Six tips for your six string sim friends
by Craig Anderton
No one denies the convenience of amp sims; the controversy is always about sound quality. Fortunately, often a few choice edits are all it takes to change an amp sim sound from “okay” to “great.”
1. Your strings, pick, and pickups all affect how an amp sim responds to your axe, so check the input level. If a patch is a fizzy, buzzy mess, reduce the incoming signal—either by turning down the amp sim’s input control, or reducing the your audio interface’s input level control. Also, sometimes moving your pickups even just a little bit further away from the strings will make a huge sonic improvement. As little as a few millimeters is often all you need for a much sweeter sound.
Distancing your pickups slightly more from your strings can reduce transients and pick sounds; these often become a non-harmonic mess when processed through the sim’s distortion.
2. The sim or interface input isn’t the only place to check levels. Because you often want distorted guitar sounds, you might miss unintentional—and nasty—distortion caused by overloading an amp or effect stage within the amp sim. Many amp sims make the level-setting process fail-safe by offering a Learn option for at least the input, but others take this further (e.g., Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig has a learn option to avoid internal overload within an amp—this is extremely helpful).
Guitar Rig has a “learn” function to set levels at the input and output, as well as within the amp itself.
In any event, if there’s no “learn”-based assistance, be conservative when sending signals to an amp, then try turning the levels up. Often, you’ll hear a very obvious transition point between intended distortion and internal distortion.
3. Trim the highs. You know how pulling back on your tone control can give a “rounder” sound when feeding something with distortion? Your tone control might not react the same way when running into a computer interface, so include an EQ processor before a distortion effect or distorted amp, and filter the highs. Inserting a de-esser (or a dynamics processor that includes a de-essing preset) before an amp sim can also improve the “sweetness” dramatically—adjust it so that playing hard reduces high frequencies.
In Sonar X2, Waves' Renaissance De-Esser is before Softube's Metal Room amp sim.
4. Add a parametric EQ after an amp, and notch out annoying frequencies. There’s an in-depth article on this techniques, including plenty of audio examples, at http://www.harmonycentral.com/t5/Gear-Articles/How-to-Make-Amp-Sims-Sound-More-Analog/ba-p/34643372.
Sometimes a couple well-placed, steep notches can reduce "fizz" and make for a smoother sound.
5. Try out different cabinet and “virtual miking” options, as these can have a huge effect on the sound. However, the results may not be consistent—a mic choice that sounds perfect with one amp might not work with a different one. Try this: Check out each cabinet, and choose the one you think sounds best. Next, try all the mics, then choose your favorite. If you can change miking positions, try that too.
To find the optimum amp/mic combination, first try the various amp/cabinet models until you find a favorite. Then, try various mics and after selecting your favorite mic, try running through the amp/cabs one more time.
Now, go back to the cabinet and run through the options again. If a different one sounds better because you changed the virtual mic, keep that cabinet and run through the mic and mic placement options again. Keep repeating this cycle until the sound is optimum.
6. Add some delay to the straight sound. You don’t listen to a guitar by sticking your ear a couple inches from a cabinet—you hear the sound in the context of an acoustical space, and a little delay can create a more complex amp sound with more depth and even a little bit of ambience. Some amp sims, like Line 6’s POD Farm, include an “air,” "room," or “ambience” parameter that provides the same kind of effect.
POD Farm 2's Room parameter, which lets you place the cabinet closer to or further away from the listener, adds ambience.
You don’t want an obvious echo, so try the range of 15-25ms (adjust for the best sound while listening in mono so you can catch any cancellation issues). If there aren’t any delay lines with this little an amount of delay, a chorus might do the job—set the initial delay to around 20ms, and turn off any modulation.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central and Executive Editor of Electronic Musician magazine. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.