Modern stomps offer more sounds than ever before, but a laptop can help you delve into an even deeper world of live sonic manipulation. Here’s what you need to know to get started.
The beauty of a great guitar plugged straight into a great tube amp is undeniable. Still, some might say the full potential of an electric guitar is realized only when processing that signal. Of course, some of the most groundbreaking players of all time—from Jimi Hendrix to The Edge—have illustrated this point, and the current deluge of new pedals and thriving builders seems to bear this out.
If you are into processing, pedals might be plenty for you, especially in this era of stompboxes that do things even top studio gear couldn’t manage a decade ago. Still, there is a portal to another world of sound available for live use—a world explored by guitarists like Adrian Belew, John McLaughlin, Eivind Aarset, Fennesz, Dan Phelps, the late Andy Gill, and others. It’s a portal you may be looking at as you read this. I am talking about a laptop computer.
I was introduced to the concept of guitar and laptop performance through the series of Warper parties— gatherings dedicated to computer-based music—I attended in New York City. At the very first one, I encountered a guitarist with a computer built into his guitar and another playing jazz fusion through his laptop to backing tracks, also on computer. Yet a third player was performing arrangements of TV themes, playing guitar with one hand and keyboards with the other—all through a laptop.
Plug-ins offer sonic shaping and effect routing that is difficult or impossible to achieve with pedals. Even if you could, it would require a pedalboard the size of the entire stage and a router/switching system of NASA-level complexity.
For me, performing solo with a laptop let me privilege the kind of sonic fairy dust I had been offering as a side musician, shifting the lush pads and textures I had delivered to singer/songwriters for years out from the background and into the focus of attention. Plus, as someone who does not sing or play typical solo guitar, playing through a laptop let me take control of my performance opportunities: no pesky bandmate schedules to consider for rehearsal or booking.
Many guitarists already use a laptop to record everything from demos to final releases. These days, all it takes is a guitar, an audio interface, a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), and a pair of speakers or even good headphones, and you are ready to make your next masterpiece. If you have worked this way, you have likely discovered plug-ins. Instantiated in a DAW, plug-ins offer sonic shaping and effect routing that is difficult or impossible to achieve with pedals. Even if you could, it would require a pedalboard the size of the entire stage and a router/switching system of NASA-level complexity. Multi-effects units might get you part of the way there but as yet cannot offer the range of potential sounds available with a computer.
With a wealth of creative software, a laptop lets you easily take lush reverbs and mangle them with filters or distortion. You can sequence effects to automatically appear and disappear over the course of a song or composition. If that sounds interesting, you might want to consider transporting your laptop, DAW, and plug-ins to the stage, either as your sole processing system or in conjunction with pedals. Here’s what you’ll need to get started.
A MIDI controller, like the Novation Launch Control ($159 street) seen here, isn’t necessary to use Ableton Live, but using one increases interactive functionality.
Because live performance has different requirements than recording, ultra-high audio specs are not quite as important, but portability, reliability, build quality, and low latency are crucial. Latency is the time it takes for your signal to go into the audio interface, pass through the software on the laptop, go back into the interface, and travel out to the speakers, as measured in milliseconds. You will want the latency low enough that you don’t hear the sound reaching your ears noticeably after you hear/feel your pick hit the strings. Ideally, you will want the most powerful laptop you can afford in order to have access to the fastest processor possible. Plenty of RAM and a solid-state drive will contribute to the computer’s speed.
There are factors that affect latency. One is buffer size, delineated in samples. Without getting too technical, the lower you can set the buffer in your DAW, the less latency you will hear. How low you can set it, without getting dropouts and other unwanted glitches, is determined by the number of plug-ins you are running and the power of your computer. With virtually any of the current Apple M1 powered laptops you should be good to go. If you can’t afford a new computer, don’t worry. I was performing with a MacBook Pro over a decade ago with no problems. You can attempt this with a non-Apple computer, but virtually every major touring act uses Macs thanks to their reputation for reliability.
Here I have the buffer size set to 128, where I find I can record tracks without latency issues. With modern computer power and minimal plug-ins, you can probably set this even lower.
To plug your guitar into your computer, you will need an interface, which converts your signal from analog to digital. There are many available options, including the Universal Audio Arrow (available used for $350-$399) or Focusrite Scarlett ($179 street). You only need one input, unless you use both electric and acoustic guitars, which have different input requirements. The number of outputs will depend on your signal chain.
A MIDI controller of some sort—foot switcher, tabletop controller, or both—is a good idea because, as with pedals, you will want to turn effects on and off and have access to parameters. Akai, Korg, and others make a variety of tabletop controllers, ranging from $119 street and up, with knobs and switches that will let you turn on, blend, and manipulate the parameters of the plug-ins in your DAW.
Eivind Aarset is among the group of creative guitarists who bring a laptop into the mix for all gigs.
Photo by soukizy.com
You might be thinking, “Aren’t my hands otherwise occupied playing my guitar?” That’s true, but one of the advantages of laptop guitar is advanced looping. Once a loop is created, a tabletop controller lets you easily route that loop through myriad effects—filters, resonators, delays, reverbs—in ways that are impossible with hardware loopers. A footswitch-style MIDI controller is helpful if you want to do sync’d rhythmic loops, though it’s not as necessary for ambient looping.
To process your guitar in the computer, you can use any software that hosts plug-ins: Logic, Pro Tools, GarageBand, Logic MainStage, and others. As a performing tool, Ableton Live (starting at $99 street for an introductory version) is the most ideal and offers a number of unique features. With Ableton, you can tap in tempo, easily syncing all your effects and loops at once, and there are “nudge” buttons that let you move the tempo of loops slightly up or down to match a drummer’s shifting time without changing their pitch. The “link” feature lets you wirelessly sync your effects with your keyboard player’s laptop, your drummer’s loops, and even the computer running the show’s backing tracks and light show.
This is my performance setup in Ableton Live. It includes the Jam Origin MIDI Guitar plug-in ($149 street) that lets me control spoken-word recordings in a sampler without any kind of MIDI pickup on my guitar. Also shown is a great granular processing plugin, Stream, from Delta Sound Labs ($49 street).
Live’s native plug-ins will let you create a custom amp-modeling system; emulate digital, analog, and tape delays; and add stutter, granular, or bit-crushing effects. Plus, if you are performing solo using backing tracks and running through a PA, you can easily set a dedicated track to resampling and it will record your entire evening’s performance.
Live lets you loop in two different ways via the looper plug-in and “clip” system. The looper plug-in is great for overdubbing ambient soundscapes, but can also provide timed rhythmic parts, while the clip system is perfect for making multiple rhythmic-based loops that can then be triggered by a MIDI footswitch and/or tabletop controller. While you can’t overdub on a clip, you can set up multiple clip loop tracks where you are able to, for example, record all your verse parts in one row, your chorus parts in a second row just below, and create a third row for the bridge. You can then trigger these rows as scenes.
Here is a dummy clip set to raise and lower the feedback of the Ableton echo plug-in.
Live also lets you make “dummy” clips with no audio that can be set to modify effects parameters over time. For example, you could set a dummy clip to increase a delay plug-in’s feedback to just under runaway levels while simultaneously shortening the delay over a period of two bars, and then reverse the process over the next two bars. Try that with pedals!
Would you like to hear two great examples of guitarists using Ableton Live onstage? Check out any video with Eivind Aarset performing. Aarset uses it for a variety of sounds, including ambient reverbs and delays and looping. John Scofield collaborator Avi Bortnick also uses Live for myriad sounds and textures, one of which includes using his guitar to open a noise gate that lets rap vocals cut through only when he plays.
Fig. 1 (*Magenta cables indicate additional or alternative signal path.)
There are multiple ways to insert a laptop into your signal chain. You can run everything through your computer, employing amp modeling software—like Bias FX 2 ($49 street), Guitar Rig ($199 street), or AmpliTube ($99 street)—and running the signal from your audio interface to the house PA or a pair of powered monitors (Fig. 1).
You might instead eschew the amp modeling software and run the signal into a pair of guitar amplifiers (Fig. 2). This offers a way to keep your favorite tube amps as part of your rig. But be careful: Some effects plug-ins can put out low frequencies that don’t work well with guitar amps and speakers.
For both of those methods, all you need is an interface with one input and two outputs. You run your guitar signal into the interface, which converts your analog signal to digital, and then sends that digital info through USB, Lightning, or Thunderbolt cables into the laptop and the software. Next, a stereo digital signal is sent back to the interface, where it is converted to stereo analog and sent out to the amps, powered speakers, or PA using standard guitar cables or XLR-style microphone cables.
A more complicated method is a version of the wet-dry-wet setup. Here you would split your guitar signal between a mono signal going directly into a guitar amplifier and the laptop’s stereo output to two full-range powered speakers or the PA. This setup can be achieved in a few ways. You can use an interface with one input and three or more outputs that can be routed inside the interface. This allows you to send your guitar signal from the interface simultaneously to the laptop and directly to a guitar amplifier (Fig. 3).
Alternately, you could use a splitter box before the audio interface that sends one signal to your interface and computer, and one to the amp (Fig. 4).
If you don’t want to use modeling software in the computer for the wet signal, you can use a reactive load box, like the Universal Audio OX ($1,499 street) or Fryette’s Power Station ($899 street) or Power Load ($699 street), which gets placed between your amplifier and its speaker (Fig. 5). You run your guitar into the amp, and two outputs on the load box simultaneously send your amp signal to the speaker and, with speaker emulation, to the computer interface. Sending the sound of your amplifier to the DAW means there is no need for amp modeling within the computer. Once the sound is processed, it is sent to powered speakers or the PA, as in Fig. 2. In this method, your amplifier signal can remain dry and present, while processed sounds will emanate from the powered speakers or PA.
If you don’t want your amplifier signal completely dry or just want to place some of your effects pre-computer, you may want to use pedals in front of your amp. Which brings us to.…
Pedals and Laptop
As much as a computer can do, there are plenty of good reasons to combine pedals with laptop sounds. Digital modeling software sounds excellent these days, but adding a mild overdrive pedal before your interface can lend some analog warmth to the sound. In addition, a drive pedal set for just a little breakup can make the playing experience feel more organic. As you play harder and softer, the “give” of the pedal can often feel more expressive than even the best amp modeling software.
Plus, just as many plug-ins are not yet duplicated in pedal form, likewise there are pedals that perform functions not available as plug-ins. Glitchy, digital micro-looping pedals like the Red Panda Tensor, Hologram Electronics Dream Sequence, Chase Bliss’ Blooper and Mood, and the Hexe FX Revolver do not yet have any direct analogs in the plug-in world. If you want to learn a programming language like Max MSP, you might be able create something like these pedals inside your computer. Ableton includes Max for Live with the purchase of their suite and a plethora of pre-programmed plug-ins are available using Max as their basis, but these pedals still offer something special.
Taking the Stage
You now have all your hardware and software and are ready to perform. Depending on how you use the laptop in your signal chain, you might be able to place it out of the way and use a foot switcher, as if you were using a standard multi-effects unit. But if you want to maximize the advantages of using a computer live, you will likely want it at hand.
In almost two decades of performing with this setup, I have had fewer computer crashes than pedal malfunctions.
You can normally rely on the venue to provide a table of some sort, or you could try Eivind Aarset’s solution. He brings a keyboard stand and places his guitar’s hard case on it, creating a perfect platform for controller, computer, interface, and some of his hardware pedals. I haven’t used a hard case in years, so I just screwed some handles onto a painted piece of plywood and place that on a keyboard stand.
As with any performance, hearing yourself is crucial. If you are using guitar amps or powered speakers, they will act as monitors. Some powered speakers may have XLR outs to send to the house PA. If you are only running through the PA, you may want to use headphones plugged into your interface to be assured of hearing the same thing as the audience.
Some guitarists have trepidation about reliability when using a laptop. All I can say is that in almost two decades of performing with this setup I have had fewer computer crashes than pedal malfunctions. It is also easier to bring a backup laptop and interface than a second pedalboard and amp.
A laptop dedicated to only music is ideal, but if you don’t have that luxury, make sure to quit any programs other than the performing software in use. Turning off WiFi during your set will prevent notifications from interrupting and provide a little extra processing power. And speaking of power, while it is best to keep your laptop plugged in while performing, if there is ever an issue with clean power or a faulty socket, unlike with pedals, your laptop battery will take over and the show will go on.
Is It for You?
Playing through a laptop is not for everyone. You probably won’t be welcome at your local blues jam if you say, “Hang on a minute while I boot up my Mac.” But if your music involves a world of sounds that go well beyond those offered by hardware pedals and multi-effects, or you’re just seeking a more portable way of producing interesting tones, taking the stage with a computer might be an option. And, with tubes becoming harder to get, who knows? Someday it may be the best option.
- Which IR Box Is 4U? - Premier Guitar ›
- 10 Recording Mistakes Guitarists Make (And How to Avoid Them ... ›
- Recording: Going Mobile - Premier Guitar ›
For these new recreations, Fender focuses on the little things that make original golden-era Fenders objects of obsession.
If there’s one thing players love more than new guitars, it’s old guitars—the unique feel, the design idiosyncrasies, the quirks in finish that all came from the pre-CNC era of instrument manufacturing. These characteristics become the stuff of legend, passed on through the years via rumors and anecdotes in shops, forums, and community networks.
It’s a little difficult to separate fact from fiction given these guitars aren’t easy to get your hands on. Fender Telecasters manufactured in the 1950s and 1960s sell for upwards of $20,000. But old is about to become new again. Fender’s American Vintage II series features 12 year-specific electric guitar and bass models from over two decades, spanning 1951 to 1977, that replicate most specs on their original counterparts, but are produced with modern technologies that ensure uniform build and feel.
Chronologically, the series begins and ends, fittingly, with the Telecaster—starting with the butterscotch blonde, blackguard 1951 Telecaster (built with an ash body, one-piece U-shaped maple neck, and 7.25" radius fretboard) and ending with the 1977 Telecaster Custom, which features a C-shaped neck, a CuNiFe magnet-based Wide Range humbucker in the neck position, and a single-coil at the bridge. The rest of the series spans the highlights of Fender’s repertoire: the 1954 Precision Bass, 1957 Stratocaster in ash or alder, 1960 Precision Bass, 1961 Stratocaster, 1963 Telecaster, 1966 Jazz Bass, 1966 Jazzmaster, 1972 Tele Thinline, 1973 Strat, and 1975 Telecaster Deluxe. The 1951 Telecaster, 1957 Strat, 1961 Strat, and 1966 Jazz Bass will also be offered as left-handed models. Street prices run from $2,099 to $2,399.
Fender '72 American Vintage II Telecaster Thinline Demo | First Look
Spec’d To Please
Every guitar in the series sports the era’s 7.25" radius fretboard, a mostly abandoned spec found on Custom Shop instruments—Mexico-made Vintera models, and Fender’s Artist Series guitars like the Jimmy Page, Jason Isbell, and Albert Hammond Jr. models. Most modern Fenders feature a 9.5" radius, while radii on Gibsons reach upwards of 12". Videos experimenting with the 7.25" radius’ playability pull in tens of thousands of viewers, suggesting both a modern fascination with and a lack of exposure to the radius among some younger and less experienced players.
T.J. Osborne of the Brothers Osborne picks an American Vintage II 1966 Jazzmaster in Dakota red.
Bringing back the polarizing 7.25" radius across the entire series is a gamble, and it’s been nearly five years since Fender released year-specific models. But Fender executive vice president Justin Norvell says that two years ago when the Fender brain trust was conceptualizing the American Vintage II line, they decided the time was right to “go back to the well.”
“We’ve been doing the same [models], the same years, over and over again for 30 years,” says Norvell. “We really wanted to change the line and expand it into some new things that we hadn’t done before and pick some different years that we thought were cool.”
“It takes a lot of doing to go back in time and sort of uncover the secret-sauce recipes.”—Steve Thomas, Fender
To decide on which years to produce, Fender drew from what Norvell calls a “huge cauldron of information” from Custom Shop master builders to collectors with vintage models to former employees from the 1950s and 1960s. The hands-on manufacturing of Fender’s golden years meant guitars produced within the same year would have marked differences in design and finish. So, the team had to procure multiple versions of the same year’s guitar to decide which models to replicate. Norvell says some purists would advocate for the “cleanest, most down-the-middle kind of variant,” while others would push for more esoteric and rare versions. Norvell says that ultimately, the team picked the models that they felt best represented “the throughline of history on our platforms.”
Simple and agile, the Fender Precision Bass—here in its new American Vintage II ’54 incarnation—earned its reputation in the hands of Bill Black, James Jamerson, Donald “Duck” Dunn, and other foundational players.
Norvell says the American Vintage II series was developed, in part, in response to calls to reproduce vintage guitars. Just like with classic cars, he says, people are passionate about year-specific guitars. Plus, American Vintage II fits perfectly with the pandemic-stoked yearning for bygone times. “For some people, these specific years are representative of experiences they had when they were first playing guitar, or a favorite artist that played guitars from these eras,” says Norvell. “These are touchstones for those stories, and that makes them very desirable.”
Fender’s electric guitar research and design team, led by director Steve Thomas, dug through the company’s archive of original drawings and designs—dating all the way back to Leo Fender’s original shop in Fullerton, California. They found detailed notes, including some documenting body woods that changed mid-year on certain models. Halfway through 1956, for example, Stratocaster bodies switched from ash to alder. That meant the American Vintage II 1957 Stratocaster needed to be alder, too. That, in turn, meant ensuring enough alder was on hand to fulfill production needs.
Among the series’ Stratocaster recreations is this 1973-style instrument, with an ash body, maple C-profile neck, rosewood fretboard, and the company’s Pure Vintage single-coils.
Thomas and his team discovered another piece of the production puzzle when researching how pickups for that same 1957 Strat were made. “We realized that if we incorporated a little bit more pinch control on the winders, we could more effectively mimic the way pickups would have been hand-wound in the ’50s,” says Thomas. “It takes a lot of doing to go back in time and sort of uncover the secret-sauce recipes.”
Thomas proudly calls the guitars “some of the best instruments we’ve ever made here in the Fender plant,” pointing to the level of detail put into design features, including more delicate lacquer finishes which take longer to cure and dry, and vintage-correct tweed cases for some guitars. New pickups were incorporated in the series, like a reworking of Seth Lover’s famed CuNiFe Wide Range humbuckers, which were discontinued around 1981. Even more minute details, like the width of 12th fret dots and the material used for them, were labored over. Three different models in the line feature clay dot inlays at unique, year-specific spacings.
Ironically, modern CNC manufacturing now makes these design quirks consistent features in mass-produced instruments. While the hand-crafted guitars from the ’50s and ’60s varied a lot from instrument to instrument. “Everything needs to be located perfectly, and it wasn’t necessarily back in the day,” says Norvell. “Now, it can be.”
Don’t Look Back
With this new series so firmly planted in the rose-tinted past, Fender does run the risk of netting only vintage-obsessed players. But Norvell says the team, despite being sticklers for period-correct detail, sought to strike a balance between vintage specs, practicality, and playability. The 1957 Stratocaster, for example, has a 5-way switch rather than the original’s 3-way switch. Norvell also asserts that the “ergonomic” old-school radius feels great when chording. “It might not be [right for] a shred machine, but it feels great and effortless.”
The 1966 Jazz Bass is also represented, shown here in a left-handed version.
Norvell also pushes back on the notion that Fender is playing it safe by indulging nostalgia and leaning on their past successes. He says that while the vintage models are some of the most desirable on the market, the team “purposely did not stick to the safe bets,” citing unusual year models like the 1954 P Bass and the 1973 Stratocaster.There’s a good reason why anything that hails back to “the good ol’ days” hits home with every generation. We’re constantly plagued by a belief that what came before is better than what we’ve got now. But with the American Vintage II series, Fender makes the case that guitars from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s can very easily be a relevant part of the 2020s.
The Red Sea was born out of the vision to provide complex signal routing options available to the live/performing musician, that up until now, are only found in a studio mixing environment.
Introducing the Red Sea, an all-analog signal routing matrix, designed for countless stereo and mono signal path routing options. The Red Sea was born out of the vision to provide complex signal routing options available to the live/performing musician, that up until now, are only found in a studio mixing environment. The Red Sea has accomplished this in a compact, easy-to-use, and cost-effective solution.
Wet | Dry | Wet
The Red Sea gives you the ability to run a FULL Stereo wet dry wet rig using only 2 amps or just 2 signals to the FOH, while also giving you complete control over your Wet & Dry mix! Use the Blend knob to control the overall mix between stereo wet effects and mono dry/drive signals.
Stereo Dual Amps
Run dual amp modelers if full stereo w/ stereo effects. Gone are the traditional ways of one amp in the Left channel and another in the Right channel. Now use the Red Sea to seamlessly blend between two separate amps in true stereo. Think of this as a 2-channel amp where you can blend anywhere between both amps.
Stereo Parallel FX
Red Sea has two independent stereo FX loops. Use each FX loop to run stereo delay's and reverb's in parallel, where each effect does not interact with each other. Huge soundscapes can be achieved with washy reverbs and articulate delay repeats while being able to blend between each FX loops mix level.
The Red Sea can also do the following routing options:
- Wet | Dry utilizing a single amp
- Clean Wet | Dry | Wet (drives DO NOT run into wet effects)
- Wet | Dry | Wet with dual delays (one in the L channel & other in R channel)
- Parallel Dual Amps (run dual amp modelers in FULL stereo)
- Convert a tube amp's serial FX Loop to a parallel FX Loop
- Stereo and Mono analog dry through (avoid latency in digital pedals)
Stardust V3 was designed to capture the sound and response of 3 distinct amplifier models.
Stardust V3 was designed to capture the sound and response of 3 distinct maxed-out amplifier models. An all-analog signal path with discrete gain stages featuring MOSFET transistors provides juicy overdrive tones with great note separation that clean up to that sparkly sound that we all love and heard in recordings of the past. Set gain and tone and control everything from your guitar. Sparkly clean to crunchy mean are all there.
You can select the amplifier voicing via the onboard toggle switch.
BSM: Voiced after a blackface amp head that was primarily targeted for bass guitar players but got famous for electric guitar classic rock tones.
VLX: Voiced after a chimey 2x10” combo offering the perfect amount of controllable crunch
DLX: Voiced after one of the most popular low wattage 1×12″ combo amps that have found their way in countless recording studios and clubs around the world.
Stardust V3 now comes with top-mounted jacks and soft-click true bypass via a high-quality relay. The pedal has loads of output volume and enhanced headroom provided by 18V DC (boosted internally) so that it can also be used as a preamp going straight into your Power Amp or AudioInterface when combined with a separate speaker simulation device.
Street price: 199 Euro / 199 USD.
For more information, please visit crazytubecircuits.com.
The Sunn O))) Life Pedal circuit has been meticulously tweaked from the original and includes a third footswitch.
Sunn O))) present an enhanced version of the Sunn O))) Life Pedal Octave Distortion + Booster, in collaboration with their comrades at EarthQuaker Devices. The Sunn O))) Life Pedal circuit has been meticulously tweaked from the original to squeeze every last drop of heavy crushing tone available. The octave section has been fine tuned to make it more pronounced without losing the bottom end and we added a third footswitch, utilizing Flexi-Switch Technology, for the octave to allow an additional method of quick and radical tone shaping.
“Working on this new version has been a great continuity of this collaboration which feels so right, and sounds so right,” says Stephen O’Malley. “It’s a really beautiful pedal and it’s also a beautiful art collaboration. I think we made something really interesting that people can enjoy to use for their own music, but also, it makes a lot of sense to release a piece of distortion as a release for our band. We’re really happy that this is a trilogy now.”
The Sunn O))) Life Pedal is designed to represent the core front end chain used in those sessions, to drive the tubes of the band’s multiple vintage Sunn O))) Model T amplifiers (or take your fancy) into overload ecstasy. This is a 100w tube amp full stack’s holy dream, or its apostate nightmare.
Sunn O))) Life Pedal is a distortion with a blendable analog octave up and a booster
- Features 3 different clipping options: Symmetrical Silicon, Asymmetrical Silicon & LED, and pure OpAmp Drive
- Distortion and booster can be used independently
- Expression and footswitch control over analog octave up
- Octave blend allows total control over how much Octave is mixed into the circuit
- True bypass with silent relay based soft touch switches
- Features EarthQuaker Devices’ proprietary Flexi-Switch® Technology
- Lifetime warranty
- Current Draw: 15 mA
- Octave Distortion: Input impedance: 1 MΩ / Output impedance: <1 kΩ
- Booster: Input Impedance: 500 kΩ / Output Impedance: <1 kΩ
- List Price: $299 USD