We all know that guitar amp and cabinet simulators are an important part of most home studios. They’re a quick and easy tool to aid in songwriting and demo recordings, but can they go the distance on a master record? A lot of us have no choice—whether it is the ever-shrinking label budget or the projects that never had one, we’re faced with the issue of coming up with superior guitar tracks in a less-than-ideal environment.
The good news is that we now have more tools at our disposal. Guitar amp modeling is saturating the market lately. Manufacturers have anticipated the surge in personal studios and are cashing in on the eternal question: How can I record my guitar quietly? Yeah, we all want to rock the world... just not the neighborhood, especially when the inspiration comes very conveniently at 3 AM.
I don’t know where you live, but I’m guessing that tracking at concert levels may not be your reality no matter what time it is. So, is there a way to have the best of both worlds—round the clock convenience and uncompromised guitar tone? If you are resourceful, the answer is ‘yes’. Enter the amp-modeling product—no, products—of your choice. With some carefully combined direct signals, we can look at this less as cutting corners, but as a viable option that we normally wouldn’t have if we actually had perfect isolation and unlimited access to real vintage instruments and amps.
I have to preface any discussion of sound with a reminder of the greater importance of solid songs, arrangements, intonation, timing and performance, because without them, this stuff is pretty useless.
Split, not Y
So you may not have the kind of gear that a huge studio may be sporting, but you can certainly adopt some of their techniques with gear that is readily available, substituting the loud amp and cabinet part of their equation with a simulated amp product. It’s common for a single guitar signal to be sent to two or more different amplifiers. We can do that with a couple different amp simulators for all the same kinds of benefits.
Simply splitting or ‘Y-ing’ the signal off from your guitar to different sources will load down the original sound and adversely affect the output of each device. There are several isolating splitters on the market (Morley Tripler, Radial ToneBone JX 2 Pro) that are designed for this purpose and don’t color your tone that much. With this, combining the tonal characteristics of you favorite PODxt patch with, hmmm... say, the cabinet-simulating output of a DigiTech pedal or Tech 21 SansAmp box, or whatever, may open up a whole new sonic landscape, especially when they are being tweaked in relation to each other. With any luck, you can make significant progress in overcoming their individual shortcomings and arrive at a unique tone that is neither stock nor entirely unusable. Imagine, all of this without disrupting the delicate balance of your neighborhood’s signal-to-noise ratio.
Amp without speakers
Maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s review a few other ways that we can integrate direct recording into this process. If your DAW has a low enough operating latency, you can use software-based amp modeling (Line 6 Amp Farm, IK Amplitube, etc.) in conjunction with the hardware ones I’ve described. But more than anything, I’m a big fan of using a real amp’s preamp and power amp stages without the cabinet.
Before you blow up your amp head, you need to have a dummy load connected. This is a device that will absorb the output of your amp safely so you can crank the master volume, and reap the tonal benefits of all stages of your tube amp. The THD Hotplate is one of several products that will do this. Some of them have an attenuated line output that, when put into the cabinet simulator of a POD Pro or that of certain DI boxes (like the Behringer GI-100), will retain more of a real tube amp character in your guitar mix.
Depending on your setup and what load attenuator you have, you may want to try using your cabinet at a fraction of the SPL without kicking down your overall level of your amp. Try blending that with one of your simulated devices. Maybe it’s something you can get away with when you have your 4x12 tucked away in a closet and it’s the middle of the day. I don’t know... may be worth calling in sick and giving it a go tomorrow!
But whether you’re combining a miked track or just a couple of the individual simulated tracks, I’d recommend not pre-mixing them before you hit your DAW. Recording each of them as a separate track will allow you to shift the timing after the fact so that you can really line up the phase of each signal. This makes a profound difference since it is the original source signal that is just being processed differently here. There is enough similarity that nudging the timing several milliseconds in either direction will make a huge impact on your final tone. Listen carefully—shifting too much or not enough can cause undesirable comb filtering resulting in a hollow, thin sound.
Reamping can be another way to avoid the neighborhood eviction petition. It’s a great way to break up the guitar recording process by separating the loud amp recording stage from the playing-a-riff-over-and-over-to-get-that-special-performance stage. By recording a totally unaffected/unprocessed guitar signal from your buffered splitter box into a clean direct box or preamp, and into your DAW, you can take that signal later and run it through a device (by Reamp, Radial, or Little Labs) that will convert the impedance from line to instrument level, giving you an opportunity to give your performance a sound transplant (so to speak). You won’t want to monitor this signal as you’re recording, as it will be less than inspiring to listen to; the monitor signal should have all the effects added to help you shred with attitude, knowing that you can completely change your tone later.
Armed with the DNA of an awesome guitar performance (all edited to perfection from the night before) when the guy next door fires up the riding lawn mower, you can bounce your track through that full stack. Nice. Plus you get to dial in your sound without having that guitar on your lap or swinging from your neck. Even better.
All of this works well provided that the simulated sound that you’re monitoring when you lay down the original clean track responds closely enough to the kind of setting that you will have on your real amp later. The amount of gain will change the way you react as you hear it coming out of your speakers, so when you reamp it later, you’re not wishing you played the part differently—with more or less attack, more muted, etc. When you go to edit your performance, even though you’re not monitoring this track to be reamped, be sure that it’s locked or grouped together with the reference or simulated track(s), so that both performances follow each other consistently no matter how many edits you may make.
Recording guitars at home does have its challenges but they have forced us to be more resourceful. There are no rules at your home studio, so take these techniques as a starting point. Every setup, instrument, and player is different, so results will vary. Use your ears, common sense, and creativity, and you’ll be able to step up your guitar tones immeasurably.
Frank Gryner is a Los Angeles-based producer/engineer whose credits include Rob Zombie, A Perfect Circle, The Removal Act and Stever.