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September 2014
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The Recording Guitarist: On Beyond Analog!

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iZotope’s Trash 2 plug-in provides access to all those distortion colors that electric guitarists are supposed to hate.

Sometimes it’s good while recording to step back and consider what the parts are trying to do. Here’s the musical scene as it existed in my imagination: Dark-toned guitars create a sense of foreboding. A weird, tweaky line buzzes past like an alien mosquito, distracting our attention till we’re blindsided by violent power-chord guitars.

How could I better depict that scene? What if the dark guitars were darker? The weird, tweaky part weirder and tweakier? The violent guitars way more violent? So I muted the amped guitars and applied digital paint to the direct-recorded tracks.

What’s different in Ex. 3a? The first pair of guitars is processed through a digital filter plug-in (PSP’s N2O), with a touch of bitchrushed distortion and mismatched cutoff frequencies and modulation rates to differentiate the parts and emphasize the stereo effect. Highs are greatly reduced, and booming, midrange resonance contrasts the thin-toned countermelody, which has heavier filtering, trashy slapback delay, and a touch of digital glitching. For the B section I used two flavors of bit-crushed digital distortion (from BitBrain, a distortion effect created in Native Instruments’ Reaktor, and Logic’s Bitcrusher plug-in). All are sounds guaranteed to nauseate tube purists. Ex. 3b features the guitars only, and Ex. 3c reveals what the raw, direct-recorded guitars sound like with no digital processing. Ouch.

I’m not claiming my approach here is the best one, or even a good one. But to my ear, the sounds “not found in nature” (that is, not available from traditional analog signal chains) make the stronger impression. For the record, I can easily imagine the situation reversed, and replacing bland modeled sounds with fat and lively analog ones. As always, context determines the best tones.

Digital Distortions
Let’s return to the digital distortion on those B section guitars. Many players don’t realize that classic rock distortion sounds filter out much high end. Guitar amps and speakers decapitate most frequencies above 4 kHz or so, and the damping effect increases as you overdrive the amp. But when you apply distortion to those unfiltered treble frequencies, the result can be pure excitement, god-awful noise, or both. Like sulphuric acid, digital distortion eats through almost anything, so it can be a great choice for dense passages of aggressive music.

Let’s conclude with a digital distortion tasting platter, highlighting a few on-beyond-analog options.

I did the processing with some favorite “distortion designer” plug-ins: iZotope’s Trash 2 (Ex. 4a), u-he’s Runciter (Ex. 4b), Sinevibes’ Circuit (Ex. 4c), and FXpansion’s Maul (Ex. 4d). Each can generate many shades of distortion, mimicking not just amps, but overdriven transistors, diodes, filters, and much more. Each plug-in has a large repertoire of tones, so don’t rule one out just because you hate the way I’ve used it here. Any or all of them can expand your distortion palette.

The good doctor gets the last word:

So on beyond Zebra!

Explore! Like Columbus!

Discover new letters!

Like WUM is for Wumbus …

So on beyond Z! It’s high time you were shown

That you really don’t know all there is to be known.

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