Sound Effects with Guitar
By Anderton |
Sound Effects with Guitar
Think sound effects are solely the domain of keyboards? Think again
by Craig Anderton
Samplers and keyboards make it easy to come up with FX: load a file, punch up a preset, and hit a key. Yet electric guitar, in conjunction with a good multi effects processor or amp sim, can make sounds that are more organic and complex than what you can obtain from a bunch of canned samples. No, you can’t generate car crashes and door slams—but for ethereal pads, suspense music, industrial noises, alien backgrounds, and much more, consider using guitar as your instrument of choice.
Why let keyboard players do all the cool sound effects? Here are my Top 10 tips for creating truly weird guitar sounds. Just remember Rule #1: extreme effects settings produce extreme sounds. Generally, you’re looking for the boundaries of what an effect can do; all those +99 and -99 settings you’ve been avoiding are fair game for producing truly novel effects.
1. Is everything in order? If you’re using hardware instead of amp sims, it’s essential to be able to change the order of effects by repatching individual effects boxes or using a multi effects with customizable algorithms. For example, a compressor generally goes early in the chain, with chorusing added later on so that the effect processes the compressed signal. However, suppose the chorus has a ton of resonance to create some really metallic sounds. This could produce such drastic peaks with some notes that in order to tame them, you would need the compressor later in the chain.
2. Industrial reverb For a really rude sound, play a power chord through a reverb set for a fairly long time delay, then add distortion after the reverb (Fig. 1). The resulting sound has the added bonus of being able to rid you of any unwanted house guests.
Fig. 1: Following Guitar Rig’s Reflektor reverb with distortion produces a dreamy sound—assuming your dreams tend toward the nightmarish.
3. Wet is good It’s usually best to set the effects mix for wet sound only. Having any straight guitar sound can blow your cover because a guitar attack is such a distinctive sound.
4. Attack of the pedal pushers Add a pedal before your effects, not after (Fig. 2). You can cut off the guitar attack by fading in the pedal at the note’s beginning; with effects like long delays and reverbs, you can fade out the source signal while the “tail” continues on.
Fig. 2: Choosing when effects will receive input can have a huge effect on the sound, especially with long delays and reverb.
5. Found sounds The guitar itself can generate noises other than those created by plucking strings—here are a few options.
- Hold a smartphone, calculator, or other portable microprocessor-controlled device up next to the pickups, and you’ll hear a bunch of science fiction sounds worthy of the bridge of the Enterprise.
- Feed a high-gain effect (such as compression or distortion) and tap the back of the neck with your fingertips.
- While your high-gain effect is set up, drag the edge of a metallic object (like a screwdriver or butter knife) along wound strings.
- Use extreme amounts of whammy, and transpose the strings down as low as they’ll go.
- Tap the guitar body smartly with your knuckles to create percussive effects. These will sound even more interesting through looooong reverb.
6. Turn up the heet The Heet Sound EBow (Fig. 3) is a very cool sustaining device for individual strings.
Fig. 3: For many guitarists, the EBow is their “secret weapon” for sustaining single-note lines.
This hand-held device picks up vibrations from the string, amplifies them, then drives the string with those vibrations to create a feedback loop. The EBow rests on the strings adjacent to the string being “e-bowed”; moving the EBow further away from, or closer to, the string can create all kinds of interesting harmonic effects. If you want to approximate that famous blissed-out “Frippertronics” tape loop sound, use the EBow to drive a delay set for long echoes (greater than 500 ms) with lots of feedback (more than 80%).
7. Shifty pitches Pitch shifters are a treasure trove of weird sounds. With hardware pitch shifters, add a mixer at the input, then split the pitch shifter’s output so one split feeds into the mixer through a delay (Fig. 4 shows how to patch stand-alone boxes to do this; with a multieffects, a pitch shifter will often include pre-delay and feedback parameters, which accomplish the same result).
Fig, 4: How to patch a pitch shifter hardware effect for bizarre “bell tree” effects.
Suppose there’s a 100ms delay and pitch shift is set to -1 semitone. The first time the input reaches the output, it comes out 1 semitone lower. It then travels back through the delay, hits the shifter input 100 ms later, and comes out transposed down another semitone. This then goes through the delay again, gets transposed down another semitone, etc. So, the sound spirals down in pitch (of course, with an upward transposition, it spirals up). With short delays, the pitch change sounds more or less continuous while with longer delays, there’s more of a stepped effect. The delay’s level control sets the amount of feedback; more feedback allows the spiraling to go on longer. However, if the delay level produces gain, then you could get nasty oscillations (which come to think of it, have their own uses).
8. Lord of the ring modulators Don’t have a ring modulator? If a tremolo or autopan rate extends into the audio range, the audio modulation “slices” the signal in a way similar to a ring modulator.
9. Fun with flangers Like pitch shifters, chorus/flangers are extremely versatile if you test their limits (Fig. 5).
Fig. 5: Waves’ MetaFlanger is set up as described for a strange, morphing effect.
Start off with the slowest possible LFO rate short of it being stopped, so that any pitch modulation is extremely slow. Then set the depth to a relatively low setting so there’s not a huge amount of modulation, and feedback to the maximum possible, short of distortion. Edit the output for wet signal only, and try a relatively long initial delay time (at least 20ms). You’ll get metallic, morphing sounds that sound like, for lack of a better description, ghost robots—an unearthly, mechanical effect. If I was doing effects for a movie and building tension for the part where the psycho killer is stalking his next victim, this sound would get first crack at the scene.
10. Parallel universe Some advanced multieffects let you put effects in parallel. One example of how to use this is to create ultra-resonant sounds. Most guitarists know that you can take a flanger, boost the resonance to max, turn the LFO speed to zero, and end up with a very metallic, zingy sound. But you can go one step further with parallel effects: patch a stereo delay in parallel with the flanger, set each channel for a short (but different) delay (e.g., 3 and 7ms), feedback for each channel to as high as possible short of uncontrolled feedback, and output to (of course!) wet only. You’ll now have three resonant peaks going on at the same time.
And there are the 10 Tips. Until next time, may your computers never crash and your strings never break.
Craig Anderton is a Senior Contributing Editor at Harmony Central. 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.