Learn the sounds of different speaker, mic, and cabinet types.
I got the idea for this column while reviewing Universal Audio's Ox Amp Top Box for the May 2018 issue. Ox is an ingenious hybrid of speaker load box/power attenuator and cabinet/mic/room/effects modeler. You use your regular amp, but instead of miking it, you send a direct signal to the DAW or mixing board. You record the sound of your amp, while Ox simulates speakers, mics, and effects.
Crazy like an Ox. But this column isn't about recording with Ox, but using it as a teaching tool, since Ox lets us isolate each recording parameter. These comparisons may help you make smart choices when recording a hardware amp.
I used one pickup throughout—the bridge humbucker of a parts guitar. The amp is a Fender-flavored Carr Skylark. I chose a clean, bright sound to reveal how these options affect your recording's high end.
Variable 1: Speaker size. In Clip 1 you hear similar phrases played through models of four common speaker types. First comes the sort of 10" speaker you'd find in a small Fender Champ-style combo. Next is the 12" speaker of a midsized Fender-style combo, then a 12" Celestion Greenback you might encounter in a vintage Marshall cabinet, and finally the Celestion Alnico Blue from a vintage Vox combo.
TASTING NOTES: The Celestion speakers sound fatter than the American ones, but the “pointier" American sound might work better in a mix. The 10" speaker may sound small in isolation, but its bright edge can be useful when you have multiple parts competing for attention.
Variable 2: Speaker configuration. In Clip 2 you hear cabinets with varying numbers of speakers. First comes the 1x12 sound of a midsized Fender combo amp. Next is a 2x12 Fender-style cabinet. After that is the distinctive sparkle of a tweed-era 4x10 Fender Bassman. The last phrase is a classic 4x12 Marshall stack with 25-watt Celestion Greenbacks. These sounds represent a single mic on a single speaker, yet you can differentiate single- and multi-speaker cabinets due to leakage from adjacent speakers.
TASTING NOTES: When you add a second speaker, tones acquire texture and detail due to the phase cancellations between speakers. Tones also get more diffuse, with rounder highs and softer focus. Note how the 4x12 Marshall configuration has a muscular low-mid thump that the Fender configurations lack. That's due in part to the closed back of the Marshall cab.
Variable 3: Microphone type. You hear the sounds of six popular amp microphones on a single virtual 12" speaker in Clip 3. First, two dynamic mics: a Shure SM-57 and a fatter-sounding Sennheiser 421. Next come two condensers: a Neumann U 67 and an AKG 414. Finally, two ribbon mics: a modern Royer R-121 and a vintage Beyerdynamic 160.
TASTING NOTES: The dynamic mics have the sharpest, edgiest tones. The condensers have a neutral, full-frequency sound. The ribbons have rounded highs and warm lows. Remember, though, that the prettiest sound isn't always the best choice. Many engineers swear by the relatively harsh Shure SM-57, and not just because you can buy one for less than $100. Its tough, even brittle, edge can shine in aggressive rock mixes.
Variable 4: On-axis vs. off-axis. Off-axis means angling the mic away from the speaker's center towards its edge. Clip 4 features the SM-57 on- and off-axis, the U 67 on- and off-axis, and the R-121 on- and off-axis.
TASTING NOTES: A straight-on mic always provides the strongest impact and widest frequency range. An angled mic can soften a speaker's harsh edge while adding interesting texture. In a multi-speaker cabinet, the off-axis mic tends to pick up more sound from the non-miked speakers, adding additional texture via phase cancellation. And while you only hear two mic positions here (straight on and angled), there are multiple off-axis options, from a barely off-center mic to one pointed toward the speaker's outermost edge. Aim at the center for maximum punch and intensity. Aim toward the edge for slightly softer, more nuanced tones.
In an upcoming column we'll build on this foundation, integrating multiple mics, ambient room sounds, and some stereo options. In the meantime, bear in mind that the “best" sound for one recording might be the worst sound for another. The right choice is always a matter of context.
The Recording Guitarist: Breaking Bits
This ugly effect can be a thing of beauty.
Imagine an effect that can single-handedly destroy everything guitarists traditionally love about tone. How awesome would that be?
Don't dream it—use it! It's called bitcrushing, and it's been around since the dawn of digital audio. This harsh, clangorous distortion is everything that “classic rock crunch" is not. It produces dissonant, chaotic sounds with sharp, steely edges. Taken to extremes, bitcrushed audio degrades into insect-like clicks and farts, often with bizarre and unpredictable rhythmic side effects.
Yes, it's that cool.
Crush, kill, destroy. Admittedly, large doses of bitcrushing can be hard to swallow. But applied judiciously, the effect can animate an arrangement with unexpected colors and quirky rhythmic glitches. Also, bitcrushed sounds can cut through anything, so they can be especially useful for adding guitars to dense EDM tracks. Bitcrushing is the hydrochloric acid of audio.
Many DAWs include bitcrushing plugins, such as Ableton Live's Redux, Reason's Scream, and Logic Pro's imaginatively named Bitcrusher. There are also some great free bitcrushing plugins. In fact, Tritik's Krush is so cool that you should probably just grab a copy now. It's free, feature-rich, and fully functional, and there are versions for both Mac OS and Windows. I used Krush to record all the audio for this column.
Do the numbers. While you're downloading, let's discuss the effect. Like all things digital, bitcrushing involves numbers—two, specifically. The first is bit depth, which is roughly akin to resolution in a photograph. If you compare, say, a studio recording at its original 32-bit depth and the same recording at a CD's 16-bit rate, you probably won't perceive a loss of highs or lows. But the 16-bit recording probably sounds “shallower." If you listen on studio monitors with your eyes closed, the higher-bit-rate recording can seem to have a deeper “soundstage," with more of a sense of instruments being nearer and farther in relation to the listener. At lower rates, it can sound like the musicians are all lined up next to each other on a narrow stage. Dynamics may feel relatively squashed, and the quietest sections—the final ring of a decaying chord, for example—can feel grainy and relatively low-res.
But we're not talking about the usual “dumbing down" that occurs when transferring 32-bit recordings to CD-quality 16-bit. Heavily bitcrushed sounds display increasing amounts of noise. Pushed to the limit, you get mere pops and clicks. In Clip 1, a guitar phrase gets subjected to decreasing bit rates. Behold the devastation and weep!
The other important number is sampling rate: the higher the number, the higher the fidelity. We listen to CDs and MP3s at 44.1 kHz, though we often record at higher rates such as 96 kHz or 192 kHz. Meanwhile, a talking musical toy from the 1970s might have had a 10 kHz sampling rate.
When you drop the rate below 20 kHz or so, you audibly and increasingly lose high end. Go low enough, and the sound degrades into clangorous noise. This process is called downsampling. In Clip 2, the sample rate descends from full frequency to a coarse grumble. Can you hear how low-rate settings might work as (or at least with) bass sounds?
Those are the basics, though some bitcrushing plug-ins add additional tools. Krush is a great example. Check out the interface (Image 1).
Two of the big knobs control bit crushing and downsampling (labeled “dwsp"). The leftmost knob sets the drive level feeding the effect. Higher drive settings are wilder and noisier.
To the right of the big knobs are simple low-pass and high-pass tone controls that siphon off highs and/or lows downstream from the digital distortion. The res control adds resonant feedback at the filter cutoff frequencies. At the far right are wet/dry faders. (All examples heard here are 100 percent wet.) The bottom row is the modulation section, with an LFO that can sync to a track's metronome. There are four modulating waveforms to choose from. The remaining knobs specify which parameters are subject to modulation. Impressive for a free plug-in, huh?
You can combine bitcrushing and downsampling, as heard in Clip 3. (The settings are those shown in Image 1.) Obviously, bitcrushed sounds can be so degraded that they have no definite pitch. That's not a bad thing, necessarily—you can say the same about many cymbal and drum sounds. But as you downsample, there's a strong resonance at the filter cutoff point, which you can use to roughly tune the effect.
You might not identify the primary pitch in Ex. 4 as D. But when the Dm bass-synth riff enters after four bars, they kinda/sorta cooperate harmonically.
The heavy downsampling in Ex. 4 yields a more bass-like tone. Image 2 shows the settings.
Now let's try incorporating Krush's modulation section, as seen in Image 3. With the lowpass filter resonance set high and fast 64th note triple modulation routed to both the filter frequency and the downsampling amount, you get the splish-splash water effect of Clip 5.
Naturally, once you capture such sounds within your DAW, you can stir up additional trouble. In Clip 6, for instance, I doubled the guitar recording, processed each clip with its own Krush setting, and panned the two tracks in stereo. Note how the glitching adds rhythmic tension as it clashes against the quantized electronic beats. It's similar to the way rhythmically imperfect loops can add tension and character to hip-hop tracks.
Bring the noise. Here we've looked at downsampling within your DAW. But you can create similar effects without a computer thanks to recent bitcrushing stompboxes such as Catalinbread's Heliotrope and Malekko Heavy Industries' Scrutator, which convert your analog signal to lo-res digital.
Obviously, these flavors aren't for everybody. But before you shriek “never!" I urge you to explore these sounds in musical contexts. Bitcrushed audio can be brutal on its own, but you may be surprised by how often this abrasive effect can lend texture and interest to a mix, especially alongside less extreme sounds.
The Recording Guitarist: Big Bad Baritone
T’aint bass, t’aint guitar, ’tis versatile.
This column was inspired by a fine April 2014 Premier Guitar article: “Deep 6: A Brief History of the Tragically Underused Electric Baritone Guitar” by Thomas V. Jones—better known as TV Jones, famed pickup maker and luthier. Tom’s right. Baritone is tragically underused. So let’s ameliorate the tragedy with an overview of ways to arrange and record with bari.
Here’s how Jones defines baritone guitar: “a long-scale guitar tuned below standard E tuning, but not as far down as a full octave. Most baritone scale lengths are between 26" and 30".”
My definition is looser: any fretted instrument that specializes in bridging the bass and guitar registers. That can include purpose-made baris like Jones describes, 6-string basses tuned E to E (the original tuning for Danelectro and Fender 6-string basses), and even standard-scale guitars cranked down to B or A. With the latter option, string gets floppy and intonation suffers. And sometimes that’s awesome.
Here’s an example on YouTube. I recorded all the guitar tracks on Tom Waits’ “Going Out West” with a vintage Telecaster tuned down to B, without even installing heavy strings. The intonation is abysmal! It’s a sour-sounding racket! And Waits wouldn’t have had it any other way. The amp was a blackface Super Reverb. I’d applied reverb and trem, but just before we rolled tape, Tom turned both controls up to 10.
The slippery slope. Baritone guitar’s musical uses are equally varied. On one end of the spectrum are low single-note parts that might double a standard bass, or simple single-note melodies near or below the bottom of the guitar register, like, say the iconic Bass VI melodies Glen Campbell played on his ’60s hits “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston.” The Bass VI in Clip 1 is tuned from E to E as Leo intended. (As on nearly all baritone guitar recordings from the 1950s and ’60, the strings are flatwound.)
Thanks to the Bass VI’s extended 30"-scale, low notes are authoritative and higher notes are reasonably well-intonated. It’s a far cry from the loose, sloppy sound of the Waits track. But low-tuned standard-scale guitars don’t always sound so anarchic. I’ve had great luck recording with a Baldwin Virginian, a standard 25.5"-scale semi-acoustic that I snagged back in the ’90s for a mere $90 (Clip 2).
If the Bass VI resonates like steel bridge cables and the low-tuned Tele is like a clothesline flapping in the breeze, this is like … a tightrope, maybe? It’s reasonably in tune, and the shorter scale facilitates chordal/fingerstyle playing. I tune it A–E–A–D–F#–B—like dropped-D, but down a fourth.
Clip 1 and Clip 2 were both recorded guitar-style, with amp, reverb, and tremolo sounds. But there are other possibilities. Check out Clip 3, a quickie demo track featuring drums, bass, acoustic guitar, and electric guitar. There’s no bari—yet.
Let’s consider some ways you might incorporate bari here. In Clip 4, I double the original bass line in unison using the Bass VI—the same technique employed on many vintage Nashville recordings. The Fender certainly brings out the bass line, especially against the deep, dark-sounding Guild Starfire bass on the primary bass track. This time I recorded direct, straight into a preamp with no amp or effect simulation.
I don’t miss an amp sound here, though it would probably sound just as good with one. Still, I manipulated the track in the mix, filtering out a lot of low end on the bari so it wouldn’t muddy the sub-200 Hz frequencies. I also added plate reverb and panned the parts slightly in stereo. Conventional wisdom says bass tracks should be dry—a great principle to violate! Here, though, blending dry bass and wet bari creates a cool ambience while maintaining melodic clarity.
Clip 5 flips the equation. Here I double the electric guitar part an octave below using a 29.4"-scale Gretsch Spectra Sonic baritone, an instrument created by TV Jones himself. (Gretsch no longer produces these, though Jones sells them directly.) This creates a mutant 12-string effect.
The Spectra Sonic is a great “compromise” guitar. It has sufficient tension and scale length for classic baritone sounds, yet it’s relatively comfy for chordal and fingerstyle playing. I tune it A–E–A–D–F#–B, same as the Baldwin.Did you know that Robert Smith used Bass VI on many, many Cure tracks? But he rarely doubles guitar or bass parts. Instead, he plays simple, stepwise countermelodies that weave around the vocals and other guitars. Sadly, Clip 6 sounds nothing like my beloved Cure, though the musical concept is similar. It’s the Baldwin again.
This is far from a complete list of baritone guitar techniques. We didn’t even get into reinforcing distorted guitar riffs with extra low notes, a long-running metal/rock technique. But the real adventure happens when you discover your own techniques. You don’t even need a dedicated baritone guitar to experiment. Just install a set of heavy-gauge flatwounds on a standard-scale guitar and tune B to B. Or for a less traditional bari sound, just use your current strings. Intonation may become an unobtainable fantasy, but you’ll have good anarchic fun.