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Space, the Final Frontier

Defining sonic options for adding depth and dimension to your sound

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!

Robert Williams
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 or