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Tone Tips: The Power of Plug-Ins

Tone Tips: The Power of Plug-Ins

With the Console app in the background, a Raw Distortion pedal plug-in, and the Friedman/Brainworx DS40 amp sim, this screenshot shows a typical UAD plug-in setup I might use when tracking direct into my Apollo interface.

Do you want to do the impossible in the studio? There’s an app for that.

Greetings, fellow tone hounds! When I relocated my home and studio about a year ago, I decided to set up a small, simple home studio space to use in addition to my main studio. I'll always enjoy tracking and mixing at my main space, but it's great having a zone at home where I can practice and record music. Tracking and playing through loud guitar amps at home is not an option, however, so on top of using stand-alone modeling units and amps with load boxes for recording direct, I've been experimenting with amp-modeling plug-ins. As the quality of plug-ins has steadily improved, they have become more than just a quick and easy way to track guitar. Indeed, amp-modeling plug-ins can provide creative tonal options that are difficult or even impossible to achieve using traditional-amp setups.

In my studio. I've been using Universal Audio Apollo recording interfaces for a few years now. They are well made, have a host of great features, and are reliable and easy to use. But one of the best things about UA's interfaces is the library of available plug-ins. These plug-in effects run on the Apollo's internal DSP, so there's no hit on your computer's DSP. And you can use them within your DAW or in UA's Console software.

Using a plug-in with Console allows for very low-latency monitoring, and you can commit to a tone and record the plug-in-effected sound to a track in your DAW (just like recording a real amp). You can also choose to send a clean DI track to your DAW, but monitor through an amp plug-in for the vibe and tone of playing through a real amp—without having to commit to a specific tone while tracking. The obvious advantage to this is that you'll have options to audition different amp tones and effects after you've tracked a part. It's the equivalent of reamping, but digital style, and this type of flexibility is difficult to get out of traditional setups.

Input gain. I've found that most amp-modeling plug-ins respond best when the input gain for the recording interface channel you have your guitar plugged into is turned down to its lowest level. When you boost the input-gain control for your guitar channel, it's like using a clean boost in front of a guitar amp. It can sound cool—especially when you want to overdrive the input of the amp with a hot signal—but it can also result in unwanted clipping, a loss of definition, and the inability to get a clean tone.

It's the equivalent of reamping, but digital style, and this type of flexibility is difficult to get out of traditional setups.

Speaking of overdrive, UA also makes some cool, stompbox-style plug-in effects. In fact, I used their Pro Co RAT-inspired Raw Distortion plug-in on a DI-recorded bass track just the other day. For the project, I first copied the DI track to another track in Logic so I'd have two tracks with identical audio files. On the second track, I loaded up the Raw Distortion plug-in along with UA's SVT-VR bass amp plug-in and dialed in a grindy, raunchy rock bass tone. When I blended in the clean DI track, the bass tone was massive, rocking, and also perfectly in phase, which is difficult to achieve when tracking DI bass with a traditional mic'd amp.

Keep your pedals. I'm often asked if it's okay to plug standard stompboxes into the 1/4" input on a recording interface. The answer is yes! Stompboxes can help add realism to modeled tones and you can use your effects pedals with plug-in amp models just like you would with a real amp. Tip: For a great, larger-than life tone, I sometimes patch a stereo pedal—like a stereo delay with some modulation—into the two 1/4" line inputs on the back of my UA Apollo Twin. (Make sure to use a buffered pedal or an external buffer as these are low-impedance inputs.) In channel 1 and 2 of UA Console, I'll load two identically set instances of an amp plug-in such as the Friedman DS40 with the master set high and the gain low. Pan the channels hard-right and hard-left in the DAW, turn on the effect, and voilà, you'll experience a perfect, stereo-guitar signal.

Speaker sound options. Speaker sound is a huge component of the overall tone and experimenting with some of the great impulse-response libraries out there can be really rewarding. You can defeat the internal speaker-cabinet modeling in most plug-ins and use a free IR-loader plug-in in your DAW such as Rosen Digital's Pulse. Simply place the IR loader after your amp modeling plug-in and start experimenting with different cabinet and microphone choices. For example: Run a 100-watt Marshall plexi plug-in into an AC30-style 2x12 with 15W Celestion Blues (impossible with traditional gear, since you'd most certainly blow the speakers), and then mic it with ribbons, dynamics, room mics, rear mics—all in-phase and blendable in the mix. The sky's the limit!

I'm an advocate for using all the tools available to make the best music possible. So until next month, I hope you'll experiment, innovate, and go for the tone!