Guitars are fantastic instruments for sound design and noise creation. Industrial and Shoegaze bands experimented with guitar FX layers to create otherworldly and synth-like sounds. See how you can produce these sounds using plugins.
By DJ Pangburn
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Using guitars as noise or sound generators, and not simply as musical instruments, is hardly a new notion. When solid body electric guitar production exploded in the 1960s and they began to be paired with amps that could overdrive at high volumes, completely new sounds became possible—distorted and fuzzed-out chords, tremolo and vibrato effects, to name a few. Around the same time, producers like Phil Spector and George Martin with the Beatles began treating the studio as an instrument, triggering further innovations in sound.
By the late 1960s, effects units began appearing in studios and on stage that really allowed the guitar to “come of age” as a sound generating device. Artists like Jimi Hendrix, The Velvet Underground, The Stooges and even Brian Eno—via Paul Rudolph and Robert Fripp on Here Come the Warm Jets—were also pioneers in using the guitar as a noise or sound generator. In the years to come, bands like The Jesus & Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth would also explore the art of guitar noise with beautiful swells of fuzz and dissonance.
We’ll get into some strategies for creating artful guitar noise in your DAW using plugins. For some, a little grit and fuzz will do, while others will want to create walls of sound and glitchy chord shifts.
To create a wall of guitar sound, we took our cues from My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields. While Shields uses a variety of fuzz and distortion pedals and often reverse reverb (at least on Loveless), we are going to use some Waves effects plugins—drive and convolution reverb. And, like Shields, we are going to make use of the tremolo arm on our guitar.
The guitar signal’s tremolo arm creates a slightly synth-like bow effect. When combined with the IR1 Convolution Reverb, this effect gives the guitar a sort of amorphous drone that is really attractive whether you’re going for a shoegaze sound, or if you’re trying to evoke the sound of a guitar icon like J Mascis from Dinosaur Jr., who owes a great debt to Neil Young’s distorted guitar playing of the 1970s where melodies and fuzz created a gauzy country rock effect.
The setting we used for IR1 was inspired by producer Alan Branch (U2, NIN) who shows below how to use IR1 and MondoMod to create a reverse tremolo effect. Since we already had some tremolo in the original guitar signal, we didn’t use MondoMod for this audio example. Using the Concert Hall preset, we tweaked the IR1 settings to 4.2s of Reverb Time, a Size of 1.07, Density of 1.31 and Resonance of 1.60, with Dry/Wet at 100. In Scheps 73, we worked from the Wide Mosh Pit MS preset, and gave the EQ section a High of 0, Mid at 4.8 Khz and Low 220 Hz. With Drive Control enabled, we left it at the default setting of Mic -20, with High Gain at 12 kHz, Mid Frequency at 1.6 kHz, and Low Frequency at 220 Hz.
With the distortion and reverb set, we messed around until we found some chords we liked. Next, we started incorporating the guitar’s tremolo arm into the mix. To do this, we bent the tremolo arm downward while strumming, which creates Shields’ slow and woozy LFO-like effect, where notes and tonalities all blend together. To recap: the tremolo arm, IR1 and pre-amp distortion from Scheps 73 all worked together to create a swirling, atmospheric wall of sound.
The key thing to remember with this Shields-style wall of sound is that it really brings out the aesthetics of noise. It’s not just industrial static (which itself is cool) but noise with rich melodic and tonal elements.
For our second example, we wanted to play around with the MondoMod modulation plugin which can create tremolos, flangers, phasers and various other effects. Our approach here was essentially to make our guitar sound more like a synth by stacking various different MondoMods in an effects chain. The result is something like a combination of the loopy guitar playing of Krautrock legend Michael Rother on Neu!’s early albums.
Our first instance of MondoMod features a default setting set on a square wave with x0.50 timing; while the second is a Flutter preset, using a sine wave and a timing of x1.25, with AM and FM depth set to 16 and 19, respectively. (Flutter, in recording parlance, is pitch variation that can be heard on record players and tape recorders and is related to Wow—more on that below). The third MondoMod is a Full Rotor preset, with a square wave and timing of x1.0 and AM and FM depth set at 50 and 55. For our instance of Wow, we selected a sine wave and set to x2.67 timing, then set both AM and FM depth to 10 (Wow is a slower form of flutter, hence the term “Wow and Flutter”). For the final element in our chain we used the Dirt preset, using a sine wave set to timing of x.9.96 and AM depth at 41, while FM depth at 1.
When all of these instances of MondoMod are combined, we can create an oddly alluring mess of modulation. It’s noise, but artful noise.
For a hardware FX comparison, what we’ve created sounds something like what the Z. Vex Instant Lo-Fi Junky pedal’s wow and flutter might sound like if you could chain five of them, setting each to different settings; or by multi-tracking with the Lo-Fi Junky, with each track on a different setting. MondoMod effectively allows us to simplify this process, but also get wackier in the best possible way.
For guitar players looking to explore this sonic approach, it will work well in several indie rock genres. As noted above, the sound has an inherently Krautrock vibe, similar to Neu! and Cluster’s work (Michel Rother served as guitarists in both bands). It will also work well in designing sonic textures for psychedelic rock like Tame Impala, Pond, Broadcast, or even Foxygen. It’s the type of guitar effect experimentation that might also be explored by someone like Ed O’Brien from Radiohead, a noted effects geek.
Granted, this technique is more radical than those explored above, but just as rewarding. For this audio clip, we started with the clean guitar chord heard in the other sections, which we sliced and diced into equal parts, then moved around on the timeline like puzzle pieces. Next, we saved the glitchy result (which you can hear below) as a wav file, which we then loaded into Waves Codex, our wavetable synthesizer.
What is a wavetable synth? Basically, it's a collection of single cycle waveforms that can be swept through to create new and interesting sounds. In our case, it was a perfect way to really mangle the glitched guitar sample into something beautifully weird, noisy and experimental.
Using Codex, we loaded our wav sample—titled “glitch”—into the synth’s two wavetable oscillators. Next, we played around with the start, middle and end points until we produced something even more glitchy and synthesized. To give it some deep warm undertones we set the Sub Oscillator to 61.1, as the guitar sample already had a lot of high end.
As with any sculpting of a guitar and synth signal, we tweaked the voltage-controlled filter (VCF) and voltage-controlled amplifier (VCA) to provide the song with a nice long release, giving it an ambient texture. Then we turned our attention to the effects section, adding some reverb, delay and a bit of distortion. We used LFO 1 to modulate reverb and LFO 2 to modulate the delay. (Both LFOs were set to triangle waves with different rates.) If you listen closely, you can hear a touch of noise that is triggered each time a new chord is played.
Keep in mind, this approach isn’t really for a guitarist who wants to mildly effect his or her guitar; it’s for the experimental instrumentalist who might want to sample a guitar chord (or several) and turn that audio file into a synth-like sound. It’s all about atmosphere and noise, and it can be as melodic or as harsh as you want it.
Our sonic texture almost calls to mind the opening moments of Air’s song “Alone in Kyoto” off of their 2005 album, Talking Walkie, which the Gallic duo recorded on a Hartman Neuron, a sample-based granular synthesizer.
As we hinted above, it’s not so hard to get industrial textures with plugins. A wide variety of sounds is available to users, from slightly abrasive to excessively harsh—it’s simply a matter of finding them through experimentation. And this sonically adventurous approach can work whether you’re doing something like old school industrial, or something in the vein of the more recent sounds of Pharmakon and Death Grips.
Inspired by iconic industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten, who were known for using a combination of non-musical instruments (scrap metal, for instance), as well as effected guitars, synthesizers and DIY gear, we turned our one-note guitar recording into some rhythmic industrial noise. To do this, we used MetaFilter and IR1.
In MetaFilter, we selected the comb filter for our guitar track. In the Global Parameters section, we set Smooth to 89.4 to smooth out changes in modulation. We also added some Drive and Crush to create a certain abrasive quality to the guitar’s sound. In the Filters Control section, we set the delay time 12.3, which is activated when the filter type is in random mode, and we added some feedback for additional noise. Next, we selected the random LFO, which modulates our other delay, which we set to “Analog” with feedback at 59.7.
In IR1, we basically used the same one heard in the “Wall of Sound” section but made a few tweaks. First, we reduced the delay time to 4.0s, then turned it into a reverse reverb by activating the “Reverse” button. We also turned the size up to 1.76 and added some more resonance to the mix.
Together, the two effects create a swelling industrial noise that is harsh, but not exceedingly so. The result is almost cinematic, and you can almost hear Einstürzende Neubauten vocalist Blixa Bargeld singing some transgressive lyrics on top of it.
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Want more guitar mixing tips? Gets tips for mixing distorted guitars with Joe Barresi here.
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