The Art of Noise

How to inject some noise into your sound

You know what I love about the guitar? If you’re twisted enough, creative enough, or destructive enough, you can pretty much make it do whatever you want. If you ask me, it’s the defining creative medium of expression for some of our generation’s most memorable compositions. It’s like a piano you can wear. That said, here’s what I hate about it: I’m not as good at playing it as I’d like to be! In fact, I’d wager most of us aren’t. Just like anything else, the guitar has its heroes and champions, and those who seem to reach an altitude where the air is just too thin for the rest of us aspiring mortals.

I love to listen to artists ranging from Larry Carlton to Eddie Van Halen, Fredrik Thordendal (Mesuggah) to James Taylor, but I’m often inclined to stop labeling myself a musician by comparison. I remember reading an interview with Tom Morello where he was commenting on his early gigging days and seeing the guitar players from other bands warming up. He was floored by how amazing some guys were, and realized he’d have to do something besides nail a diminished sweep to be noticed. I think he succeeded in his tenure with Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave.

Other players in the past couple of decades have been equally inventive, one of them being Matt Bellamy from Muse. These guys have inspired me quite a bit, and made me step outside the box with my own playing. If you’re looking to add a fresh twist to your playing, here are some fun things you can try with effects and, if you’re really feeling adventurous, a Dremel tool or router and a soldering iron—that will set you apart from the rest of the pack:

The Kaoss Pad, from Korg, is one of the coolest gadgets for creating guitar effects, even if it was originally designed as a DJ piece. It’s a touchpad X-Y controller that’s full of effects. It allows you to control the sounds in real time depending on your finger’s location on the pad; the X axis controls one parameter and the Y axis controls another. I broke out the Dremel and soldering iron and built one of these into a guitar for live performance in an industrial band, after seeing Matt Bellamy do it. It’s incredibly fun, and you can do really crazy things with delay feedback and other effects, without reaching down to tweak a pedal. Just be sure to use a direct box, as the output of the Kaoss Pad is line level, not guitar/instrument level.

Speaking of delays, a really fun trick is to set the tap tempo/delay time of a delay to quarter notes and use the pedal as a harmonizer. If you’re arpeggiating in the correct intervals, the last arpeggio will repeat as you’re playing the next one, allowing you to harmonize with it. This is especially fun with Line 6’s Sweep Delay effect, which is found on their DL4 Delay modeler.

The Sustainer pickup, which is offered in different variations by Fernandes and Jackson, is an absolute blast to just make noise with, but also is a great way to get controlled feedback of harmonics or straight notes. The lower strings, when sustained under lots of distortion, can sound absolutely huge. This effect is a big part of the sound of Type O Negative, which many may know well. The EBow does something similar to a single string, but without requiring modifications to your guitar, so it is also worth mentioning here.

A killswitch can be really useful. This is a momentary switch, usually in the form of a button, which you can build into the body of the guitar or wire into a pedal. Pressing the killswitch momentarily interrupts the signal path, muting the guitar’s output. With a little timing and practice, this allows you to create “slice” and “stutter” effects. It’s especially interesting when combined with slide playing. (Listen to “RPM” by Sugar Ray for a great example.)

Try a special pick. There are a number of non-standard pick options available these days that can radically change the sound of your guitar. I’m a big fan of metal picks, because I can get really pronounced pick slides, and playing pinch harmonics is a breeze. Jellyfish picks are also interesting. They feature a row of tines, and can create a 12-string effect when used on a 6-string guitar.

I hope you enjoy using some or all of these suggestions to freshen your playing. I think that we’re still in the infant stages of where we’ll go with the electric guitar, as young as the instrument is. I challenge all of you to go out and do something unique, and make it yours!

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Be the master of heavy tones

Guitar tones in modern music are louder and heavier than ever. The big, crushing riffs so prevalent in modern rock and metal would doubtless scare the pants off the progenitors of years past. If you record at home, you may have experienced a lot of frustration getting these tones to work with your recordings.

I’ve been on both sides of the glass, as a touring guitar player and recording engineer for nearly 15 years, with most of my experience being in hard rock and heavier genres. In this article, I’ll lay out some of the techniques I’ve learned for getting an “in-your-face” heavy guitar tone recorded well, and getting it to sit in the rock mix.

Amp settings are not the same in a recording.
Just because the amp sounds right in front of you doesn’t mean it’ll translate that way in the recording. You must take into account the response of the mics in front of the amp. For example, a Shure SM57 (a common choice as an amp mic) has noticeable top-end “bite” to it. Your ear doesn’t. Compensate the amp’s tone settings to balance.

Ease up on the distortion, cowboy!
The saturation associated with a ton of gain sounds great when you’re sitting in front of the amp, but it takes away from the string attacks when recording. There’s a twist to this one: you perceive the string attacks when you’re playing because you feel them. But the listener may not perceive the same attack. Exercise moderation, and your sound will be stronger.

Double up. Double up.
Nothing thickens up a rhythm track like doubling it. The rub is that sometimes it’s darn hard to play the exact same thing, the exact same way, twice. Thankfully, there’s a workaround. On your recorder, simply copy the finished track, and use delay to offset it slightly. When you do this, set your delay (in milliseconds) to a prime number to alleviate phase issues associated with offsetting two identical waveforms. I’ve found 53 milliseconds of delay, with the two tracks panned pretty hard left and right, works quite nicely.

Go mic crazy.
I typically employ an SM57 at 45 degrees very close to the speaker, with a Royer R121 ribbon mic faced directly at the speaker up close as well. In addition, a large-diaphragm condenser mic (I use a Rode NT2000) placed a few feet back from the amp to grab some of the room ambience will add dimensionality. Sometimes a second SM57 will serve very well in front of the guitar (yes, I suggest mic’ing your electric guitar) to grab the pick attacks.

Be direct... and be thankful later.
Use a direct box as your first connection from the guitar. I favor the Countryman Type 85, as it sounds right for me. This will give you a split that you can run directly to its own recording input. Now you have a dry track that you can process with guitar amp software, such as IK Multimedia’s Amplitube, or Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig or that you can re-amp later. If you have a re-amp box (my favorite being the Radial X-Amp), you can run the recorded dry track back out, and record it though an amp again. This is nice if the feel of the take was great the first time, but the amp wasn’t sounding right.

Don’t step on anyone’s toes.
Today’s heavy music seems to keep pushing the gain up and the tunings down. The low B string on a baritone or 7-string guitar sounds absolutely huge, but it also lives in the same frequency range as the bass guitar, and the lower toms and kick drum. To keep your guitar tracks from stepping on the drums and bass, get creative with EQ. My approach is to prioritize the frequencies according to which instrument is in control of the downbeats. An example of when the guitar would be the priority would be a percussive metal riff like the verse of Pantera’s “Revolution Is My Name,” where the root notes control the groove.

Now smile... not too much!
A trend in heavy guitar is to suck out the mids. This “smiley-face” EQ has gotten so popular some amps have mid-scoop switches. Fizzy top and fat bottom sound big and authoritative, but when it comes to being percussive and maintaining definition, midrange is your friend. I like my lows at about 60-70%, highs at about 70-80% and mids at 40-50%.

In summary, use everything in moderation. With a little practice and tweaking, these principles will help pave the road to monster guitar tracks. Now go and create something truly frightening!

Arend Raby
Arend Raby has been a Senior Sales Engineer at Sweetwater Sound since 2002. He has owned the Womb Studio since 1993, has recorded over 200 rock and metal acts, and is credited on many major label releases. He is currently working on a solo guitar-oriented electronic music project. You can reach him at 1-800-222-4700 ext. 1276 or