By Jon Chappell
As an electric guitarist, I'm 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 guitarists are expected to provide a “complete sonic package.” That may seem obvious for distortion and flangers, but not so obvious for "standard" processors like EQ and reverb. In fact, many engineers will tell you to leave off your budget-sounding reverb because they have a much better one, and besides, they don’t want to “print” (record) 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 make sure the engineer 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 the 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 guitar signal.
As 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.
Fig. 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.
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.
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.
Fig. 3: Recording through a direct box—such as the Radial D.I. shown here—into a high-end channel strip like the Neve 1073 will give you the best possible front-end sounds without the large footprint of the console itself (click to enlarge).
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.
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 IK Multimedia AmpliTube, Guitar Rig Pro, Waves G|T|R, Line 6 Pod Farm, Scuffham S-Gear, Studio Devil Amp Modeler Pro, Peavey ReValver, Softube Amp Rooms, Overloud TH2, and more. To use any of these, you also need a small, guitar-optimized USB audio interface, like models from PreSonus, M-Audio, Behringer, etc. To take one example, you could use IK Multimedia’s StealthPlug CS 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.
Fig. 4: A compact interface, such as the IK Multimedia StealthPlug CS shown here, allows your guitar to plug into the computer via USB.
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 interface offers it), I’ve often found the easiest thing is to just learn to accommodate for it.
If you really want to reduce your footprint, couple an interface to the new breed of tablet computers like the iPad, or even a smart phone, as Fig. 5 shows. Some interfaces bypass the device's internal audio electronics completely, as they convert your guitar to digital and go into the device digitally.
Fig. 5: Sonoma Wire Works GuitarJack is a rugged, guitar-specific interface for the iPhone (shown running their GuitarTone app, but it's compatible with other guitar-oriented apps as well).
Avid's Eleven Rack consolidates this interface/simulator paradigm into a hardware front-end containing their software modeler Eleven, previously available only as a plug-in. Eleven Rack (which is optimized for use with Pro Tools) 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). Line 6's POD HD Pro is a similar type of product, but doesn't rely on a particular DAW for editing as it uses its own editing program.
Fig. 6: Avid/Digidesign’s Eleven Rack combines the interface and modeler into one unit, meaning you don’t need a computer to use it onstage. But when you want to use it with a computer, as a plug-in, the front panel then works as an additional controller option.
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!). For non-dongle-based authorization systems, you can temporarily de-authorize the plug-in on your home computer, then authorize it temporarily on another computer.
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 is a guitarist and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has contributed numerous musical pieces to film and TV, including Northern Exposure, Walker, Texas Ranger, All My Children, and the feature film Bleeding Hearts, directed by actor-dancer Gregory Hines. He is the author of The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard), Essential Scales & Modes (Backbeat Books), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill), and has written six books in the popular For Dummies series (Wiley Publishing).
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