If you’re like me, or any of us in the beautiful but rainy United Kingdom, then you too know the plight of lock-down still. It’s an ongoing burden that we’re all sharing and in the best sense, coming together to hopefully bring the world back to some form of normality.
But it also makes recording loud instruments like drums or guitars much more difficult.
To that end, I invite you to join me in my quest to find an epiphanous moment like the one I experienced early on this year, which has recently been reinvigorated through the addition of some important new pieces of the puzzle.
To that end, this weeks blog post includes a video to walk you through this blog post, and includes some extras to help you shape your tone even further in the mixing stage:
You can find that video below, but make sure you read the blog as we go.
Let's dive in!
To quote Anakin Skywalker - ‘This is where the fun begins’. Pedals are quite simply the most saturated market for guitar and bass tone components (not accessories, we have all seen the plethora of plectrums available).
Depending on the tone you're seeking, you may not need one, for example in the case of that classic Marshall crunch tone, but in many cases, it's a brilliant way of shaping the sound of your guitar before it even hits the amp.
Take the beloved Ibanez TS-808. It brings a sweet mid-range boost to your guitar and controls the low end by cutting much unwanted rumble naturally occurring from pickups; you can dial in the effect of the low cut and shape of the tone even further by dialing in the ‘tone’ effect which acts as a way to brighten or darken the source tone.
This pedal is one I’ve mentioned because of it being simply the most recreated overdrive ever. It’s also timeless in sound in my opinion and is still a go to for 99% of projects. Others however are Horizon Devices Overdrive, the Fulltone OCD, and the Klon Centaur - all of which can be found in software versions in one way or another.
It’s easy to underestimate the effect tone pedals have, but they can completely transform an amp depending on their settings, so experiment with them to try and dial in a tone as close to what you want, while the EQ of the amp is set at noon, thus leaving a lot of the heavy lifting to the design and ingrained EQ of the pedal itself.
This is very much down to user taste, but there’s some good rules to follow and you can go super deep into the topic of valve type, how many, and the specific ‘geographical’ sound you’re after(i.e. British, German, American are often terms used to associate a particular flavor of sound).
Typically, for a crunch or clean sound I’ll turn to a fender Deluxe or similar and add pedals in front to push the amp to where I’d like. Alternatively, with a Marshall JCM or Plexi I’ll achieve this without pedals and simply roll off the volume knob to get the same effect, with a more round midrange and present top end.
Fender has always been my preference as I feel I can control the tone better than by using, say a Marshall, Vox or Orange, but again this leads back to the style of amp - I obviously prefer an American sound more than a British one (the irony!).
For higher gain, again, I learn towards a 5150, or PRS Archon, however ENGL and Marshall have been great for many bands when they are after a specific tone. Ultimately, like with pedals, its all about experimenting and finding the best sound for you, which is why it’s great that we live in an age where multiple amp sims come with several heads to play with.
Neural DSP has been a staple in my studio for the last year or so and on just about any record I’ve done, but IK Multimedia’s Amplitube has just released Amplitube 5 and it doesn’t disappoint either. Both allow extensive demos of their software and I highly recommend checking out all variants to find your favorite.
Lastly, and arguably most important is how you visualize saturation. I like to do this in the form of grains of sand - crunch being that thick clunky and clumpy wet sand here in the UK, and High Gain lead saturation being the sands in Portugal, small grain but lots of it and smooth.
It sounds silly, but try this next time you're aiming for a specific sound in your head and I promise it'll help a lot to help you define it up until this point with what we have discussed so far!"
This for me, along with pickups, is arguably the most important piece of the tone puzzle. There are no two speakers that sound exactly the same, similar to microphones (they are the reverse of each other after all).
There’s such an extensive range of tones that can come from the type and size of speaker and the dimensions, design and construction of the cabinet itself - you get the picture.
Recently, I’ve been playing around with the impulse responses from OwnHammer and some kindly gifted to us from URM (I’m actually unaware of the cabinet but it sounds gnarly!) which are using our own Mics - You can listen to a mix I did recently using the V67 and HH1 off axis using Neural DSP’s Archetype:Nolly Plugin:
Depending on the mic position and technique (on axis vs off axis) you can achieve a colourful range of tones - let alone the type of speaker. Celestion is by far the most well-known brand, the Greenback, G12H-75, V30, and so on being among the favourites.
But other large brands like Eminence are seriously understated when it comes to guitars due to being so well known for the bass tones they achieved with the Ampeg line early on. In recent years they’ve become better known, but I implore you to search for some cabinets that feature Eminence speakers, as they won’t let you down, especially at loud volumes.
Some great places to discover the delights of speaker tone are plugins such as Two Notes Audio Engineering’s Wall of Sound, which has the most extensive library on the planet when it comes to a variety of cabinet choices. OwnHammer and ML Soundlab are among the better known brands for impulse responses and I’ve personally used OwnHammer for years without disappointment, however ML Soundlab seems to have a slight variant of depth within their sound so it’s again down to preference.
‘This is not the tone you’re looking for….’
The benefits of using software over the real thing are measured in how ‘real’ you’d like your tone to be, but it’s getting so close in recent years that even valve amp elitists are struggling to find a good argument.
If you’re looking for that tone from a ‘real’ valve amp and can’t crank it due to potential noise complaints, an honorable mention goes out to Two Notes for their Torpedo Captor attenuator which is the lowest priced power soak device on the market and comes in 4, 8 and 16 Ohm rating.
They’re also the pioneers of this technology and I worked with them at the time of its release and since then it’s grown in popularity more than any of us could've expected - simply for the fact that it allows silent recording or a dimmed output level while still enabling you to push the master output and achieve a warm valve sound from your 50 watt or 100 watt valve amplifier, which can then be used in conjunction with impulse responses mentioned above!