How to record your amp direct—and make it sound great!
You know your analog amps. You’ve grappled with digital models. But let’s investigate an approach that isn’t strictly analog or digital, but a marriage of the two technologies.
Amps and models sittin’ in a tree. Most amp modelers mimic both the core amp sound (through varying combinations of distortion, compression, and EQ) and the character of the speaker, cabinet, and mic (via an EQ setting based on the modeled components, or, more often, an impulse response recorded through the modeled speaker and cabinet). While we can argue endlessly about the accuracy of amplifier models, it’s hard to deny that good speaker/cab impulse responses are shockingly realistic. So let’s see what happens when we combine a line-out signal from an analog amp with modeled speakers, cabs, and mics.
How to destroy an expensive amp. Easy! Just disconnect your speaker and try recording from the speaker-out jack. If you’re blessed with luck and a good nose, the aroma of frying electronics will prompt you to abort before you do permanent damage. If not, better switch your wallet off standby.
Analog amps must always be connected to a speaker—or to a component that dupes the amp into thinking it’s connected to one. Load boxes and speaker attenuators do this very trick. These devices usually have both speaker-out and line-out jacks. You use the former to connect back to your speaker/cab, often at an attenuated level to achieve loud-amp tones at listenable volume. Meanwhile, the line-out conveys your amp’s pre-speaker sound at a level suitable for recording inputs. (If your amp has a dedicated line out, great—no load box needed, provided you’re still connected to a speaker. But most vintage and vintage-style amps don’t.)
Load-box terminology can be confusing, but a recent Tone Tips column by PG’s Peter Thorn (The Lowdown on Load Boxes, Attenuators, and Reamps, May 2015) deftly decodes the lingo. For our purposes, you need a box with a line-out jack and no built-in speaker emulation (or emulation you can switch off). We’ll mimic the speaker in software.
So dry, you’ll cry. For these recordings I used a Swart Night Light attenuator/load box (Photo 1). (It’s a nice device at a good price, but it has many rivals with near-identical functionality.) I plugged into a homemade germanium overdrive and a small Divided by 13 CJ11 combo, running the direct signal into Logic Pro, my DAW of first resort.
The result (Ex. 1) sounds dreadful. All that death-ray treble and nose-punching presence? They’re precisely the frequencies that guitar speakers typically filter out.
Next, I inserted Amp Designer, Logic’s amp-modeling plug-in. Amp Designer doesn’t let you use speaker models without an amp model, so I dialed up the transparent preamp setting, a neutral sound devoid of guitar-amp coloration. I added speaker emulation, and suddenly this sounded an awful lot like a miked amp (Ex. 2). I chose a model derived from an ancient Fender 10" speaker (Photo 2) and added a touch of humble home-studio reverb.
Compare that to Ex. 3, the same recording through a modeled mid-’60s Marshall 4x12 (Photo 3), this time with expensive-sounding plate reverb. Can you see how this method might provide vast sonic variation without relinquishing your core amp color?
For Ex. 4, I switched to Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig amp modeler. Here there’s no need to dial up a neutral-sounding amp stage—the program lets you apply speaker simulation with no amp stage. There’s another new wrinkle: I duplicated the performance on a second track, and then ran each track through a separate speaker model (Photo 4), with the sounds panned slightly in stereo. Using this method, there’s no limit to the number of virtual speakers you can add—but don’t be surprised if you quickly hit the point of diminishing returns.
Let’s put another twist on it, borrowing an idea from last month’s column (How to Prepare a Delicious Amp Sandwich, July 2014). Ex. 5 is identical to Ex. 4, only here I’ve applied the “amp sandwich” approach, filtering all the lows from one track and all the highs from the other, as seen in the EQ curves in Photo 5. The result is airier and less low-mid constipated, and even though I haven’t changed the panning, the stereo spread seems more dramatic. Which version is better? It depends on the context, silly.
School’s out. This hybrid approach isn’t old school or new school—it’s more like a one-room schoolhouse where everything happens at once. This technique lets you capture the color of a favorite analog amp and warp it to taste after it’s been recorded. (Very handy come mix time!) There’s much room for sonic nudging, be it a few degrees to the left, or right over the cliff. And of course, you can record silently day or night, monitoring on headphones.
Parting food for thought: Here we’ve captured authentic analog amp tones without analog speakers. But we can also get there without physical or modeled amps. Consider the trem-sodden tones of Ex. 6:
It’s simply a matter of … ouch! I just fell off the bottom of the frickin’ page. I’ll save the dirty details for an upcoming column. Until then, remember: It depends on the context!