AcmeBarGig Head Case Review
“You're traveling to another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of aural creativity; a journey into a nebula of wondrous amplifier simulation whose boundaries are that of imagination. Your next stop...the Tone Stack Zone.
Canada’s innovative brainchild, AcmeBarGig, have recently released the highly-anticipated Head Case into the wild. Head Case is the embodied culmination succeeding three years of deep-level programming, intense research & development, and exhaustive beta testing. Head Case is alone in its nebula. It unanimously has dominion of the sphere it occupies. There isn’t another for it to be aptly compared to. How do you spell ‘unique’? H-E-A-D C-A-S-E!
The $60 sign post is just ahead. Cast off your timidity and join me. If you dare.
Head Case is housed in a kool, rocker’s, charcoal-colored GUI. This striking, somewhat ominous interface makes good use of contrast; crisp, anti-aliased light-grey labels against dark, textured backgrounds maintain clarity and legibility. Head Case features well-designed parts that approach photo-realism. The interface elements ‘represent’ physical gear in 3D perspective; however, they are not purely photo-realistic pictures, such as you would find with many SoftTube and UAD plug-ins. This is not a design flaw by any means. AcmeBarGig need not be concerned about any copyright infringement suits filed against them for flagrantly copying famous stomp-boxes or branding. ABG have keenly designed the individual components of this excellent virtual amp suite to be readily understood at a glance, by electric guitarists.
AcmeBarGig’s co-founder/lead developer, Ken McLaren, and the AcmeBarGig team, are constantly evolving Head Case into a more dynamic software-apparatus and spearheading it as a future-proof product. You will realize very quickly, that this amp sim was created to open regions of creativity that had never been explored in such manner or depth, by any amp sim before it.
Head Case is not simply a guitar amp simulation suite; it’s a venerable nucleus for a group of ardent followers that more closely resemble a ‘culture’ than a simple user-base. Most nearly every known amp sim provides ‘modelled’ amps. A modern, quality amp sim furnishes a user with control over:
- Choice of various modelled amp types.
- Cabinet/speaker types.
- Mic types.
- Mic placement.
- Effects/Stomp box selection and effects parameters.
- Various virtual rooms (including size, surface, shape and mix/dry ratio).
Most nearly all modern amp sims feature a degree of control (some more than others) over ‘variac’, ‘sag’, ‘output tube type’, and the like.
Head Case gives a user all of this plus much more. By this reviewer’s consideration, Head Case is THE ONLY amp sim suite that provides a means of ‘building’ a custom configuration. We aren’t talking about configuring presets only (although this is included), but rather, the deepest level of user-control over gain structuring, tone stack configuration, component blending, etcetera. Head Case is truly one of those products that must be experienced, to be understood.
Smooth lines and subtle curves are craftily implemented all around. The varied elements of this GUI incorporate alluring ‘3D ish’ shadowing and lighting effects. In particular, the rack-mount effects and speaker/cab configuration panels are magnetic and inviting. The sundry bits n’ pieces are all spaced comfortably on each of the plug-in’s four configuration panels. The 3D buttons and menus are easily navigated. Shift-click mousing allows smooth, fine incremental/decremental adjustments of each knob and slider.
Like Guitar Rig or Amplitude, Head Case is a moderately-sized plug-in. It measures 750px wide by 680px high. Most home producer and small studio environments typically employ larger monitors that operate at native resolutions which can easily display this plugin. The developers of Head Case made very effective use of GUI-screen real estate. However, live-gigging musicians may have a little trouble with it fitting on smaller notebook or netbook screens. Folding, scrollable panels might be an interface feature that AcmeBarGig could consider for future releases.
Each sub section and element contained within the Head Case amp suite is intelligently laid out and well-organized. I found that as a general statement, controls, knobs and various configuration options are all located pretty much where one would intuitively expect to find them.
The default amp/skin that opens is called “MAHAKALI” and it sorely emanates a ‘dark ish’ vibe, being crested smack dab in the center with an image of the hindu goddess after which it derives its name. I’m not quite sure if the “glow” seen behind the mesh is caused by over-heated tubes or burning embers . . . . Tubes should glow with a gentle orange cast, no? One of the other amp heads is named “Guillotine”. “shudder”
Engl Powerball, yes; Acme “Guilotine”, no.
Marshall JCM 900, yes; Acme “MAHAKALI”, not so much.
It is this reviewer's opinion that these are not appropriate images for a professional-grade amp suite. Neither are the names of some of the amp heads very ‘pro’ sounding. I’ve been in touch with lead developer, Ken McLaren, about this and he agrees with my findings. He’s intimated to me that future releases of Head Case will feature a neutral skin for the default start-up amp.
One of the unique attributes that Head Case inventively demonstrates, is its innovative and easy-to-use “Head Installer”. Customized amp builds can be quickly exported; complete with all user-defined gain-staging, tone-stack settings, and amp skins. It's also important to note that Head Case ships with a large selection of knob, button and switch graphics to be used for this purpose.
** These graphics are found in the "Head Case Assets" sub directory; under the Head Case directory contained in your VST folder.
I downloaded some classic, traditional-looking amp skins from ampskindesigns.com. I opened up the "Old Fella" head in “Head Case Builder” and replaced the amp skin as well as the the knobs n' switches. I adjusted the gain-staging and the tone stack to my personal taste. Finally, I exported the ‘tweaked’ amp build (pictured at the left). I did all of this easily and quickly. I now have an amp head that ‘looks’ professional and as nice (for my tastes) as it sounds.
Some folks may like the ‘less realistic’ design of some of the amp heads; however, there are a great many guitarists and self-starting producers who prefer amp sims that ‘look’ like physical gear. Not necessarily photo-realistic copies of Fender Twins or Marshal JCM’s, just . . . . well . . . . ‘real’ looking. Again, consider most nearly any other commercial amp sim; they all use graphical elements that authentically represent ‘real’ equipment. Head Case is very unique in its concept and dynamic schematic. It is this reviewer’s opinion that Head Case could be accepted and recognized as a viable, professional-grade product, by an even wider demographic, with some graphics changes and little tweaks.
Visuals Part Deux:
FOOT STOMPS Panel: Dressy, emulated effects pedals in subdued, pastel-like colors sit neatly on virtual parquet tiled flooring. Note I said ‘pastel-like’; not pastel. There’s nuthin’ ‘girlie’ looking here! The colors are kool and road-worthy – not wimpy. There is space allocation for up to 4 virtual effects, at a time.
If I had to describe an actual brand-style, I’d say these look like a Jeff Goldblum “Fly” teleportation mix of late 70s DOD and Ibanez stomp boxes.
SPEAKER/CABS Panel: Dude! Your peepers are immediately greeted with some gnarly lookin’ cabs that make you think LOUD! The pair of Über kool cabs are observed from a slightly off-axis 3D point-of-view. I’d guesstimate it be about a 20 degree angle. A user is given the choice of three cabinet/speaker configuration modules. The MIMIC and FILTER CABS modules offer up a good selection of wall and flooring materials; ranging from ceramic, stone, woods, etcetera. Each room material selection is convincingly emulated with textured graphics that remind the onlooker of those seen in many console video games. Half-Life, Dr. Gordon Freeman?
Granting the user a greater degree of control, the ‘FILTER CABS’ sub section allows for more specific cabinet selection and speaker configuration options via drop-down menus. The speakers are not labelled as “Greenback” or “Vintage 30”, but most electric guitarists will be able to discern what speaker models are being inferred. In this screen, the user can manipulate the microphone placement and distance. You can position the mic to aim at the cap, cap edge, cone, or cone’s edge. You can distance the mic from 0 to 6 inches, or 1 foot away from the cabinet.
At the most minimal, the ‘MIMIC CABS’ sub section provides (3) cabinet types; A, B, and C respectively. There is also an ‘off-axis’ check box. The interface does not visually indicate which cabinets these are emulations of.
FX SECTION Panel: This section of the amp suite effectively utilizes the full amount of screen real estate available in Head Case. There are seven ‘rack mount’ effects to choose from. In contrast to the subdued, ‘pastel-like’ coloring of the FOOT STOMP sub section, these are presented in riveting, vibrant colors. As with the rest of Head Case’s interface, we have gads of texture and shadowing going on. Yet, as bold as the colors are, they retain a visual warmth, in keeping with this GUI’s generally darker hue. As with the FOOT STOMPs, there are four rack slots available. The effects are easily swapped with a simple mouse click on the large, easy-to-read drop-down menu located on the left of each rack slot. Each of these effects delivers great sound quality and functionality. We’ll go into more detail about the individual effects a little later on.
Created specifically for the astounding commercial RedWirez impulse response library, ABG's IFACE™ application facilitates unsurpassed cabinet/speaker emulation quality. The same mic distance and placement options are available to the user. IFACE™ makes IR selection very easy. Simply assign the folder path of your RedWirez IR library within IFACE™. The user can now quickly and easily browse their RedWirez IR library. This sub section is immediately identified by the vibrant red curtains against the wall and the sleek hardwood flooring. Classy. Very classy.
** NOTE: IFACE™ is available as a stand-alone application. It used to list on the AcmeBarGig web site for $21.
Stereo Imaging and Depth Perception:
Head Case emphasizes wide, well–dispersed stereo amplification. A producer or engineer can set up this prolific amp suite to output a dizzying amount of enthralling guitar-driven stereo soundscapes. Combinations of speaker/cab configurations, stereo modulation and delay effects, and complete panning control, collectively provide a plethora of interesting stereo expression.
Needless to say, Head Case functions very effectively as a typical single channel or mono amplifier as well.
Rugged. Solid. Robust and Strong. Head Case is NOT a ‘wannabe’. It’s very fit and can muscle its way into a rocking live session with the endurance of a 21 year old Angus Young. Swap out any of the high gain or crunch amps with the smooth, clean tones pleasingly produced by “Old Fella” or the pristine, round, Bassman-like quality of “Quarter II”. Head Case will then discretely assume the responsibilities befitting an immaculate, gentleman’s jazz amp.
The full array of effects, both the stomp boxed and also rack mounted, produce great quality results. Each of the effects units is highly configurable and very usable. Each effect’s parameter changes are dynamic and the range of control for each is very wide. Notwithstanding, the individual parameters are easily managed and offer smooth, even increments over their respective ranges.
Remember when you were a kid and you got your first ‘budget’ amp or effects pedal? The component would make noise, but very often the potentiometers were anything but smooth and seemed to have only two settings – nuthin’ or too much! You won’t have to try cope with abrupt changes or erratic alterations with any of this amp suite’s effects. The AcmeBarGig programmers have refined this aspect of Head Case exceptionally well.
To continue our investigation into the bounding dimensions of Head Case, join me on the passage through a second portal, and enter PART 2
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