Guitar Sounds to Go and Getting Self-Contained
By Jon Chappell
Last month we talked about getting a clean country sound: bright, tight, and spanky. This time, I’ll detail just what can happen to your sound—or any sound—when it’s set up in isolation and brought out into the real world and offer caveats about using gear in your own studio vs. someone else’s.
First of all, I’ve discovered that as an electric guitarist, I am expected to have my sound together and self-contained—not only in terms of effects, but with regard to the “total sound.” This is different from, say, a flute player who just has to show up with her instrument and play. They don’t have to carry their own mic or know the best EQ settings for their lower register.
But with guitarists it’s different; they’re expected to provide a “complete sonic package.” That may seem obvious for distortion and flangers, but not so obvious for things like EQ and reverb. In fact, many engineers will tell you to leave off your budget-sounding reverb because they’ve got a much better one, and besides, they don’t want to “print” with effects. But if you’ve tailored the reverb to be an integral part of your sound—especially if it’s a unique reverb sound, like a spring ’verb to better authenticate your patented noir-surf-punk sound, then it’s necessary to have a discussion with the engineer to make sure he knows you’ll be
using this effect.
EQ is an even dicier situation, because engineers don’t usually see it as an “effect,” but as a means to correct deficiencies in the instrument itself, or to better place the sound in the mix. If you start telling the engineer how to set the knobs on his board in the control room from your chair out in the studio, you are exhibiting chutzpah bordering on arrogance. Better to put a graphic or parametric equalizer in line than to tell the engineer how to use his own gear. If EQ is a component of your sound, don’t rely on the board; make it part of your signal chain so that when it hits the board with the EQ flat, it sounds exactly like you’d expect. Any further corrective measures by the engineer will then be for “big picture” considerations, not because you gave the control room a dull and lackluster
Doesn’t Travel Well
Since I was used to recording in my home studio, I would cavalierly change what ever element I wanted to get the sound I wanted, including the mixing board (EQ, ambient effect level via an aux send, etc.). Not enough highs? Just turn the 10 kHz EQ knob on the board’s channel strip to dial in some sizzle. After all, it’s too much trouble to bend over the stompbox or enter the multi-effect’s edit menu.
Figure 1 shows this combined “outboard + mixer” signal-chain approach, which is how most self-recording guitarists I know like to get their sound—with the board’s EQ as an integral part of the sound.
In addition to EQ, a parallel effect—like a reverb or delay—should be used as nature intended: through an aux send. That’s what I did with my Fender spring reverb tank. Sounds great and authentic all right, but it’s not practical to take everywhere—OK for a big-budget record date with cartage allowance, not so ideal for a friend’s small project studio in Midtown Manhattan.
The problem with this approach becomes obvious the minute you try to move your sound “off site,” as tried to do recently. I realized that while my guitar gear traveled with me, my preamp and outboard effects did not. Every preamp has its own character, especially with regard to EQ. And even if you own nominally dial in the same parameters on another board, you can never be guaranteed the same sound. Here’s how I came to realize that through experience.
After I had recorded all the tracks for my country riffs book-and-CD project (discussed last month here), I decided to mix and master at my friend’s studio. I did this for two reasons, First, he had better gear than I did. We would use his near-field monitors, his outboard compressor, his EQ.
The second reason was that I wanted to use not only my friend’s gear but his ears. I trust his judgment, and I wanted his opinion on a project where I had by now lost all objectivity. (I always worry about creating something from start to finish in a vacuum.) It was healthy to bring in a set of fresh ears, even though I made sure to record everything so that with the faders at zero, the EQ flat and a touch of ambient reverb sitting on top, I would be 95% there.
But I was surprised. When we first started to mix, the lead guitar on the first example—a medium tempo ballad with lots of bends—was a little out of time and out of tune. But because I had my guitar and effects with me, my friend said, “No biggie; just set up and re-record the track. I’ll run the board and we’ll have it done in a jiffy.” Trouble was, we couldn’t match my sound to the recorded one (which had to be the same). We even dialed in the EQ on his board to what I had on mine. But it didn’t work because my friend’s board—simply by being different—had a different EQ effect, and no attempt we made could nail the original. We concluded this was because there was something “extra” going on in my board’s EQ and preamp that gave my sound a certain “sizzle.” Because I had employed the one “effect” that I didn’t bring—my mixing board—we couldn’t match the lead sound.
Problem Solved—for the Present
We ended up resolving the EQ disparity by having me run home, unhook my board, and bring it back to the studio. It worked. We joked about how it was the largest EQ stompbox in the world and how I should put the mixer in my pedalboard and bring it to club dates with tiny stages. This is not so absurd as it first seems, though, when you realize that many guitarists—including Eric Johnson, who works with an old Neve console—will go through a board just to use the mic preamps. So the lesson is, if you want to “take it with you,” tone-wise, make sure you don’t involve anything outside your effects.
So I went home, and translated my mixer and outboard effects to their stompbox counterparts. The sound I used in Fig. 1 is now created using the setup in Fig. 2. I had to substitute a digital version of the spring reverb, and had to audition a few different stompboxes to get the right EQ “flavor”—and it’s still not quite the same as the one from my board, but it’s dang close, and more important, it’s consistent from venue to venue, studio to studio.
I Like My EQ Shaken Not Stirred
But what if you really like the effect of “board EQ” and you don’t want to resort to low-fi stompboxes? Fortunately, you can get the sound of a classic console without toting around a gigantic board. Many mixer manufacturers and high-end preamp makers, including API, Avalon, Focusrite, Great River, Neve, SSL, Trident offer their classic-sounding circuitry in the portable, standalone format known as a channel strip. One of the best known examples of a channel strip is the Neve 1073. If you use a direct box (such as those made by Radial) and a Neve 1073 channel strip, it’s as if you’re recording at Abbey Road—at least circuitry-wise (see Fig. 3). Depending on your final stompbox’s output level, you may not even need the direct box.
Some channel strips offer compression in addition to preamp and EQ, and many recordists opt to have their channel strips outfitted with A/D converters rather than rely on an external interface or the host computer’s. To bring your entire sound along, you can’t do better than a well-featured, quality channel strip. This is even better—and more portable—than using the onboard EQ of a good mixer because you don’t have all that extra circuitry that can cause problems.
Guitar Tone to Go, Computer-style
Even though a channel strip is portable, it can be expensive—especially if you’re using a Neve or its ilk. If the deluxe channel strip is not within your budget, a popular choice is to use a laptop computer to run a software-based amp and effect simulator, either as a stand-alone application or as a plug-in within a host DAW.
There are now a plethora of evolved amp/effect modelers on the market, including Native Instruments Guitar Rig 3, Waves GTR3, Line 6 Pod Farm, Peavey ReValver, and IK Multimedia AmpliTube. To use any of these, you need to also buy a small, guitar-optimized USB audio interface, and the above-mentioned companies each provide one, or you can look at models from PreSonus, M-Audio, Behringer, etc. To take one example, you could use IK Multimedia’s StealthPlug as a guitar interface hooked into a laptop running AmpliTube software (see Fig. 4). This produces a solution that’s even more compact than a pedalboard. Just don’t try operating it with your feet!
The only slight disadvantage to software-based modelers is that you really have to know your way around a computer and be able optimize it to run as fast as possible so as to reduce latency—the slight delay that occurs between your playing and the actual that becomes audible. I still run into latency issues when working with software modelers, and though there are workarounds (such as “direct monitoring,” if the program offers it), I’ve often found the easiest thing is to just learn to accommodate for it.
Ultra Compact Computer Solution
If you really want to reduce your footprint, couple your interface to the new breed of netbook computers, which can balance on one hand, as Fig. 5 shows.
Avid/Digidesign consolidates this interface/simulator paradigm into one unit in their newly released Eleven Rack, a hardware front-end containing their popular software modeler Eleven, previously available only as a plug-in. Eleven Rack acts with or without a computer, so it provides consistent sound when used either as a live performance tool or a recording plug-in (see Fig. 6).
By the way, plug-ins are usually transferable from computer to computer and DAW to DAW, even though they’re copy-protected. So if the studio requires you to plug directly into their system, you can always have the engineer download the plug-in for you and install it on their computer, at no cost. To get it to run, you simply authorize the plug-in with your USB key (a.k.a. “dongle”), which you bring to the session. You just have to be able to recall your settings (so you better have them written down!).
There’s an old saying that goes, If you learn by your mistakes, then I must be Einstein. But in this situation, I did learn two valuable lessons: 1) I learned to get my sound from my gear and not to rely on the board, which I used to think of as a neutral element in the signal chain; 2) being self-reliant makes you more valuable to producers and engineers because you don’t tax their systems’ CPU power—or their personnel’s time. It took some time and effort swapping out components in my signal chain and trying different software modelers, but I eventually got all the sounds I wanted, all “on the go.” When I went back to the original “board sound,” I found that I had actually improved on my sound, simply because I had more options, and not necessarily because I had better gear. All of which proves, once again, that you must continue to find alternative solutions, try out new gear, and go by your ears.
Jon Chappell has written five books in the For Dummies series (Wiley Publishing), as well as The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard), Digital Home Recording (Backbeat Books), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill).=\
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