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Guitar Processing Options
 
Home < Pro Audio < B&H Email Newsletter < Guitar Processing Options

Guitar Processing Options

By Kendall Scott

Recording an electric guitar properly is one of the trickier problems we face in the studio world. In fact, solving this problem can be part know-how, part black magic, part pure luck—and a lot of trial and error. Learning to capture an electric guitar performance is something of a learning process that has to be experienced to be appreciated. Everyone seems to find their own recipe in the end, but not without first learning more about the electric guitar itself, guitar amplifiers, speakers, and microphones. Moving a mic a small distance in relation to a guitar speaker can yield a drastically different sound. And depending on the sensitivity of your ear, minute changes in placement can be very dramatic, leading to hundreds of different tonal possibilities based upon mic location alone. This does not even take into account other variables such as amp and guitar type, volume, and room size.

The more you learn about your guitar's signal chain, the better your end result will be when you're searching for that perfect signature recorded sound. Having a basic knowledge of the guitar's signal path and how each component contributes to its tone will improve your results, even if you are not a player yourself. Some of the best engineers out there have spent much of their time getting to know how instruments produce the sounds they make so that they can have a way of molding what they hear when recording and mixing. Understanding the mechanics of an instrument will help you record it with more authority, and give you a sense of direction, instead of groping through the dark hoping to happen across something that "might" sound good.

When a guitar's strings are set into motion, their vibrations are transmitted throughout the components of the entire guitar itself, from headstock to tailpiece. The string vibration and overall resonance are detected by the guitar's pickup and are then sent to an amplifier, which consists of some type of preamp/power amp configuration, combined with a single speaker or multiple speakers. We can add effects to the mix or alter the sound by placing the speaker in different acoustic spaces to gain an even broader working palette. (A space with hard surfaces will produce a brighter, livelier sound as compared to one with drapes and carpet that will absorb highs and deaden reflections.) But one concept that makes the electric guitar so much fun is that there are very few rules to hold you back. Yes, we must all be aware of signal flow and impedance matching to some extent, ("Inputs go to Outputs" and "No, you can't plug the guitar directly into the speaker"). You are basically free to exercise that rebel instinct and mix and match guitars, strings, pickups, amplifiers, cabinets, and effects to your heart's content, all of which will lead to a varied sonic result.

But wait. Not all of us can work in the comfort of our very own acoustically-treated sound studio and crank up our amplifiers to reach that all important volume "sweet-spot". The enchantment of playing at this (usually high) volume level is that the player/guitar/amplifier interface takes on a life of its own, transforming said guitarist into (place favorite guitar idol here). The down sides of playing in this higher volume zone are things like neighbors and summonses. So, when the confines of both sonic and physical space keep us from recording comfortably in our home studios, what are we to do?

Depending on the desired tone, recording at medium to higher volume is not always necessary. What this does imply, however, is that you would be very surprised at just how loud a “low-volume” amplifier can be in a quiet living space like an apartment building or bedroom studio. For some of us, having the ability to plug a guitar or bass directly into our recording system is a welcome alternative, if not a necessity. We are going to have a look at a few guitar and bass processing solutions as well as provide links to other models.

Analog Circuitry

If you want to keep your front end analog and are looking for clean or slightly driven tones, then there are a great number of microphone/instrument preamplifiers to choose from. These will do a great job of getting your guitar signal up to the proper level before feeding your recorder or DAW, and a better quality unit will surely deliver its own unique flavor to your sound. There are units built specifically for the job at hand like the Fat Funker from TL Audio. It has been designed with guitar players in mind and is voiced accordingly with a multiple- tube preamp stage, onboard compression and EQ, and a generous amount of input gain to amplify even the weakest guitar or bass output.

Split Decision

As a bridge between software and hardware alternatives, you can make use of a standard "Big Studio" trick by sending your signal to multiple destinations simultaneously. In the studio (and at times on stage), many guitar greats such as Stevie Ray Vaughn, for example, would send their signal to several amplifiers at once, allowing the engineer to blend their different characters together into one homogenous sound that could not be achieved any other way.

Try playing with both a distorted rhythm sound and a pure clean tone at the same time and notice how your attack becomes more pronounced and the notes within chords become more defined. A hip box for this kind of approach is the Radial JD7 signal distribution amplifier that not only splits your guitar signal into seven identical signals, but also allows you to send a prerecorded guitar track back out to an amplifier or effects unit for further experimentation. You could also feed your DAW as well as your analog guitar rig for the best of both worlds.

Software Based

Digital technology can create software models of amplifiers, microphones, cabinets and effects, allowing you to juggle hundreds of possible or "impossible" guitar and bass rigs from the comfort of your studio chair. Anyone who has plugged a guitar directly into their audio interface knows that this approach leaves a bit to be desired in the way of feel, tone, and space. Line 6, Native Instruments and IK Multimedia all offer guitar-friendly computer interfaces that work with their products as well as those from other manufacturers. Software solutions like Amplitube 2, Guitar Rig 2, and GTR bring your guitar to life with plenty of raw building materials along with lots of effects—to keep you busy for quite some time. Guitar Rig 2 and Amplitube 2 also have options for hardware foot controllers with Rig Kontrol 2 and the StompIO, respectively, for a bit of the familiar. The GTR system consists of a high-grade hardware Guitar Interface that retains your guitar's tone on its way into your DAW, and the Waves Amp and Stomp software. Ampeg SVX is designed specifically for bass players and outlines the legacy of Ampeg bass amplifiers as well as some of their unique stomp pedals.

Software is fun, flexible and upgradeable with newer versions often bringing added features and refinements. Virtual mic placements and other settings may be stored and recalled at will, so feel free to go grab a pizza and come back to work without fear of someone changing critical knob settings. You could also virtually "re-amp" your pre-recorded guitar track during playback by swapping amp models and cabinet types- the list is endless.

Software Masquerading as Hardware

Many of the same modeling functions running on your computer are also available within hardware pieces that are driven by software. Hardware processors do have their benefits, such as portability and system stability, making them ideal for stage use as well. Working with a dedicated piece of gear means that there is no need to boot up your computer to start making music, and some units will not only serve as a computer interface but can also be used in your host software as a plug-in.

Line 6 has been in the game since 1996 and is probably the most recognizable name in amplifier modeling. Their line includes the bite-sized Pocket POD, the rackmount PODxt Pro, the PODxt Live floor unit and their vast selection of amplifiers which all feature the ability to plug directly into your recording system and dial in your tone with a comfortable selection of knobs. They also produce a great complement of bass products. If you are an engineer who records guitar and bass players in your studio, these boxes can be an excellent time saver. The Boss GT and ME series (GT-8, GT-6B, ME-50 and ME-50B) have been proven performers over the years and are now available as a rack mount unit with the GT-Pro. More knobs and modeling options have been added over the years to refine these well tested designs that feature a combination of well known Boss effects and COSM modeled amp simulations.

If you remember the early versions of the Korg Pandora series you know that they were fun and innovative little boxes. Throw one into your guitar case and be ready for anything from a quick recording session to an unexpected jam night at your favorite club. The PX4D brings more of the same including a new (you guessed it) knob-based interface for exercising those tweaking digits. The other choices in the Toneworks line are floor-pedal models making them good live choices as well.

The M-Audio Black Box Reloaded is a unique piece that was developed in a collaborative effort with Roger Linn— the famed designer of the popular Akai MPC series drum machines and the legendary LinnDrum. Both of these units helped to change the way we make music, and the Black Box also aims to do just that. It is a combination guitar interface, sonic modeler, drum machine, and powerful beat-sync'ed effects unit. If you want to test new ground, this is a sure step into the unknown.

In the Eighties, Zoom created the palm-sized 9002 multi-effects unit, which was one of the first units available to provide guitar players with a big guitar sound while plugged into their headphones or recorders. Digitech has also been known for their innovation in the world of signal processors, and has added the new rack-mountable GSP 1101 to their line of floor-based modelers.

The Next Step

We have covered ways to model amplifiers and effects, but how about modeling the guitar itself? By placing a GK-3 Divided Pickup on the bridge of your guitar or bass, you will be able to connect to Roland's line of guitar modelers (and guitar synthesizers for that matter). These pickups may be temporarily mounted with removable tape to preserve your guitar's finish, or internally installed with the GK-KIT-GT3. The Divided Pickup reads string vibration information that can be interpreted by units like the VG-88, V-Bass, or the new VG-99, and used to create modeled acoustic and electric instruments. This system tracks much faster than the pitch-oriented approach used to drive synthesizers, and opens up a whole new world of possibilities. If a guitar exists only as sets of 0's and 1's, it suddenly becomes as malleable as the software designers can make it. Alternate tunings, interchangeable body types, 6 and 12-string options and virtual capos are only a few of the options you have to work with. How about placing your virtual humbuckers almost anywhere under the strings along the neck, or moving the nut far below its usual placement to create unusual dropped tonalities?

It is worth mentioning that Roland's system will work on your existing guitar but that the Line 6 Variaxoutputs its models directly and is available in electric, acoustic, and bass versions. Choose from a selection of onboard guitar models, plug in and strum away. It could not be easier.

Mix and Match

The lines between these different approaches are not hard and fast, so feel free to make use of any combination that works for you. As we said at the beginning of all this, part of the fun of playing electric guitar is the freedom of experimentation and the unexpected results it can bring.

Feel free to speak to one of our Pro Audio experts at 1-800-416-5090 or visit www.bhproaudio.com today!

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Please email feedback on this article, or suggestions for future topics, to emailfeedback@bhphotovideo.com