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Recording good guitar sounds at home

I already get excellent sounds from my multi-fx guitar processor!

No, you don’t. One fact you must take my word for is that, with a few notable exceptions, no box will deliver a professional, ready to master guitar sound. In order to stay below certain price points, all manufacturers have to cut corners. Remember the “jack of all trades, master of none” saying? That’s exactly what a feature packed gizmo at a low price is. Most guitar players do the same mistake, they get one only to find out later that it’s impossible to get a sound that will properly blend in a mix. But don’t worry, you can still squeeze some juice out of your processor.

How?

Have you ever listened to the sound coming out of the fx-send jack of a tube amp? It sounds something like this: RAW.mp3. This actually came from my Koch Pedaltone preamp, which features four 12AX7 tubes.

It doesn’t sound any better than your digital processor, does it? Well, there’s a catch: the signal is significantly altered by the power amp tubes, by the speaker and by the microphone. And guitar processors can’t match these simply because they don’t change the signal the same way analogue gear does. But luckily most of them do a fairly decent job at emulating a preamp and you can use that. Here’s how: Given a system comprised of the power amp, the speaker cabinet and the microphone used to record, its impulse response function can be easily measured. By convoluting it with the signal coming from your processor you can emulate a full stack. But you need to disable any kind of cabinet emulation in the processor, because you need the pure, emulated preamp signal. Here’s the same recording as before, but convoluted with the impulse-response of a Marshall 4×12 cabinet with Greenback speakers connected to an EL34 poweramp and miked with a Sennheiser MD421: MD421.mp3

Where do I get these IRs?

There’s more than one company focused on reproducing the impulse responses of studio gear. The most popular are Recabi.net and Red Wire Impulses. They will be your most bang for the buck purchase this month, trust me.

What’s the point of having so many cabs and microphones?

One good principle in audio engineering is that it’s better to comb out some of your sound than trying to add something that isn’t there in the first place. Take a mix with two guitars. If you record them the same way, you’ll have more EQ work to do on each of them than you will if you record them with slightly different settings – different amps, different cabs, different microphones. Unless you’ve spent a few grands on a really good EQ, you really don’t want to go down that road.

How creative can I be?

There are no boundaries. For instance, most sound engineers record guitar tracks with more than one microphone, in order to “fatten” the sound. Some microphones are better than others at capturing certain frequencies. So, to properly emphasise larger frequency ranges, you need to combine microphones. A well known match is the Shure SM57 with the Sennheiser MD421.

Let’s first take a listen at our recorded track, processed by an IR of a SM57: SM57.mp3.

And again the MD421: MD421.mp3

The difference is quite obvious for the trained ear: SM57 emphasises the highs, while the MD421 is better in the midrange. Now let’s blend them together: SM57+MD421.mp3

If you liked that, listen to it again, this time with a tiny wee of chorus, a bit of reverb and some drums: MIX.mp3

So, how exactly did you do this?

I recorded these samples with my Gibson Gary Moore Les Paul, my Koch Pedaltone and my Apogee Duet interface. My DAW of choice is Reaper. I used the following track layout:

  • Track #1 – signal coming from the preamp, going through Audio Damage Fluid and  TC Electronic M30 to tracks 2 and 3
  • Track #2 – signal coming from track 1, going through the SM57 IR to track 4
  • Track #3 – signal coming from track 1, going through the MD421 IR to track 4
  • Track #4 – signal coming from tracks 2 and 3, going through the demo version of iZotope Alloy (for a 1dB boost at 6KHz) to the master track (only used for MIX.mp3)

How can I do it myself?

You can download my track template, but you need to get the IR files yourselves. Once you do that and Reaper stops complaining about missing files, simply turn any features on your processor/preamp off, except for the amp/pedal simulation. Plug it to your audio interface and enjoy.

If you don’t have a guitar processor, but your audio interface has Hi-Z inputs, you can plug your guitar directly to one of them and insert a VST preamp in the FX chain of the first track in my template, right before the noise gate.

Hope this helps 😉

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