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The battle of the virtual guitar iPhone apps

AmpliTube and AmpKit promise to turn your iPhone into a virtual guitar rig, with multiple amps and effects to choose from.

If two data points make a trend, here's a new one: there will soon be two iPhone apps that promise to turn your humble mobile phone into a mobile electric-guitar rig, complete with multiple amps, effects, and microphones.

This virtual microphone in IK Multimedia's AmpliTube iPhone app is based on the sound you'd get from an SM57--the workhorse of dynamic microphones. IK Multimedia

DJ and electronic music apps for the iPhone aren't much of a stretch--after all, a lot of electronic musicians have been using computers as their primary instrument since the 1990s, and the iPhone is as powerful as the highest-powered desktops from a decade ago.

But most guitarists are stubborn analog creatures, hunting vintage music shops and Craigslist for the perfect blend of amps, effects boxes, and speaker cabinets to create the sounds they want. Recording geeks and live-sound engineers are even more obsessed with gear and may spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on the perfect microphone.

So I was a bit skeptical when I first heard of IK Multimedia's AmpliTube app for iPhone, which was announced last month and became available in the iTunes App Store on Wednesday.

Here's how it works: first, you download this app to your iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad. The app comes in three versions, ranging from free to $20, with various virtual amps, speaker cabinets, "stompboxes" (pedal-based effects like delay, fuzz, and distortion), and microphones that can be combined to approximate the sounds you'd get from their real-world equivalents. Then you buy a $39.99 gadget called the iRig, which connects your guitar to your Apple device. The iRig also has an 1/8-inch output that you can connect to headphones or an amplifier. The app supports 36 presets to switch between sounds, and includes a built-in metronome and tuner.

Not to be outdone, Agile Partners--which has made several guitar-oriented apps for iPhone, including the highly touted Guitar Toolkit--just announced a very similar set of products, created in conjunction with music gear manufacturer Peavey. The iPhone app is called AmpKit and it will come free with one amp, two cabinets, two microphones, and three pedals; you can buy additional virtual gear from within the app. To use it, you'll need Peavey's AmpKit Link, which connects your guitar to your Apple device and gives you an output for headphones, powered speakers, or a PA system. Both the app and the device will be available later this year, but Peavey is now taking preorders for the Link.

So will these gadgets really replace your pedal board, amp, and microphones? I doubt it. There's a long history of guitar modeling software for recording--Line 6's Amp Farm plug-in for ProTools and IK Multimedia's full AmpliTube software are two examples. But these iPhone apps don't include any recording capability, and it's not like you're going to make a serious multitrack recording on your phone anyway.

I suppose these apps could be useful for solo practice with headphones, casual rehearsals, or impromptu live performances--like when you're visiting friends out of town and don't have all your own gear but still want a variety of sounds to come out of your borrowed guitar and PA. To me at least, they sound more like fun experiments than serious musicians' tools.

Am I missing something?

Updated 1 p.m. PDT July 15: I've now had a couple of weeks to play with the iRig and the AmpliTube iPhone app, and while I haven't changed my original opinion--this is a practice tool, not something for serious musical performance--I've had a lot of fun.

I got the best results with the virtual delay pedal on my semi-electric guitar and the envelope filter on my bass. Some of the other pedals, like distortion and fuzz, were a bit one-dimensional, but would be fine for practice. I heard occasional clicks or pops, but adjusting various settings on the AmpliTube app (such as latency) generally fixed them. And you must use decent headphones--the bass output from these virtual amps will distort in the cheap earphones that come with your iPhone. It also struck me that this could be a useful tool for people who have an electric instrument and need to practice at home while their full rig's in a rehearsal space--especially if they have roommates or family members who don't want to hear them running through their scales.