Direct Recording Your Instruments Part 2
If you tuned in for the last part of this series then you learned all about the fundamentals of recording a direct signal. Now that you've got a solid understanding of the options available for direct recording, hopefully, you've had some time to make some direct recordings of your own. But a direct signal is only useful if you do something with it, and that's what the next two parts of this series will focus on. This segment will cover the basic things to watch out for with your direct signals, and cover some of the great software emulators out there that can take those sounds in an infinite number of directions.
First things first, if you recorded both live and direct, you'll always have to check the phase of your two signals. What is phase? In short, it refers to the alignment of two similar audio signals. In this case, your direct signal and your miked signal are very similar waveforms, but they probably arrived at different times. Think of a time you argued with a buddy about which route was the shortcut--you split ways and one of you arrives first by a slight margin. With a live and direct signal, one signal takes the shortcut, and the loser is lagging behind!
Theoretically, if two identical signals are exactly out of phase they will cancel one another completely. You'll never actually cancel a signal completely in practice, but you can easily hear a signal drop off -3dB or -6dB (half volume or less.) Aside from cancellation, you'll also learn to hear the way out-of-phase signals distort. On the other hand, two like signals that are in phase will reinforce one another, and boost your signal by a similar amount.
How do you detect phase issues? There are a few methods, but to understand any of them, you'll just have to get used to the way phase issues sound. Duplicate an audio signal onto another track in your DAW. Then zoom in on the audio file as much as your program allows. Start to drag the file slightly later or earlier in time, and listen to the change in sound. While looking at the waveform, try to match the high points of the first file with the low points of the duplicate file-that should be perfectly out of phase, or 180° out of phase. Many plug-ins have a phase switch with the symbol for phase (Ø), or maybe just the phrase "phase flip" or 180°. Try to find a phase flip in your plug-in collection and see if the files are back in phase. You can, of course, skip the part about dragging them out of phase, and simply flip the phase of two identical signals--but then you miss out on all the fun of seeing how the waveforms look when out of phase.
Okay, I promise, that is the last bit of technical knowledge you need in order to make the most out of your direct recordings. Now it's time to have some fun. Let's start with quantitative comparison of some key players in the world of amp emulators. Today there are more options than ever for plug-in emulators, and each has its distinct advantages. The choice might be a little overwhelming, but a quick breakdown will make the decision easier.
Amplitube 3 - (IK Multimedia) - IK has really stepped things up with Amplitube 3. Amplitube has a realistic feel, virtually movable microphones for extreme variation in tone, an amazing array of presets (or as I like to call them "starting points"), and a huge collection of effects. The tuner is also easy to read and accurate. This may seem like a trivial feature, but it's not always easy to come by in the world of software. Amplitube 3 also has a control pedal available, called the Stealth Pedal, which can make the experience more realistic. This program comes in just below $300, but I can assure you that it does stack up well against its competitors.
Chrome Tone - (McDSP/Roland) - These "boutique" models come in both TDM and Native formats, and are priced appropriately. If you're looking for a simple GUI without sacrificing tone then Chrome Tone HD is the perfect fit for you. Most other models feature a multitude of windows and configurations that can sometimes leave your head spinning. (Besides, you may already have more effects-based plug-ins that can be placed where you want them in the signal path.) But Chrome Tone delivers the tone with a more minimalist approach. The nice part of this is that you can really focus on which parameter is affecting your tone, and make the changes you want with definable results. This does, of course, mean that there are fewer creative options than in some of the other emulators being mentioned here.
Eleven - (Digidesign) - Digidesign's amp modeling plug-in includes some solid sounding amp, cab, and microphone options, but doesn't really have the flexibility of some other options. The models are classic and sound good, but, in my opinion, the LE version doesn't quite match up with competitors in its price range. However, if you're looking for a TDM plug-in, then this option is ideal.
GTR 3 - (Waves) - As usual, Waves delivers top-quality audio processing in this plug-in, which can also run in stand-alone mode. Offering a hefty selection of amps and effects, this software includes a nice balance of options without going overboard with options you may not need. I personally love the tone of this program, and coming in with a price tag well below $200 makes this a hard option to pass by. If you need a TDM plug-in, then Waves can offer you that format as well, while still keeping the cost below $400. Waves also offers a series of hardware peripherals, including the very impressive GTR Ground foot-controller, and the GTR Studio Guitar Interface.
Guitar Rig 4 Pro - (Native Instruments) - If you're not familiar with Native Instruments' Komplete 6 then you should definitely familiarize yourself with this package when considering amp modeling software. Guitar Rig 4 Pro is the newest modeling from Native Instruments offering great tone and a ton of features. Consider the Kontrol Edition, which comes with the software as well as their Kontrol Pedal foot-controller for under $400. And if you could also use a huge collection of great sounding samplers and synthesizers together with one of the best drum sampling plug-ins available, then Komplete 6 will "complete" that collection with a nominal increase in price. There is no limit to the sounds you can get out of this well-respected package, and the value is unbeatable for the money.
Trash - (Izotope) - Trash is a simple design that achieves its flexibility through controls that may be more familiar to audio engineers than guitarists and musicians. Rather than flaunting pho-tweed amp heads or virtual stompboxes--Trash looks more like a mad scientist's audio lab. The benefit is that you can always see exactly what you are doing in a straightforward manner--most modules are displayed as graphs and meters that explain exactly what you are changing. The options for distortion types and shapes are endless with this program. If you are really into experimenting and creating completely unique sounds, then this software is your perfect match. It's likely to match your budget as well; coming in well under $200, making it one of the cheapest options on this list.
POD Farm Platinum - (Line 6) - Line 6 is a name that is virtually synonymous with digital amp emulation. If you are looking for a HUGE number of amp, cab, and effect models at an extremely low cost, then this is your choice. The signal routing options are also flexible and easy to view--laid out on a virtual floor just as a real guitar rig would be. You can also benefit from their selection of FBV foot-controllers to make the experience come to life.
Have No Fear
I know there are a lot of options, but relax--whichever software you choose--you'll find amazing tones as long as you experiment. Create duplicate tracks and combine tones, or combine your live amp recordings with a software amp. Pan one sound towards one side and a different one towards the other. The trick is to listen in the mix, occasionally soloing to pick out the specifics of the sounds you are using. There is so much flexibility to be had in any one of the programs listed above, and you can expand beyond even that when you're using multiple tracks (not that you have to)!
After you've found a few tones that work well together you may need to check your phase again. If your program has automatic delay compensation then you may be okay, but if not you almost definitely have gotten out of phase. Try "printing" your effects onto a new track. You can do that by setting the output of your track to a bus and creating a new track with that bus as the input. Record the effects and check the phase of your two final products--even if your two sounds are very different, you'll be surprised at how similar their waveforms look. I like to listen-back using a phase flip first, but I'm not ashamed to visually inspect and align the waveforms either. That allows you to match the signal more accurately than a flip, since you have infinite control rather than an A/B situation. Always remember the one rule that never changes in audio: if what you're doing sounds right, then it is right!
By now you should have some pretty impressive sounds coming out of your direct recordings, and hopefully you're having a ton of fun with all of this flexibility. However, some of you might find yourself feeling a little empty inside--dying to use live mics and amps to achieve that flexibility--or you just feel like all of this is cheating. Don't worry, your direct signal doesn't have to be "emulated" for flexibility as I'll explore in the final part of this series. You can always bring your signal back out into the "real world" at any stage for some re-amping!