Bring It! - 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, Ill detail just what can happen to your soundor any soundwhen its set up in isolation and brought out into the real world and offer caveats about using gear in your own studio vs. someone elses.
First of all, Ive discovered that as an electric guitarist, I am expected to have my sound together and self-containednot 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 dont have to carry their own mic or know the best EQ settings for their lower register.
But with guitarists its different; theyre 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 theyve got a much better one, and besides, they dont want to print with effects. But if youve tailored the reverb to be an integral part of your soundespecially if its a unique reverb sound, like a spring verb to better authenticate your patented noir-surf-punk sound, then its necessary to have a discussion with the engineer to make sure he knows youll be using this effect.
EQ is an even dicier situation, because engineers dont 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, dont 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 youd 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.
Doesnt 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 boards channel strip to dial in some sizzle. After all, its too much trouble to bend over the stompbox or enter the multi-effects 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 soundwith the boards EQ as an integral part of the sound.
Fig. 1. The original signal chain involved portable effects (the stompboxes) and non-transferable tone contributors of the mixer and outboard spring reverb. Fig. 2. The board EQ and outboard effect have been moved to pedals, so that my sound is completely portable and not dependent on my own board or unwieldy outboard effect.
In addition to EQ, a parallel effectlike a reverb or delayshould be used as nature intended: through an aux send. Thats what I did with my Fender spring reverb tank. Sounds great and authentic all right, but its not practical to take everywhereOK for a big-budget record date with cartage allowance, not so ideal for a friends 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. Heres 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 friends 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 friends 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 examplea medium tempo ballad with lots of bendswas 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. Ill run the board and well have it done in a jiffy. Trouble was, we couldnt 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 didnt work because my friends boardsimply by being differenthad 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 boards EQ and preamp that gave my sound a certain sizzle. Because I had employed the one effect that I didnt bringmy mixing boardwe couldnt match the lead sound.
Problem Solvedfor 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 guitaristsincluding Eric Johnson, who works with an old Neve consolewill 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 dont 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 flavorand its still not quite the same as the one from my board, but its dang close, and more important, its 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 dont 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, its as if youre recording at Abbey Roadat least circuitry-wise (see Fig. 3). Depending on your final stompboxs output level, you may not even need the direct box.
Fig. 3. Recording through a direct boxsuch as the Radial D.I. shown hereinto 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.
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 computers. To bring your entire sound along, you cant do better than a well-featured, quality channel strip. This is even betterand more portablethan using the onboard EQ of a good mixer because you dont 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 expensiveespecially if youre 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 Multimedias StealthPlug as a guitar interface hooked into a laptop running AmpliTube software (see Fig. 4). This produces a solution thats even more compact than a pedalboard. Just dont try operating it with your feet!
Fig. 4: A compact interface, such as the IK Multimedia StealthPlug 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 latencythe 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), Ive 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.
Fig. 5. A netbook is smaller than a laptop and can run amp and effect modeling software.
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).
Fig. 6. Avid/Digidesigns Eleven Rack combines the interface and modeler into one unit, meaning you dont 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 theyre 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!).
Theres 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 dont tax their systems CPU poweror their personnels 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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