Truth be known, I haven’t purchased a guitar amp in years. In fact, the last time I was playing live on a regular basis was back in the late '90s, and even then I was using a Roland VG-8 modeling system. I guess I’d grown tired of filling my house with every cool amp I loved, let alone deciding on which one(s) to haul to a gig. Since then, the virtual amp modeling software has really come into its own, and I’ve never looked back.
Mercuriall is fairly new to the market, having released their first product back in 2010. Their software is designed by Vladimir Titov and Vjacheslav Tikhonov, whose names make me want to say in my mock Russian accent. Their logo boldly borrows the classic Marshall font, and they’ve boldly physically modeled their new Tube Amp Ultra 530 plug-in (U530 for short) after the renowned Engl Tube Preamp E530.
The look and feel of the control panel is very similar to that of the Engl, but it’s split into an upper Clean channel and a lower Lead channel. The Engl does not have a chorus effect, but the U530 does and it’s available to both channels. Most of the controls are identical to the Engl, however there are some welcome additions and adaptations on the U530 I’ll go over later. The U530 is compatible with VST, Audio Unit, and AAX hosts (no stand-alone mode), and runs on Mac and Windows-based computers.
Like the Engl, the U530 is a four-channel preamp. Both the Clean and Lead channels have switchable high and low gain settings, which basically provide for four basic flavors: clean, crunch, brown, and lead. The Clean channel has a bright switch and 3-band EQ, while the Lead channel has 4-band EQ with a Contour setting. The Engl has a built-in low output power amp that is actually not modeled in the U530 instead you'll find included an emulation of a single-step Class A tube power amp on 6L6GC. We've been told this is because the amp that E530 has is quite bland on its own.
Speaking of the Presence control, one of the benefits of physical modeling is being able to add features that might not exist on the ‘real thing.’ To that end, Mercuriall have added a chorus effect, the Presence control for the power amp emulator, the power amp is switchable on or off, two additional flavors to the Contour switch (including an E340 emulation), three choices for 12AX7 tubes offering differing gains, and eight speaker cabinets with virtual microphone positions and distances.
The U530 installation procedure is pretty straightforward. There’s no installer, but the graphics on this disk image show you how to drop-and-drag the component and plug-in into the proper folders. The copy protection is challenge/response-style, so you’ll need to be online to go to the mercuriall.com website and enter your serial number and the Key Request ID, which will then provide you with the Activation Key. You can install your license on up to three different computers.
I tested the U530 (version 1.1) on a 12-core Mac Pro tower running OS X El Capitan (10.11.6) and Cubase Pro 8.5.20. (An audio interface with a Hi-Z [instrument level] input is also recommended.) Once I had the plug-in installed in the first insert slot of an audio track, I started getting sounds right away. However, unlike most virtual guitar software, the U530 does not come with presets, save four basic settings to get you going. The idea is that most tone purists will want to twiddle the knobs themselves. Be that as it may, I would have liked to have at least a handful of presets to try out prior to rolling my own.
The signal comes into the Input Volume control first. I found it best to choose the Clean channel, then adjust the Input Volume as high as possible without getting any audible distortion. That allowed the plug-in to properly apply the distortion (or lack thereof) without unwanted input overdrive.
Then the signal runs to either the Clean or Lead channel, depending upon the position of the Clean/Lead button. In the Clean channel, it’s easy to get a rich tone with all the knobs in the 12 o’clock position. Further mods can be made quickly with the Bright and/or Lo Clean Boost buttons, or by enabling the Gain Lo/Hi switch for a chunkier sound. The Lo Clean Boost only works when the Gain button is in the Lo position, and I kind of wish the control was dimmed out when it’s not available. Otherwise, it’s a little confusing to not hear any audible difference when you’re using the Gain Hi setting.
Once you push the Clean/Lead button, you’re now on—what I call—the ‘brown’ channel. You’ll get noticeably more gain, as well as more tonal control with the two Mid controls and the Contour options. Leaving the Contour disabled is a great sound, but the next setting provides boosts between 300 to 500 Hz, and 1 to 2 kHz. The E430 mode gives the midrange a bit of a scoop.
For further tone crafting, you can choose between three different 12AX7 tube (valve) emulations: RCA for average gain, TS (TungSol) for increased gain, and RSD for extremely high gain. The tube choice is saved when you create your own presets, and works on all four channels equally. (See the left side of Figure 4.)
The signal then passes through the Chorus (if enabled), and then to the Master section, which includes the Master volume with Presence control, as well as the Power Amp emulation. From there it runs through the speaker and microphone emulations. There are eight speaker cabinets to choose from, and more info about the cabinets can be found in the manual or at mercuriall.com. The microphone is modeled on a Shure SM57, and the X,Y graph allows you to place the mic at different speaker locations, as well as distances from zero to 6 inches. (Note: The graph reads like an open book, with the speaker cap in the center and the speaker edges at the far left or right sides; see Figure 4 for more information.) The Output Volume control sets the final level of the plug-in.
If you like the sound of the Engl E530, you’ll love the sound of the U530, especially at roughly one tenth of the price. Not only does it sound like the E530, but there are more tonal options, plus you can use as many instances of the plug-in as your computer will allow, which is not something that’s possible with any hardware device.
The first thing that struck me was how punchy the U530 sounds. The clean, crunch, and brown settings truly ‘feel’ like a real, newly-tubed amp. The lead setting still has punch, but just like a real amp, the natural compression of high gain settings tends to diminish the punchiness. A gain-maxed Lead channel setting offers an absolutely searing rock guitar sound. The Chorus is a nice feature to have, but I’m not sure I’d use it with higher gain sounds. The speaker emulations are all great, and the microphone placement can make a huge impact on the character of the sound.
The U530 certainly sounds like the E530 from which it was modeled. It doesn’t provide the flexibility of a guitar workstation like Native Instruments Guitar Rig 5 ($199.00), but what it’s designed to do—be a virtual E530—it does very well, and for much less than other programs and tangible preamps.
There are only a few things I didn’t like. I mentioned the lack of factory presets already, but the layout of some controls are a little confusing, like the cabinet bypass button location at the top of the control panel rather than in the cabinet settings window. Also, the PDF manual that came with version 1.1 is pretty sparse on information and application. I actually had to refer to the E530 owners manual to get the gist of some settings.
Lastly, bear in mind that 4X and higher oversampling settings (see the left side of Figure 4) will require a pretty fast computer, especially if you’re using the Precise setting rather than Fast. My 12-core Mac could handle the settings of 8X and Precise, but not with a lot of other instruments and effects running simultaneously. Mercuriall recommend that on slower computers or big projects, you’ll want to use the Fast setting and 2X or lower oversampling settings during recording, then freeze or render the tracks using the highest settings.
Even with its small list of peculiarities, the U530 is a fantastic-sounding plug-in. Mercuriall have also made it possible to try out for yourself by downloading the Tube Amp Ultra 530 Free version of the plug-in. It doesn’t allow you to change certain settings, only has one tube and one cabinet, etc., but it’s free. So if $59.99 is too rich for you, you can still get some of the U530 tones for bupkis. But I’ll bet that after using the free version, you’ll want to upgrade quickly. The full U530 is that good!
Pros: A faithful emulation of the Engl E530, killer speaker and microphone options, inexpensive, and highly stable.
Cons: No factory presets, not the best manual, and a slightly confusing control panel.