Guitar Amps Vs. Amp Simulators – THE Definitive Guide

There are many reasons to have both an amplifier and an audio interface as a guitarist. Still, both aren’t a necessity unless you need to hear yourself at a louder volume or maybe you want to finally start home recording. There are pros and cons to each.

An amp looks cooler than a guitar and a computer, but if you can’t use the amplifier to amplify what you’re practicing due to neighbors and thin walls, then an interface may be what you need instead. That said, there are many other reasons for buying each one respectively.

Premium guitar amplifiers generally sound much better than guitar amplifier simulators because of their tube and transistor technology. A DAW, an audio interface, and a guitar amplifier simulator, however, will be cheaper, quieter, more flexible, and more suited to a small home recording studio.

Choosing one or the other is fine if you are just starting out (I recommend getting both but we’ll talk about that later), but you’ll have a few things to consider if you can’t get both right now. Below are several comparisons for each one to help you decide what you need specifically for your personal use. 

by the way, if you’re looking for online guitar lessons, I couldn’t recommend JamPlay enough. It’s the learning platform I use and you can sign up for a year right now for 50% off.

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Table of Contents

Table Of Contents
  1. Guitar Amps Versus An Audio Interface and a DAW 
  2. Pros and Cons of Guitar Amplifiers and Guitar Amp Simulators
  3. Pros of Using A Guitar Amp 
  4. Cons of Using a Guitar Amp 
  5. Pros of Using An Amp Simulator For Your Guitar
  6. Cons of Using An Audio Interface And A DAW For Guitar
  7. Is Using an Audio Interface and DAW Better Than An Amp?  
  8. Can I Use An Audio Interface As an Amp? 
  9. Is an Audio Interface the Same as an Amplifier? 
  10. Can You Play Guitar Through an Audio Interface? 
  11. Important Things to Note About Using Amp Sims and Real Amps
  12. So How To Get Started With An Amp Sim?
  13. Gear Mentioned 

Guitar Amps Versus An Audio Interface and a DAW 

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Guitar Amp vs Audio InterfaceComputer - Guitar Amp vs. Audio Interface - Which One To Get.jpg
Clearly, that audio interface on the left is based on the Scarlett 2i2

Amps come in many shapes and sizes, just as DAWs and interfaces do. Each can also set you back hundreds or even thousands of dollars. If you already own an Apple computer, you’re ahead of the game, especially if you’ve got a good one with optimal specs like this one from Amazon. All Apple devices come with the ability to download Garageband from the App Store.

This DAW is sufficient to do whatever you need when it comes to home recording. All you’ll need at this point is a good interface and an instrument cable to connect from your guitar to the audio interface. It’s a little more complicated if you’re going to use an amplifier, although, not by much.

This brief chart here shows some of the pros and cons of using a guitar amplifier compared to an audio interface and amp simulator combo. We’ll talk more about some of these factors in the rest of the article because a lot can be said about the pros and cons of traditional amps and amp modelers.

I’ll also point out that if you intend on recording at home with an amplifier, you’re going to need an audio interface at some point anyway, at least if you plan on using a DAW on your computer rather than an old school tape machine.

Pros and Cons of Guitar Amplifiers and Guitar Amp Simulators

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Guitar Amplifier

Pros
Guitar Amplifier

Cons
Audio Interface, DAW, and an Amp Simulator

Pros
Audio Interface, DAW, and an Amp Simulator

Cons
Sounds much better if you have a premium ampVery big and heavy Extremely lightweight Doesn’t sound as good as a premium amplifier
Guitar pedals and other analog gear also sound significantly better Premium models are expensive Doesn’t take up much space Effects and plugins don’t sound as good as analog effects and pedals
Great for live shows if you need it Takes up a lot of spaceComparative premium models are less expensiveCan be cumbersome to turn on the audio interface, computer, and other software
Amplifiers look better They’re incredibly loudMany amp modelers can be accessed for free as demos There can be latency if you’re running a lot of software at once
They can be re-sold or traded inAdditional effects and processors are also expensivePlugins are cheaper than analog pedals You need a very powerful computer to run a lot of plugins and software
You don’t have to worry about software updates or operating system incompatibilitiesMore volume control (you can play loud or quiet)Random tech issues can disrupt work-flow, ie, storage space running low, crashes, etc
No issues like latency or other computer problems, ie, storage space and processor speed. You don’t need to mic a loud amp
Easy to turn on and start playing Many effects units and plugins can be downloaded instantaneously – you don’t have to wait or go to the store.

Pros of Using A Guitar Amp 

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There are many perks of using a real guitar amplifier and cabinet combination. Don’t get me wrong, I love using amplifier simulators but there are serious upsides to sticking to a traditional tube amplifier. Let’s really dive into these now.

1) Premium Amplifiers Sound Incredible

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Amplifier-How-to-Make-Guitar-Videos-For-Instagram
This is my current amp set-up. I’ve got a Hughes and Kettner Switchblade and a Mesa 2x12 cabinet mic’d with a Shure SM57

On paper, it might seem like using an amp simulator, an audio interface, and a DAW is the best way to go but real amplifiers’ authentic, high-quality, tube sound, is utterly incomparable.

As odd as it may sound, I leave my guitar amplifier on for the majority of the day while I’m working on Traveling Guitarist and Producer Society because once the tubes are nice and heated up and I’ve got the volume set to where it needs to be, the sound is crisp and beautiful.

The sound of a great amplifier can’t be beaten by pretty much any amplifier simulator simply because the tube and transistor technology within them are actually real. The energy that’s created is mechanical and not digital. It’s authentic. Additionally, if you need a great sound at a higher volume, an amplifier is where it’s at.

The amplifier market is massive so there is no shortage of great amps. I own a Hughes and Kettner Switchblade 100W (which I think might be off the market by now), but there are tons of great amps nowadays. Moreover, there are many interesting hybrids between digital and analog gear like the REVV D20 for example which is very popular.

I still use amplifier simulators all of the time like my two favorites: Blue Cat Audio’s Axiom or Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig 6 PRO, but the clean tones I’m able to get from my Hughes and Kettner amplifier are simply much better. Not only that, but I love using my Clone Looper from MXR (on Amazon).

2) Pedal Effects and Processors Sound Better Coming From an Amplifier

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MXR-Clone-Looper-How-to-Jam-On-Guitar-By-Yourself
This is my MXR clone looper – it’s great.

Just like having a real guitar amplifier has an incomparable sound, so do the pedal effects, which tend to be a lot better sounding when you have the actual pedal in front of you which is what the simulator is based on. That’s why these things are called “modelers,” it’s because they’re based on something analog and mechanical.

I briefly touched on the example of my Clone Looper from MXR. A looper pedal is one of the best ways for a guitarist to practice musical concepts or put their music theory knowledge into practice. One such example is the ability to see how certain chords sound over each other harmonically.

I’ve written other guides on this before in my looper guide, but much of these units are much easier to use when they’re in front of you as a piece of equipment. Additionally, anyone who has ever tried using a real reverb pedal like from Strymon, for example, knows they sound a lot better than what you can get from a plugin.

The same thing goes for other effects like flangers, phasers, chorus, delay, wah-wah, and other modulation effects. The list goes on and on with the types of effects and dynamics processors you can get. I’ve currently got an MXR compressor in my cart because I want a real-life compressor again.

The compression that I add to my tone in Garageband isn’t comparable to an actual compressor pedal. It’s just as simple as that.

3) Amps Look Way Cooler Than A Computer 

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Wall of Amplifiers - Guitar Amp vs. Audio Interface - Which One To Get.jpg
A big wall of amplifiers – you’d probably only have one

From a total aesthetic point of view, an amplifier in any corner of a room looks cool! A half stack, full-stack, or twin cabinet all have a cool vintage and rock n’ roll vibe to them. They can make a boring place look a little more fun. A half-stack and a piano in the living room is a cool look, for sure.

4) Great for Live Shows If You Need It

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Live Band - Guitar Amp vs. Audio Interface - Which One To Get?
A live band rocking out

Having a half-stack amplifier will probably come in handy if you’re trying to play a live show in front of a large group of people, depending on how many people you’re performing in front of and what kind of venue you’re in. In other words, a laptop and an audio interface aren’t going to cut it for most working guitar players, although, I’m sure there’s a way to make it work.

5) Easy to Turn On and Start Playing

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Hughes and Kettner On Button -  Guitar Amp vs. Audio Interface - Which One To Get
Turning on the amp is as simple as just flicking the switch, unlike using a DAW/audio interface which takes many steps.

One of the reasons why I like still using my amplifier – other than the great sound – is because it’s very easy to just turn it on and start playing. As I said earlier, I’ll often just have the amp turned on with my guitar connected and the amp turned to Stand By.

It’s pretty much always ready for me to start playing at any time (I have more tips about this my practicing guide, by the way). The audio interface + DAW + amp simulator combo is easy to make like that as well, but a lot of things have to be turned on before it can be played.

For instance, the computer needs to be on, the DAW needs to be open, your simulator needs to be configured and ready to go, and you still have to connect your guitar yet too. This isn’t a big deal for me because I work from home and my computer is on all day, but if you’re trying to get into playing after being away all day, there are quite a few steps to getting everything up and running.

6) They Have Great Re-Sell Value

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Another great yet somewhat underrated reason why amplifiers are great is that they tend to have really good re-sell value. From what I know, there aren’t any re-selling markets for plugins and software. That would be weird. Amps and other analog gear on the other hand can keep 70% or even more of their value as time goes on.

Additionally, some of these products become collectors’ items and are sold for a price much higher than what they had previously gone for.

7) No Software Updates, Operating System Incompatibilities, Or Latency

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Storage Error - Guitar Amp vs. Audio Interface - Which One To Get.jpg
Seeing stuff like this on your computer gets annoying

Amplifiers are also incredibly reliable. They don’t need software updates, you don’t have to worry about things becoming obsolete and no longer working if you update something, and more importantly, there is no latency (how to fix latency in my Producer Society article, by the way).

Simply put, there are fewer components to malfunction than a computer for example. If you’re using an audio interface, computer, and a DAW, you’ll also need speakers as well and if something isn’t right in the system preferences, or maybe your DAW is acting weird, or maybe your audio interface is malfunctioning, you’ll need to find at what point the malfunction has started.

This isn’t the case with an amplifier which more than likely isn’t working because you forgot to turn up the volume on your pickups or something silly like that. Or maybe you just need a new cable. I’ll shove this point in here as well because it’s related, but a computer can also cause problems.

If you haven’t chosen a good computer, you can run into all kinds of problems like the aforementioned latency, software crashes, maxed our storage space, and other similar annoying issues. I run into storage space issues all of the time because I made the mistake of buying a cheap MacBook Pro a few years ago. However, I recently learned that a multi-terabyte SDD can solve this problem which is why this one from Amazon is currently in my cart.

Cons of Using a Guitar Amp 

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1) Amps Are Extremely Heavy And Less Convenient

AXE FX - Guitar Amp vs. Audio Interface/DAW - Which One To Get?
One of the older models of AXE FX. These are a lot easier to transport than tube amplifiers

Amplifiers and cabinets are often heavy equipment and can be taxing on your body if you have to gig a lot. With the invention of the DI (Direct Interface) and modelers like Fractal systems, players have more convenient options. Big amps being replaced a lot mainly because they’re very heavy and harder to travel with.

Many traveling musicians now take their guitar and a Fractal system (or a similar modeler) on the plane with them instead of renting an amp from a venue. In the long run, it cuts costs by a lot and it makes it much easier for the musician to get around. Imagine carrying around a 150-pound amplifier combo at all times? That would be tough.

What’s the difference between a guitar amp modeler and an amp simulator you ask?

A modeler and a guitar amp simulator are similar but ultimately different. An amp modeler is like an AXE FX III, a Kemper, or a Revv D20. It’s a piece of hardware with digital technology that can imitate many amps and sounds. A guitar amp simulator is more like a plugin that’s downloaded on a computer.

2) Amps are Often Too Loud to Practice on, Unless You Have a Practice Amp

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Marshall - Guitar Amp vs. Audio Interface DAW

Like I said earlier, I have a Hughes and Kettner half-stack 100W and it’s quite loud. It isn’t been played even close to its potential, but it does the trick for what I need it to. That said, it would be great to put up the volume to at least 2 or maybe even 3, but right now I barely have the volume even turned on. However, it still sounds good. Another thing you could do is get a practice amp because there are many good ones.

Practice amps range from pocket amps to 15 or 20watts, or a little more. This can be loud if turned all the way up, but typically you’ll only turn up enough to practice by yourself. Practicing at full volume with a drummer may not work with a practice amp because it might be too quiet, so choose one that will fit your practice sessions the best. 

3) Quality Amps Are Expensive 

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Marshall JCM 800 - Guitar Amps vs Amp Modelers and Audio Interfaces
One of the older models of the JCM 800 from Marshall.

Like most guitar-related things, the more expensive the equipment, the better quality – or at least that’s how it’s supposed to be anyway. Every now and then, you may find a diamond in the rough that sounds great and isn’t costly, but most of the time, you’ll be spending some money on good equipment. Look at it as an investment more than anything. 

It’s not uncommon for guitar amps and a cabinet to go along with it to cost around $3500, at least that’s what you would expect to pay for a Marshall JCM800 100-watt head and a cab to go along with it. You might even pay a little more than that.

Now, if you had $3500 to spend on plugins and the like, you could get a lot of stuff. You could get Komplete 13 Ultimate, Pro Tools, the Universal Audio Apollo Twin, and probably a few other plugin suites as well with that kind of money. And Komplete 13 includes Guitar Rig Pro 6 which is an entire amp modeler on its own.

4) They Take Up A Lot Of Space

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Amplifier-How-to-Make-Guitar-Videos-For-Instagram
This is the same picture from above. You can tell it takes up quite a bit of space.

Because amplifiers have real-life components and mechanical technology, they tend to be housed in fairly large containers. In other words, amps are big and they take a lot of space in your place. I know that the amp I have in my apartment is big enough. I couldn’t get any bigger, moreover, my neighbors wouldn’t allow it either.

Pros of Using An Amp Simulator For Your Guitar

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Using an audio interface, a DAW, and an amp simulator has a lot of upsides that we’ll talk about here. One of the bigger conveniences is just the pure variety of them. There are what seems to be dozens of popular amp simulators at this point. They’ve really become a big thing over the last few years.

1) They’re More Convenient and Smaller Than Amplifiers 

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Scarlett on top of Sapphire 6USB - Guitar Amps vs Guitar Amp Modeler
My Scarlett sitting atop of the Saffire 6USB

You may already have what you need to amplify the sound of your guitar if you already have a computer or handheld computer like an iPhone or iPad. The Apple products already come with a DAW, and with the purchase of a portable interface like the iRig HD 2 (on Amazon), you can record literally anywhere. 

Although, a Scarlett 2i2 will work just fine as well as they’re fairly small and portable. There was a time when audio interfaces were quite large but they’ve really slimmed down. My Saffire 6USB which I got around 10 years ago is probably twice the size of my Scarlett.

2) There Is Better Volume Control

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If you are worried about neighbors not enjoying your music as much as you do, an interface/DAW/modeler combo may be better for you instead of an amplifier. You can use your headphones with your computer or use your speaker monitors to listen back (among a few other noiseless options I’ve mentioned in my other guide).

This way, you can keep the volume at a reasonable level and not annoy anyone with your practice. This also makes it easier to record as well. You could use a load box with your amp head and then run it into your audio interface for recording, but this is quite a bit of work.

3) Audio Interfaces Make it Much Easier to Record Than Using an Amp 

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My Desk - Guitar Amp vs Amp Modeler

Recording on a DAW by using an audio interface is what a lot of people do. With the right plug-ins and software, this is an easy way to record. One of the nicer things about using an audio interface/modeler combo is that I find it’s very easy to have everything set up in such a way where it’s ready to go.

At my desk, for example, I have the cable running from my computer underneath the desk and running up through a hole in the table and the audio interface just sits there waiting to be plugged in. Then, if I want to start messing around on the guitar, it’s as simple as just plugging it in and turning on GarageBand. The picture above is how my setup looks.

4) A Lot of Cool Plugins and Software Can be Used With a DAW and Interface

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Plugins - Guitar Amp vs Amp Modeler
Here are just a few of the plugins you can get

Plug-ins will be your best friend when it comes to at-home-recording because they offer many tones and sounds that are not available to you already. You can get away with so much using what is already installed in GarageBand or Logic, for example, but for more sounds and for more ideas, you might get some cool plugins like amp simulators or Native Instruments’ Komplete 13 (on their site).

5) Many Plugins and Effects Can Be Downloaded Online For Free (or for Cheap)

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Arguably one of the best aspects of foregoing traditional amplifier technology and effects units is the fact you can save a lot of money if you’re willing to look really hard for free software. If you’re willing to spend just a bit of money, like a few hundred dollars, you can get some really nice amp simulators.

For the price of one Marshall half-stack, you could probably buy the top 5 amp modelers on the market right now. And the best part about this is that you don’t have to wait for them to be shipped to you, you don’t have to carry anything upstairs, and you can have it right away.

6) Plugins and Effects Can Be Accessed Instantaneously

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Blue Cat Audio Download Page - Guitar Amp vs Audio Interface
You can see here that you can just download much of Blue Cat Audio’s inventory right on their site, at least the demo versions

When you buy an amp modeler or some other kind of digital technology, you get it within seconds. You don’t have to wait at all and you don’t have to pay shipping fees or anything like that. It’s really a great thing. Just try not to get addicted to buying gear because it’s easy to think that one piece of gear will do everything for you.

Cons of Using An Audio Interface And A DAW For Guitar

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1) Sound Quality on an Audio Interface + DAW + Amp Sim Isn’t as Good 

The sound quality you get from an amp is very pure compared to the digital signal that’s converted by a computer. You’ll really hear this when you record. The amp modelers installed in your software are nowhere near as pure sounding as an amp, unfortunately. You can purchase better-sounding plug-ins, but they will still sound more computerized than real. Check out the comparison video down below:

Comparison Between Amp Modeler and Tube Amp

2) Latency, Storage Space, Processor Speed, RAM, and Other Computer Problems

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Your Startup Disk Full - Guitar Amps vs Guitar Modelers
Anyone who uses a laptop for music production is probably familiar with this

One of the biggest downsides to using an audio interface and a DAW as your guitar amplifier, other than the quality of the sound, is the computer problems you’ll run into. The biggest problem I’ve had is with the computer’s storage space which simply can’t handle all of the instruments and plugins that I’d like to get.

The other problem I’ve had is a lack of RAM and processor speed which often causes crashes or the computer simply takes too long to turn on and get started. That said, this is my own fault because I bought the wrong computer all those years ago because I was in a rush to replace a broken laptop.

Also, it’s worth mentioning that RAM is going to get increasingly important for software and plugins as the years go by. As the author Cliff Truesdell pointed out in his book, Mastering Digital Audio, a device with more RAM is better than less. I asked him about this as well and here’s what he said:

Comments from Cliff Truesdell on the importance of RAM - Guitar Amps vs Amp Simulators
An Instagram message he sent to me – this first appeared on Producer Society in my RAM article

You can also run into other issues like forgetting to turn the monitoring button on, unknowingly having the gain turned on, the track is muted in the DAW, or the right track simply hasn’t been selected. Simply put, because there are many components, there are a lot of failure points.

3) You Need Technical Knowledge to Set Up A Guitar On A Computer (Although It’s Not hard)

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If you have never used a DAW before with an interface, it can be somewhat daunting, however, with a bit of trial error, you’ll quickly learn it’s really not that hard. It doesn’t take a computer science degree to get an amp simulator to work.

Youtube videos and online tutorials can get you started on the basics of recording. You can also hire someone to come over to your house and show you how to start recording yourself. With the amount of good information out there though, it really shouldn’t be difficult.

4) You Need a Powerful Computer to Use an Audio Interface and A DAW  

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Computer Specifications Chart - Guitar Amp Modellers vs Guitar Amps
Computer specifications I’ve taken from my other site Producer Society

There is a lot of information out there about what specs to use for recording software, but I have compiled a lot of information about that in my article on RAM and music production over at Producer Society. Basically, you need about 16 gigs of Ram and a pretty good amount of memory.

5) Free Plugins You Get on Your DAW Can be a Nuisance 

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How Insufficient RAM & Processor Speed Looks in Garageband

All new DAWs come with free plug-ins and free downloadable plug-ins. These plug-ins are often beneficial yet overwhelming to a new budding engineer, but as you get more and more comfortable, you’ll start to think some are just a nuisance.

Especially when you start paying for really great plug-ins, be aware that many of them do the same things, so you want to read the full descriptions to get the right ones for what you are recording. Additionally, you want to ensure that your computer has the power to handle all of them.

I made the video shown above to demonstrate what your computer will look like if you don’t have enough RAM. You can see how Garagband is noticeably slow. Additionally, plugin addictions can end up costing you even more money than what you would spend on other gear because they’re so easy to get.

There’s nothing like getting a discount on a great plug-in, but that doesn’t happen too often. Therefore, the ones really worth getting will set you back a little bit of dough. I would go with amp modelers, a nice EQ, and maybe a good reverb/delay, depending on your type of music, of course. 

6) Not Only Do You Need the Interface But You Need the Computer Too

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By this statement, I mean that if you want to play the guitar and you don’t own an amplifier, you’ll always need a computer or some kind of electronic device to play the guitar. That being said, an iPhone like this one from Amazon is great for Garageband, Bias FX, and other amp simulators are cool too, but they’re just no match for a real amp when it comes down to it.

Is Using an Audio Interface and DAW Better Than An Amp?  

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After going through this entire article, you should have an idea of whether an audio interface, DAW, and amp modeler combo is better for you rather than a traditional amp. I think the long and short of it is this: guitar amp simulators are better for people who want a convenient and flexible set-up whereas traditional amplifiers are for those of us who prioritize the overall sound quality.

That said, an interface can be better if you look for compact and convenient ways to record or hear yourself play. You have endless options for amp modelers and pedals when you have a DAW and interface. You can even change the EQ and the room sound with plugins like Amplitube 5 among others.

You can’t do that with an amp unless you do it in real-time with additional microphones or by actually physically moving your amplifier.  

Can I Use An Audio Interface As an Amp? 

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Some of this might be a bit confusing, but the long and short of it is that you can’t just use an audio interface as an amplifier. It needs to be connected to a computer with a DAW on it, and ideally, that DAW should come with a guitar amp simulator of some kind.

Put another way, you can’t use an audio interface alone as an amp because it is just one part of a whole computer set-up that usually includes a digital audio work station, an amp modeler like Blue Cat Audio’s Axiom, an audio interface, and of course, a guitar.

Is an Audio Interface the Same as an Amplifier? 

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An audio interface is not the same as an amplifier. An audio interface is a device that converts analog sound into digital information that a computer can understand. An amplifier creates actual energy with kinetic energy due to its tube, solid-state, and transistor technology.

Can You Play Guitar Through an Audio Interface? 

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You can play guitar through an interface but it must be connected to a computer that has a DAW and an amp simulator on it. You could use it without an amp simulator, but you would be limited to just the stock effects and processing plugins of the DAW.

Important Things to Note About Using Amp Sims and Real Amps

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1) Why Not Get Both?

I’m not an “either/or” person because I find it’s easy to just get both. I own multiple amplifier simulators and a Hughes and Kettner tube amp. And I use both of them about equally. I use the Guitar Rig Pro 6 a lot for effects because my amplifier doesn’t have as many amazing presets (or any for that matter).

Like I said earlier, a lot of amp modelers I mentioned in this article can be demoed for free. So you can get an amplifier and a real-life amp and get essentially the best of both worlds.

So How To Get Started With An Amp Sim?

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I recommend checking out my article on Producer Society, how to plug your guitar into Garageband. It has all the details for how you would get started with an amp simulator. Also, here’s a shortlist of gear to get started with:

1) Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (from Amazon)

2) Blue Cat Audio’s Axiom (get the demo from Blue Cat Audio’s website)

3) Download Garageband from the App Store or FL Studio (from Plugin Fox) if you’re using a PC.

Gear Mentioned 

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1) MacBook Pro (from Amazon – the one I recommend getting)

2) Blue Cat Audio’s Axiom (from Plugin Boutique)

3) Native Instruments Guitar Rig 6 PRO (from their site)

4) Clone Looper from MXR (on Amazon)

5) iRig HD 2 (on Amazon)

6) iPhone (from Amazon)

7) Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (from Amazon)

8) FL Studio (from Plugin Fox)

9) Komplete 13 (from Native Instruments’ website)