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Getting a Great Guitar Tone
in your Sequencer

Using software to Tweak Your Tone

By the Tweak

Native Instruments Guitar Rig 3 offers a huge variety of tones for your guitar tracks

I spent my early days as a home recordist recording electric and acoustic guitars, using beaten up guitars, tripped up reel to reels and trashed out pedals.  My more recent history involved tweaking synthesizers and samplers in all varieties of sequencers, coming up with novel sounds for my sample cd roms.  This puts me in an unusual position to apply things I know about filters and plugin chains to guitars in the sequencer.  To be sure, to get a great tone on guitar you have to know how to play one (with nuance and feeling) and it helps if you are familiar with working with pedals, amps, effects boxes and other guitar gadgets.  Many will argue that while software models have come a long way, sticking a mic on a well tweaked amp is the tried and true path to Tone.  That does seem true, but..  

The day has arrived when a recording guitarist can go amp-less.  (Tweak ducks for cover to avoid the airborne broken pedals, wah-wahs, capos, and busted up tube amps hurled by the crowd.)  Yep!  Throw it all over here, boys, you won't be needing it for recording anymore.  What!  We have mixologists that are mixerless, computers that are soundcard-less, and now guitarists that are amp-less.  Look out amp makers! Every year amp modeling software gets better, and its so good now even the amp manufacturers have put amp models on their amps! They definitely don't want to get buried in the graveyard of studio hardware.  Of course for playing live you still need a full rig of amps 'n stuff.  But in the sequencer, there are many, many more opportunities for tonal exploration that go beyond amps (even those with models), floorboards, Pods, VAMPs than you may have thought of in your quest for a unique Tone. 

You can even expand your sound beyond the time honored tones now made easy in amp modelers, which portend to do it all for you.  But wait.  There's more.  You can, indeed, go down the path of creative studio processing that the original guitar tweakers had visited.  If you get really good, you don't even need an amp modeler.  What you do need is a lot of processors and a relentless drive to experiment. 

Take the poll!

The better way to acheive new guitar tones that really work is...


With a Great Amp, Good Pickups and Mic and Preamp


With a DI Preamp, Software Amp modeler and excellent plugins


My POD or VAMP does it all!

Click here to vote


Using a Software amp modeler

A software amp modeler has some advantages over hardware models like the VAMP2.  You can monitor through the software modeler rather than recording through it, like one does with a hardware modeler.  This means that while you hear the effects as you play, you are still recording a perfectly dry clean tone, which opens up the possibility of changing your amp model, as well as its tone controls and effects, later on, all the way up to the moment when you commit to the mix.  Another advantage of using software modelers is that you can place them anywhere in the chain, not only at the beginning.  Instead of using the modelers effects, you can use different effects from your plugin arsenal.  This gives you a shot a pre-conditioning your clean tone to get it ready for the amp model, and putting other processors after the amp model. You do need a fast computer for this, and an audio interface with very low latency. 

In the sequencer it is easier to experiment with sound than it is in the real world.  With a dozen mouse clicks you can reconfigure your plugin chain easily. You can save your plugin chains and build your own custom tone library.  For the sake of demonstration, I will break the guitar channel down to 3 parts:  Preconditioning, Modeling, and Post-Conditioning.



enlarge  Here you see a plugin chain I have going right now in Logic 7.  You can do this with any sequencer that lets you chain plugins, and all the majors do.


As of Logic 9, even more software guitar processors are added (click to enlarge)



I like to start in mono.  You can move to stereo at anytime in the chain with most sequencers. I find it better to do that after the amp model, in the post treatment phase.  But there are no rules here.  I think keeping it mono through the modeler keeps the focus on tone rather than on effect.  That is important.  Any monkey can add reverb and delay, but a true tweak works like a chef.  You season and spice before you bake. 

Ok, lets get going.  Perhaps the most obvious application is to get the dynamics sitting better before going into a distortion unit.  Using a common software compressor and gate can go a long way here.  Use the gate to cut out spurious notes and accidental noises as well as any noise and hum coming from the guitar, then add compression to get a bit more sustain out of the good notes.  If the gate is not enough, consider noise reduction plugins such as SoundSoap by Bias. This kind of plugin samples the noise then removes traces of it as the audio streams through it.

Now let's talk EQ.  You normally would get different tones out of your guitar by using the Tone Controls (doh!), which actually are nothing else but typical low pass filters, in essence simple equalizers.  Now imagine, instead of using your guitars simple EQs, you decided to apply a big daddy studio parametric EQ.  Which gives you better tone? Go try it and then you tell me.  One of my favorites for guitar is the UAD Neve 1073 and the Pultec, which can be added to your collection if you have a UAD-1 card.  I like these because they do a lot to preserve the integrity of the signal.  So, stick in a good parametric style eq and leave it alone for now.  After we apply the model later on then we can go fine tune this EQ, and listen for the dramatic changes it can make to the model. 

Using synthesizer type filters is another possibility for adding a unique tonality to a guitar track.  While I can't talk about all the filter types in this article, the ones I suggest using are the simpler low-pass 2-pole varieties with resonance.  Resonance is a boost at whatever frequency you choose.  This kind of filter allows you to sweep the tone through different frequencies with the filter cutoff knob.  This can give an automated wah tone but in a much wider range than a Wah pedal that had fixed resonance bandwidth points.  You can be subtle or extreme,  as you, not Boss, is the boss!  But I suggest in the preconditioning phase that you be subtle. See we have not even flipped on a model yet and already you have a better tone

Pitch correction is another thing that can take place early in the chain.  While people tend to think of these as vocal intonation correctors, they can just as easily correct poor intonation on your guitar solos, due to having a guitar that simply has poor intonation or due to a tuning issue.  We all know how crappy a solo can sound in the 12th position when half the notes are sharp and the other half are flat. That problem is easily set aright.    For most pitch correction plugins, you just set the scale and the attack time, and the software will gently or abruptly guide the note back to correct pitch. While I use the pitch correction plugin in Logic most of the time, there are other plugins that might do a better job, such as Antares Auto Tune. Using automation you can turn correction on and off so as you approach a pitch bend (which you usually do not want to correct) you just automate the bypass switch.  For severe problems like re-pitching a duff note in a great solo, you can dump to an offline editor and make the correction there with autotune.   


Amp Models

There's lots of software modelers about today.  I really only have used one, but have used it a lot.  That one is Guitar Amp Pro which is bundled in Logic.  There are others which are even more complete, such as Native Instruments Guitar Rig 2 and Guitar Combos.  There is also IK Multimedia's Amplitube


Typically the amp modeling software will give you several presets of different amps and types of tone-applications, like clean, crunch, distorted and metal.  Using Guitar Amp pro as an example, you can choose among a direct box, an SM57 and a condenser as the recording transducer.  You can even select whether the mic is centered or offf-centered, then through the usual amp controls of gain, EQ, and FX.  Not only can you select the type of amp, but the cabinet model as well.  The fun, naturally, comes in the tweaking of tone and getting it just right for your musical context.


While many amp modelers may come with their own delay and reverbs, you should not feel you have to use them.  There's so much great stuff out there I am just going to tell you the ones I think are well suited for guitar.  Logic's Space Designer rates high in my book.  Not only do you get emulations of a huge variety of rooms and halls, you also get emulations of many world class reverb and delay units from the old chambers and plates to the modern high end units from unnamed famous effects manufacturers.  UAD's software model of the Roland RE 201 Space Echo is very cool, and it can give you the same character runaway feedback that those who experimented with tape based effects will fondly recall. The UAD model of the Boss Chorus Ensemble is accurate.  I used to have one.  It's the god of shimmering underwater tone.   UAD's Phasor is not meant to model after the MXR Phase 90, but it sure sounds close.  The Plate 140 is very nice and I am always in a quandry with it. Plate 140 or Space Designer?  They both are outstanding.   PSP's Lexicon PSP42 has got to be one of the wilder guitar delays on the planet. If you like wild, check out the Ohm-boys stuff.  Isotope's Trash and Logic's Bitcrusher can give new dimensions to amp distortion. 

Setting Up the Chain

Setting up post conditioning involves some basic routing decisions.  While preconditioning plugins are best used as inserts before the amp modeler, post conditioners can be put in as inserts after the modeler and may use the sends and returns of of a software bus.   Note in the example to the left that after the amp modeler "GtrAmpPr" I have a Boss Chorus Ensemble.   On bus 1, I have Space Designer for reverb and The Space Echo on Bus 2.  In this example the guitar channel is mono till it reaches the Chorus Ensemble.  The FX busses are both stereo.  The final tweaked guitar track and the returns arrive on the master bus where they are summed with all the other tracks. 

Automation Possibilities

Unlike real world guitar chains with their footswitches, pedals and knobs, you can do a lot more with automation than simply turning things on and off.  You can fade effects in gradually, slowly move from clean to distorted and alter the character of the distortion halfway through a guitar solo if you want.  Its really with the power of automation that you can enter into new guitar worlds and take the instrument beyond convention.

Tonality Exotica

Lets not forget that many of today's software synths can be used as an effects bus too, and that opens up a whole new world of exotic filters and LFOs.  Many of you probably already have a ton of tools that can be used.  The Korg Legacy comes with models of vintage synths that can process an audio input from any source in your sequencer.  Vocoders offer a different perspective on tone, particularly when automated.  With exploration you may be able to achieve a tasteful sounding talking guitar tone. 

Effects without plugins.   

Yes it is possible.  Remember that chorusing, flanging, delay and feedback are effects that originally were tweaked on 3 head reel to reel machines.  You can simulate this by simply copying your track to another track and giving one a tiny delay offset.  What happens, you ask, if you add different processors to clones of the same original track?  Now you are thinking!  What happens if you take a phrase, reverse the audio, apply an effect, record the effect only, then flip it back?  Ghostly.  Like distortion? Don't use gates, use a single coil, ramp up the gain then run through a bitcrusher and a couple of compressors after as well as before the modeler.  It'll sound just like my old tube amp (the ShockMaster!) did before it exploded.  Thank god I don't need it anymore.

I remain,
Rich the TweakMeister


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