Software plug-ins are so good these days. Most of them are excellent value and in spite of all of my reluctance to admit it, the best sound every bit as good as hardware and if you buy a plug in, you have as many instantiations of that plug-in as your system will allow. However there are still areas where plug-ins still lose out to hardware. One of these is the intangibility of software. While a plug-in is convenient in terms of workflow and recall, if your plug-in manufacturer doesn’t support a new format, DAW version or OS you quickly realise just how intangible software really is.
My first thought when I came across the Blackstar ID:Core series of amplifiers was that here was hardware for less than most plug-ins cost. While not really a “grown up” guitar amp, was the Core suitable for use as a hardware equivalent of a plug-in? If so was it worth considering as an alternative to software amp modelling?
How does the ID series perform?
The product which drew my attention was the ID:Core 10. A tiny stereo 10 watt amp which offered USB connectivity and the possibility to reamp over USB. If it was possible to incorporate this amp into a Pro Tools workflow without too many compromises it might be a sensible alternative for some. The amp is small and light, power is provided by a good quality external PSU. This is a stereo amp (5w+5w) and frankly sounds far bigger than it has any right to with its dual 3” speakers. It won’t produce any real bass but looking for a genuinely big sound from such a small box is missing the point. It’s a convenient, fun amp with enough power to give a satisfying playing experience in a domestic setting and if its not enough there are 20 and 40 watt versions available. I think the point of this amp is best illustrated by the fact that although I have Pro Tools, some nice monitors and Eleven all ready to go, since I’ve had this little amp I’ve been playing the electric guitar far, far more than usual. This is similar to the way that although I have a weighted, 88 note keyboard controller, I hanker after a standalone digital piano with built in speakers as if I have to start up a computer to play, inevitably I end up using the computer, not the piano.
Rather than emulating specific amplifiers, the ID:Core has a voice control with six settings: Clean Warm, Clean Bright, Crunch, Super Crunch, OD 1 and OD 2. The physical controls are minimal but adequate, with a voice selector, gain, volume, the Blackstar ISF control (basically left for Fender, right for Marshall, it works too!) and effects selector and effects level knobs. Sensible use of multicolour LEDs on buttons allows navigation around the three effects available: Reverb, Delay and Modulation. The effects section is where the Super Wide Stereo feature makes itself apparent. The effects contain a lot of out of phase content and the width is striking and will certainly impress new users. Thankfully it is possible to disable this feature in the supplied Insider software editor.
The free Insider software editor allows deeper editing of settings with access to EQ, effects settings and management of patches. None of this beyond the EQ was of much interest to me but crucially this software allows the use of the amplifier as a class compliant USB audio interface with three recording modes available: Stereo Emulated, Mono Emulated/Clean Recording and Reamping. The first of these allows you to record the stereo output of the amp over USB, the second outputs a mono version with the unprocessed input on the other channel of the stereo output and most interestingly to a Pro Tools user, the reamp option allows a DI recording to be output from PT, through the amp and recorded back to Pro Tools all over USB. While I would probably choose to reamp using a pair of analogue ins and outs on my interface, for those with limited I/O, the added latency and complexity in terms of using multiple drivers using the USB reamping will be justifiable.
I have used many of the available software amp emulations and modelling amplifiers and I have to say I’m really impressed with the ID:Core. Sounds jump out of this little amp and the experience is involving and rewarding with none of the compressed, synthetic quality which is often complained about by players of modelled amplifiers. The experience of playing through an amplifier can be very different to listening to it, so before trying it myself I asked a friend to play for me while I listened. A pleasing touch response can make an indifferent sounding amplifier seem better than it actually is, so listening to someone else play can be very informative. The ID:Core sounds excellent but it feels even better. The overall impression is one of fun and it kept me playing which is surely a good sign. The best sounds I could find in this little amp (and I realise that this is a very subjective area) were to be found playing the neck pickup of a Strat into the warm clean voice with the gain all the way up. This gave some angry grit but with the low end “woompf” on the transient which I associate with real valve amps.
To send signals over USB to the amp it is necessary to change the playback engine settings in Pro Tools. Reamping is straightforward with the ID:Core showing up as a 2 in 2 out USB audio interface. However, set up like this it isn’t possible to audition sounds in context with the rest of your track. To do this on a Mac it is necessary to create an aggregate audio device. In Audio Midi Setup I created an aggregate device using a 003R and the ID Core and as long as the “drift” checkbox was checked for the ID Core, the aggregate device was stable and performed as expected. It should be noted that Pro Tools doesn’t officially support aggregate devices other than the core audio Pro Tools Aggregate IO which is created by default. Drift uses resampling to avoid the problem of trying to aggregate audio interfaces which both want to be the master clock. For PC users there is an equivalent in ASOI4ALL which allows aggregating devices but has a reputation for performance being unreliable. When I asked our own Neil Hester about this he described it as “hit and miss” and “clunky”. However since this conversation ASIO4ALL has been updated and performance may well have improved. Aggregate devices will always be as latent as the most latent device in the aggregation so in this case that was the Core at around 600 samples. Naming inputs and outputs in IO settings is desirable in this case or you will end up with two pairs of inputs and outputs both called 1&2 - Confusing, but not nearly as confusing as this error message I got when setting up the aggregate device without drift checked!
One area I would change if I could is to make it easy to mute the amplifier when reamping. The volume returned via USB is set using the amp’s volume control which also controls the volume of the amp’s speaker (as it should). To listen in context it is necessary to insert a mini jack into the headphone socket to mute the speaker. If I were to use this in my own setup I would set up an analogue hardware insert. In this way I could avoid the latency introduced by the USB driver for the amp (at approximately 600 samples its a little high). This is straightforward if you have a reamp box to change the low Z output of an audio interface to a Hi Z signal suitable for the input of a guitar amplifier but it is a pity that the 3.5mm line input on the Core isn’t suitable for reamping and doesn’t route signals through the amplifier modelling. Apparently the ID series amplifiers do support this but not the Core amps.
No Plug-in Interface
The single feature which would transform this amp from fun to really serious for the Pro Tools community would be a plug-in workflow. If instead of having to set up the amp in insider and create an aggregate device to integrate the amp into an existing set up, if Blackstar could write a plug-in interface which integrated the amp hardware into a DAW workflow with lower latency, even as a paid option they would be on to a winner.
So did I like it? - Absolutely I did. While it lacks some of the ease of use of a plug-in, it feels more immediate. It lacks the authenticity of a valve amp but it wins out over a valve amp in terms of convenience. If you are happy with Eleven free then fine but I felt far more involved in what I was playing with this little amp than I ever have with Eleven. While I was testing these amps I did a shoot-out between a Blackstar ID 60 modelling amp and an Blackstar HT5 valve amp. Reluctantly I had to admit I preferred the digital amp. Most importantly the ID:Core offers enough variation to get all the tones I wanted but without the choices on offer getting in the way of progress in terms of notes played and tracks recorded. Now that has to be worth £90.
- Excellent Sounds
- Reamping over USB
- No Plug-in workflow for use in DAWs
- No line level in and out for analogue reamping
- Speaker can’t be muted in USB operation
- Aggregate audio devices only available to Mac users