Got an unused instrument lurking in your closet? Take it out, dust it off, restring if necessary, and then go hunting for new sounds. The extra effort will often
Got an unused instrument lurking in your closet? Take it out, dust it off, restring if necessary, and then go hunting for new sounds. The extra effort will often yield creative dividends. Photo by Rich Tozzoli
One thing you learn over the years of creating music is that it’s important to break up your routine. It’s easy to get into habits, whether it’s playing the same scales, reaching for the same instrument, or using the old standby plug-ins and beats when mixing and producing. It’s how you get out of those ruts that helps push you to the next level.
When I’m stuck on guitar, there are a few tricks I’ve successfully used to mix things up. The first thing I do is change the strings on one of my favorite acoustics and then strum country tunes. It may sound crazy, but for me there’s no finer connection to the muse than just sitting down to pick a simple song. I think of it as breaking music down to the basics with the beautiful sound of a fine instrument. It’s a way to recalibrate or even reboot my ears and imagination.
But if that’s not working, I’ll capo my guitar. That immediately makes those same old chords sound different. Next, I’ll try a different pick. Lighter picks give me a crisper, sharper sound, while the heavier ones deliver more tone, and switching sizes and gauges of picks really does alter what and how I play. Or I’ll skip the pick and go with my fingers. I’m not a great fingerstyle player, so that’s a routine-buster for sure.
Then I’ll move to a different tuning. It can be as simple as dropped D (D–A–D– G–B–E) or perhaps DADGAD, which I play in quite a bit. Lately, I’ve been playing a lot in open D (D–A–D–F#–A–D) and not just with a slide. In that tuning you can discover many interesting chord shapes that sound fresh and intriguing.
Another cool trick: Play with your eyes closed. This forces you to find chords only by ear. I’ve made up a few doozies that way, as it pushes me out of my normal element.
With my electrics, I’ll experiment by composing with a different guitar than I usually grab. For example, playing my Fender baritone immediately creates a new world. You could do the same with a 12-string. Using a different amp can also initiate new ideas. The identical chords played through my Mesa/Boogie Mark IV sound completely different on my old ’64 Gibson Falcon with the reverb and tremolo turned on.
Speaking of electrics, another thing that will break the rut is to use different amp modeling plug-ins. Instead of reaching for that familiar Fender or Vox model, go for a Marshall or Engl sound. Take the distortion down and play clean. Or use something like a SansAmp to get your distortion. That delivers its own world of fuzz, making you think in another way about the part you’re playing.
This “try something else” approach applies to my production mixing as well. I’ll be the first to admit I’ll often import the settings of my favorite plug-ins that I know work for me and start a mix from there. That delivers proven results, which can be fine. However, it can also make things stale.
Sometimes you have to force yourself to try new techniques—take the time to learn a new setting or parameter. When looking for ideas, I sometimes go online to manufacturers’ websites and check out plug-in videos. The good ones have tips and tricks that can inspire you to go in a different direction.
Beyond tweaking parameters in familiar plug-ins, you can choose effects you’re not used to working with. For example, instead of opening a Universal Audio EP-34 Tape Echo—one of my mainstays—I’ll instead reach for something like a SoundToys EchoBoy. Or, since I’m primarily a Pro Tools guy, I’ll even go for the stock Avid/ Digidesign delays. This is especially true with reverbs, as there are so many to choose from. Calling up one I rarely open almost guarantees something new will happen. If that isn’t working, try experimenting with the presets. It’s worth investing time to learn what’s inside each plug-in, and I’ve never regretted acquiring such knowledge.
When I’m stuck in composing-land, I’ve found it helps not to use track and instrument templates. If I start a session from scratch and create the tracks one at a time, I think differently. I feel like I’m working from scratch, which opens the mind.
Sometimes I’ll just stop what I’m doing, take a break, and then return with a renewed attack plan. I’ll literally give myself a pep talk: “Dude, it’s time to push the limits.” Guess what? It often works. In my experience, pushing yourself can get the job done.
So the next time you’re stuck, try something new, different, or unusual. Break it down to the basic elements, like a simple acoustic, or kick up some new effects or plug-ins and trust your ears. Challenge yourself. Reach into your own bag of tricks and take it to the next level. Remember, change is good.
To give yourself—and your mix engineer—the greatest flexibility in the final stages of production, consider splitting your signal before it hits the delay and capturing two guitar tracks, one clean and one effected.
This screenshot from a Pro Tools session shows a mono Tele track (top waveform)
above a printed stereo delay track.
As a mixer, I receive many different kinds of tracks in various states of readiness. Some sessions arrive with tracks that are perfectly printed, trimmed, and labeled. Others can be a mess, with extra-hot levels and track names like “Audio 1” or “Extra track.” Though irksome, many of these problems can be fixed later on. But some things—including guitar parts printed with integral delay effects—cannot. You simply can’t peel off or alter the delay or echo if it turns out it doesn’t sound like what you’d hoped for when you tracked it.
Of course, it’s understandable that layers of echo may be an essential part of your sound. The Edge and Albert Lee are two players who often build parts around precisely timed delay. But most of the guitar tracks I receive do not need to have delay applied during the recording process. However, if you must have delay on the track to get the right vibe, here are a few things to consider when laying down your initial parts.
To give yourself—and your mix engineer—the greatest flexibility in the final stages of production, consider splitting your signal before it hits the delay and capturing two guitar tracks, one clean and one effected. This approach works whether you’re recording direct or mic’ing an amp, or doing both simultaneously.
It’s true, splitting your signal and recording dual tracks takes more effort than simply slapping a mic on your amp and capturing the sound you get playing through your pedalboard. But without a doubt, taking this dual-track approach can help save a great guitar performance that might otherwise have to be redone if your effects were not tweaked correctly to begin with.
If you’re recording into a digital audio workstation (DAW) such as Pro Tools, Logic, or Cubase and using a delay plugin, simply route the delayed guitar signal to a second, dedicated track. This means your dry guitar goes to one track and your echo effects are captured independently on another. In other words, you’ll generate two tracks for each pass.
For example, if you have a mono guitar track and are sending some of that signal (via an aux bus) to a stereo delay plug-in, you’ll want to “print” or record the output of that delay to its own track.
Sure, you could just run the plug-in as a virtual, unrecorded effect and wait to print it in the mix, but what if your plug-in authorization expires in the middle of the session (for example, if you’re using one with a limited free-trial period)? Or what if you hand off the session files to a mix engineer who doesn’t have that particular plug-in? Or what if the settings don’t come back exactly as you last left them? All of these are real scenarios that have happened to me, and they’re no fun. So it makes sense that, once you’ve gotten a great-sounding delay out of a plug-in, you should print the output to a new audio track.
There it is—done.
But don’t just stop there— make sure you label the track clearly. For example, “Guitar 1 Delay Print” reminds you or informs the mix engineer about what is lurking in that waveform. Also, in the notes section of the track, write down what delay you used, as well as the most important parameters. I’ve even taken screenshots of plug-in settings to save with the relevant session. Just remember to label those, as well.
One advantage of using software plug-in delays (and there are many amazing versions available from various companies) as opposed to a rackmount unit or stompbox, is that you can go back after the session to tweak the delay by changing the settings. If you do that, simply reprint the new settings directly over the old printed track or save a new track called something like “Guitar 1 Delay Print - Version 2.”
While I’m on the subject of printing tracks, many of us also use guitar-amp simulator plugins. As with delay, it’s a good idea to print your amp-simulator tracks. This ensures that any mix engineer who receives your session will have the exact guitar sound you wanted.
I always ask my clients to print any important effects or emulations—particularly for the guitar. This is especially critical when doing cross-platform mixing, such as tracking in Logic and mixing in Pro Tools. When working on the same platform, I also ask them not to delete the original tracks so I can adjust the sounds or alter the EQ if need be. I will also ask for a basic list of plug-ins that they use.
So, next time you’re tracking a guitar part, think about how those effects will translate down the line. When using hardware effects, try to split your amp or guitar signal before it’s processed. And if you’re using a DAW with plugins, print your effect tracks separately. It will save time and money, and make you happier with the end results.
While the sound of amp simulators gets better each year, to my ears the Achilles heel has always been reverb.
The reality of TV composing—
or any modern music
production, for that matter—is
that it usually involves a fair
amount of DI (aka direct injection)
work. By that, I simply
mean there’s no amp involved.
You plug a guitar directly into
a preamp, DI box, or console,
and use amp-simulating software
to get your tone. While
the sound of amp simulators
gets better each year, to
my ears the Achilles heel has
always been reverb. Simulated
reverb tends to sound artificial,
especially when you’re used to
hearing the real thing. But I’ve
discovered a few ways to get
One of my favorite ways to generate reverb in a DI recording situation is to use impulse response (IR) reverb. IR plug-ins—such as Audio Ease Altiverb, Waves IR1 Parametric Convolution Reverb, and McDSP Revolver—use a process called “convolution” to digitally sample real spaces and hardware units. This can be done by either running a sine wave into the hardware, or sweeping a tone in the actual space itself and capturing the results to disk with microphones. That waveform is then put through a process called deconvolution, which leaves you with an impulse response. Adding IR to your signal can make it sound like you’re actually playing in the given space or running through a plate or spring reverb device. Calling up a sampled space or unit within a plug-in gives you access to some really sweet reverb sounds.
Another great thing about these reverbs is that you can download fresh IRs and install them as needed. For example, Altiverb has a set of IRs called “Joe Gore’s Crap IR Reverb Set.” Gore’s submitted set includes samples of Fender Super Reverb, Magnatone, and Baldwin Professional amps, as well as two classic rackmount spring-reverb devices—a Tube Works RT-921 Real Tube Reverb and Furman RV-1. He created these IRs by sweeping a sine wave into each unit and recording it back into Pro Tools with a pair of AKG 414s.
Before using impulse response reverb, I first remove any reverb from the path of the guitar-amp simulator. Then I create a stereo auxiliary track in Pro Tools (you can also create aux tracks in other leading recording software) and insert Altiverb. Next, I load up the Fender Super Reverb IR and send some of the plug-in guitar sound to it using an aux send from the guitar channel. The aux send itself then controls the amount of Fender reverb sound. If you push it up, it gets wetter. Lowering it decreases the send and, therefore, the amount of ’verb. The sound is very cool and quite authentic. In the context of a mix, you might never realize the guitar sound is from an amp plug-in.
To get even more authentic, I’ll pan the stereo Altiverb plug-in to identically match the mono guitar track. This way, it sounds more like a mic’d guitar amp. Think about the fact that, when using stereo reverb, you’re often sending a mono guitar into a stereo reverb and artificially widening the sound field. If you stick an SM57 in front of an amp, you’ll have a mono guitar sound in one pan position within the stereo field. That mono mic’ing is what I often simulate by panning the IR return to the exact pan position of the dry guitar.
If I’m not seeking an authentic amp-reverb sound and want to widen my mono image, I leave the IR reverb panned full left and right. That maximizes the sense of reverb width around the guitar.
Another trick I use is to place a mono-to-stereo reverb plug-in directly after the mono guitar-amp plug-in. That effectively takes a mono channel (the guitar) and creates faux stereo with it. This places the guitar’s mono audio inside a stereo field within the plug-in itself.
Note that when you place a plug-in directly on a track (as opposed to using an aux send to feed a stereo aux channel), you’ll need to adjust the wet/dry mix. With 100 percent wet, you’ll have a washy signal swimming in reverb. To avoid this, you need to play with the balance between the dry signal and reverb sound until you’re satisfied. Typically, this means the dry signal is predominant. As you “dry” up the sound, it will create a tighter blend of guitar and reverb.
With this technique, I’ll often use a small room IR and set the wet/dry mix to about 30/70. This takes a dry, mono guitar and places it inside a stereo room. Also note that you don’t have to have IR reverbs to use this technique. You can use any software reverb you like, as long as it sounds good. When done correctly, it can be quite convincing.
So the next time you plug into an amp simulator and aren’t happy with the reverb, try something different. Send the signal to an impulse response reverb and load up a real amp, room, or plate. In the production world, there’s nothing quite like it.