Peter Denenberg on the Making of GTR3

Peter Denenberg

Producer, Recording & Mixing Engineer

The Spin Doctors, Deep Purple, John Lee Hooker

BETA BEGINNINGS

Have you been involved with GTR since it came out?

I initially got involved before GTR 1.0 came out. Paul Reed Smith, who is a long time friend and client of ours at Acme Studio, he called out of the blue one day and said he was working on this project in conjunction with the Waves guys. Would I be interested in hearing it, trying it, so on and so forth? Frankly, my initial reaction was we already have these guitar emulation things in our Pro Tools rigs, do we really need another one? But Paul was pretty insistent and got a beta version sent to us to try.

When we loaded it up and also connected the hardware that came with it, which was something a little different, the initial reaction of everyone here at the studio, the engineers, was “Oh crap, now here’s something else we have to spend money on.” It really did sound better than the stuff we had been using.

Traditionally, if we had a large setup with a big band, where there were two different guitar players, as well as a bass, as well as a singer, as well as a piano, as well as drums, we would run out of booths where we could put guitar amps. So we’d record a direct box on some of the guitars, we’d give the guys something they could listen to and work with in their headphones with some other plugin, and then we’d re-amp later through a real guitar amp.

What were your first impressions?

Once this GTR product came along, we could actually dial up sounds that were the done deal, that were better than the sounds we could get when we were re-amping our guitar amps, and we could actually use it to make records as opposed to sort of a temporary track. So that was pretty remarkable. That was the beta version of 1.0. As it was explained to me by Paul, one of the main problems with all the other ones we had been using was that we were plugging our guitar directly into the console or into an A-to-D converter or direct box.

So that’s where the Waves/PRS Custom Hardware Interface comes in.

We weren’t using something that was happy being plugged into a direct box or into a console, especially the older guitars with single-coil pickups, What Paul and the guys at PRS designed was an impedance-matching direct box, so the guitar, regardless of what volume it was set to, or how loud or soft you played, or what pickup you selected, was always seeing the load it was happy with, and you could get a dynamic range, and you could turn the volume all the way down and still have all the high end that you would hope for, whereas before, when it was plugged into the board, you would lose your tone.

So now we ended up with a system that was actually more dynamic than analog amps in the studio if the gain was turned all the way up and you turn the guitar all the way down, you’d end up with this “shhhhh,” you know the sound of the tubes and a little hum and so on. With this, we could dial up sounds that were crazy crunchy and loud and at the same time turn the master volume on the guitar down and it would clean up and still be a s clear as a bell and have all its presence. It was pretty incredible. So, we were sold at that point.

SUPERMODELING

How does the modeling process work?

This was something that Paul really brought to the party and insisted be part of the package, I believe, as they were starting to develop the software. He then flew to Israel with the prototypes of the direct box that they developed and had all of his favorite amps flown to Israel, and that’s where the initial models for GTR 1.0 got done by the guys there. That came out and I helped introduce it at Summer NAMM I believe that year, and then when it came time to do 2.0, we wanted to model more amps, so we went and did all my favorites here in Mamaroneck.

Then 3.0, as you were talking about earlier, is these other amps which Paul has collected in the meantime, and this has really taken it to a crazy level. Something that happened that they were working on when we were working on 1.0 and 2.0, was trying to come up with really accurate and effective High Gain models, and the stuff that was in there was fine. It was all very usable, but they were always not quite as happy as they’d like to have been with the super high gain models. Some stuff has happened since then, and the ability to sample the High Gain amplifiers has really improved. They’ve come up with a new way of doing it.

What’s it like working with Paul Reed Smith?

You haven’t lived until you’ve been an engineer on a recording session and you’re supposed to dial up a guitar sound for Paul Reed Smith, the guy who happened to make your favorite guitar you have in your closet. It’s a little unnerving. In fact, the first time I did it, it was scary, but we had a wonderful time. Paul and I both hear things the same way and ended up with sounds that we’d both been very fond of through the years. In terms of trying to recreate that situation and freeze that moment in time and model the sound through the GTR, it was quite similar. We would pile into the studio. We would play guitar, we would put up microphones, put up amplifiers. Paul has an amazing energy. When he’s excited about a sound, everybody in the room gets excited; it’s a lot of fun.

Paul has his favorite microphones, and I have my favorite microphones I like for some amplifiers. What we tried to do with the GTR system is give someone a large range of choices of microphones. So each amp model or cabinet model will have the 2 or 3 microphones and setups that we like. I have one setup where I just use 2 simple microphones, 2 57s, one on-axis, one off-axis, and I mix them together. That’s in there. We try and have a ribbon mic as a choice in each situation, some condenser microphones. Depending on the speaker cabinet, you might have 5, 6, 7 choices. There were microphones that they used on the early 1.0 models that we tried to keep around the studio and have them follow through and also be available in the GTR3 models. So if there’s something that someone had decided that was their favorite mic early on, it’s still going to be there when they come to GTR3.

THE SECRET STASH

Rumor has it that some of the amps modeled in GTR are extremely rare.

Paul has been collecting these really crazy expensive boutique amplifiers, participating in the tweaking of the design of these amplifiers and sending them back to the manufacturer and changing this capacitor and changing that, and he’s ended up with these heads that are just wild. You play through them, and you haven’t heard anything like them. Up until now, we’ve had our favorite Fender, our favorite Marshall, our favorite whatever amp that we’d use in the studio, but they were always just that favorite one that you’ve had all your life. Now, there are these custom made, very expensive amplifiers that the average guy like myself isn’t going to be able to buy, but now we have models of it that we can actually use on our projects, so that’s something that’s really exciting.

When we’re making a record, these are amps that cost 10, 20, 30 times as much as the average amp that you would just walk into the guitar store and buy. Furthermore, they’re not even off-the-shelf ridiculously expensive guitar amplifiers, they’re guitar amplifiers that Paul Reed Smith was able to buy, listen to, and actually send back to the boutique amp designers and have them further tweaked to his liking.

So what we end up with is a studio full of absolutely priceless, one-of-a-kind amplifiers which maybe you might be able to rent one of these things for a few hundred dollars a day from some sort of rental house, but you’re certainly not going to have it in the closet all the time at your disposal anytime you want to do a guitar part. So by virtue of using GTR3, we do have this list of crazy amplifiers to pick from. Not to mention the time that it would take you to go through 15 different guitar amps and mic them in and get a sound from them. You’re not really going to feel like playing at the end of that. Being able to do it with the click of a mouse is crazy, it’s luxurious.

And some of the amps are really hard-to-find collector’s items.

One of things we talked about was how fun it would be to hunt down some famous old guitar amps from different guys’ collections and actually be able to model, you know, Hendrix’s amp or somebody’s amp, and down the road I’m hoping they’ll be able to do that sort of thing. Up until now it hasn’t been a limitation, because we’ve had Paul Reed Smith and myself and the guys at Waves, there’s been plenty of amplifiers to start with, but no doubt the list will continue to grow. Something that’s really funny about it is that the 2.0 version, some of the stuff from my collection which I’m very fond of are these smaller amplifiers, they’re actually guitar cases that came with these guitars that you bought from Sears in 60s that actually had tiny tube amps in them with 6” speakers.

So we're able to model those amplifiers and those speakers, and in GTR, you could make impossible combinations. You could take what was a 100W massive amp head (floored) and run it into this little guitar case speaker, which would, in real life, absolutely blow up the speaker the first time a chord. But in GTR, you can actually get a model of what that would sound like and use it on a tune.

How about your own amps?

It’s pretty remarkable. Even having participated in the initial release of 1.0, I never had the opportunity at that point to hear the amp in real life vs. the modeled amplifier. When we got to 2.0, that was a situation where some of the guys from Israel like Amir flew into NY and we did the modeling in my studio here. Then the process was, he would ask me what my favorite guitar amp is, and I’d set it up, and show it to him, he’d say yes, that is lovely, we’d put all these microphones on it, go into my control room, I get a sound that I like out of all these microphones, both the ones I would use and the ones Paul had used earlier on so that the whole selection is there. Once the sound is sort of locked in, then all these alligator clips and test equipment is broken out and they do a model of the amplifier and of the speaker cabinet.

Around an hour later, after all these numbers are crunched, and so on, a model of the amplifier is presented to me that I can play through in my control room, with the very same speakers and A/B with the actual live guitar amp, which is still set up in the room. To me, it was incredible how similar it was. In some cases you couldn’t tell which one you were playing through if you closed your eyes BUT as I mentioned before, on the modeled version we could crank the gain way up, turn the volume down on the guitar, and have this dynamic range from very quiet and feathery but still bright and present to absolutely hellaciously crunchy, which is something I couldn’t do through the real amplifier. So it’s almost like you have a very accurate matching sound, but the dynamic range on either end of it is far greater what it is in real life. It’s pretty remarkable.

REAL SOUND, REAL TIME

One of the big problems with amp simulations in the studio is latency. How does GTR stack up?

The initial response when you put headphones on someone, let them try it at a trade show or in the studio, all of the guitar players who picked it up responded and felt like the sound was right there at their fingertips, that it wasn’t coming out of the speakers later, like it did with the other systems they tried. Everyone has a workstation now and these amp simulators allow them not to disturb their neighbors, letting them work later at night, that was always our response to these products was “Yeah, they’re handy, sound pretty good, and if you don’t have room for an amp, something that ‘will do’ in the meantime…” They never really felt like tools that would be your first choice when you’re making a record. That’s what got us so excited about GTR in the first place was we felt like this was finally something that we would want to go to first, this was a tool we could really make records with. It wasn’t a compromise, it wasn’t something just to throw on the guy’s headphones.

 

How about switching amp sounds after tracking?

The more live a band is, the more being able to go back and work on this tone a little more later comes in handy. I made a bunch of live records with the band the Spin Doctors, and I also did their studio records, when we would record them live, the situation would not always be the best for sound in whatever room we were in, whether it was a club or a hall or a college or whatever, so you would make sure that you would record a direct box on the guitar, sometimes you would record that direct box before his pedalboard in case he forgot to push the fuzz box on/off switch when he finished playing a guitar solo and went back to the rhythm part under the verse. You could go back and fix that later, if this was a track that was being used for a live album or a radio concert or whatever.

Then when we got into the studio and started work on their 2nd album, we would record his guitars that way also, before there were Re-Amp boxes, I believe. So, we would take a direct box on the guitar, and then back out of the analog tape machine, we would run it into a little headphone box with a little volume knob to control the amount of level back into a guitar amp. In the cases of some songs, we would re-amp a guitar solo that happened during a live take that was particularly cool and off the floor and had the sort of energy we wanted.

So, we would take the guitar signal and send it back into the little headphone box, adjust the level, maybe run it through a fuzz box and a wah-wah pedal which he would then play live in the control room, sometimes even a Leslie cabinet, which we’d then run out to a bunch of Marshall cabinets and we would make a re-amp for the solo section. So, the regular rhythm guitar sound we were happy with, the solo sound we weren’t.

With GTR, we can operate the same way, but with a lot less hardware and a lot less trouble and a lot faster. Certainly, if I were called to do a live record next week, the process would be the same from a recording point of view, but in post production it would be awesome to be able to have the automated guitar amps that we have in GTR.

One thing that’s been missing from a lot of the other guitar software is great bass sounds.

I think to really experience the new GTR3 bass guitar tones and amp tones, you need to pick up something very heavy, walk up and down several flights of stairs like we did when we sampled them, or it’s just not going to be fair. (laughs). We had these crazy huge 8 x 10 cabinets that came in flight cases which we carried up and down the stairs and these massive amp heads, these modern solid state systems, as well as these older tube, industry standard bass rigs. We set them up.

They also had some stuff that they had bought in Israel, smaller Portaflex studio bass rigs and I had one here that was my favorite. I can’t recall how many of them ended up in the system, but I do remember just being thrilled with the sounds we were getting here. I was very surprised with the more modern ones, the solid state ones that had these really interesting aural enhancement knobs on the amp heads that in the modeled versions came up with a sound that was very neat, very different.

ALL THE WAY LIVE

How about taking this stuff to the stage?

From the very beginning, even some of the guys that were beta testing GTR 1.0, even though it was developed as something we thought would be used in Pro Tools or as part of another application, there were guys who wanted to use it live. And so they had the thing loaded up on their laptop, and they would MIDI map to any sort of MIDI PedalBoard the controls on the Stomp plugins which are part of GTR that they wanted to be able to turn on and off, and they would map a MIDI expression pedal to adjust, say, the volume knob on the amplifier or something. And they were using this thing to do gigs! GTR 1 and 2 always had the ability to call up presets for the Stomps and the Amps and so forth. It wasn’t really as live-oriented as it might have been.

With GTR3, and a MIDI controller, you can control the Stomp boxes that are there in your setup, or you can have presets where you’re picking from different presets with left hand buttons and the right hand buttons, and control the Stomps coming up in those presets. You can go back and forth, A/B between clean and dirty sounds. So Standalone mode with a MIDI controller makes GTR3 an awesome live tool.

Sounds perfect for live gigs.

Live gigs are one thing, but think about the session guitar player from jingle studio to jingle studio, from recording studio to home studio, and so on and so forth, now, instead of an entire truck full of carted equipment and all of these different guitar amps, he can walk in there with a laptop under one arm and a MIDI footswitch under the other arm, and have this huge selection of sounds at his disposal. A lot of times you don’t know necessarily what the record or the date that you’re playing on is going to call for, and you have to guess what to bring. In this case, you have everything.

Not to mention, by saving the preset for whatever song you’re working on, you can come back and fix a part, or do another part, and have it match up exactly without having to put the microphones in the same place and the knobs in the same place.

How do musicians respond to GTR?

In turning other musicians, other guitar players on to GTR in the studio, what often happens is they’ll haul their big amplifier in, whatever it is, their favorite amp, and they’ll set it up in the room. We’ll get a sound on that, or we’ll get their favorite sound on that, and then what we’ll say is “OK, that’s cool, that’s nice, but check this out.” You can give them both, switching back and forth in their headphones, and let them pick which one they like. Lo and behold, when it comes time for another session with these guys, the amplifier stays home and they say “Just run it through that thing that you have.” It generally wins out. When you talk about doing a punch-in or fixing one little part, and so on and so forth, being able to do it just by plugging into the Interface and having the tone match exactly, it’s just an unbelievable bonus.

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