Recording electric guitars direct can sometimes offer significant advantages over miking an amp. Find out how to get the best sounds for your guitar tracks.
By Mike Levine
Most guitarists and engineers would agree that miking an amp offers the most sonic potential when recording electric guitar. That said, there are many situations where tracking the guitar direct and producing the tone with an amp modeler is more convenient and offers more flexibility in the mix. With the high quality of contemporary amp modeling software, you can create guitar tones that can hold their own with miked-amp recordings.
These days, the “how” of DI guitar recording is ridiculously easy. Virtually every audio interface features a high-impedance input you can plug right into. You no longer need a dedicated direct box, although you can certainly use one if you prefer.
1. When to Record DI
So, when does it make sense to go DI? One prime scenario is if you're recording a full band in a home studio and don't have an isolated room to put the amp in. You're likely to get a lot of bleed through the amp mic from other instruments or vocals, and going DI can solve that problem. Or, let’s say you live in an apartment and want to track guitars at 3 am, you wouldn't want to use an amp then either.
Another reason for recording a guitar DI is to keep your options open. Because amp modeling plugins, such as the three separate amps in Waves PRS SuperModels and the various amps available in Waves GTR, offer such a variety of sonic choices, it's sometimes better to wait to finalize the guitar sound until the mixing process to make it fit better with the rest of the tracks.
After all, you don't generally print your vocals with their final compression, EQ and reverb on them. You wait for the mix and choose what works best once all the parts have been recorded and you've at least got a rough mix going. You could make the same argument for the guitar part. You also have the option to later re-amp a DI part, assuming you have the right hardware. I'll talk about that more a little later in the article.
A potential pitfall with DI guitar recording is that guitar players can be particular about their sound, and most won't want to leave the choice of tone in the hands of the producer or mix engineer. But if you can convince your guitarist to go along with it (or if you are the guitarist), it can be advantageous to have the option to change the guitar tone later in the mix.
2. Monitoring and Latency Solutions
An issue you’ll run into when recording DI is monitoring. Guitarists generally need to monitor with an approximation of their desired tone for the part in order to feel and play it correctly. This usually isn’t an issue with clean sounds, but it is with high-gain and other distorted tones, where the playing style is dependent on the sustain and overtones you get. A DI guitar sound is as clean as it can be and won't give the guitarist an accurate feel, or allow him or her to get into the groove of the music the same way as when using a standard amp-and-pedalboard setup.
The solution is to have the guitarist monitor through an amp modeler inserted on the record channel. You won't be printing with that sound—although you could to a separate track using a bus inside your DAW—but it will allow the guitarist to play with a comfortable feel.
There's one major caveat to this solution: latency. Depending on how powerful your computer is, the type of DAW you use, and the quality of the drivers for your audio interface, you may not be able to set the record buffer low enough to avoid the distracting delay between when the guitarist strikes a note and when the sound goes through the amp modeler, out the DAW's output and back into the audio interface to the player's headphones. Latency can throw a guitarist's sense of time off and is a creative buzzkill.
Depending on whether the guitarist is tracking along with other musicians or overdubbing, there are workarounds. In an overdub session, if you're unable to reduce the latency to a comfortable point for the guitarist (perhaps because you already have a lot of tracks and plugins in the session), you can print a rough mix of the other tracks, making sure it starts at bar 1, beat 1, tick 1 of the session. Then, create a new session, import the rough mix, and do the guitar overdubs there. You should be able to set your buffer to a comfortably low setting because the only plugin you'll have to use is the amp modeler.
Once you've finished with the overdubs, render a copy of the overdubbed part (minus the amp modeler, you’ll add that again later), making sure it too starts at bar 1, beat 1, tick 1, and then import it into the original session.
Alternatively, if your DAW supports track freezing, you could freeze the other tracks in the full session to remove their CPU load, then try turning the buffer to a low enough setting. Record the overdubs and then unfreeze the tracks when you're done.
3. Tracking all Together
In an ensemble tracking situation, you should be able to set your buffer low enough so that the latency isn't a distraction because your session shouldn't have many plugins at that point other than the amp modeler and perhaps a reverb.
If, for some reason, the guitarist still isn't comfortable due to the latency, you can blend his or her direct sound with the amp modeled sound coming back from the computer. It's not a perfect solution, especially when recording overdriven or distorted guitar sounds—the direct (no-latency) sound will be clean, and the delayed sound distorted. The trick is to balance the two so that the player is mostly hearing the latter, but has enough of the clean direct sound to feel the rhythm of his or her part correctly.
4. Audition Your Amps
Once you've successfully recorded a DI guitar part and are moving to the mix phase of the project, your options open up massively. You can now focus on getting the sound that works best for your mix. An excellent way to get started is to insert your amp modeler and begin trying out different presets and listening for something that fits your vision for the part. Once you find something close, you can tweak it to get it where you want.
PRS Supermodels allows for a great deal of variety. It offers three separate amp models, each with unique sonic characteristics. PRS Archon offers both shimmering cleans and aggressive and crunchy overdrive, PRS Dallas is the all-tube sound of the classic American reverb amps for big open cleans and tube drive, and PRS Blue Sierra/V9 is a boutique model giving 3D cleans to medium overdriven tones.
In addition to finding a basic tone and tweaking the gain and EQ to your liking, you can also make a lot of adjustments using the Cabinet Loader. It lets you pick a single or dual cabinet setup, and then dial in the cabinet IRs that work best for you. If you want to get really tweaky, you can even adjust a variety of power amp characteristics.
5. Mix Your Guitars
Just because you're using an amp modeler that has effects built-in, there's no reason not to use other processing plugins on the track. Just insert them after the amp modeler.
If you’re looking for stompbox-style guitar effects, Waves GTR lets you load 2, 4, or 6 stompboxes of your choice from its collection.
Although amp modelers have tone controls, I like to use a channel strip such as Waves Scheps Omni Channel because of all its tone-shaping and processing options. On virtually any DI guitar, I'll use its high-pass filter to roll off unneeded low end, it's EQ section for tonal tweaking, and often one of its compressors. On distorted tones, I'll sometimes even use the Saturation in the preamp section of the plugin, typically set on Even, which helps add to the tube-like qualities of the track.
On virtually every electric guitar track I record, I find that inserting Waves CLA-2A, an accurate emulation of the famous LA-2A, gives the tone a subtle sheen and helps to keep its dynamic range under control. Another plugin that sounds great on a guitar is Waves J37 Tape, which emulates a Studer tape machine from Abbey Road Studios. You can use it both for tape saturation and tape delay.
The following series of examples will demonstrate some of the processing you can do to enhance a DI track.
Ex 1a: DI track with no processing except reverb
Ex 1b: The PRS Dallas amp is added, giving it authentic amp tone and some EQ changes
Ex 1c: Scheps Omni Channel is added for filtering, preamp saturation, EQ and compression
Ex 1d: CLA-2A is added for tonal color and dynamics control
Ex 1e: J37 is added for tape saturation
Most of the time, I'll add reverb from a plugin on an aux track. That way, you can insert an EQ and compressor after the reverb in the signal chain to alter its character.
6. Re-Amping the DI
If you decide that the DI sound isn’t working for you, and you really want the sound of a miked amp for your guitar part, you can always re-amp it. You'll need a reamping processor box to do so. Such units aren’t super expensive and are handy to have around in your studio.
A re-amping processor takes the signal from your guitar track, which you output from your audio interface, transforms it into a high-impedance signal, and gives you an output to plug it into your guitar amp input as if it were a guitar.
You then mic the amp and record the signal back into a new track in your DAW. One of the coolest aspects of re-amping is that you don't have to commit to a sound or miking setup until you want to. It also gives you the freedom to try out a bunch of different amp and effects settings and mic placements until you find what's best for the track.
You probably wouldn't want to have your amp modeler on when you're reamping a track, because there's no need for an amp or cabinet simulation when you're miking an amp. That said, you could use both the DI version (with the amp modeling) and the miked version together on the track. Sometimes mixing DI and miked parts can make a track sound even fuller.
Ex 2a: A DI guitar recording going through PRS Supermodels V9 Blue Sierra amp.
Ex 2b: The same recording reamped through a Fender Twin and miked with a Beyer M160 ribbon mic.
Ex 2c: The two tracks combined.
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