Guitar Amps As Layers of Abstraction - How To Improve MOD User Experience For Guitar Players

TL;DR
MOD can produce great electric guitar tones, but it makes the user work for it and is, in places, far less intuitive/comprehensive than the competition. Since LV2 is niche, new quality amps are likely far away, and Guitarix is amazing (on par quality-wise, with some competition but way too deep to be immediately enjoyable) I suggest - if possible - to split, retune, beautify, and make Amp X into 3-4 separate plugins that would provide a complete, user-friendly experience for guitar players (in the style of much beloved for their sound and presentation Neural DSP plugins).

Here’s the (very) long version of it:

This will be a rather long post, and it’s directed mostly at the MOD Team (@jon forgive me for making you read all this), but I’d appreciate the voice of support from other MOD users if you can suffer through reading all of this, and you agree with the message.

Quickly about me. I’m primarily a guitar player, and while I’m an amateur and my needs are not very hard to meet (I operate in the realm of Fender-ish, super clean, or edge of breakup 90% of the time), I’ve been doing the digital tone chasing thing for a long while, and I played either full or trial versions of everything: Helix Native (tried hardware too), Neural DSP, Guitar Rig, Amplitube, TH3, BIAS, Kuassa, Scuffham, LePou, NaLex… you name it.

Let’s start with the most important: MOD can produce guitar tones that are very good, usable, and on par with some of the guitar-centric competition out there. MOD GUI can be outstanding. Some amps/effects look a bit generic/unpolished (the fact that one of my favorite sounding reverbs by Rakarrack, has a mix knob that gives a fully dry signal when turned to the right and reports values in a range of 0-127 feels a bit janky, but that’s a topic for a whole different discussion), but most of them look cool because they resemble real stompboxes. Many guitar players will no doubt appreciate turning real-looking knobs on real-looking amps like Onyx/Titan/Supersonic over the colorful squares in Helix Native/Quad Cortex.

All that being said, I feel like MOD makes achieving a variety of guitar tones far less intuitive than the competition. Let me explain that with a simple example, using plugins by the same developer. I naturally gravitated towards the Supersonic, because while I have never played the original amp that it models, from the description, it sounded Bassman-y, looked great, and has the UI resembling a classic, small Fender-ish amp (which most guitar players are super familiar with in either analog or digital version).

It took me a whole of 3 minutes to come up with 3 usable tones, even though the amp turned out to be a bit quirky. It has waaaaaay too much bass even at 12 o clock, but that actually made my guitar sound a bit Jazz-boxy so I got my first usable tone without turning any knobs. For the ‘clean with some hair’ kinda tone I dialed the bass all the way back, picked a brighter cab, and reduced gain post amp. Boom, second usable tone. Lastly, I decided to crank it for that Black Keys/Jack White kinda thing (again gain-staging after the amp, because the range of gain on most MOD plugins is kinda insane but that’s not extremely rare in the digital world).

Sound examples (literally took one minute to dial each one, no post-processing, just a bit room reverb on MOD):

3 tones in 3 minutes

Supersonic was a great, fun, enjoyable, intuitive experience, but there are some tones this amp is not good at producing, namely the higher gain ones. I could use an Onyx for that (which is similarly user-friendly but more complex and more versatile) but that wouldn’t illustrate what I’m trying to showcase, so I used another plugin by the developer of Supersonic, the Amp X.

The tone stack and cab parts of it are fairly self-explanatory, but it took me a very long time to get a feel for how the Pregain, Drive, Distortion (I think it’s called ‘Clean/Distortion’ on the Linux version, which while arguably less elegant is a bit easier to understand), and Mastergain interact with each other. Also, given the insane range on all the controls, I had to do some very drastic gain reduction post-amp and I think I gave myself some hearing loss regardless.

Anyway, I finally figured out that the drastic gain reduction combined with cranking the pre/power amp portion of the plugin can produce very good hard/rock and/or metal tones but I can then still use a… Fender Twin tone stack on top of it, which I guess is funny and could be done in theory in the analog world, but it is just about the most unintuitive thing I’ve ever experienced in all the years of my digital guitar-tone chasing.

So yeah, here’s the hard rock Twin Reverb sound for you all:
Rock you like a… Twin Reverb?

I’m not exaggerating that last part, and I understand that for some of the more technically-minded members of the MOD team and/or the community, this may not seem like a big deal, but it is.

Proposed Solution:
I can already easily get all the basic tones I want from the Dwarf, so personally, I’m all set. And with all of the other plugins I can use on top of that, the possibilities are endless. However, I’m a fan of the platform, and I feel like it may really help it grow, if the process of getting the core, basic, guitar tone is not endless, but simple and intuitive.

I tried to scour the web in search of amp sims that could be added to Dwarf, but LV2 is still very niche so I failed. What’s worse is that developers of high-quality amp sims don’t seem to be super eager to implement it, which is frankly a bit troubling, and increased my motivation to write this post.

Fortunately, the current selection of effects in the MOD store is already fairly comprehensive. After giving the Amp X a shot, it became clear that it’s an amazing plugin, just as good as some of the other commercially available ones.

I realize the MOD team is very small, so I tried to think of a potential solution that could actually be possible to implement. I don’t know how realistic it is but here it is:

Amp X by Guitarix is very good, Supersonic is also very good, looks amazing and it’s far more intuitive. Would it be possible to make 3-4 plugins based on Amp X, with more limited controls, that could serve as more intuitive “levels of abstraction” for guitar players? For example:

  1. Clean Amp (call it something intuitive “American Clean” or “Crystal Clean” or w/e) - an amp that only breaks up at the maximum gain setting.
  2. Mid-gain amp (“British Punch”/“Creamy Tone” etc.) - am that goes from hairy cleans to rythm/rock sound at highest gain settings.
  3. High-gain Amp (“Modern Sound” etc.) - amp that can produce metal/lead tone at highest gain settings.

Each of the amps could have 1-3 tone stacks (Twin + Roland or Vox for clean, Marshall + Bassman for mid-gain, Mesa + Soldano/Rev for high gain, etc.). Each of the amps would only have one, most applicable selection of pre/power amp tubes hidden from the user (12ax7 for clean amps, mix with 6V6 for the high gain, etc.). The amps should only have simple controls (Gain/Volume, Bass/Middle/Treble/Presence for low-mid gain amps, + maybe some power amp controls for the high-gain one). Besides the Tone stack controls - which can be left exactly as they are now - the drive/distortion controls should be hidden from the user (set at an arbitrary value for each amp and maybe set up as a toggle between two ‘channels’ for the high-gain amp) and the gain/volume control ranges should be adjusted to make sense for each specific amp. A beautiful UI, on part with Supersonic/Onyx/Titan, wouldn’t hurt things either.

This looks better than many plugins I played sound:

This would allow MOD to offer/advertise an internally coherent, attractive amp selection, similar to what Neural DSP is doing with their plugins. It would also make the experience of guitar players much easier, more enjoyable, and far closer to ‘complete’ than what MOD has currently. Lastly, the Amp X could still be there for those folks who want to have all the controls and the hearing loss volume/gain ranges on it gave me…

Fine-tuning the values for each amp would be the tricky part, but since the code is already there, would you say that the implementation of the above idea is realistic? Can the MOD team even do it given that, despite their open-source nature, the plugin was developed by Guitarix? Are the Guitarix folks on this forum? I don’t know anything about programming but I’d be willing the help with the testing. I’m not a graphic designer either but perhaps I could help with the art for the UI if you provided me with the necessary specifications.

Thank you for coming to my TED talk.

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Hey Matt,

This is a really nice post! great work. Thanks for taking the time and explaining it so well. I also love the Marie Kondo references haha

In general, I would say I almost completely agree with you. In fact, only a few weeks ago we were having a similar conversation in the office on a lunch break. Basically, it was very similar to what you are saying. GuitarX make some great plugins but you kind of get option paralysis looking at it. The amps themselves have a lot of parameters and models and you add on top of that the number of GuitarX amps, which makes it very hard to know what to use.

I also agree that the GUI could use an overhaul. It should not be underestimated how important the visual design of a plugin is. People really connect with the way it looks and you associate the sound with it. I myself am also a huge fan of the designs of the NeuralDSP stuff. They also sound great to me (maybe the fact that they look so good biased me haha).

Andre (graphic design) and myself (product design) have already been talking a lot about refreshing plug GUIs and are keen to design some new templates to work with. We also want to establish a design guide to try to standardise the size and style of GUIs a bit to make things a bit more consistent.

In terms of implementing it with the GuitarX stuff. It is also up to the developer whether they wants to do it. They offer the plugins outside of the mod platform too. I do think it would be great if we could talk with them about it but it’s not up to me to make it happen.

There are other paths we could take too which are more related to making sort of presets for plugins or groups of plugins which could solve the option paralysis but not the GUI design. It’s still unclear when this could fit on the roadmap though.

But at least I can say that I share the desire with you and would try to encourage some of your suggestions. Would love to see more posts like this!

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Nice tones. Can you share on the Mod PedalBoard site?

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I actually don’t have it saved, but I can definitely share how I got there. It’s basically what you can see in the picture posted in my initial message (it wasn’t just for the memes :smiley: )

The settings on the amp were either exactly like on the screenshot or very close. Cab on Amp X was bypassed, and I used the ‘Donger’ one from the ModernCabinets plugin.

Important note: I had the cab at like -18dB and the TinyGain plugin behind it probably at like -12 or -18dB as well (so depending on what you’re outputting to: watch your ears). That’s what allowed me to crank the amp so hard and the fact I had to do it this way is one of the reasons why I think a bit more streamlined/polished amp sims are necessary.

Lastly, there was just a touch of the room reverb:

So basically just an amp and a cab for this fairly decent hard rock sound. Again, it’s a shame that getting there wasn’t all that intuitive or enjoyable.

Lastly, two more suggestions. Pick a different tone stack than the Twin Reverb on the Amp X - that part was for the memes. Soldano and Rev sounded very good for this kinda thing, though you may want to tweak the EQ slightly or pick a different cab). Secondly, I haven’t used it for this sound but it’s a good idea to put this plugin in every electric guitar patch you have after the cab:

Use a low pass filter at like 10-14k Hz for clean tones, and 5-8k Hz for dirty ones. Use a high pass at 50-70 Hz for clean and 70-100 Hz for dirty ones. No resonance on either. That should go a long way to improve your tone, especially with some amps/pedals that introduce a lot of high-end fizz.

Hope that helps!

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I really like this way of thinking. I think it should be applied to almost any effect. Although I love my Dwarf and I wouldn’t change for any modeller or multifx in the market I always found some aspects of it somewhat inconvenient.

For example, the abundance of reverb and delay plugins whose sound is really similar and tend to overlap. It’s a similar “problem” to the amps issue and in my opinion it makes the plugin section look kinda messy, tbh. It’s also counterproductive because at the end people decide to use the same plugins constantly (as the shared pedalboard section indicates).

Maybe some kind of “recopilatory plugin” series where the most representative and best modes of different already existent plugins in MOD could be selected with 5/6 core parameters that could be tweaked. Imagine something with the design of IK Multimedia’s X-SPACE, with selectable modes (hall, the mode hall of a specific plugin, room, the room mode of another specific plugin…, shimmer, cathedral… etc, the basic and most popular ones) and knobs for mix, mod, time, predelay, tone… the OP idea but applied to reverb, delay, chorus… and even drives.

I think this would help to expand the community and would grab the attention of users that value immediacy over tweakability.

(Sorry for my english and thank you for reading :blush: )

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@jesusperezsv I completely agree but my post was already long enough and I tried to figure out what would be the minimal effective change in the guitar-related plugin selection, that would allow me to honestly say to my guitar friends: “don’t get the HX/Cortex/Hotone/Mooer/NUX/Boss multi-FX, get the Dwarf. Yeah, it’s quirky and open-source and unpolished in places, but also so much more powerful AND the core guitar experience is solid, kinda like Neural DSP”. Unfortunately, right now, even though I love the Dwarf, I can’t in good conscience utter this sentence, because the part after the ‘AND’ is missing.

What your talking about is best represented by rkr Distortion which can sound amazing, and has extremely unintuitive controls (I swear that the Level knob sometimes didn’t do anything, which could maybe be explained by the mode I picked but how am I supposed to know this?). rkr Reverb is similarly great, and controls are more intuitive but the vast majority of reverbs I’ve ever used (both analog and digital) give a fully dry sound with the knob all the way to the left, not right. This is a very small thing of course, but it adds to the overall image. Same with the values in the 0-127 range, which - unless something is strictly midi related - shouldn’t be the default. Yeah, it’s arbitrary but the 0-100 is what we encounter in 99% of all interfaces.

The core of the MOD web GUI is great. Arguably better than many competitors. Helix line has a very minimalistic and usable flat design but many musicians very much enjoy fiddling with real-looking knobs instead of sliders, etc. Of course, looks are not all. NeuralDSP plugins sound amazing, but the presentation adds to the experience. On the other hand GxTimRay available on MOD is among the best looking drive pedals in the store, and it sounds great in theory (clone of Vemuram/Timmy? sign me up!) but it’s one of the few GuitariX plugins I dislike because I can’t make it sound good. Looks can’t be a substitute for a good sound, but they are extremely important. Musicians do hear with their eyes. One look at the analog synth, or better yet guitar pedal market can tell us as much. Also, good-looking instruments/plugins, and intuitive interfaces are simply more inspiring.

I’d like to state, once again, that I like the Dwarf, what’s already there is amazing, and what I’m about to write is not some sort of a weird, passive-aggressive version of my beliefs, but an uncharitable reaction to this would be: “so is it up to the customer to make it happen?”. I actually did message @brummer, cause my research uncovered that he’s one of the people responsible for GuitarX, I did message another developer before, in hopes they could port their polished free amps to the platform. I don’t mind this, and I’m positively surprised at how much I care about the Dwarf, but I also feel like I should be making some music instead.

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I think we could incite a bit of a “community momentum” here.

disclaimer: don’t know @Matt at all but he seems like somebody I would have cool chats with about music, gear, user experience and perhaps even good coffee :wink:

I’ve been playing with the online version of the GUI and DAMN it is genius! I was playing around with midi and guitar signals, plugging, splitting, waveforming… awesome.
My Dwarf is still waiting for me to be picked up at my parents place (until Sunday) but the online GUI made me go to bed 2 hourse too late!

You can tweak absolutely everything but I recognize @Matt’s underlying sentiment.
There are quite a lot of persona’s that can be appealed by this tech but the experience should be shaped to their main use cases.

It surprises me that “all of this” isn’t bigger at the moment and I think people like Matt and myself could help drive that. Guess not everybody sees the potential :wink:

From my experience with the GUI last night, I took a lot of cool experiences.
I was delighted to see (and hear) with my own eyes that my use cases for guitar, singing, bass but also having a standalone “grand piano” sound module all can be served with 1 standalone box.

…but I also had the experience t @Matt is describing.

I’m a guitarist/singer/bassist with an Information Manager degree from back in 2004 that picked up some UX and graphical/design experience.I work in a Marketing department and I’ve been on a Communications team, I’ve been a web developer and I did freelance drawing and design commissions. I can code a little but I’m absolutely no engineer, understand little of circuits and all of that.
…So I have a vague idea on how things should/could look, how information can be structured, how an interface should look an behave, what an appealing graphic could be.
A lot of the things above are the aspects that have impact on the first impressions on a user.

I think people like Matt and myself have the skillset and experience that complements a lot of limited capacity MOD devices has right now. Not pointing any fingers, au contraire!

I absolutely believe the MOD team is building something great here and I believe it enough to become some kind of ambassador for the brand
I think they just need an extra nudge to get that cool stuff “out there”. I think there is room for improvement in the pahse where you make a cool (first) impression on users that aren’t in too deep with all that stuff and just want “broad flexibility but just enough for what THEY need it for”.
There are still so little video’s on the Dwarf, I already read and saw most of what is to be found I guess.

I’m willing to review concepts, co-op on (graphical) designs, review usability, do interviews…
Provide a structured flow of input on the GUI, on the information.

Funny thing is, I had the exact same experience in the online GUI with these 2 amp examples.
I do “gentle solo work” on guitar and vocals but I also sing and rock out in a “modern heavy metal band”. For this, I was checking out how to get some good high gain sounds.
that has always been an issue on the digital/programmable gear I have.
I’m no “analog/tube snob”; no ; I currently chug high gain tones on a Joyo bantamp “Zombie” amp; a 20w solid state amp which is awesome :smiley: No I believe that we are in an age where digital can do all we need and better…and MOD devices are an example of a great potential.

So, for what it is worth, consider this “ambassadorship” thing and give Matt and myself a call.
I think there is a potential for a cool win-win in this.

I’m on the team of JustinGuitar for years now, first as forum admin but now also in some other roles and it is very rewarding to be involved in the different aspects of the tons of free lesson material, community, UX, stats etc. the core of the appeal is the ethic and the model; learning the world how to play. That kind of “buy-in” gives you a helicopter view, you get to share what you know and feel and you learn a lot as you go. The win-win goes way beyond “hours worked at a certain rate”!
We trade what we have and what we’re good at.
I believe in this intertwined" trade" thing.
Currently I’m making a cartoon drawing of a CEO of an Italian design appliance brand and I trade it for a design toaster :smiley:

anyway,
as said, you guys inspire me (MOD guys but also you, the community)
Drop me a (and Matt) a message if we inspired you!

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Hi Matt, nice long post – thanks for your thoughts! How far do you think, we could get with more/better presets to alleviate the problems? For me, presets + pedal boards are providing a good starting point already to find sounds you like. Nevertheless, they could be improved, too.

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haha all good man :slight_smile:

Overall I really enjoy your post. More than pointing an issue you detailed it and offer a solution (as well with a great level of detail). This is always welcome and interesting to read.

Personally, I tend to completely agree on this and as @James said that is kind of a known “issue” around us.
On the UIs I agree with you and its inconsistency quite a lot. I even stretch it to the synths area. There are pretty cool plugins with a kind of “uninspired” UI (or even pretty good synths in Beta that I’ve been using a lot and feel that the only reason they are there is that they don’t have UI…despite being just great!)

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Wouldn’t something like a grading system or even somehow a rating where the most used plugins of each type help?

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@eggsperde Presets definitely can’t hurt but they are not a substitute. They are also, in my opinion, highly overrated when it comes to the world of digital guitar plugins. For example, my main guitar has one vintage style and one super hot pickup, I’m outputting to a different preamp than other people will, etc. It’s not like with a synth which is a much more closed system. In my experience with other plugins - even the aforementioned Neural DSP, which I point to often because their particular blend of sound quality with streamlined UI seems to resonate with guitar players - presets are sometimes underwhelming and tweaks are almost always necessary. Besides, it took me much more time to come up with a heavy tone using Amp X than with almost every other plugin I’ve used before, and it required aggressive gain staging post amp to achieve in my setup (which wouldn’t be included in a simple amp preset).

@LievenDV Thanks a bunch for the kind words. I’m definitely happy to provide feedback and help out (already messaged some devs, etc.) but I kinda said my piece already. I’m confident that MOD Team is perfectly qualified to build upon the Dwarf (because what’s already there is pretty great) without my jabbering. I just wish I could, with a clear conscience, recommend Dwarf to people who are mainly guitar players, and right now I can’t. That is why I felt my jabbering was justified in this particular case because it wouldn’t take much to greatly improve MOD’s core experience for guitar players.

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Yeah, that would be amazing! a little review section and a search engine where you could order the plugins by rating or something like that would make it very approachable too :slight_smile:

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I’m still going through all the posts and kind of enjoying what you @Matt and you @LievenDV are actively trying to start here offering already your help.
Sure MOD devices have quite some room for improvement, sure you can already get great things, sure that there’s a lot of potencial, sure it needs to be converted into real thing and sure we are a small team…but we have a great and super capable community that can help us a lot. So it’s nice to see things like this moving.
Not because we are lazy or we want to clean our hands from some decisions. It’s really a lot of time that we miss between bug fixes, software improvements less deep and disruptive, checking each single device that we ship, dealing with production issues, answering all of you in all possible channels that we can find, dealing with marketing efforts, creation of videos, documentation, etc., normal business (meaning: we need to also care about sales) and many many other things…and we are indeed a small team, so a lot goes really really slow in all this process.
But we have you guys! A great community, super engaged, super helpful and also really tech savy (I still think that some of you here know more about the devices that some of us internally - including me - do. So maybe we can find here a nice thing for both sides.
Sure there are some handicaps and limitations like permission from the plugin developers or willing to do certain things. But everything is always possibly when there’s enough interest and benefits on all the sides together with a nice support and communication…at least I believe on this.

I tend to agree on this statement quite a lot. Sure you can get some basics and starting points. But a clean sound will simply not be the same with single coils or humbuckers. And we are not talking about wood types, strings, picks, etc. So, putting that in a few drawers gives always room for a lot of questions (at least from me). I actually sometimes think that that can be sometimes a handicap of the digital world vs the analog world. I want to use presets, but my presets.
Every time that I get a new setup or software to play guitar, one of the first things that I try to do is to build a nice clean, a nice crunch, and a nice high gain sound together with the guitar that I want to use it with…all the fairly basic. 70% of the time after that I need to create a new tone I always start from one of those, depending on the needs. And I also do it for my most weird and experimental guitar tones. But they are my presets done for my guitar and my hands, not the offer of the developer/producer.

Noted and saved as a request :wink:

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And that’s cool …
when you guys launch an update, is is really worth it.
Like when you added an actual filesystem. That’s an impressive milstone
Then there were recording possibilities. That expands the scope and potential even more.
Marketing and sales are less close to your core and perhaps you are all just too nice and friendly for that? :smiley: just kidding :wink: You’ve got your prio’s right and that’s what counts.
You inspire us as you inspire yourself and that’s gold.

you know where to find us; even if it is small, stupid, simple questions!

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I just meant that I’m not in the position to decide where we can afford to spend time and resources on this among other priorities. For sure I think we would all agree it’s worth doing. Even the boss haha. But it has to fit in somewhere.

That’s awesome that you offer to help and for sure you would be able to improve our capacity. That’s the beauty of an open-source community. I just think that we have a few decisions to make here first and we would like to establish a style guide. Perhaps we could create a topic for this when we are ready so we can open up to you guys for collaboration when we have a better idea of what needs to be done.

Indeed you already contributed a lot by providing detailed feedback and suggestions

We have been conceptualizing a tagging and rating system for the plugins which will likely come into some upcoming efforts to improve plugin curation

and you inspire us! thanks for the kind words

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Great the users are getting to have this discussion. We all need to promote Mod (and in my case Dwarf) so everyone making plugins of any kind sees enough interest to port them to LV2. And I encourage everyone to buy a few pedals. If there is a market (actual money for developers), it means competition and better products for us all.

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Perfect. Thanks for the explanation on gain staging. As a long time keyboard player just getting into guitar playing properly, I’m used to MainStage where that kind of gain staging just happens in the background without any user thought.

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Thanks for your reply, @Matt! I am actually quite fond of presets because if they are well-thought, they can quickly showcase what a pedal can do.

But yes, this a --IMHO – a big problem. Because one does not know the intended volume needed to “push an amp pedal into overdrive” or achieve the desired sound.

I look very much forward to hear what you come up with!

I could surely do the dsp side, when you define what exactly you want to have in the single breakouts, but, I can’t do the graphics, as I’m not skilled enough in design.

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Do you smell that MOD team(@jon @James @jesse @falkTX)? What is that? It smells like money opportunity!

Looks like we have the dev willing to do the thing (thanks @brummer! I think every member of the community would agree, that this is awesome!). I can certainly spend a few evenings doing some extensive testing of the competing plugins, and provide Hermann with the specification requested above.

So it looks like the only missing piece is the UI, can the MOD team handle this? And if not, can you please provide us with the necessary specifications (file types, size, everything else that’s relevant)? I’m not a graphic designer either but I could do some digging. Maybe a member of the community would be willing to draw some sick-looking amps and knobs once we settle on a design?

This is a great opportunity to show the advantage of MOD over the closed, and proprietary nature of the competing systems. We’re very close to making a very useful and important addition to the MOD’s plugin suite so let’s make it happen.

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