It took only a few short years for the Kemper Profiling Amplifier to rise above traditional modelling amps and find its way to many guitarists' touring rig. The list of users in Finland only is breathtaking.
Players from Nightwish, Amorphis, Kreator, Apocalyptica, Lost Society, Sunrise Avenue, 69 Eyes, The Rasmus and the national phenomenon Haloo Helsinki have all found out that Kemper really delivers the authentic amplifier sounds for live use. This magical box of tricks basically sounds like a miked-up guitar amplifier, which is why it’s great for live-applications.
Kemper seems to sit best in a band mix that includes keyboards, more than one guitar and/or sequenced backing tracks. In such settings the guitar has often a well-defined role, which probably makes it easier for the Kemper to slot the guitar in the mix. Through a PA-system everything sounds just right. Nobody in the audience will ever notice that the guitar tones are not produced by huge amp stacks, but rather with the help of digital processors. Most significantly, all the F.O.H. techs are very happy with the results. And when the FOH is happy, audience tends to be happy.
To find out if the profiling amp really deserves its legendary status, and how it keeps up in the real world, I talked to a few professionals who have already toured with Kemper.
It came clear, that virtually all Kemper-using guitarists play with bands that use in-ear monitors. This ensures that when using Kempers, musicians get the same monitor sound, regardless of the size and sound of the venue.
Everyone I talked to agreed that the Kemper’s sound is “excellent”. The end result made it impossible for the player, the tech and the audience to discern, whether a “real” amp or a profiling amp was used. Kemper’s own profiles are ready to use as soon as you switch the unit on, but it can be important for the musicians to know that they have their own sound with them on tour, be it only in a digital form.
When Antti first tried out the Kemper with a band called Hypocrisy he was dumbfounded by its sounds. In his view, using the Kemper as a stand-alone won’t give you truly realistic tones, but its strength lies in the ease with which its sounds fit in the whole mix, which makes the device stand out overall. In the picture, Antti is going over the electronics in Marco Hietala’s bass backstage.
Nightwish´s guitar player Emppu Vuorinen uses computer sequencers to trigger sound changes. In the past there had been slight problems with patch change latencies when using MIDI, but firmware updates have successfully remedied these bugs. Antti has made profiles together with Nightwish’s engineer Kimmo Ahola using guitarist’s own Mesa Boogie amps.
Antti also told me that he once listened to Iron Maiden’s guitar rig from the side of the stage, and it sounded fantastic. When he later listened to the band from the audience's perspective he noticed that the sound didn’t translate to the front-of-house mix in the same way.
“A Kemper makes the guitar sit well in the mix, and I believe that this is the reason why FOH-engineers like it so much”, Antti summed it up.
I asked Sami about how he incorporates Kemper in Kreator.
"When the Peavey 5150 was first released I immediately got hold of one, and I have used it ever since. This amp has this one fantastic sound that will take you very far. More recently I have made profiles of the Peavey for my Kemper. Even though the Kemper is great live, I prefer to use real amps and miked-up cabinets in the studio. This helps you to get some of the room’s own sound onto the record. You can’t beat the Kemper at a gig – it will save you a lot of money, while delivering your exact tones from one day to another."
“To me treble damping is very important when it comes to delay effects. Analogue delays sound round and warm in their repeats, and I look for the same tones in digital equipment, too. Kreator doesn’t use a click-track onstage, which means that should the tempo drift a little bit, a dark, round delay sound won’t stick out, even if it isn’t perfectly in time."
"I use Kemper’s own effects onstage, which work well in live situations. Sometimes I use the unit’s octaver to fatten up lead lines. The effect is mixed sparingly into the dry signal, so many listeners won’t necessarily even notice it, but it’s still an important part of my solo sound.”
“Roland’s Space Echo unit is one of my favourites. It has a high cut delay tone to die for. Its texture has become very pleasant to my ears, and it has stayed with me from since Kreator´s Phantom Antichrist -sessions. I have made a profile of the Space Echo for my Kemper, and use the effect for many different things these days.”
Mikko said he feels that the Kemper is a vast improvement over Haloo Helsinki’s old setup. Before, the band was using Marshall tube amps and load boxes, which made it possible to get the amps off stage, while feeding line signals into the stage box. In his view the Kemper makes it much easier to slot the guitar tones into the overall mix and overall frequency spectrum.
The band Haloo Helsinki relies on preset profiles for their live sound. Mikko said that Haloo Helsinki’s guitarists and bass player have all been extremely satisfied with their Kempers so far. For them the overall live sound of the band was always the main focus, and a Kemper works a treat on stage.
Haloo Helsinki rely on Kemper’s own controller, allowing them to use very long Ethernet-cables, as well as the built-in tuner, which eliminates the need for separate tuner feeds. The onstage controller is mostly only used for as backup, because the Kemper is usually controlled by OSX in the side of the stage.
The necessary changes are recorded during rehearsals by the guitarist himself, with the software recording any MIDI-commands. This makes the final programming much faster, because the MIDI-changes can be edited and moved with a few simple mouse clicks, instead of having to input all changes by hand.
Mikko underlined the fact that the same profile can be stored in different banks, with each copy getting its own tweaks and settings, instead of using profiles globally. This makes it easy to use the same profiles in different banks tailored to the band’s setlist. Haloo Helsinki often uses different versions of the same profile in one song, with each version equalized to fit the mood and timbre of the different sections in the song.
The biggest issue with line-only guitar and bass sounds is, that all the audience hears coming directly from the stage is the acoustic sound of the drum set. The Kemper works best in large venues and in clubs that use their PA for the whole audience. Mikko agreed that the less noise there is onstage the easier it is to mix a good sound. He said he was very satisfied with the tonal palette he has on offer.
I was visiting an Amorphis show and soundcheck to listen how the Kemper has changed their live sound, which, back in the days, was overwhelmingly loud.
While they were doing their soundcheck and going through some new songs, my attention turned to the noise on stage, or rather the lack of it. Whenever FOH-engineer Sami Koivisto pulled down the master fader, all that sounded on the stage was the sound of Jan “Snoopy” Rechberger’s drum kit.
Both guitarists Esa Holopainen and Tomi Koivusaari are using profiling Kemper amps. Because the bass, the keyboards, and all vocals are also fed straight into the PA-system, the stage is very quiet. This is quite an effective way of working. It’s intriguing to listen to all the different instruments being faded in one-by-one on top of the drum set. I thought to myself, will this set-up really work during a gig? Is it possible to work out a good balance for the whole venue? As the drum kit has a great acoustic balance, the toms come over clearly, and the all of the nuances stay intact, too. Sami carefully adds doses of miked-up drums to the rest of his mix and the whole package sounds very balanced.
I was interested to find out, what Amorphis sounds like at different spots in the venue, so I moved around downstairs, switched position to the stairwell, and then visited the bar on the upper level. It was surprising how well the front-of-stage sound translated to the rest of the venue. The band thundered mightily, but all the vocals and melodies stayed clear and strong. It feels quite strange to be able to listen to a gig so well, without being forced to stay right in front of the stage looking up.
After the show I had a discussion with Aleksi. He told me that Tomi uses profiles recorded with Engl amps, while Esa’s onstage sounds are derived from his own Bogner 20th Anniversary Shiva, also recorded in studio conditions. According to Aleksi, Amorphis’ FOH-engineer had prepared the band’s current profiles in his own studio.
Aleksi said that Amorphis’ guitarists believe that using the Kemper is a much better solution than having to deal with the risks of rented amps. The most important thing is that the sounds stay the same from venue to venue. From a tech’s perspective he was still amazed that Tomi Koivusaari – who is extremely particular what comes to his sound and his guitar setup – really likes his Kemper, and hasn’t been longing to get his old British amp rig back.
Aleksi said he liked the fact that the Kemper was one of the few pieces of equipment sporting separate metering for the inputs and outputs. He said that you could even do a linecheck without hearing anything, as long as you made sure that both the input and the output meters were showing the correct signal levels.
When asking about technical reliability travelling around the world with Kemper, he remembered that once the vibrations caused by plane travel had managed to unscrew one of the internal screws keeping the circuit board in place. The gig went down without further problems, and the screw was fastened after the show. Aleksi counted that Amorphis had played more than 200 shows with their Kempers without any troubles.
Apocalyptica's use of Kempers is a similar story. They use plenty of different guitar amps in their backline, but they have a lot of fly-in gigs, where they need all their sounds.
Apocalyptica’s technician, Janne Metsola, first tested Kempers in the autumn of 2015. Together with the musicians he made custom profiles of a Blackstar HT-100 head coupled with a 2 x 12” cabinet. The sounds were recorded using a Shure SM57. Janne also put the Kemper through its paces with a few guitars, and was positively surprised of what he heard. Apocalyptica’s musicians were equally satisfied with the profiles created, and went on to use Kempers for all of their live dates.
The charm of analogue signal processing lies in the nature of an amp’s components, which change due to the influences of heat and general ageing. And because a guitar rig can contain hundreds of resistors, capacitors and diodes in its signal chain, the potential for minute changes is infinite. An analogue sound means a constantly changing sound – which can be a good or a bad thing, depending on your viewpoint.
For the live shows, there is often enough variables to worry about. It can be relieving to know that at least the guitar sound stays consistent, as the digital system never changes.
1.4.2018 Kimmo Aroluoma
The writer is the owner of Custom Boards Finland. He is a veteran guitar tech who has toured for years with Finnish bands HIM, Amorphis, Michael Monroe, The Rasmus and Von Hertzen Brothers. Today he designs pedalboards and runs his own web shop in Helsinki, Finland.
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