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Diogo C 9th March 2014 06:12 AM

TSE Audio X50v2 Guitar Tone Suite
After making a good reputation among the metal mixers and guitarists with it's free X50 virtual guitar amp plugin, an emulation of the legendary Peavey 5150, TSE now brings us the second coming of the X50. This time it goes beyond the amp head and offers a all-in-one solution for heavy guitar tones - but this time with a (budget-conscious) price tag.

Sound Quality

TSE Audio is not going for a "many" amps/heads/pedals approach like most of the competition. Instead, it sets to model "only" one of most the iconic amplifiers ever created, and it has to be said that they quite succeeded on that. Just like it's source of inspiration the X50 is a heavy tone bringer. It shines on anything that needs guitars going through high gain amplification i.e. rock, metal and every sub genre that spawned from that. TSE offers two slightly different incarnations of the 5150: green and red (also a slightly different red mk2 mod), which are respectively heavy and super-heavy (slightly different super-heavy with the mk2). One nice feature TSE introduced is the "learn" button, which analyzes the incoming audio and adjusts the input gain so the amp is properly fed and operated at its sweetest spot. The X50 is also featured with online/offline oversampling settings, mono/stereo operation and high/low quality options which are all very helpful to balance sound quality and resources consumption - which is rather moderate even at higher settings.

Having used the real thing on a decent number of occasions, I have to say that TSE's emulations of the 5150 feels very authentic and it definitively sounds like a hard-driven amp. Even though sitting on a chair and tweaking the sound in front of monitors is not really as responsive as standing in front of 4x12" cones blowing your hair away, things start to get very interesting once you get things into perspective and put the X50 on a mix. It really sits well in any heavy rock/metal and cut through mixes quite easily. However, the range of action definitively feels narrower than the real thing and there's something a bit lacking if you're not doing the super high gain. If high-gain is your only concern then don't worry, because that's exactly the part TSE did right: the heavy cranky high-gain distorted sound. It seems like the X50 got the most aggressive things of the 5150 and putted them in the spotlight.

Having said that, the X50 is not only on par with every single hi-gain virtual amp out there but it beats most of the competition with a very realistic and convincing sound. It does only a couple of tones, and all of them are heavy, but it does them beautifully. Make no mistake, this is kind of a one-trick pony - but I say that in a very good way. It's one hell of a great trick.

Features and Usage

Most parts of the X50 are very easy to use: the tube screamer, pre/power amps and the effects (EQ/Ping-Pong Delay) are all very straightforward and have controls that are instantly familiar for most engineers and guitar players. However, it goes a little deeper when you start with messing with the tube bias and the cabinet section. Tube bias controls the power amp's "current". and it can either make or break a sound very easily and because of that TSE left them in a conservative setting as default so it's almost never wrong. Just a notch right or left and you're set. There are two tube types and each has it's own sweet spot, which varies according to the preamp settings and also affects the cabinet sound that's right after it in the chain.

The cabinet is presented here through impulse responses (or just "IRs") and TSE kindly included a fine selection of exclusive impulses made especially for the occasion, but in case you have your own the X50 also supports wav/aiff IRs, which opens up a huge variety of choices. The settings here are less drastic than the tube bias and in most case won't break anything: there's impulse length in case you need to tweak IR length, a pan control, a phase switch and a "movement" control which is a TSE-exclusive feature that helps with the dynamics of this amp and makes the overall sound less flat and more lively than most of the competition.

Everything is very intertwined and the parts feels very connected in the X50: from the tube screamer to the cabinet impulse response, every tweak counts a lot. In most cases you'll do a lot of back and forth between impulse response selection and preamp settings until you find the tone you're looking for, not only by tweaking the amp head but also by going through different IRs. In order to achieve that, I strongly recommend everyone to organize a high-quality IR library to make the best out of this plugin - and that might include buying some 3rd-party IRs (which are usually inexpensive) or scavenging the internet for free ones (and there are many). Even though the X50 comes with a decent selection of IRs, you'll most likely want to get some more and expand your choices.

The only gripe I have with the X50 is the lack of a better IR browser, preferably one with a A/B system which helps sorting through bigger cabinet IR libraries. The EQ and delay are passable, they're very basic and they feel kind of cheap, even though they can be useful if you don't really want a couple of extra plugs for such things. Nonetheless, this is a very neat plugin that gives you basically all the tools you need in order to get a great heavy tone.

One last feature worth mentioning is that you can turn off each section of the X50, making it a fine IR loader for other amp heads.

Bang for buck

At 50 euros this is a no-brainer if you're mixing heavy rock/metal and derivatives. If having a real loud amp with a mic to be recorded is not possible or if you have to eventually re-amp things with plugins, the X50 will serve you very well, and in case your heavy-tone plugin options are lacking the X50 is certainly a good thing to have around. The X50 is also an instant-buy if you're a metal guitarist that likes to shape the tone by yourself or if you have problem with your neighbors and need to get things done quietly (or on the road) on a computer with headphones. One setback here is the absence of a standalone version, which would be very handy for guitarists looking for a quick fix.

The X50 is available on VST2 for Windows (32/64) and AU/VST2 for Mac (64). AAX is currently under development. A decent manual is also provided with the basics of the plugin, and TSE's support is very well handed despite the fact this is a two-man only operation.

As it has been said before, there's not much use for the X50 when you leave the high-gain territory. However, once you enter that ground the X50 will be very hard to beat and it's arguably one of the best virtual amps out here. There is a considerable number of free virtual amp offerings out there, some great sounding as the ones from LePou and Ignite Amps, and also a huge variety of IRs to choose from. None of them managed to do what TSE did, which is to gather everything in a very convenient package that's easy to use, sounds greats and is surely worth of its asking price.

Diogo C 18th December 2014 01:55 AM

Update - December 2014
TSE X50v2.3 Update

Since I've written this review 9 months ago, TSE Audio has been working hard on making the X50v2 a better plugin and it's worth noticing that, so here goes a follow-up:

The good news
  • For starters, this plugin is now available on pretty much all platforms: VST, AU, AAX, all 32/64-Win/Mac. Kudos to TSE for considering basically everyone!
  • The impulse response loader has been dramatically improved and redesigned with a bigger and better interface, a better browser and most importantly: now it can load two impulses, which can act like a/b settings and also be combined together. TSE provides a lot of good functionality in that regard, with dedicated volume, HP/LP filters, polarity flip and micro delay controls for each impulse. Doing multi-cab setups without phasing nightmares is quite a breeze and this opens up a whole new world of interesting tone possibilities.
  • If there's one thing bad about this plugin is the name chosen for the impulse response loader: IRection. Heck, that was naughty...a bit cheeky or childish if you will, but I'll let it pass since this is an amazing product from a company that doesn't spare efforts on making things better!
  • Pedal board has also been redesigned and the once lonely tube screamer now has the company of a noise gate and a distortion pedal.
  • The sound quality is also improved by further tweaking in the algorithms and also because of the new bundled impulse responses. You might still want to load your favorite ones, especially now with two slots for that.
  • DRM stays the same through an authentication file that can be downloaded from TSE's website.

What can still be improved:
  • Presets: I thought I'd never say that, but I think presets can do good things here since this plugin has its fair share of tricks and technicalities. They won't stop novices from getting good tones, but getting more than good/great tones takes a good amount of tweaking.
  • More impulses: the bundled ones are great and I especially dig the ones done by Michael Richards at Trackmix Studio, but for a plugin with this level of quality the impulse library still feels underwhelming and lack a little more depth.
  • More pedals or at least an expression and wah-wah pedals.
  • Standalone version. This thing totally needs that!

I'm keeping my previous scores, but if the previous four stars were 8 out of 10 now they're certainly 9/10. I'll save the last bites when TSE brings the standalone and presets, but I'll reiterate what I've said in the first review: this is arguably the best high-amp plugin out there right now and it costs 50 euro, which makes it a no-brainer for rock and metal enthusiasts.