When recording guitars, you can get BOTH realistic amp/room tone and the convenience of a plugin VST! Learn these essential tips to recording impeccable-sounding guitar parts with amp sims.
By Craig Anderton
Cranking up amps to get your tone is fun but usually not practical in home studios. Amp sims are a welcome solution, but before exploring how to get the most out of them, let’s bust some amp sim myths!
Myth #1: Amp sims don’t sound like “the real thing.”
True – standing on stage with two 12” speakers flapping your pants at high volume levels, compared to listening over 6” studio monitors at low levels, won’t sound the same. But this myth is also false. In blind tests, listeners can rarely (and sometimes never) tell the difference between the sound of a recorded physical amp and a recorded amp sim.
Myth #2: Like physical amps, amp sims should be plug-and-play.
But even physical amps aren’t plug-and-play! Getting a good sound in the studio takes effort: it’s crucial to choose the right mics, position them correctly, and determine where an amp sounds best in an acoustical space. Furthermore, many iconic guitar sounds relied on studio rack gear during mixdown. It’s no different with amp sims: you need to tweak them for the best results.
Myth #3: Amp sims have latency, so they don’t “feel” right.
With modern computers and interfaces, latency should be under 10 ms. Consider that sound travels about 1 foot per millisecond—I’ve never heard a guitarist say that playing on stage doesn’t feel right because they’re 10 feet away from their amp. (And if your ears are normally 3 feet or so from your monitors, using headphones eliminates 3 ms of latency.)
Now let’s move on to getting the BEST SOUND from your amp sims.
1. It All Starts at the Input
Guitars with passive pickups interact with amps, effects and cables. Long cables may reduce high-frequency response, and some effects (particularly fuzz boxes) deliberately load down the guitar’s pickups to reduce high frequencies. With physical amps, these kinds of signals create a creamy tone because distorting high frequencies can add a harsh sound quality.
The instrument input on most audio interfaces doesn’t load down your guitar, so your amp sim picks up the guitar’s full fidelity. With distorted sounds (especially high-gain ones), you can sweeten your tone by imitating the physical world and rolling off some high frequencies before the amp sim. Also, rolling off the lowest frequencies can tighten up the bottom end (fig. 1).
Example 1a is the guitar sound through an overdriven PRS V9 amp sim. Example 1b includes high- and low-frequency rolloffs before the sim.
A little-known but effective technique is inserting a DeEsser (fig. 2) before a sim. This acts like an “intelligent” high-frequency filter that comes into play only when you’re hitting the strings hard. When playing more softly, the high frequencies come through. But because they’re at lower levels, they don’t distort as much.
Of course, this isn’t appropriate if you want a more aggressive-sounding guitar attack. But another consideration is that if you want a brighter guitar sound, boosting treble after a de-essed guitar amp will give a brighter timbre without adding more treble to the already-bright attacks.
Example 2a is the overdriven amp sound. Example 2b adds de-essing—note how the peaks are warmer, but the low-level parts sound the same as 2a. Example 2c plays what’s being attenuated, followed by the amp sim. This represents what the otherwise attenuated audio would sound like going through the sim.
Waves also makes a newer de-esser called Sibilance. I use it for vocals because it was designed specifically for that application. However, the older DeEsser is better-suited to guitar.
2. Next Up: Drive—More than an Amp Sim Control
An amp sim’s drive control pushes more signal into the amp. Higher drive settings give more distortion. Amp sim neophytes sometimes load a preset and dislike it—either because it sounds like a muddy, distorted mess or is too “clean” for the desired result. Worse yet, a preset that sounded good on one track might not sound like you expect with a different track.
It’s important to remember that your guitar track is always dry and processed by the amp sim plugin to create the amp sound. A drive control simply increases the signal level going into the amp, but because amp sims are sensitive to the input level, the sound will also vary depending on the track’s level.
The PRS SuperModel sims have an Auto Input feature that automatically optimizes the sim for the track’s audio level (fig. 3). This is not only highly convenient but helpful when gain-staging an effects chain’s processors.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a common amp sim feature. So, I usually normalize dry guitar tracks to 3 dB. That’s not a magic number; what matters is consistency. With a known input level, your presets will sound as expected when used on different tracks. Sometimes a little compression (like from the Renaissance Compressor) or limiting will help give a more consistent sound because dynamics processing trims dynamic peaks.
A common mistake for those getting into amp sims is turning the drive up too high to get a big, distorted sound. However, the guitar may have less definition in a mix and get lost in the other instruments. When mixing, start off with lower drive settings to see if they work better.
Example 3a has a lot of drive going into the PRS Archon SuperModel. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for vocals, whereas Example 3b pulls the drive back. The guitar is more articulated and leaves some space in the mix. But you might want to use the sound in Example 3a at some point to add drama, like when there’s a repeat in the chorus, people have already heard the vocals once, and you want to kick the sound up to something a little more intense.
Regarding presets, whoever designed them wasn’t using your guitar, pickups, strings, playing technique or pick. All of those affect the level entering the amp sim. I play fairly heavy-gauge strings with a thumb-pick, which generates a higher-level signal than a thin pick hitting lighter gauge strings—which is probably what’s used to create most presets. When I call up a preset I didn’t create, reducing the drive by about a third almost always gives a better sound (and probably sounds more like what the preset’s creator intended).
3. Learn Your Sim
Now that your amp sim sound is starting to take shape, it’s time to experiment. Some high-gain amp sims “clean up” well when you pull back the input level. Conversely, some cleaner amps respond well to being overdriven. If the sim has different mic and cabinet options, try those out.
However, given the sheer number of amps, miking options, cabinets, effects and more, the possible combinations are endless and can pull you into a rabbit hole of infinite tone-tweaking. When looking for the best possible sound, try the following steps to narrow down your choices:
Reality check: Although musicians have specific opinions about sound and tone, the average listener does not. It’s more important to obsess over melodic lines, chord shapes, and lyrics than to get excessively picky about amp tone—musicians aren’t exempt from the law of diminishing returns.
4. The Sound Doesn’t End at the Sim
Every overdriven amp sim I’ve used (and some clean ones) has a characteristic resonance that I sometimes find annoying. The resonance may accurately represent an amp, but it doesn’t always do your mix a favor.
To reduce the resonance, follow the amp with a parametric EQ stage, find the resonance, and cut a narrow notch at the resonance’s frequency. The Renaissance EQ is ideal for this application. Here’s the procedure to find and reduce the resonance:
You’ll hear the resonance disappear when the peak turns into a notch (fig. 4). Your amp should now sound richer and warmer. Acclimate yourself to the sound, then bypass the EQ—the resonance will likely seem more objectionable once you know what the amp sounds like without it.
Example 4a is the sound of the GTR Modern amp with a high-gain setting. Example 4b adds two notch filters, very close to each other, to reduce the characteristic resonance. Both are normalized to the same peak level. Play 4a after listening to 4b, and the resonance will really stand out.
Experiment with the notch bandwidth. Choose the narrowest notch possible that gets rid of the whistle. Otherwise, you’ll diminish the highs—although that may be good if you want a “beefy” sound. If the resonance persists, sometimes adding a second notch (often right next to the first one) can take out more of the resonance without needing to use wider filter Q parameters.
Amps that require wider notches can dull the sound. Add a high-frequency shelf EQ with a little boost to compensate for this. Because the notch will still be deep compared to adding a few dB of boost from the shelving EQ, the resonance will remain subdued.
To be clear, don’t confuse this specific surgical technique with the advice some people give on the web about seeking out and removing multiple resonances in program material.
5. Enhance the Sim Sound with Ambiance
When you play guitar with an amp, it’s in a room—your ears aren’t next to the speaker, which is the sound source for most amp models. And if you’re playing, you’re (hopefully!) inspired enough to move around—which means the room reflections you hear will constantly be changing. This adds life to guitar parts. Similarly, ambiance adds life to sims. The PRS SuperModels have an Air parameter (fig. 5) that imparts a taste of ambiance.
Most people associate “reverb” with ambiance, but I generally combine two different approaches:
Example 5a is the dry PRS Archon amp. Example 5b has the Air control up full, and Example 5c combines the Air control with the Manny Marroquin delay.
6. Final Comments: Amp Sim Production
Some guitarists feel that if one amp sim sounds good, then layering two amp sims must be better. The following advice is highly subjective, but it’s based on decades of working in studios as a studio musician, engineer and producer, so you may find it helpful.
A friend of mine once said, “as soon as you add that second rhythm guitar part, you’re going in the wrong direction.” Of course, that’s not always true—even the “back to basics” Sex Pistols used multi-layered guitars. But less is often more. Adding more parts to a production reduces the importance of the other parts, because now the added parts also demand your attention. A well-articulated guitar part that stands on its own will often serve a production better than layers of guitars. Even better, if some judicious layering in a few sections will improve the production, the contrast will be that much greater when the layering happens.
My favorite mixer control is the mute button. When mixing, I’ll often mute tracks or sections of tracks. Cutting out sounds that aren’t essential gives more focus to parts that are essential.
Finally, it’s great that amp sims can nail the sound of physical amps. But in today’s software-based studios, amp sims have the flexibility to give sounds you’ve never heard before. Why be normal? New sonic territories await…
Musician/author Craig Anderton is an internationally recognized authority on music and technology. He has played on, produced, or mastered over 20 major label recordings and hundreds of tracks, authored 45 books, toured extensively during the 60s, played Carnegie Hall, worked as a studio musician in the 70s, written over a thousand articles, lectured on technology and the arts (in 10 countries, 38 U.S. states, and three languages), and done sound design and consulting work for numerous music industry companies. He is the current President of the MIDI Association. www.craiganderton.org.
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