When I started playing guitar, my amp
was a solid-state, open-back pawnshop
special with a single 8” speaker. And it
was good! But I figured out pretty quickly
that the music I gravitated to wasn’t coming
out of the same equipment that I had.
After seeing a few shows, reading articles,
and playing with friends’ gear, I figured
out there was usually more than one
amp plus a bunch of devices with flashing
lights called “effects” that helped my
favorite players craft their sound.
Initially, multi-amp/multi-cabinet guitar rigs
came from a live-performance world where
the PA systems weren’t capable of producing
arena-filling sound. A big stack of
identical amps and cabs created a wall of
sound based on sheer volume, but didn’t
necessarily have a ton of dimension. In the
studio, this wall-of-sound approach proved
unmanageable, so most players chose
to use smaller amps and multi-tracking
to create a rich sound with lots of depth
and dimension. Eventually this more “produced”
sound became the norm for guitarists
performing onstage too.
Expanding Your Options
It’s not difficult to expand your sonic
options and add depth and dimension to
your sound. You can even use multiple
amps and cabinets as your sound sources.
Let’s discuss some common audio terms
and concepts, and then explore how you
can use them to expand your sound.
- Mono is a single source—all sound
emanates from the same cabinet
or combo amp.
- Dry means without effects—just the
straight sound of a guitar into an amp.
- Wet means with effects. Percentages
indicate how much wet sound is in the
mix. For example, 100 percent wet means
just the effected signal is heard (there is
no dry signal), and 50 percent wet means
you’ll hear equal amounts of effected and
straight signal, and so on.
- A wet/dry rig starts with a single dry,
mono source, but adds a second cab or
combo fed by an effect that is mixed 100
percent wet. Typical effects choices
include chorus, pitch shift, delay, and
reverb. Steve Morse uses this method
and mixes in the wet signal via a volume
pedal. The first Van Halen record has the
dry guitar panned hard left and the wet
reverb signal panned hard right—a
groundbreaking technique at the time.
- A stereo rig uses two (usually) identical
cabinets or combos, but the processing
takes place on both sides. Using a stereo
processor, you run the outs into two
amps. Another option is to run the preamp
out from your guitar amp into a
stereo effects unit, then the stereo outs
into either a stereo rig consisting of
two power amps and two cabinets, or the
effects returns on a second pair of amps.
Stereo effects are usually mixed from
20-100 percent wet, depending on how
intense you want the desired result to
be. Both Alex Lifeson and Andy Summers
(among many others) once used rigs
structured this way, but they’re both now
using WDW systems (see below).
- A wet/dry/wet (WDW) rig is a combination
of mono and stereo using three sets of
amps and speakers. In a WDW configuration,
you get the full impact of a straight
dry cabinet sandwiched between two
cabinets that run 100 percent wet in
stereo. Some players go as far as mic’ing
the dry amp and cab, and then sending
the mic signal to a mixer connected
to powered PA cabinets. Stereo effects
are connected to the mixer. This creates
effected channels, which aren’t colored
by additional guitar power amps or
speakers. Steve Lukather, Larry Carlton,
David Torn, and Michael Landau have all
used variations on this method.
- A quad rig uses four amps and cabs, driven
by different delays or other effects. Shawn
Lane used delays of 10, 20, and 30 ms on
his second, third, and fourth cabs. These
created a spacious, piano-like sustain-pedal
resonance that wasn’t perceived as an effect
because the delays were so short. Until
recently, Adrian Belew used two pairs of
amps that were programmed to play sounds
independently per amp, sounds in tandem,
or as a looping pair and a solo pair.
- A surround rig requires a specially
equipped guitar—e.g. the rare Ripley
6-channel guitar or the more recent
Gibson digital guitar—or a guitar
equipped with a hexaphonic pickup.
The guitar signal is split six ways, and
each string gets its own channel, amp, or
speaker, and effects processing. It’s a
little disconcerting to hear notes
jumping around in space from front
to back the first time you play, but once
you settle in, it’s really beautiful to hear.
Because of the added system bulk and
setup time, this is more likely to be heard
at an art installation, tradeshow, or clinic
rather than in a live band performance.
But as surround music mixes become
more popular, I imagine we’ll see an
increase of this technique in studios.
Now that you know the terms and
approaches, dive in and start your own
experiments in creating unique, spacious-sounding
rigs. A new dimension awaits!
Sweetwater Sales Engineer Robert Williams has
terminal G.A.S. He also has years of experience as
a guitarist, engineer, video editor, and broadcast
automation integrator at sites across North America
and the UK. Contact him at 1-800-222-4700 ext. 1371