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Tone Tips from the Road: Going Direct with Analog Equipment

When used properly, some lightweight, space-saving solutions sound every bit as good as an amp.

You can travel light and still command big tones using bite-sized boxes. Top row: Radial JDI, Tech 21 SansAmp GT2, Tech 21 SansAmp VT Bass, Radial ProDI. Bottom row: Countryman Type 85 DI, Whirlwind IMP 2.

Clubs are often small and crowded, which can make the seemingly simple task of setting up your amp, cabinet, and pedalboard a bit of a hassle. Furthermore, if there are several bands playing on a given night, stage space can be limited and set changeovers can get quite claustrophobic. For these kinds of situations, I have come up with some lightweight, space-saving solutions that sound every bit as good as an amp when used properly.

There are several digital modelers on the market today that simulate a wide variety of tones. Though the flexibility of in-depth editing on these units can be a nice feature for laboratory-like sculpting, sometimes I just want a few simple knobs that provide me some great, core sounds. That way, I can leave the laptop and multi-effects units with screens and scroll menus at home.

It’s interesting that people have asked me on countless occasions about what kind of guitars, amps, and pedals I use, but no one has ever asked me about my choice of direct (DI) boxes or how I use them. This is an important component of playing live, so let’s take a look at some of the different DIs and tone-shaping pedals I use to help me get the right sound in various musical settings.

My main setup for getting a variety of direct electric tones is a Tech 21 SansAmp GT2 into a Radial ProDI. Tech 21’s SansAmp products model the preamps of classic amplifiers, as well as the power section and speakers, which makes for a direct tone that is complete and full sounding. And the GT2’s forte is providing the semi-broken-up tone in the vein of Malcolm Young. To get this tone, I’ll set the mic switch to classic, the mod setting to clean, and the amp setting to California, though my EQ preferences will vary depending on the tonal color of the venue’s monitors and the guitar I’m playing.

When it comes to getting crunchy sounds from the GT2, I treat it the same way as a “real” amp in that I’ll push the clean channel’s gain stage hard, instead of running an overdrive channel at a low-gain setting. The clean setting on the GT2 is like a stock tube amp, so it’s very responsive to pick attack and subtle changes to the guitar’s volume knob. This is helpful since I can dial in a setting on the GT2 that allows me to get both clean and overdriven sounds just by changing my playing approach. While the GT2 can be used directly into a console, I find that my tone gets some added consistency when it hits the ProDI first—especially helpful when traveling from venue to venue and having to play through different consoles and monitor rigs.

Another Radial product I like to use is the JDI, which is tonally very similar to the ProDI. I’ll use the JDI when playing a guitar with stereo outputs like my PRS Hollowbody 1, which has one output for the humbucker pickups and another for the piezo. The merge function on the JDI accommodates both outputs and the acoustic sounds from the piezo and the electric sounds from the humbuckers will all go down the same line to the soundman. Depending on the situation, however, sometimes it’s best to split the two sounds into a pair of separate DIs.

When it comes to DIs for acoustics, I’ll generally go with my Whirlwind IMP 2. Compared to my Radial ProDI, I’ve noticed that the Whirlwind has slightly less highmidrange and highs than the ProDI, which makes the Whirlwind well suited for acoustics with high-output pickups. Generally speaking, piezo pickups have a tendency to be bright, so the Whirlwind helps curb the harsh highs and saves me time when trying to dial out the unwanted frequencies. On the other hand, I like to use the Countryman Type 85 DI for acoustics with weaker pickups. The Countryman sends a very hot signal to the board, which adds a lot of life to an acoustic needing some assistance in the output department.

Low-tuned instruments can also sound great going direct, and the Tech 21 VT Bass pedal through the Radial JDI is a great way to get that full, rumbling SVT-style sound. It’s also a winning combination for baritones and 6-string basses. Though these instruments can be really difficult to dial in direct, the VT Bass gives me a lot of tone-sculpting options in the absence of an amplifier. Another advantage of the VT Bass pedal is that you can turn the speaker emulation off and on. The benefit of this feature is that the pedal can still be used as an overdrive pedal in front of an amp with the speaker emulation off.

For a long time, I assumed a DI was a DI and thought that its only role was to convert impedance. I later discovered that DIs have a huge impact on tone and are often an overlooked component of a guitarist’s rig. Think about it: The DI is the last piece of gear your signal passes through before it travels to the soundman. You need to be sure that the DI is appropriately configured to help you get the tone you want. So instead of just using whatever DI the venue has available, try out a bunch of DIs and consider investing in one to take with you to gigs.

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