I have been addicted to audio for as long as I can remember. Not just music, melodies and harmonies but the tonality of instruments as well. More than the sound of any other instrument, it was the hi gain, cranked Marshall guitar tones of the 70’s and 80’s which excited me the most and still continue to do so. For more than three decades, this has been the definitive sound of rock.
Growing up in Lahore I hardly had access to professional gear. My first Proco Rat Distortion pedal plugged into a 5 Watt pocket amp was all that I had for years, till the Zoom 9004 came along in the early 90’s, launching my relationship with digital signal processing and audio technology.
Fast forward a few decades and things have drastically changed. Somewhere along the years, digital processing evolved into Amp Emulation, impulse response modelling and finally the 50kg tube amps came crashing onto our desktops.
Purists still laugh at the idea of digital guitar tones, especially those generated through software such as Guitar Rig, Amplitube, Revalver – and they do have good reason. These software emulations cannot hold a candle to the sheer weight, dynamics and feel of a real tube amplifier. Words have never been able to truly describe that elusive feel which only a tube-driven guitar amplifier can produce. My only conclusion after all these years is that guitar amplifiers, especially valve-driven ones, are as much an instrument as the guitar itself. Not only do they extend the player’s music vocabulary, they can also dictate the feel, the direction and the aggression of the music itself.
That being said, only the bravest and richest players in the world have access to such firepower (weapons of mass distortion?). Most of us hardly have access to a single roadie capable of tuning the back-up guitar, let alone a team of tone warriors risking to break their backs! Oh….and tube amps are very, very expensive.
Software emulation, however, succeeds in providing us with “useable bread-n-butter” tones. Lots and lots of them, with most emulating not only the most famous models of amps and pedals, but unique and coveted boutique models as well. They make better tones accessible to all, making cheap and nasty guitar tones a thing of the past!
Here are some guitar tone tips I have picked up after local and foreign experience, from my teachers, friends, countless articles and artist interviews in a span of over 25 years
1. Get to know the models!
Whether you have access to a few good amplifiers, hardware amp modellers or modelling software, your knowledge of each amp model, stomp-box or pre-amp, its capabilities and tonal signature will help you reach closer to the sound you are hearing in your head. I spend hours trying to find the rigs of classic and older guitar players in an attempt to understand their signal chain. For example, if you wish to sound close to Pantera’s guitar tone, a signal chain consisting of an overdrive pedal, Fender Amp and 1x10 cabinet emulation will not get you the desired result. This is because Dimebad Darrels depended on Solid State hi gain Randall heads and 4x12 cabinets to achieve his furious raging tone. Artists’ rigs are easy to find online, so do your homework there. Not only will it increase your knowledge of signal chains, but also of the different tonal signatures of classic gear.
2. Hot signals
Many studio musicians plug straight into their soundcard these days and then process their tones with plug-ins. This is certainly not my preferred route, but I am not against it entirely. Creative tools require creativity!
Make sure your clean guitar signal is healthy when recording on your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) with ample headroom as all processing will add gain and noise to the signal. A great method is to plug your guitar into a rack or mixer preamp if possible and then record the signal. Most audio interfaces these days do have at least one mic preamp which is switchable to a Hi Z guitar input. Remember, all processing happens on your original, unadulterated guitar signal. Keep it loud but never overdriven at this stage.
3. Less is more!
The single biggest misconception about guitars: huge guitar tones come from massive amounts of pre-amp distortion. Most of the guitar tones we have heard on classic and modern records are actually a result of multiple tracks playing the same thing. This is where a player’s skill is put to the test. In fact, a single rhythm guitar track is actually a sum of multiple guitar tracks played through different amps for their unique frequency response. Think of a single guitar track as a sub mix of multiple tracks. This is where gain stacking comes into play. Instead of recording a single or two guitar tracks with full blown distortion, try tracking four tracks with light amounts of distortion. The overdrive from each track will add to create the wall of sound we are used to hearing on international records. This is also helpful in preserving the fidelity of your guitar’s notes as well as keeping noise and mud to a minimum.
Try running a Marshall JCM 800 emulation on 2 tracks and a Mesa Dual Rectifier emulation on 2 tracks, each with gain on half or even less. EQ to taste, thank me later.
4. Stay in the middle!
On the frequency spectrum, guitars occupy most space in the mid-range. This is true even for extended range guitars. Careful filtering of the low and high frequencies will allow the guitars to sit well in the mix without stepping on other tracks.
5. Performance Anxiety