The best recording gear for guitarists in 2020: 15 best direct recording boxes
Recording guitars from home? These devices offer tracking options that are more than a step up from simply pointing an SM57 against a grille cloth.
These days, recording professional sounding guitar tracks from home hasn’t only become incredibly feasible. In the case of some artists, YouTubers and sessionists, it may even be considered the norm.
Recent advancements in modelling technology, along with the introduction of some innovative pro-audio devices meant for the home studio has made one thing abundantly clear: you no longer need to be in a multi-million dollar recording studio in order to put out a pro-quality sounding track.
From digital modellers and IR loaders to reactive attenuators and FET-based amp simulators, direct recording boxes can offer a wider array of guitar tracking options than simply pointing an SM57 against a grille cloth.
Recording: Direct Input vs Mic’d Up
Setting aside the broader analogue versus digital debate on audio fidelity that will likely persist till the end of times, let’s focus instead solely on the strengths of a direct input guitar recording setup against a mic’d one.
Especially in a home recording situation, digital modelling can be a godsend. Ever fantasised about plugging into a ‘62 Vox AC30? A ‘59 Bassman? Maybe even four Klon Centaurs at once? Well, with digital modelling, you can. Sort of.
- READ MORE: The guitarist’s guide to home recording
Granted, at present, these emulations aren’t a 100 per cent one-to-one clones just yet. But we can say that most multi-effects devices these days offer an entire sonic playground of pro-sounding amp and stompbox simulations that will fit into a gig bag.
Then there’s impulse-response capturing. Remember daydreaming about what it would be like to record with all the microphones that a studio like Abbey Road can offer? Or perhaps you’ve wondered what it would sound like to blast a 6×15 cabinet at an empty Royal Albert Hall? IRs allow the physical characteristics of cabinets, microphones and even entire spaces to be captured and replicated accurately for both live and recording purposes.
When it comes to recording ‘broken’ or pushed-to-the-brink amplifiers, however, a mic’d setup will always prevail. That’s because what you’ll be recording with your physical microphones are the exact vibrations in the air: the sound of your amplifier blowing up, at that precise time, and perhaps in a more romantic sense, in that moment.
- READ MORE: The best audio interfaces for guitarists
That said, a possible intersection between the digital and analogue realms can be found in reactive attenuators with DSPs – which is a product category growing in popularity these days.
These allow you to record your actual tube amplifier, fully cranked, but in a simulated space. Not only does this let you silently record an authentic amp-in-a-room sound, but your neighbours will also silently thank you for it, too. Some of these devices, such as the Universal Audio OX, even implement technologies specifically to emulate speaker breakup, drive and cone cry – deemed by the brand to be essential ingredients of authentic tube-like tones.
With most direct recording boxes, digital or not, the ability to perform reamping is also rather commonplace. What that entails is setting up an additional dry track to record alongside your processed one. Then, you’ll be able to run an exact performance through an amplifier at a later date, and record it with a microphone that way. As this means no loss in audio information, there really is no downside to doing this. It gives you a lot of options – and in recording, options are key.
Buying a direct recording device: what to look for
We define a direct recording box as a device that can get your guitar signal dressed up, and ready to be recorded through an audio interface (if it doesn’t already supply its own).
Form factor-wise, some of these, like the Strymon Iridium or Mooer Preamp Live, are designed to fit in your gig bag or sit on your pedalboard, while others like the Boss Waza Tube Expander may do better as a permanent fixture of a home studio.
If you intend to take full advantage of impulse-response captures, then the ability for the device to accept third-party IRs is a must. Otherwise, a more straightforward device like the SansAmp Classic will do just fine if you only need a handful of ready-to-go amp and cabinet options.
The best direct recording boxes at a glance
- Universal Audio Ox
- Strymon Iridium
- Line 6 POD Go
- Boss WAZA Tube Amp Expander
- Atomic Amps Ampli-Firebox
- Nux Solid Studio
- Mooer Preamp Live
- Neunaber Neuron
- GFI Cabzeus
- Radial Tonebone JDX Direct Drive
- Suhr A.C.E.
- Palmer PGA-04
- Two Notes Torpedo Captor X
- Tech 21 Sansamp Classic
- Darkglass The Element
Universal Audio OX
+ Outstanding audio quality
+ Simple to operate
– No third-party IR support
Universal Audio boasts an unusual reputation in being equally respected for heritage analogue gear as well as cutting-edge digital technology. The OX brings together the brand’s expertise in both fields, combining a reactive attenuator with a series of highly sophisticated speaker, cabinet, microphone and classic effect simulations.
As an attenuator itself, the OX runs impressively transparent, without noticeable loss of treble or clarity. One facet where the OX truly impresses is with its Dynamic Speaker Modeling, which accurately portrays speaker breakup, drive and cone cry as part of its emulation of tube amplifiers.
With the OX’s DSP being contained within the unit itself, you can take it to a gig or to a studio session and use it independently of a computer or tablet. The Rig knob allows the OX to call up six custom presets on the fly. These can be curated in the OX’s extensive companion app, which grants access to a host of processing capabilities, as well as an enormous range of emulation options.
Read our full review of the UA OX here.
Price: £1,170/$1,629 Type: Reactive Attenuator w/ cab, mic and effect simulations Power Rating: 150W RMS (maximum input power) Presets: 6 ‘Rig’ presets Effects: Plate reverb, delay, compression and EQ Digital Models: 17 speaker cabinets, 8 mics, 6 room mic combinations Inputs: 1/4” input (from amplifier) Outputs: 1/4” (to speaker), 2x 1/4″ (line/monitor), 1x coaxial (S/PDIF), 1x Toslink (S/PDIF) Other I/O: 1x USB Type B, 2 x USB Type A
+ Convincing amp simulation
+ Accepts third-party IRs
– No audio interface
The Iridium packs three high-quality amp simulations modelled after the classic Vox AC30TB, Fender Deluxe Reverb and Marshall Plexi. Along with this, each sports a matching trio of IR cabinet simulations. However, it’s also entirely possible to load in your own third-party IRs by connecting the Iridium to your computer and running Strymon’s Impulse Manager software.
Tone-sculpting on the Iridium is nuanced and interdependent, you’ll find controls for drive, bass, middle and treble controls that behave in familiar fashion to a real amplifier. Strymon has also endowed the Iridium with a healthy splash of ambience on tap via the room control knob. This is described by the brand as a hybrid reverb, which combines stereo impulse-response captures of real rooms with its reverb-tank algorithm.
Read our full review of the Strymon Iridium here.
Price: £399/$399 Type: Digital amp modeller w/ IR Loader Amp types: 3 Cabinet types: 9 Effect types: Reverb (hybrid) Inputs: 1/4” TRS Input Outputs: 2x 1/4″ (L/mono, R), 1x 1/8″ (headphones) Other I/O: 1x 1/4″ TRS (expression/MIDI), 1x Mini USB
Line 6 POD Go
+ Helix modelling engine
+ Over 300 amps and effects
– Lacks the programmability of the Helix
The Line 6 POD Go is a multi-effects floorboard that’s equipped with the same HX modelling engine as the brand’s flagship Helix floorboard. It offers a plethora of sonic options, borrowing some 300 amps and effects from the Helix, M-Series and legacy libraries. Notably, it even has third-party IR loading capabilities, which is impressive given its affordable price tag.
On the POD Go, up to six simultaneous amp, cabinet and effect blocks can be run at a time. All this is handled neatly thanks to both the device’s clear cut interface and its 11cm colour LCD display. Being able to operate as a 4×4 audio interface also allows a home recording setup to be distilled down to a guitar, laptop and POD Go rig.
Price: About £436/$449 Type: Multi-effects pedal w/ IR Loader Effects: Over 300 (amps, cabinet and stompbox models) Inputs: 1x 1/4″ (instrument), 1x 1/4″ (FX return) Outputs: 2x 1/4″ (main out), 1x 1/4″ (amp out), 1x 1/4″ (FX send) Other I/O: 1x USB Type B, 1×1/4” (headphone), 1x 1/4″ TRS (expression) Other features: Onboard expression pedal
Boss Waza Tube Amp Expander
+ Third-party IR support
+ Waza-quality effects
– Premium price tag
Aimed at offering tube amp players more flexibility in the studio and onstage, the Boss Waza Tube Amp Expander is a reactive load box, active analogue power stage, cab simulator, IR loader and recording interface all rolled into one.
The reactive load section of the device allows players to silently record their cranked tube amp, with resonance and presence controls that optimise impedance interaction with your amp’s output transformer. This offers a total of 16 configurations that make your amp behave as though it were hooked up to a real speaker cab.
In the DSP realm, the Boss Tube Amp Expander packs a handful of Waza-quality effects which include compressors, delays, reverbs and EQs. A minor but thoughtful inclusion on the unit is an external effects loop, which could be handy when working with a vintage tube amp that doesn’t supply its own.
Price: £1,185/$1,899.99 Type: Reactive Attenuator w/ DSP, audio interface and IR loading Power Rating: 150W RMS (maximum input power) Presets: 10 onboard Effects: 10 Boss Effects Digital Models: 22 speaker cabinets (9 close-mics each), 32 custom IR slots Inputs: 1x 1/4″ (powered signal in), 1x 1/4″ (FX return) Outputs: 2x 1/4″ (to speaker), 1x XLR (mono line), 2x XLR (L/R line), 1x 1/4″ (FX send) Other I/O: 1/4” (headphones), 2x 1/4″ (foot control), 1x 1/4″ (amp control), 1 x USB Type B
Atomic Amps Ampli-Firebox
+ Small form-factor
+ Great sounding simulations
– No USB audio interface
The Ampli-Firebox is a powerful amp and cabinet modeller built within a standard stompbox enclosure to better sit on a pedalboard. Up to nine customisable presets – consisting of amp, cabinet and effect combinations – can be called up via the device itself, and these can all be tweaked extensively through a powerful companion plug-in. An especially useful function with this is the ability to customise the Boost channel’s signal path to instead engage a delay, compressor or combination of effects on-the-fly.
Apart from that, the physical controls are a nice touch as well, and closely resemble that of, say, a preamp pedal. This is one device that will do nicely for away-from-home recording sessions.
Price: $299/£299 Type: Stompbox amp and cabinet modeller w/ effects and IR loading Amp Models: 21 amps Cabinet Models: Embedded into presets Effects: Noise gate, compressor, EQ (pre and parametric), distortion (overdrive, fuzz, clean boost), filters, echo, reverb Inputs: 1x 1/4″ input with Hi-Z Outputs: 1x 1/4″ output, 1x XLR output Other I/O: 1x Mini-USB
+ Wallet-friendly priced
+ Custom IR loading
– Could benefit from an external effects loop
This compact digital modeller from Nux packs a host of classic effects and amp simulations for what the brand describes as “dollar-for-dollar, the best multi-effects on the market”. Adding on to that, the MG-300 also packs 25 onboard cabinet IRs, four microphones and the option to load in custom IRs as well.
Markedly, the MG-300’s physical parameter controls and colour screen do well at improving workflow, making it feel especially intuitive to call up specific tones just as inspiration strikes.
Price: £119 Type: Multi-effects pedal w/ digital modelling and IR loading Digital Models: Numerous stompbox models, 25 cabinet, 4 classic mic, 3 mic positions Presets: 72 Inputs: 1/4″ instrument, 1/8″ aux in Outputs: 1/4″ (output/headphone) Other I/O: Micro USB Other features: Nux Toneprint
Mooer Preamp Live
+ Unique Tone Capture function
+ Flexible preset customisation
– Tonal nuances not as detailed
This feature-filled digital modeller takes on a stompbox form factor and supplies a smorgasbord of preamps, from well-known classics to present-day boutique circuits, on tap. Twelve of these amp models are accessible at any given time when loaded into banks A, B and C of the unit. Each bank sports four patches that can be called up through the Preamp Live’s four footswitches.
These patches can be modified on the fly, either through the physical controls on the front panel – which gives you access to treble, bass, and presence – or for more in-depth adjustments, you can connect via Bluetooth to edit settings right on your smartphone.
One of the Preamp Live’s more fascinating features is its Tone Capture function. Which allows you to quickly ‘capture’ a snapshot of the amplifier you have connected to the device. This can then be saved onto the Preamp Live and taken to your next session.
Read our full review of the Mooer Preamp Live here.
Price: £329 Type: Digital preamp modeller w/ cabinet simulation Digital Models: 62 preamp models (50 preset, 12 user), 30 speaker cabinet and 11 mics Inputs: 1/4” (input), 1/4” (effects return) MIDI In Outputs: 1/4” (output), 1/4” (send), XLR out, MIDI out, headphone out Other I/O: USB Type B
+ Analogue tube-emulation
+ Tweakable to achieve the right response
– Not quite as versatile as others
The Neuron can be described as a device with a single core tenet: to accurately reproduce the feel of playing out a tube amp, without the tubes.
Neunaber approaches this with an analogue feature known as what it calls a “dynamic multistage gain architecture”, which replicates the voltage supply sag and speaker thermal compression that gives a tube amp its hard-to-emulate response.
The Neuron also offers quite the selection of controls for a compact device, with knobs such as the high-band EQ also doubling for a presence control. All this is part of Neunaber’s design, in allowing each individual player to achieve a bespoke tube-like feel. Additionally, the Neuron also packs some onboard MIDI talents, allowing each knob to be routed to an external controller.
Price: $249/£355 Type: Analogue tube-amp modeller w/ effects and cab simulations Effects: Compressor, noise gate, speaker simulator Presets: 24 Inputs: 1/4” instrument Outputs: 1/4” out Other I/O: USB Micro-B
+ Extensive mic’ing options
+ Well-thought-out operating modes
– In this case, a GUI might have been helpful
The Cabzeus Stereo Speaker Simulatoris a dual-channel DI box with powerful algorithm-based speaker, cab and microphone simulation system built in. Its controls and features are focused on replicating the deep process of mic’ing up an amplifier cabinet.
The Cabzeus runs in two operating modes. The first, Stereo Cabs, emulates the process of mic’ing two independent speaker cabs, offering parameters for choosing speaker and cab types, mic-placement, blending, phase and volume.
The second operating mode is Stereo Mics. This simulates the process of capturing a single speaker with two microphones: one situated close to the speaker (close-mic’d) and one situated further away (room mic). The parameters for this mode allow both to be blended to produce huge-sounding guitar tones. Many of these parameters can also be tweaked with an included companion software.
Price: $199/£199 Type: Digital cabinet and mic simulator Modes: Stereo cabs, stereo mics Inputs: 2x 1/4” instrument, MIDI In Outputs: 2x XLR outs, 2x 1/4” thru, 1/8” headphone out Other I/O: USB Type B
Radial Tonebone JDX Direct Drive
+ Simple to operate
+ Analogue response
– Doesn’t offer too many tone sculpting parameters
The JDX Direct Drive from Radial looks a lot like a DI box, because, well, it is one – albeit one designed specifically for guitar players. It combines an active direct input with onboard amp and cabinet simulations – and all this is 100 per cent analogue.
The Stack voicing mimics the characteristics of a British tube head, while Combo is modelled after a clean twin combo amplifier. Both of these also sport bright and normal presence options via a switch on the front panel. The third voicing option is slightly different, as it replicates only the sound of an SM57 on a 4×12 cabinet. This mode was conceived specifically to pair well with your own preamp pedal or tube amplifier.
Radial Engineering is revered for its DI Box designs, which are common sights in professional studios across the globe. The JDX Direct Drive is no different, and can also be used for accurate reamping if you route one of its outputs to be recorded dry.
Price: £165/$220 Type: DI Box w/ Amp Simulation Amp Types: 3 (Stack, combo, JDX 4×12) Inputs: 1x 1/4″ Outputs: 1x 1/4″ out,1x XLR out, 1x 1/4″ thru, 1x 1/4″ (tuner)
+ EQ bears usable and musical results
+ Analogue process means ‘zero’ latency
– Premium price tag
Suhr’s take on cabinet simulation comes in the form of the A.C.E., a stompbox-sized device that can transform a pedalboard or an amplifier head into a flexible recording rig. Unlike other cabinet simulators, the A.C.E. makes use of multi-stage filtering – an analogue process – in order to recreate the complex character of a mic’d cabinet.
Aside from this, the A.C.E.’s filtering capabilities have also been voiced to deliver musical results, with subs, highs and presence controls taking the place of a typical tone stack EQ. According to Suhr, these were specifically designed to prevent straying into unrealistic or overly synthetic-sounding territory.
Price: $299/£282 Type: Analogue cabinet simulator Controls: Input, sub, highs, presence, 3x toggle switches (lift/ground, bypass/active, phase invert) Inputs: 1x 1/4″ line level, 1x 1/4″ amplifier Outputs: 1x 1/4″ out, 1x XLR out
Palmer PGA 04
+ Time-tested tones
+ More tone sculpting capabilities than before
– Probably fits best only in a studio setting
The Palmer PGA 04 may be ideal if you’re looking for something a little more permanent in terms of a direct recording solution and have the rack space to spare. This combines a studio-quality DI with an amplifier load box and built-in speaker simulations.
Notably, the PGA-04 builds upon the acclaimed PDI-03, which itself was a reissue of the late-80s Palmer Cabinet Simulator famously adopted by the likes of Keith Richards and Eddie Van Halen. This model, however, offers deeper tone sculpting capabilities through several controls not featured on its predecessors. These include low and high filter controls, a brown/lite colour switch and two volume knobs, one for the filtered signal, and another for the full-range signal.
Price: £329/$500 Type: Rackmount passive DI w/ load box and speaker simulator Power Rating: 100W Controls: 2x Volume (filter and full range), low, high, lite/brown voicing switch, hi-cut switch Inputs: 1/4” input Outputs: 2x 1/4” outs (A and B), 1x XLR out
Two Notes Torpedo Captor X
+ Many useful functions rolled into one
+ Compact size means it travels well in a gig bag
– Requires companion app to access its full range
The Torpedo Captor X is a reactive load box with built-in DSPs and a compact form factor. It offers 32 cabinet, eight microphones and eight room simulations, along with 128 preset slots for saving your favourites. It also has IR-loading capabilities, of which there are 512 custom memory slots.
On top of its main feature set, the Torpedo Captor X presents some interesting built-in features that could be especially potent in a studio setting. These are: Twin Tracker, a clever doubling function which can be engaged to beef up signals quickly; stereo reverb with width controls; an Enhancer for adding extra thickness and brilliance, and a Voicing control for making dramatic and quick shifts in tone.
As a studio tool, Torpedo Captor X also works alongside a companion software called the Torpedo Remote. This allows engineers to control the device directly from their computer, MIDI controller, phone or tablet.
Price: $549/£485 Type: Reactive attenuator w/ DSP and IR Loading Power Rating: 100W RMS Digital Models: 32 cabinets, Dual IR loader with 512 slots Effects: Twin tracker, stereo reverb, enhancer Inputs: 1x 1/4” (powered signal in) Outputs: 2x XLR (L/R, dual mono, dry/wet), 1x 1/4” (speaker) Other I/O: 1x 1/4” headphone, 1×1/8” MIDI in, 1x USB Micro-B
Tech 21 Sansamp Classic
+ Still sounds great
+ Analogue character switches make sonic exploring extra fun
– Reissue or not, these can be pricey
The SansAmp Classic debuted in 1989, and may well be the first stompbox to nail tube-like tones for both use in the studio and onstage. Chances are, you’ve already heard this drive pedal in action, as it’s been heavily across numerous records, particularly in the 90s. For an ace example, listen to the guitar tones on Nirvana’s In Utero.
You’ll probably first notice the SansAmp Classic’s eight character switches, which introduce distinct shifts in a guitar signal’s tonality, harmonics and dynamic response. In total, it can run in 256 different combinations – which is impressive even today, but even more so when considering that convincing DSPs in a stompbox were but a pipedream back in those days.
It also offers three distinct preamps: the Marshall-style Lead; the Mesa/Boogie-style Normal, and the Fender-like Bass.
Having a completely analogue circuit also means zero latency, which opened up many recording possibilities with the SansAmp Classic outside of the guitar. It could, for instance, be used to distort percussive instruments or even vocals in a parallel process.
Price: £349/$375 Type: Analogue tube-amp modeller stompbox Controls: 8x character switches (mid-boost I, mid-boost II, low drive, clean amp, bright switch, vintage tubes, speaker edge, close miking), 3-way input voicing switch (lead, normal, bass), presence drive, amp drive, output, high Inputs: 1x 1/4” instrument Outputs: 1x 1/4” output
Darkglass The Element
+ Intuitive controls offer visual feedback
+ I/O options aplenty
– Feature-wise, not the most varied
The Element by Darkglass Electronics is a pedal-sized audio cab-sim box that offers cabinet simulations, extensive I/O in a clean and futuristic look.
The device allows you to connect your guitar directly to an interface, mixing desk or even two pairs of headphones, thanks to the two outputs. It also includes sockets for a standard quarter-inch jack to use the unit with an amplifier and a balanced XLR-out for use as a DI box.
Notably, the Element makes use of three touch-sensitive slider potentiometers in lieu of traditional knobs. This isn’t just an aesthetic choice however, as the LED lights help you figure out where everything is set at a glance.
Onboard, the Element is preloaded with a bank of five cabinet simulations, and allows for even more to be dropped in via the Darkglass Suite software.
Price: $350/£239 Type: Headphone amp w/ cabinet simulator Digital Models: 5 cabinets (more via companion software) Controls: 3x touch sensitive potentiometers (phones 1 and 2, blend) Inputs: 1x 1/4″ (instrument/line), 1x 1/8″ (aux line in) Outputs: 1x 1/4″ (amp in/speaker thru), 1x XLR (direct out), 2x 1/8″ (headphone) Other I/O: USB-C, Bluetooth (aux in)
Check out more buyer’s guides here.
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