Fig. 1. The Millennia Twin Direct TD-1 Music Recording System offers unequaled tone for recording guitar with amp sims.
GUITAR-AMP simulators allow you to record now and decide which tone you’ll use later. But the choices you make when getting your guitar signal into your DAW in the first place can have a huge impact on just how boundless your amp sim’s timbral range will be. Use these five tips to unshackle your tone du jour.
Select the Best Impedance It’s common knowledge that plugging your guitar directly into the line input of your mixer or I/O box is a recipe for horribly dull tone. Plugging your guitar into such a low-impedance input will load your pickups, muffling their output.
For the highest-fidelity tone, plug your guitar into a direct (DI) box or a DI input on a mic preamp or channel strip. Generally speaking, the higher the DI’s input impedance, the more sparkly the guitar tone will be. The Demeter VTDB-2b Tube Direct has a sky-high 27-megaohm input impedance; it sounds especially impressive on clean amp-sim presets for which extended high-frequency response is needed at the source. (The Tube Direct was the secret weapon Steve Lukather used to get clean guitar tones on Toto’s albums.) DIs with a very low input impedance (1 megaohm or less) typically offer a softer, more muted sound.
The Millennia Twin Direct TD-1 Music Recording System—a mic/line/instrument recording channel featuring superb EQ and reamping facilities—offers variable input impedance (470 kilohms, 2 megaohm or 10 megaohm) for its DI input (see Figure 1).
The TD-1 offers a smoother spectral balance and far greater realism, warmth, body, and depth than any dedicated DI box I’ve used. Consider the TD-1 a cure for thin, harsh amp-sim tone.
Stay Clean Most, but not all, dedicated DI boxes need their output signals boosted by a downstream mic preamp in order to present a 0 dBFS level to an I/O box and DAW. Use the cleanest mic pre at your disposal for this purpose. Let your amp sim add any desired color and grit. You can’t take away distortion after it’s been recorded, so don’t box in your tone by using a grungy-sounding mic pre.
Starve Smartly Amp sims can sometimes sound thin and glassy—especially when using crunchy or overdriven presets—when their input level approaches 0 dB. To take the edge off harsh tone, feed the amp sim’s input a weaker signal (as much as 10 dB down from 0 dBFS, if necessary). Then restore the diminished grit by boosting the amp sim’s drive control.
You can starve the amp sim’s input in either of two ways: Lower the preamp gain feeding your A/D converter, or feed your A/D a full-scale signal and lower the amp sim’s input-level control. The latter tack is often the best approach because it preserves your tonal options: Should you change your mind at mixdown and decide to use instead a clean preset—one which is less likely to need a starved input—you’ll have a higher-fidelity full-scale signal to work with.
Amp Up Looking for an absolutely monstrous guitar tone? Try this: Record your guitar through an amplifier (using a microphone), set to the cleanest tone possible. Patch the guitar track through a crunchy or overdriven preset in your amp sim while recording. Make sure you’ve got your seatbelt fastened during playback, because the tone will blow you away!
Blend In This last tip is a bit off-topic in that it has nothing to do with getting your guitar signal into your DAW; still, it can have a profound effect on how your guitar sounds in the mix.
Overdriven guitar patches have an inherent drawback: They soften pick strikes so much that they can cause the guitar track to lose definition. Rather than reduce the glorious distortion that makes the track sound so wonderfully aggressive, blend in some of the original DI signal at mixdown. That tinkly, dry guitar—folded into the mix ever so slightly—will restore the sound of the guitar’s pick strikes without weakening the blitz.
Michael Cooper is the owner of Michael Cooper Recording in Sisters, Oregon (myspace.com/michaelcooperrecording), and is a contributing editor for Mix magazine.