Culture

Going to 11 in the Virtual World: How to Make the Most of Guitar Amplifier Simulators

Whether it was for practicing or recording, in order to get serviceable distorted electric guitar sounds without disturbing the neighbors, spouse, or parents at 2:00 in the morning, there were originally only a few options. The oldest of which was a small tube amp, cranked up, and/or with a fuzz pedal for distortion. No less than Jimmy Page (pictured above) owned this technique during the heyday of Led Zeppelin. As fellow Zeppelin member John Paul Jones said in 2008, “Everybody thinks we go in the studio with huge walls of amplifiers, but [Page] doesn’t. He uses a really small amplifier and he just mikes it up really well, so that it fits into a sonic picture.”

In the early 1980s, Tom Scholz, the electronics genius who founded the group Boston, invented the Rockman. About the size of Sony’s then-new Walkman, it contained the circuitry necessary to archieve a reasonable approximation of Scholz’s roaring, heavily processed distorted guitar tone, plus the chime-y clean sounds so popular on 1980s pop radio, in a handy, affordable, portable form that could be used with headphone, or plugged into a recorder. Enormously popular, the Rockman quickly filtered down to the home recording world because of its sound and simplicity. Throughout the 1980s, I used the Rockman to record loads of demos late at night without disturbing the neighbors.

Late in the following decade, Line 6 invented the Pod, and Roland created the VG-88 Guitar Modeling System, each of which allowed for a large variety of tones in a portable device. As with amps and the Rockman, these all have the disadvantage of having their sounds locked-in once recorded, with only the option of minor EQ and/or effects being added later to tweak them to better blend into a completed track.

Skynet Shreds: The Birth of the Amp Simulator

Fortunately, as Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit would say, “This is the 21st century, you know.” Late in the 1990s, amp simulation software became popular, first in pro recording studios using digital audio workstations (DAWs), and now available to anyone. Amp simulation software (or “amp sims” for short) have much more flexibility to alter a guitar’s tone after a recording than any of the aforementioned techniques. The guitarist records a dry, direct injected guitar sound, and gets his big fat recorded tone from a plug-in in a DAW. But don’t throw away your older amp recording technology just yet – you may find you’re using it more than ever.

The amp modeling software I currently use is called TH3 by the Italian-based Overloud company. (Appropriate name there for an amp sim maker!) A starter model came with Cakewalk’s Sonar Platinum, and I eventually bit the bullet and paid for the cost of upgrading to the full version, which currently offers, according to the Overloud Website, “69 guitar amplifiers and 3 bass amplifiers, 35 guitar cabinets and 2 bass cabinets, 75 pedal and rack effects, 18 microphone models, with up to four mics on each cabinet [and] More than 1000 presets covering all musical style[s].”  There are also setups for recording bass guitars (or juicing up synth bass), and setups to add additional atmosphere and effects to soft synths and previously recorded guitar tracks.

Many of the sounds in TH3 are great from the start, and their presets are endlessly adjustable. They run the gamut from setups with a minefield of virtual effects pedals, to stripped down rigs consisting of a guitar, speaker, and virtual microphone. (Perfect when you know you’re going to be adding your own effects from outside manufacturers onto the track.) I do wish that TH3 had a more flexible reference system for scrolling through the presets. Even Roland’s old VG-99 offered two ways to search the presets; one by number, another by genre. Perhaps the user’s most-used presets and/or user-created patches could be listed at the top of the GUI to quickly get started.

In any case, once a preset is loaded, all of the dial settings can be tweaked to perfection, even via DAW animation, to automate levels. (Say to have much more distortion on power chords, less on delicate arpeggios or double-stop playing.)  It’s also possible to use MIDI to control the virtual footpedals on the TH3’s wah-wah pedal.

TH3 contains two noise gates – one is built into the GUI, and is perfect for dialing out 60-cycle hum from fluorescent lights, ground loops, etc. The second is a model of a noise gate effects pedal, which can be very useful when dealing with ultra high metal-style setups.

Working Around Computer Latency 

TH3 bit of a ram hog, and this can be a problem given the workflow of a typical recording, where all of the rhythm parts, software synthesizers, vocals, and all their concomitant effects plugins have already been recorded before a guitar solo is laid down. There are two ways to work around this. The first is to bounce your rhythm track down to a single track, create a new DAW template, record your new solo, comp it all together, and then fly the final track into the original multitrack. However, for those whose audio interfaces offer zero-latency when recording audio, there’s another approach – allow me a few moments to explain how it works.

As far back as the days of Jimi Hendrix, if not earlier, pro recording studios frequently took advantage of using a spare track on a multitrack recording to record a direct-injected guitar signal so that the guitar could be re-amped later, in case the tone of the original guitar amp didn’t fit in with a song as it developed. For those of us doing home recording back in the days of the four-track Portastudio of the 1980s, keeping an extra track open for re-amping was a luxurious extravagance. However, given that modern DAWs offer near-unlimited tracks, re-amping has finally filtered down to the home recording world. Re-amping involves sending a signal out to an amp in the studio, hopefully mic-ed to perfection once the band is done recording its basic tracks. However, the first half of that process involves a technology we’ll be using with our amp-modeling software.

That’s the direct box, such as the J48 Active Direct Box from Radial Engineering, Ltd. While there’s nothing wrong with plugging straight into a computer’s audio interface, as Paul White of England’s Sound on Sound magazine notes in his excellent primer, The Producer’s Manual, there may be some loss of high end in the guitar’s signal. Additionally, the J48 Active Direct Box also has a throughput jack, perfect for sending the raw guitar signal to your old Pod, VG-88, or small amp. (See, I told you these would come in handy.)  Load up two tracks on your DAW, plug the J48 box (or a comparable model from another manufacturer) into input on your audio interface, plug your old Pod, VG-88 or amp into the other, set appropriate recording levels for both outputs, and bingo! Zero latency recording on most modern audio interfaces. If you have a tube-based microphone pre-amp such as the Chandler Limited Redd.47 we reviewed in September, it’s worth experimenting with. You’ll likely find that you prefer matching input methods to particular guitars.

In any case, once your recording is finished, you can then put the amp sim plugin onto the direct track, and unless you’re really enamored with the sound of the temporary track with the Pod or VG-88 on it, that track can be deleted.

Another benefit of this approach is that auto-tune programs such as Melodyne are much happier working with a dry guitar signal – a roaring fuzzy guitar sound can make it more difficult for the programs to accurately detect the notes being played. Also, since the sound being tweaked is the underlying direct guitar, any tuning or timing corrections should be more transparent, since distortion and other effects are going on top of the tweaked notes.

Once a suitable guitar sound has been created and the parts played to your level of satisfaction, record a track with the completed guitar sound added. Very helpful if sending the song to mixed and mastered by someone else, and particularly if you need to remix the song years later, after a possible change in computer technology and/or the DAW it was recorded on being upgraded beyond recognition, or as almost happened last year with Cakewalk’s venerable Sonar DAW, discontinued.

Amp sims are a useful item in the toolbox of every guitarist and producer who works with a DAW. You may find that a real amp works best on certain tracks, and that the ol’ Pod or VG-88 still has some useable tones after all. It’s really just whatever fits a song best. But if you’re working in a home studio late at night, your relatives or neighbors will certainly appreciate your letting them sleep at night!

(Artwork created using images from Getty and AP.)