|Getting ready for the real tube vs digital smackdown
Call me a skeptic but curious, could the Kemper Profiling amplifier really deliver the sound of a mic'd up Marshall stack? Could it sound like my Dual Rectifier amp playing through a Marshall 4x12 loaded with Vintage 30 Celestion speakers?
Promises, promises, promises and then finally one of my favorite heavy rock producers, Michael Wagener really went all in for the Kemper. His reviews and comments about it finally pushed me over the edge and made me want to give it a closer look because this guy really knows big bold guitar sound (he's the producer behind over 100-million rock and metal albums sold).
|Kemper Toaster Model
|Kemper Rack Model
|XLR balanced and parallel unbalanced 1/4" phone stereo Main Output connectors
ACQUISITION - THE JOURNEY BEGINS
The rack model finally became too tempting, it was time to jump in, get one of these and hear if all the press was true. Next was to decide whether to get the internal power amp and footswitch options. I was mainly interested in using the Kemper in the studio to speed up cutting guitar tracks.
The promise the Kemper makes is, if you spend time carefully profiling your amps you can create digitally accurate copies which can be controlled and played through the Kemper without the original amp and speakers being present. The idea still sounds like science fiction to me.
I made up my mind and decided to get a Kemper Rack Profiler by itself, no amp, no foot-pedal. I figured I could use midi to switch presets if I need to. For the time being this would help keep the investment smaller so if ultimately I did not like the amp I would not have so much invested in proprietary hardware.
I gave Jim, my Sweetwater sales engineer a call and he quickly engineered me a great deal. Jim is usually not excited about any gear, but when I mentioned the Kemper he became quite animated and was certain I'd love it. The amp shipped that day and arrived in Florida two days later. Sometimes the delivery process is really fast and sometimes really slow, this time it was extremely fast.
Everything about the Kemper exudes quality German engineering and design, even the cardboard box the unit shipped in was an extra heavy double walled carton, the printing was all precise and beautiful. The Profiling Rack Amp was carefully packed and arrived in perfect condition. A thick green manual accompanied the amplifier.
The unit itself is very much like a traditional rack mount piece of studio equipment. It feels like all steel construction, all the input and output jacks are high quality. Most of the knobs on the front are rotary encoders which digitally control functions. There is a large centrally located display area which tells the name of the preset and other useful information.
|Virtual Strobe Tuner on Main Display
The power switch (chicken head knob) is actually a multi position rotary switch. The first position is "power off". The next position is "Tuner" and it's very cool, the entire front display changes into a virtual strobe tuner. I have not read anything about the specific accuracy of this particular tuner but after using if for a few months I've come to depend on it for extremely precise tuning. I've also used it for adjusting the intonation on several of my guitars with great success.
|The Chicken Head Knob
Profiling is very different from any other form of amplifier modeling. A "studio-profile" is like a digital picture of how an actual physical amplifier and speaker sounds at a particular setting.
To make a studio-profile you plug your guitar into the Kemper and the Kemper-Direct Output / Send into the input on your amp. The sound from your guitar passes through the Kemper unaffected so you can fine tune your tone on the real amplifier you're profiling.
To capture the profile into the Kemper you need to connect a microphone to the Return Input on the rear of the unit and place it in front of your guitar amp speaker. Once you've got the tone like you want it on your guitar amplifier, you start the profiling process which takes less than a minute.
|Balanced microphone line connected to XLR Return Input
During profiling the Kemper plays a special series of tones through your guitar amp and listens to the output via the microphone in front of the speaker. After it finishes making the profile you can further improve it by playing some full chords on the guitar to help the amp understand the dynamics of this set up a bit better.
There are pushbuttons that allow you to go back and forth between the original amp sound and the profile, this allows you to carefully A-B compare the two sounds and make sure they're as similar as possible. Once you're happy with the profile you go through a series of steps to enter text data and save it for later recall. This data will help you know the instrument, amplifier and settings used when the profile was created.
ANOTHER TYPE OF PROFILE
There is another way to make a "no-speaker-profile" which leaves the speaker out of the equation, this opens the door to using "Impulse Responses" from real speakers to shape the final acoustic output.
These speaker-less profiles are more complicated beasts and we'll look at them in a separate Part 2 review.
BUY PROFILES OR MAKE YOUR OWN
There are many ways to get studio-profiles for Kemper amplifiers. The Kemper web site has over 11,000 profiles available from users all around the world. Whether you like them or not will require trying some out and listening to them.
Many artists and producers have started offering profiles for sale, these vary in price depending on the source. The Kemper web site has free sample profile packages from many of the top tier producers like Michael Wagener. These sample profiles are intended to get you interested in acquiring the more expensive paid versions.
I've experimented with some of the commercially available profiles mainly to hear what they sounded like and to audition the range of tones the Kemper profiling amp is capable of.
I've never owned a Dumble amplifier and probably never will but I have tried out a dozen different Kemper-Dumble profiles and they really have that classic overdriven-clean Dumble tone.
NOT JUST ANOTHER MODELER
I've owned several modeling amplifier products in the last 20 years, most have been very disappointing mainly because they require so much tweaking to use them and they all begin to sound the same after a while, like over-processed buzz with more treble or bass, drenched in swirling piles of digital effects. When you drill down to the basic amplifier tones typical amp modelers don't have the richness and dynamic tone of a real tube amp like my 100-watt, two-channel Mesa Dual Rectifier head or the good old 100 watt Marshall.
|Monitor output can be used to drive stage rig in live application
While the process of profiling is not difficult it does take time and experimentation. Since profiling is an acoustic process everything matters sonically, there are no short cuts or they're reflected in the amp profile you create.
I tried several different microphones for creating profiles, ranging from the Beyer M201-TG to Shure SM-57 to my favorite guitar mic the Royer 121.
|The Return Input is where a microphone feeds sound picked up from a speaker back to the Kemper to profile
|Royer with mic shield to minimize audio from rear
|Royer 121 in front of vintage Celestion in 1" thick MDF sealed enclosure
|The back of the Royer 121 mic is towards the speaker for increased high frequency clarity
I started my profiling adventure with the Mesa Boogie and ended with the Marshall. I kept a log sheet of every profile I created, to keep the naming simple I just gave them numerical names, this let me create more profiles per session. You can fill out and embellish the names of the profiles later using software on your computer.
Not every profile is a winner, sometimes it takes a few tries and adjustments to the amp tone controls to get the profile to feel and sound right.
Some things can't be profiled, for instance, echo, chorus and Leslie effects can not be profiled although the Kemper offers these effects either internally or through specially created profiles produced by Christoph Kemper himself.
HOW DOES IT SOUND?
If you like distorted guitar tones the Kemper is truly a gift from the electric guitar Gods. This box is capable of some of the heaviest rock distortion tone I've ever heard. The sound is complete and includes the character of the speaker used to create the profile. I've been playing the Kemper through four full range Bose 802 speakers which have no tweeters or horns, the sound from these speakers is amazing, with a Marshall profile selected it's like you're playing through a full wall of Marshall cabinets.
In my recording studio there is an isolation room in the rear of the building where we have an array of guitar speakers located, this keeps them isolated so we can't hear them in the main room. With the amplifier head out in the main studio area it is easy to adjust amp tone and monitor accurately over our Meyer studio monitors. This also provides a great way to A-B compare between the Kemper profile and the original amplifier sound.
STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
As much as the Kemper excels at creating great distorted amplifier tones it likewise fails at creating great clean authentic amplifier tones. The softer and more subtle character of a beautiful clean tube amp is lost when profiled with the Kemper. In my experience the Kemper switches, on its own, from making a clean profile to a distorted profile and it consistently adds too much distortion.
Does this mean the Kemper is no good for clean tones? No way, but the beautiful, full, round tone of my favorite clean Marshall sound is not the same in a Kemper profile and I could find no way to get that tone. I have created some beautiful clean profiles which I could easily use in a live performance situation and select studio situations but the round full clean sound with a hint of bark on top still remains elusive in my profiling.
This is where being able to load profiles created by others really comes in handy. The Kemper has a devoted following of profile creators who are using every ounce of horsepower and capability to deliver profiled amp sounds that fill in the gaps. Some of the clean profiles created by Michael Brit inspire new musical ideas because they're sounds you've never had at your disposal before.
DOES IT WORK?
|Convenient Front Panel Headphone and USB jack for loading profiles
I have successfully created profiles of my favorite distorted amps and they sound wonderful through headphones at 2am when everyone is asleep or in a rock recording. The Kemper has become my go-to amp for recording guitar because it is ready to go, right now, just turn it on, plug in, tune up and hit record. No need to run back and forth to the isolation room adjusting the microphone in front of the guitar speaker because I'm not using a mic or speaker. I plug the Kemper stereo outputs in to my DAW and record direct, it sounds just like my Boogie amp through my favorite Celestion speaker without any extra set-up and volume level-adjusting.
I own three dual-rectifier model Mesa Boogie amplifier heads but one in particular is very special. I created two profiles from this amplifier that deliver my favorite lead guitar tones. The profiling amp includes a studio quality digital reverb so the sound out of the Kemper is even more complete than the original tube amplifier which has no reverb.
I surprised myself by making more profiles of my Marshall head than my Boogie amplifiers (at least so far). I've spent many hours toiling tirelessly over a hot profiling amplifier. I profiled clean tones, I profiled many in-between distorted tones and I spent half a day with the Robin Trower Overdrive feeding into the Marshall, creating some fascinating distorted amp profiles.
Playing the Kemper, "feels" like you're playing a real tube amp. If you back your guitar down the sound cleans up nicely. If you crank the guitar the amp answers with the full-on roar of an overdriven stack of speakers. All volume points in-between the extremes are full of nuance and harmonic character, it never feels like a box of buzz.
It is relatively easy to create a crunchy profile that has everything the original amp had. In some ways the Kemper feels even better than the real amp that was profiled. While playing my favorite Kemper profiled amp I can back my guitar down to 6 and the sound cleans up a lot but if I hit the strings hard the extra output from the guitar makes the Kemper bark and salute with great distorted accents. In my experience that's the sort of dynamic response that no other amplifier modeler has ever achieved.
BUT WAIT THERE'S MORE
|Master section, fulltime front panel Delay and Reverb controls
The Kemper is a digital guitar amplifier that goes way beyond what you can do with something like a traditional Fender or Boogie. The Kemper does not stop at just profiling amplifiers, it includes modeled effect pedals which you can include into your profiles.
|Worldwide universal power supply, fully rated by safety agency
Echo and reverb are two popular studio effects for guitar. The Kemper has these built-in and each of these effects has full time adjustable knobs on the front of the unit.
|Logical front panel layout, Stomps, Amp section, Output processing
BASS AMPS TOO
The Kemper is not just for guitar players, bass players can get in on the fun too. The Kemper rack comes with bass guitar amplifier profiles. These can be very useful in the studio for recording bass when you don't want to set up an amp or mess with direct boxes.
The Kemper profiling amplifier is a natural for reamping guitars. Michael Wagener explains in his YouTube videos how he captures a profile of the amp an artist is recording with. This gives him the capability of going back and reamping a section of a song during production using the Kemper, in this way the tone will still match the original recording exactly without guessing or setting up microphones and speakers.
Does the tone match 100%? According to Michael the answer is yes and if there is a difference it is so small it is meaningless. That's a powerful endorsement from a man who's made his career recording some of the finest metal artists in the world.
I love reamping guitars and can't wait to delve deeper into hearing what the Kemper can do but in this article I want to stay focused on the basic feature set of the profiling rack.
The Kemper web site provides access to their owner/user community which includes a very active forum. The operating system of the Kemper amplifier is updated with new features on a regular basis and the company has been quite responsive to the user base.
Updating the firmware of the Kemper is easy, you download the update to your computer, then transfer it to a USB memory stick. This stick gets plugged in to a USB port on the front of the Kemper and after a couple of secret button pushes the unit updates itself.
The Kemper comes with a computer program called "Rig Manager" that can help keep the amp organized. A simple USB connection between the Kemper and your computer is all it takes to run the library program.
Personally I'm keeping the number of profiles loaded in to my Kemper down to a small number that I actually use. I don't want to search through hundreds of profiles each time I want to record, I'm usually after a specific tone.
When you run the software on your computer you can see exactly what profiles are loaded in to your Kemper amplifier. You can rename the files and add new ones or take out profiles you're not using right now. My master library of Profiles has quickly grown to over 400 but I keep only about a dozen loaded in to the Kemper Rack for quick easy access, these cover all my basic playing needs whether live or in the studio.
If your computer is on the internet then you can access the Kemper worldwide user collection of profiles which numbers in the thousands, possibly 10,000's by now. These profiles can easily be downloaded and auditioned by double clicking them. The quality of these profiles is all over the place ranging from nasty to barely-useable to wow-awesome. When my Kemper first arrived I spent the first couple of days with it auditioning many profiles, this helped me learn the range of tones the unit was capable of but then I got to work profiling my amplifiers which is what I really bought it for.
When I sit down to record it's easy to just grab the USB cable from the rear of the Kemper and plug this in to my Mac Pro. Then I can run the Rig Manager software which has over 500 profiles currently in it, organized in to folders. This makes it easy to open a folder and run through several profiles without transferring them to my Kemper permanently. To do this, you just pick any profile in the Rig Manager and double click it, this instantly transfers it to the Kemper amplifier and makes it active. You can set the software to automatically load so you can scroll through a folder of amps very quickly and find the tone that complements the song you're working on.
|Kemper rear panel
THE FINAL WORD, OR IS IT?
One of the most unique features about the Kemper profiling amplifier is the raw sound of the guitar amplifier profiles, they sound real, probably because at some point they started life as real guitar amps. Some guitar amp modelers sound ok when drenched in effects but when it comes to the raw sound of the amp without effects they don't have the sound. The Kemper profiling amplifier starts with a good amplifier sound and then you can add effects to enhance your sound.
I purposely waited until I'd completed at least three months of experimenting with the Kemper sound before starting to write this review. I wanted to be sure I still liked the guitar tone after listening to it for a suitable amount of time.
I can honestly say I'm still in love with the Kemper sound after using it in the studio a lot. I'm a bit disappointed by my inability to make accurate profiles of clean amplifiers with moderate distortion (like a Fender Deluxe Reverb) but the way it handles distorted tone more than makes up for that limitation and the clean profiles the Kemper is capable of are more than adequate for live performance playing. Just ask Michael Britt, guitarist for the platinum selling country band, Lonestar.
Michael has developed a worldwide following for his Kemper profiles because he has the studio skills to refine and develop his profiles into sonic masterpieces. These include a variety of clean to dirty guitar tones that all sound good depending on the song you're using them in. Some of his profiles are available in a free demo package right on the Kemper web site.
Michael has a very complete list of profiles on his own web site and offers them in a variety of packages for reasonable prices. He has developed some of the best sounding profiles that feature moderate distortion and these inspire me to continue in my own quest to create great clean guitar profiles using the Kemper.
CHRISTOPH KEMPER AND LEO FENDER
Leo Fender made great sounding guitars and amplifiers available to the masses. His amplifier designs were plucked from the RCA tube manual and carefully contoured with features and sonic performance which have endeared them to guitarists for the last 70 years. Leo did more than create tone, he created a range of affordable amplifiers that spoke to mainstream guitarists and answered their needs with modern effects like tremolo and reverb.
In my opinion Christoph Kemper has joined Leo Fender as one of the rare and elite inventors of miraculous guitar inventions. The Kemper profiling amplifier has one-of-a kind capabilities that have not existed before it. The concept for the profiling amplifier sounded simple but achieving the end results took years of research and development. It burst on to the scene in 2012 and created quite a stir among guitar amp purists who decried it as another modeler which could not possibly measure up to the performance of a real fire-breathing, vacuum tube-driven, tone machine.
A Kemper amplifier is not an inexpensive device, it's not one you're likely to run out and buy on an impulse. If you compare the price of a basic Kemper profiling amp with other boutique amps like those offered by Mesa Boogie then the Kemper begins to look like an incredible bargain provided you like the sound it produces.
If you compare the Kemper to the popular boutique amplifiers by Dave Friedman then the Kemper looks like even more of a bargain. Where the Friedman is a Marshall wanna-be with improved tone and features it is still basically a clone of the classic British amp head and does not offer anything really new.
For it's purchase price the Kemper delivers thousands of very different sounding amplifiers and a universe of tone modifiers to tweak your sound to match what you hear in your head. The Kemper packs all of this into one of two lightweight and easy to transport packages which in this day and age of traveling light to gigs is a welcome design.
TO TUBE AMP OR KEMPER?
I own seven wonderful sounding tube amplifiers. My goal in acquiring the Kemper was to make it easier and faster to access the sounds my amplifiers can make. To this end the Kemper exceeded my expectations.
If I had no tube amps would I buy the Kemper? YES! The Kemper comes with so many great guitar tones in it that it will keep me working for years to come at perfecting my performances.
I'm a huge fan of Mesa Boogie amplifiers and have been since the mid-70's when Carlos Santana lit up the radio waves with his singing guitar tones powered by Mark-1 Boogie amps.
The latest amplifier design from Mesa is the new Triple Crown model which provides three switchable channels, each of which has adjustments to tweak the sound more. Compare that to hundreds of switchable channels, awesome studio effects built-in and the compact easy to carry design of the Kemper and you might be able to see why I'm no longer lusting after any more heavy tube amplifiers.
Is the Kemper right for you? The only way to truly answer that question is to spend some serious time with one. The situation you audition the Kemper in is equally important to understanding its sonic capabilities. Listening to a Marshall profile over headphones is not the same as standing in front of a loud amplifier so keep that in mind when comparing.
Sweetwater gave me a great price on my Kemper rack. The rack models are so popular they are selling out regularly. When I first looked at them on the Sweetwater web site they were back ordered but a week later when I called to order one they were back in stock so mine shipped fast.
I have zero regret. Unlike my experiences with my first modeling guitar amp which continued to be more and more disappointing as time went on, the Kemper satisfies in a way that feels like excellent value for the money spent. There are layer after layer of sonic adjustments available in the Kemper to help you sculpt the ultimate guitar tone.
You can take away the rest of my amplifiers but don't touch my Kemper, if I could only keep one amp it would definitely be this one.
So, to answer the original question, is the Kemper worth it? YES, it's a winner!
Thank you Christoph Kemper for having the guts and creativity to invent something new.
Here is a demo and run down of the free Michael Britt profiles available from the Kemper web site. This link takes you to Guitar World where the YouTube video is located about half way down the page.
Link to Michael Britts web site
Link to Kemper web site
Link to Sweetwater Kemper page
ONE MORE THING
|The Kemper Remote pedal with Moog Expression pedal for volume control
|Strobe tuner on Kemper Remote
The remote pedal has four jacks for expression pedals. The effects controlled can all be programmed. Morph is a very cool expression pedal feature, it lets you set up a clean sound with the pedal heel-down and then crossfade or morph to a fully distorted version in the toe-down position. On top of that all effects can morph too so you could have clean sound with reverb and then morph to a dirty sound with delays.
The remote also has footswitches to control the built-in stomp box effects, there are four buttons that can be assigned for quick access. A dedicated tuner pushbutton, a 60 second looper and a large visual display to show what's going on are all solid performance features on the remote. A single (included) heavy-gauge ethernet cable connects the remote to the amplifier.
I'll have a much more in depth review of the remote after I get a chance to experience it fully.
Good music to you!