Guitar Pedals Vs. Software – (How To Choose)

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Traditional physical guitar pedals or virtual plugins- which should you choose?

I own several pedals, and I utilize plugin software. In a perfect world, I don’t think you need to choose. There is no rule stating you have to use one or the other.

Depending on the sound I am looking for when covering a song or writing my own music, I may choose one of my physical pedals, my plugin software, or a combination of the two methods.

I am obsessed with tone and developing unique sounds, so the more options I have at my disposal, the better.

There are several pros and cons for both physical and software/plugin/virtual pedals, which is an essential consideration as you develop your tone. Factors such as cost, space, and sound quality should all be considered as you determine which type of pedal is right for you. We’ll take a closer look at all these factors but here’s the quick answer:

Both physical pedals and digital pedals have similar sound quality so the decision really comes down to cost and space. Physical pedals will usually cost more over the long run and they’ll obviously take up more space than their digital counterparts. Still, both can work so it often comes down to your sound preference. 

Let’s take a closer look!

1. Cost

If you have spent any time in the music world, you know that our cherished hobby, or if you are fortunate enough, profession, is not cheap.

Although we live in a golden age of music, with many amazing affordable products for many different budgets, we still have to be conscious of when and how we spend our hard-earned money.

Therefore, when determining if traditional pedals or virtual plugins are right for you, the cost is often one of the first considerations, and rightfully so.

However, the question is more complex than one being more expensive than the other. Like any other product, there is a wide range of costs with both traditional and software/plugin pedals.

Traditional Physical Pedals

There are literally thousands of options when it comes to physical pedals. A quick look at Sweetwater brings up over 40 pages of options ranging in price from the Behringer Octaver at $19.00 to several multi-effects pedals/Amplifier modelers that are well over $1,000.

Further breaking down traditional pedals, there are two major types: Analog and Digital.

Analog pedals have a continuous signal, which is a consistent signal wave. Whereas digital doesn’t have this continuous signal, it will be a very clean signal and won’t have the slight imperfections that an analog pedal might.

For the average listener or player, the sound differences are minute. However, there are ongoing debates about which is better, and you can find several YouTube videos exploring this topic.

For a long time, it seemed that most pro guitarists primarily used analog pedals. However, as technology has improved in recent years, many high-profile guitarists such as Guthrie Govan and Dave Mustaine have recently switched to digital set-ups, joining other famous guitarists such as Kiko Loureiro and Steve Vai, among others.

In terms of cost, upfront, you will spend more for analog. For example, the Neural DSP Quad Cortex that Dave Mustaine and Kiko Loureiro of Megadeth use will cost you about $1,800.

However, in capturing everything you can do with a rig like the Neural DSP, you will likely be spending a lot more on Analog pedals in the long run.

Luckily, for those of us trying to save a few bucks, there is a pretty robust used pedal market at places such as Guitar Center or Reverb that can help you still get the pedals you want at a more affordable cost.

Software/Plugin/Virtual Pedals

Generally speaking, you will spend less money on the virtual side of things for a similar collection of traditional physical pedals.

This technology, like digital pedals, has come a long way in recent years and the sounds are often very comparable to traditional pedals, sometimes even better and more consistent.

Many companies offer this type of software, and just like physical pedals, there is a wide range of pricing. For example, the Positive Grid BIAS platinum bundle is listed on Sweetwater for $799, which is on the high end of pricing.

The software I use, STL Tones AmpHub, is only $100 per year, and they provide monthly updates of new pedals and amp models at no additional costs. This saves me thousands of dollars I would otherwise have to spend on Amps and pedals to replicate these sounds.

So the big pro here is you can get away with spending less money with virtual pedals. There are even several companies that offer free plugins; you just have to do a little searching to find them.

One downside of virtual pedals is that you will need a digital audio workstation (DAW) to record anything. I use Ableton Live 11, but there are many other great options to choose from.

Some software requires a DAW to work; however, many programs also have standalone versions. Either way, you will likely need an audio interface like the Focusrite Scarlett.

I use the 18i20, which has eight microphone inputs to allow a complete drum-recording setup. However, there are cheaper versions like the 2i2, which has two mic inputs, that you can pick up for around $180.

2. Space

Physical space is also a serious consideration when determining which way to go as you build your collection of guitar accessories.

I am incredibly fortunate to have an entire spare bedroom dedicated to my recording studio/office, which allows me much space to continue to add to my collection.

However, not everyone has a dedicated music space, so let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of traditional vs. software/plugin pedals regarding space usage.

Traditional Physical Pedals

One of the biggest cons regarding physical pedals is that they take up space. Sure, they are relatively small, but if you only have a small space to utilize, to begin with, trying to build your tone library with pedals will eventually take up a significant amount of space. You also have to keep them clean, modify them to fit your board and of course not misplace them as I’ve done with probably 1,000 guitar picks.

I currently have a relatively small collection, so they don’t take up a ton of space, but I am obsessed with new and unique sounds, so my collection will undoubtedly grow, so I will need to allocate additional space for them.

Guitar pedals are small individually but together they take up a lot of space.

Further, most guitarists that use pedals also use pedal boards, which can take up additional space.

I limit my homemade pedalboard’s impact on my space by keeping it on my homemade storage shelf and storing things such as power cables when I am not using it.

I also do not keep my pedals on my board so I can easily access and use a specific pedal for a piece of music I am working on.

Better storage makes using an actual pedal much easier.

Software/Plugin/Virtual Pedals

The biggest pro of software/plugin pedals is that they don’t take up any physical space. This means, in theory, you can have an unlimited amount of virtual pedals and never have to worry about taking up space beside the space on your computer hard drive.

One screen and dozens of pedals.

As you can see, I have several pedals in one location that only takes a simple click of the mouse to bring up and activate.

Further, the software I use, STL Tones AmpHub, offers endless configuration options that can be saved as presets. Other software, such as Positive Grid BIAS FX, offers similar options. You can check out the pedals here:

My favorite digital pedal.

One downside of the software I use is that I am limited to only a chain of four pedals, whereas on a traditional pedalboard, I am only limited by the size of the board.

Based purely on physical space considerations, virtual pedals overwhelmingly win the day.

However, if you are looking for a sheer number of possibilities, traditional pedals could give you more options if you have a large enough pedalboard to facilitate your needs or just stick with a few genres.

3. Sound Quality

Rest assured, with today’s technology in both physical and virtual pedals, you can expect a high-quality sound. As the YouTube video above demonstrates, you can get amazing sounds with whichever option you choose.

Digital and virtual options typically give you a more consistent sound than traditional analog-style pedals. However, traditional analog pedals often offer a warmer-sounding tone, and sometimes the audio imperfections that accompany these types of pedals can increase the sound quality and uniqueness.

In the modern era of music production, there is no wrong way to go in terms of virtual vs. physical pedals. There are even times when I will combine my physical pedals and virtual pedals/software for completely unique sounds on my recordings.

Closing Thoughts

At the end of the day, producing a great sound or tone is what matters most. This, of course, is largely subjective, and part of the experience of playing guitar is finding what works best for you.

Even though physical pedals have some downsides, they aren’t going to become obsolete or outdated anytime soon.

If you have the financial means, try out as many options as possible to find out what works best for you. If your budget is a bit more restrictive, find out what your favorite guitarists use in their rigs and start there.