your computer's processing power.
Make sure your computer is powerful enough to handle the processing needed by the amp modeling software you are using. To reduce latency, decrease the audio buffer size.
Ultimately, the ideal buffer size will depend on your computer's specifications. To find the best buffer size for your setup, you may need to experiment with different settings until you find the right balance between performance and latency that feels comfortable when you play. For more information on setting up your buffer size and latency, read our guide on setting up your Neural DSP plugin.
Always have a backup plan
Make sure you always have a backup plan. Computers can crash, and hard drives can fail just like how a tube in an amp can blow out or a string can break in the middle of a gig.
A second computer and interface or a simple pedalboard with a backup amplifier can save the day if your primary DAW setup encounters technical issues.
If your DAW crashes, you can easily load any Neural DSP plugin in standalone mode to quickly get a sound out of your computer without having to reload your DAW.
Make sure you feel comfortable with your rig before you start playing shows
Before taking your computer-based guitar rig to the stage, it's essential to spend time rehearsing with your setup and troubleshooting any possible issues you may face. Run through your entire setlist and make sure the transitions between songs happen seamlessly. Also, spend time getting comfortable with your MIDI controller.
Although having a computer-based setup can streamline the time you spend in your soundchecks before a gig, work closely with the sound engineer to fine-tune your sound for the specific venue you’re playing at. Be prepared to make quick adjustments based on the room's acoustics and the feedback from the sound engineer.
Creating a computer-based guitar rig for live shows offers many benefits, including tonal versatility, consistency in your sound, recording capabilities, and MIDI automation for changing your sounds.
With the proper preparation, rehearsal, and a solid backup plan, your computer-based rig will deliver unforgettable live performances while unlocking a world of creative possibilities.
If you are new to guitar plugins, make sure you read our getting started guides to learn everything you need to know about using them.