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Distorted reality

August 09, 2012


Faisal Baig.

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

Last but not least, no amplifier or software in the world can treat a sloppy performance or a guitar which is not in tune!  Everything said and done, tones, amps, fx are all there to make the music sound better. It really is all about the music.

That being said, a whole world of creative experimentation and fantastic results opened up for me the day I realised that it’s not only guitars which can be processed with tube distortion or gain.

A few years ago I started running synthesizers (synths) through my Peavey 5150 head, which is a monster amp to begin with. The results were intense to say the least. This triggered an idea and I started running Native Instrument’s Guitar Rig off all my lead and bass synths, sometimes for subtle harmonics, other times for more extreme gain.

Gently driven preamps or even stomp-box models can really add to the sonic texture of synths. Another trick I use is to run the distorted plug-ins on an Aux Bus, sending my synth tracks to them in parallel with the origin tone. It’s a great trick to add more weight and texture to an already nice synth tone.

Plug-ins and tools

Software plug-ins elude the hassle of cabling and are a great tool for experimentation and creative synthesis. I use Guitar Rig to process snares, hi hats, glitch samples etcetera. Often I layer clean samples with distorted versions of the same. Carefully rolling off the ‘attack’ from percussive samples can result in very nice noise hits and samples, essential for today’s dark techno and tech house.

I still believe that no guitar plugin running through studio monitors can ever truly imitate the physical movement of air and decibels like a cranked guitar amp can. Nor do software synths pose much challenge to the analogue beasts they attempt to emulate.

However, in this day and age where creative tools are so easily available to all, software can really help create original tones and unusual textures, while also giving younger people and those without rock star bank accounts easy access to a professional sound palette.

Knowing your gear and spending time with it as important as working on projects in your studio. Often times the results will be truly inspirational, especially if you’re someone who is interested in really pushing the boundaries of sonic creativity. Break the rules and create your own!