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Atomic AmpliFire Review

#1 User is offline   Slartibartfarst42 

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Posted 25 June 2016 - 02:14 AM

Let me say from the outset that I am not a great fan of modelling technology and for a number of years now Iíve clung religiously to my precious valve amps so Iím not naturally inclined to be sympathetic to such an approach. In the past Iíve owned both a Digitech GNX3000 and a Digitech RP1000, both of which, in their day, could be considered units of very good quality. I wasnít impressed with either of them particularly. They both had their good points and I could see why people liked them but ultimately, to be brutally honest, regardless of how much you tweaked them, in the real world the tones werenít a patch on a Ďproperí valve amp. Over the years since Iíve read stellar reviews on offerings from Boss and particularly the Line6 HD series so Iíve tried them with great anticipation that finally I could have a more compact and versatile rig but the tones just arenít there. To me, using a good valve amp is like driving a Ferrari whereas using most mid-priced modellers is like driving a Toyota GT86 at best. Itís generally aimed at a market with similar tastes and is good in its own way, but ultimately itís a cheap and poor copy of the real thing.

So how have I come to be reviewing an Atomic AmpliFire? Pure chance and a unique set of circumstances is the answer! Iíd honestly given up on ever finding a modeller that I actually liked but a few months ago I was offered a job working abroad and this forced me to completely rethink my rig. Taking a valve amp with me was a non-starter, partly due to the practicalities of transport but also because for the next few years my playing will mostly be in the home. After much deliberation I decided to invest in a BluGuitar AMP1 and I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality of the tones I could get. Itís not as good as a full valve amp but the tones were very good and very valve-like; certainly good enough for 99.9% of an audience and certainly a huge improvement on anything Iíd tried before. This got me thinking Ė the AMP1 is essentially modelled preamp voicings going through a 100w Class D power amp with a valve in it to generate some valve warmth and if the tones were that good, what could a modeller achieve with even more processing power? I knew the likes of Line6 HD units wouldnít get me there and I canít afford a Fractal Axe-FX so I needed something in the middle ground that was a bit of a stripped down Axe-FX and surprisingly, the AmpliFire is the only option that I could find that seemed to offer what I was after. It doesnít offer the range of options that either Line6 or Fractal do but I really donít need that many options. What it does offer is processing power that is far more like Fractal than Line6 and that makes all the difference because it focusses on quality rather than quantity.

Layout

The AmpliFire is a floor unit thatís not much bigger than two good sized pedals or to put it another way, about the size of my AMP1. There is a small display screen on the top and a number of knobs for key controls like Gain, EQ and Level. Working these knobs is very like a conventional guitar amp in many ways. Thereís also a control to adjust patches, which is pretty straightforward, though using the Editor on your PC is easier. At the front of the unit are three footswitches that can be assigned to control whatever you want. With the A/B function these three footswitches can move you between six different presets or you can use a Midi controller like the Midi Mouse to move between presets and use the footswitches on the AmpliFire for any three effects you want, just like conventional stompboxes. The connections on the unit will allow you to connect to virtually anything and you can also route it so that cabinet models are bypassed and you use your own cabinet or you can have cabinet models sent to the PA while you can have no cabinet models going to a normal guitar cabinet or you can have cabinet models going to both. Thereís certainly flexibility here.

Editor Software

As with all of these units, although you can edit your parameters on the unit itself, life is an awful lot easier when you use the associated computer software. Itís not just that more parameters are available to you; itís more that the whole process becomes much quicker as everything is available on one screen. As far as these units go, the Editor is very accessible and straightforward to use so I can see lots of people liking it but at the moment I find there is a real issue, at least to someone of my limited technical ability.

The latest version of the Editor that you download is not the same as the one referred to in the manual as it has many more parameters that you can adjust. This creates a real problem because youíre suddenly faced with a load of terms that might as well be written in Latin for all the sense it makes to me and these terms arenít explained in the handbook, where the editing information is based on an earlier and far more basic Editor. At first I thought it was because the unit I bought had an old handbook so I downloaded the manual from Atomicís website, only to discover it was the same as mine and related to a much earlier version. If youíre going to have a manual, it needs to relate to the product people are actually using!

While I can see that many people might like to use these extra parameters to precisely tailor their sound, Iím afraid Iím inclined to question the wisdom of such an approach. Not only do I have to make sense of a load of technical terms I donít understand but when I use a conventional stompbox, how many controls do I have to adjust? Even professional players, using professional quality stompboxes, have only a handful of controls that can be adjusted to get a fantastic sound, yet when trying to use something like the Echo effect on an AmpliFire, I have 36 different parameters that require attention to dial in the sound Iím after. Why? If you can buy a Delay pedal in the £100-£150 bracket that produces a really good effect with only 3-5 control knobs, why do I need 36 different controls in the AmpliFire? I want good quality effects and the effects here are good, no doubt about it, but I donít want to have to spend the rest of my life tweaking settings and researching terms I donít know. To me, this is exactly whatís wrong with all of these modellers and while the AmpliFire is better than many in this regard, the editing software is still needlessly complex and probably quite daunting to many users. In the case of the Echo effect Iíve already mentioned, once Iíve selected the type of Echo I want, all I really want to do is adjust the level, mix, delay time and number of repeats Ė keep it simple and keep it effective.

Amp Models

To me, this was the acid test of the unit because this is where most multi-fx units really disappoint with tones that are far too digital and artificial in nature. On first firing up the AmpliFire I was tempted to think that this unit was an improvement on others but essentially suffering from the same problem but that was before I made a key discovery. My initial thought was to either use the factory presets as a basis for developing my own patches or to download presets made by other people and use those as the foundation of my own sounds. The problem was that they invariably had a number of effects in operation and there was too much going on for me to determine where the problem lay. Instead, I turned all of the effects off and started from scratch Ė it works a lot better. I started by selecting a model of an amp I knew I liked, such as a Fender Twin, Plexi and JCM800 in my case, and then adjusted things in a logical order so I determined gain and EQ first to get the basic tone before going on to adjust the more obscure parameters that exist. I found it most effective to fully engage the power amp simulator, which is designed to emulate the valve warmth you get from a real valve amp and I did this even though the power amp Iím using from the AMP1 already has a small valve in it for just such a purpose. I guess the two combined just increases the valve-like tone but either way, it works very well. Having said that, I donít always leave it at 100% because I discovered that by backing it down it can have a beneficial effect on the tone with some amp models.

Once that was to my liking, I moved on to selecting modelled cabinets. Iím running my AmpliFire through an Orange 1X12 loaded with a Vintage 30 speaker so at first I naturally selected ĎNoneí but I soon discovered that if I selected ĎMatchedí instead, I was rewarded with a much bigger sound and although it could initially be a bit boomy, with some tweaking to the EQ and cabinet settings, I could get a really good sound that was actually an improvement on using just my own cabinet. After that itís just a matter of adding effects as you like them in much the same way.

So whatís the bottom line on these amp models then? Well, as with most things, there are pros and cons. Getting a really good amp tone out of the AmpliFire takes quite a bit longer than doing so with a conventional valve amp due to the myriad of parameters that need to be adjusted but once you get there, the results are very impressive. This unit does not give you a 100% accurate representation of real valve tone, but it is VERY close and significantly closer than anything else youíre likely to try below £1000. The Line6 HD unit doesnít come even remotely close so Iím inclined to see this as more of a competitor for the Helix. Inevitably, some amp models are better than others but theyíre all very good. Of the three I used first, the JCM800 was the weakest, even though it was still impressive but the Twin was excellent and the Plexi model was absolutely sublime. Iíve added other amp models to my presets now and every one of them has been impressive. The Vox AC30 patch I created was particularly effective and takes a Boost pedal beautifully. I find that usually with modellers, the more gain you try to use, the worse it gets but today I created a patch for a Rectifier sound and itís so good I could easily see me using it live or for recording.

Effects

As Iíve already touched on the annoyingly long list of parameters that need to be adjusted, Iíll restrict myself to talking about the quality of the effects on offer. I find these to be very much like the amp models in that they are all very good, even if there isnít the range of options offered by rivals like the Line6 HD. At the moment, for instance, you either have the Chorus on or off, with no facility to select a particular type of Chorus but as you might guess by now, thatís fine by me; a Chorus is a Chorus. This isnít the same for all effects as there are a few different types of Boost you can choose and a few different types of Echo etc. and more are promised with further firmware updates but itís fair to say that the selection isnít as extensive as some units. I donít find that a problem but I accept that some might. What is on offer here is all of the fundamental effects youíre likely to use and all of them are excellent.

Conclusions

I donít have a major issue with anything about this unit as itís all excellent quality in a compact package that works well but if I was being picky, there are a few things I would look to change on any future incarnation. Even though it would make the unit bigger, I would like to have had an assignable expression pedal attached so that I didnít have to cart around an individual pedal to have control of my own Wah sound when the Wah thatís in the AmpliFire is basically very good as long as you donít want to adjust it while playing. I also donít see why the only way you can attach an expression pedal to the device is by using the Effects Return, thereby removing your ability to use an effects loop with the AmpliFire. Finally, I would have liked to see the USB connection doubling as an audio interface, as it does on the Line6 but I accept that each of these modifications would have price implications and Iím equally sure that I may not want to pay that much more. Itís a balancing act for Atomic and overall I canít complain.

The BluGuitar AMP1 isnít a modelling unit in the conventional sense but it was the first unit Iíve ever tried that hasnít had me longing to return to a valve amp and the AmpliFire has moved me even further away from that desire with even better amp tones and greater diversity. Itís still not exactly the same as a real valve amp and individual pedals but it is very, very close, offers far more tonal possibilities and is significantly more compact and portable. On my pedalboard at the moment I plug into a tuner, then a 535Q Crybaby and then the AmpliFire, followed by the effects return of the AMP1 and then my cabinet. That gives me everything I need and more, it weighs very little and takes 5 minutes to set up. The tones I get are excellent and while I was very happy with the AMP1, Iím even happier now it has the AmpliFire in front of it and I have absolutely no desire to start lugging around a cumbersome valve amp again. The best way I can describe it is to revisit the analogy I used at the start of this review. I still donít feel like Iím driving a Ferrari because like a real valve amp, that car has something special about it that is more than the sum of its parts but I equally donít feel like Iím driving a Toyota GT86 in comparison either. Now itís more like driving a McLaren because in all sorts of ways itís as good as, or better, than the Ferrari, yet somehow just misses that little bit of magic that you get from the original. Iíd love a Ferrari but Iím more than happy with my McLaren.
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#2 User is offline   sparquelito 

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Posted 25 June 2016 - 05:03 AM

Great review!!

Thank you for that comprehensive and well-written article.

Much appreciated.
:)
Am I alone in this?

Am I alone?
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