By Chris Loeffler
As an amp purist, I have to admit I’ve often been intrigued by the potential direct amp-in-a-box pedals as an alternative to lugging around heavy gear and having to dial in the sound to every room. Not enough to have fully taken the plunge, until recently, but certainly enough to stay on top of the latest gear advances and demo units occasionally. When I noticed a band I was playing in was suffering from bad practice habits and a lack of knowledge in dialing in the sound right for live performances without the help of an engineer I decided it was time to explore the current state of direct technology for guitar and bass and see if it might be a solution to some of the problems we were facing.
While there are many possibilities for going direct, the Tech21 Character Series is one of my personal favorites… especially for players who don’t use MIDI or heavily programmable modelers as their main rig. They feature the same intuitive controls of a traditional amp, the series covers nearly every major amp sound, and the pedal board friendly format makes integration into an existing signal chain as easy and unobtrusive as can be. These factors made the Character Series the route I took when I decided to experiment with taking the whole band direct.
Practice spaces, be they a garage or a dedicated room built around playing, offer specific challenges to players. The most common consideration of any practice space is “how loud can we play and when do we need to stop to avoid having the neighbors call the police”. Small spaces with proximity to unintentional listeners (neighbors) require fine control over the output volume of instruments. This can be especially frustrating when the inevitable “loud war” breaks out as players slowly turn up their amps to sit where they think they should be in the mix. By placing and mixing all instruments direct into the PA, adjusting the volume of the entire band without mucking up the mix is as simple as adjusting the Master control, and adjustments to the band mix are made democratically.
Because practice spaces are often much smaller than a performance stage and don’t easily accommodate optimal gear placement, practicing musicians often struggle with trying to hear their (or others’) instrument. Anything less than a good mix in practice is going to lessen the effectiveness of the practice and could be hiding significant gaps in band cohesion that need addressing before a song or set is ready for primetime. By running all players direct (except, possibly, the drummer) it is much easier to hear how an audience would hear you sound and much more difficult to miss flubs.
Smallest. Rig. Ever.
After getting comfortable with being direct in our practice setting, we decided to go entirely direct for our next paying gig; a 200+ person private outdoor party. First and most obvious, packing in and setting up was significantly faster and easier without three 50lb+ tube amps to haul in and dial in. Both guitars and the bass were as easy to get ready as dropping the pedal boards where we wanted to perform and running an instrument cable from the board to the PA and positioning a stage monitor on either side of the stage for the band.
Sound check is where the real benefit of an all-direct band came to light. Without the need to mic cabinets or balance the amp output with the PA output, getting the mix right took less than half the time and we, as players on the stage, were hearing the exact same thing as the sound engineer at the board across the venue. Subtle use of stereo panning in the mains built out enough dimension within the audience area that the sound still “felt” like it was coming from a series of differently positioned amps, while the mono mix fed to the stage monitors gave an accurate picture to the performers as to what the audience was hearing. The end result after the performance? A happier sound guy, tons of compliments from the music-savvy crowd, and the band having a better idea of what the live mix was in real time.
Delay post-amp distortion in a live setting is a glorious thing to experience.
Similar to live performances, much of the headache (and art) of studio recording is in capturing the best version of your tone as possible. While there’s nothing that will match the precision and customization of recording a perfectly dialed in, high-quality amp in a good room with high-end microphones, there are also hundreds of ways to get it wrong (or do it differently). Recording direct with a speaker emulator, however, takes all the guesswork out of it and frees players up to focus on what they are in the studio for… to play! Similar to live performance, recording direct takes less than half the set-up time and is much easier to dial in and monitor while playing.
One of the biggest opportunities of direct recording when recording multiple instruments at once is the ability to have zero bleed through of the instruments into other channels. Where this becomes incredibly powerful is in situations where the band is playing down the foundation tracks and wants to record live as a group to keep the energy in a performance. With everyone donning a pair of headphones, it was possible to record guitars, bass, keyboards, and drums at the same time with the benefit of having an isolated capture of the miked drum kit. Working with six to eight raw, isolated tracks made post-performance mixing a breeze, and sly use of reverb and a little panning resulted in authentic, breathy instrument recordings.
Or... You can finally have an excuse to not look at your drummer!
It is hard for players to give up their prized amplifiers. Heck, the amp is the foundation of the electric instrument’s sound. On top of this (understandable) affinity toward traditional amplifiers, early direct options, be it modelling or analog emulation, fell far short of the mark for discerning players and caused a lingering perception that they aren’t good enough for “professional” application. Direct technology, and the understanding of how to apply it, has steadily improved over the last twenty years and is now undeniably “there” for all but the most close-minded players. There’s a nobility of playing the way people always have, but the reduced cost, increased reliability, ease of setup, versatility, and tone of the current batch of Amp-in-a-Box direct devices can truly free bands to focus on the music and deliver toneful, consistent performances across all applications.
That said, you may want to put up a cardboard amp stack in the back to satisfy the traditionalists!
Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer.