Review: $399 ToneX pedal puts AI-captured guitar amps at your feet
IK Multimedia's gorgeous ToneX pedal remains unrivaled at its price point as 2023 comes to a close, replacing your guitar amp with a cornucopia of tone profiles either captured directly from your own rig, or downloaded from thousands online.
There are plenty of amp-capturing profilers out there – Kemper and Quad Cortex units are everywhere, giving guitarists access to huge libraries of beautifully captured amp profiles in units vastly more portable and hardy than the amps themselves, as well as equally impressive effects chains. But they're pricey – a QC will run you US$1,700-odd at the moment, and the aging Kemper Profiler is still commanding $1,600 if you're buying new.
Likewise, there's plenty of affordable multi-effects pedals you can stick on your board that also give you amp model options – the Boss ME-90 and Headrush MX5 spring to mind. But at this price point, the sounds get very hit and miss, and you're stuck with the amp models you're given, rather than having access to a community of people all running around making the best captures they can of the coolest gear they can find.
So the ToneX pedal made a heck of a splash when it landed in February, even if it kept its scope narrow. This compact, cool-looking box, replete with three stomps, eight knobs and a series of orange-backlit holes in the sides is really designed to replace just one part of your signal chain – the amplifier. Or a drive pedal; provided it's not a time-based effect like reverb, modulation or delay, it can do that too. You just can't capture an amp and a pedal, then use them at the same time. Unless you capture them together, in which case, fine.
The ToneX capture process
Here's how it works: somebody – either your good self, or an IK Multimedia representative, or indeed anyone else with access to the ToneX capture software – sets up a signal chain that might include an amplifier, speaker cabinet and/or effects pedals, and runs that through a microphone or load box, and an audio interface, into a computer with the ToneX capture software installed.
This bit doesn't require the ToneX pedal at all, incidentally – and annoyingly, you'll need a separate device, be it IK's ToneX Capture box or another reamplification device, to do it.
Then, you twiddle the knobs on your gear until it sounds the way you like, follow a series of prompts in the ToneX software, hit go and wait. And I do mean wait; a medium-quality AI capture is a 20-minute process even on a relatively recent Mac Studio computer, and a high-quality rip can take upwards of an hour to run through IK's AI model-building process.
Once that's done, though, you've got a tone model you can stick straight into the ToneX pedal – or into a DAW, through the ToneX plugin or through IK's terrific Amplitube 5, where you can surround it with a full effects chain and use it on recordings.
I took it straight round to a well-equipped friend's place and captured a clean tone from his Two Rock Classic Reverb Signature and a Plexi-tastic crunch out of his 50-Watt Friedman Smallbox, sending both through an Ox box instead of miking up a cabinet. The results were impressive, capturing the character of the amps beautifully. They weren't perfect – we noticed some EQ-type differences between the captures and the real things. If we had more time, and the process didn't take so long, we'd have gone back and tweaked a few things.
ToneNet: Where the world shares its Tone Models
But we really didn't need to. The ToneX pedal ships with 150 models pre-loaded, plus a ToneX MAX subscription that gives you full access to a huge variety of IK-captured tone packages. And then there's the ToneNet library, where literally thousands of others are available, captured and shared by other users. Many of these captures are terrific, and you can find pretty much anything you might need if you're willing to sift through them in the app.
If you're not, the standard pre-loaded tones are amazing anyway, famously including no less than 17 spectacular captures from the rare-as-hen's-teeth Dumble Overdrive Special, as well as loads of Voxes, Fenders, Marshalls, Mesas, Soldanos, Oranges, Bogners, ENGLs, and many more. The sounds are hugely varied, and react dynamically to your playing, making it a fun and inspiring machine to play straight out of the box.
And if the standard amps somehow fail to scratch your sonic itch, you can then buy "collections" of all sorts of gear captured by third parties – often YouTubers – to add into the mix. You can trial them directly in the app. The options here are staggering; somebody's got what you need.
Indeed, IK itself has just released a new pack including 20 captures of four more Dumble ODS amps it's managed to get its hands on, each with its own character, since Alexander Dumble famously hand-built each amp to suit the style and preferences of the player he was building it for. At about $55 (or free with the ToneX pedal at the moment), it's a lot more than most of the tone packs out there for sale, but considering that people are slapping $474,900 price tags on the real thing right now, this is a super-affordable way to grab those tones for live, studio or home use.
Have a listen, they sound incredible.
I'll say this, though: the ToneX app is not particularly pleasant or easy to use. While the amp models are pleasantly visual and easy enough to work with, finding things in ToneNet is clunky – it's not very clear what the difference between a preset and a tone model is, or how to edit and save them, moving things to the pedal is a clunky process ...
It's all these little interface issues, like when you open up an amp's "advanced parameters," the drop-down for those sits over the main amp picture, so you can't see the knob labels. You'll figure it all out and get on with the music soon enough, but it's an area IK can definitely tighten up for future iterations.
Playing through the ToneX pedal
Plug a guitar in one side, and either a connection through to a PA, FRFR speaker or a set of headphones at the other end, and you're away. The ToneX pedal is happy to work with your other effects pedals, either before or after it in your effects chain – although it's possible to overload it if you crank too many overdrives in there at once and don't adjust the input sensitivity.
You can edit the amp parameters, either on the pedal or in the app, and add things like noise gates, compression and a little reverb. It's important to note that if you fiddle with the knobs, you're technically moving away from the exact way the captured amp would behave; IK's model-building AI is deciding what effects the gain or EQ or presence knobs have on the sound, not the original circuits. That's not to say the results are bad – they're not, they're intuitive and cleverly done, and behave roughly as you'd expect. Just don't expect an 8 on the ToneX gain knob to necessarily sound the same as an 8 on the real amp.
In order to keep the cost down to that remarkable $399, IK has gone with a pretty limiting display, with just eight characters built out of 16 little segments, like a glowing orange version of an old-school LCD calculator. So much like the app, it's not a super pleasant interface, and it requires some fiddling to find and make the changes you need. But it does the job, and it'll be as readable on a dark stage as it is in your lounge room, so once it's set up, you're good to go.
The sounds are presented in banks of three at a time, switchable through the stomp pedals. Hitting the right or left two pedals at the same time scrolls through the banks one at a time. You certainly don't want to be tap-dancing from bank 2 to bank 45 between songs, so you'll want to spend some time ordering your favorite presets so they're close to one another, or else control your rig swaps via MIDI if you're building a smart pedalboard.
Running a ToneX pedal into your existing guitar amp
Oh, and if you've got a regular guitar amp with an effects loop, or a separate power amp, you can quickly turn off speaker cab emulation and run the ToneX pedal straight into your power amp, effectively replacing your preamp but keeping your real speaker cab in the loop. If your setup is stereo, no problem, the ToneX box has stereo outputs.
How well this works is totally a function of how well your speaker cab and power amp mesh with a particular tone model. In my case, running clean and crunchy models into my Victory V40 Deluxe combo tends to work really nicely with its 1x12 Creamback speaker, so there's a ton of great tones to choose from – but higher-gain amps are less convincing and would probably suit a different setup better.
Most of the standard tones have separate preamp and amp models, meaning you can switch the cab emulation off easily for this process – but it's worth noting that any third-party amp + cab capture is going to have the cab baked into the sound, so you won't be able to turn it off. In these cases, you'll effectively be putting a speaker cab emulation through a speaker cab, and it sounds godawful. Plan accordingly!
There are plenty of things the ToneX could do with; it's annoying, for example, that there isn't a tuner in there. But there isn't one in your amp, either, and that's all this pedal is here to replace. It's tempting, given the massive range of tones it covers, to start thinking of this as a multi-effects board. It's not, and if you've got that idea in your head, you'll be annoyed by the small selection of reverbs and such. If you want to replace your whole signal chain, that's the domain of machines like Line 6's HX Stomp, which, amazing as it is, will cost you nearly twice as much.
The ToneX pedal doesn't really feel like it competes directly with modeling pedals like those from Universal Audio, Friedman and the like; those do an amazing job recreating a single amp, at a similar cost. Likewise, you wouldn't put it up against something like the Strymon Iridium, which does something similar, but with three models to choose from. There's plenty to be said for these "less is more" pedals; after all, most guitarists throughout history have gigged with a single amp and worked out how to get all the tones they need from that.
But if you want something that can bottle your own amp tone, or let you play other folks' captured amps and those vaunted Dumble captures, the ToneX pedal stands alone at its price point. It's limited in scope and sometimes frustrating to fiddle with, but it's rugged and roadworthy, it gives you access to a dizzying range of sounds, and with the right model loaded up it sounds good enough to go toe-to-toe with machines three or four times its price.
Realistically, I suspect a lot of users will spend their early weeks going on a voyage of discovery through every tone model they can get their hands on, and then they'll settle on a handful they love and pretty much leave the ToneX box alone, getting the rest done with their pedalboards. Which is great – you don't want to spend too long being paralyzed by the massive range of options here, but all these choices mean that there'll definitely be something here to fit what you're after.
At $399, it's terrific value for what it delivers, particularly given that it comes with a full ToneX Max membership. And the ToneX ecosystem definitely feels alive and vibrant, so there'll be no shortage of new tones to try over the coming months and years. A great piece of kit and well worth an audition as part of a live, home or studio setup – especially right now with those extra Dumbles thrown in.
Source: IK Multimedia