Sound Design Workshop: Get Amped

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FIG. 1: This simulated tremolo for electric piano, in Native Instruments'' Guitar Rig Pro, uses amp and cabinet modules on Side A of a split with inverted, unprocessed audio on Side B. An LFO module controls the A/B fader.

Amp-modeling plug-ins such as Native Instruments Guitar Rig Pro, Line 6 POD Farm, and IK Multimedia AmpliTube often blow the lid off guitar and bass tracks. But even combined with the included stompbox-style effects, they''re great tools for livening up any of your tracks without going to extremes. For my examples, I''ve used Guitar Rig 4.1 Pro, but similar things are possible with any of the major modeling plug-ins.

Create a short piece comprising five or six tracks: drums, bass, lead, keys, and backgrounds, for example. If you work with construction-kit audio libraries, use the elements from one kit to quickly build four or eight bars to work with. Insert an instance of your amp-and-cabinet plug-in on as many of the tracks as your CPU will allow and temporarily set up some form of MIDI control to enable and disable all the plug-ins at once for quick A/B comparison. I use the sustain pedal and set it up so that pedal-down disables the plug-ins and pedal-up enables them.

Mute all but one of your tracks (I like to start with the drums) and audition different amp-and-cabinet combos for that track. As with setting up compression or any effect that influences volume, it helps to balance the plug-in enabled and disabled levels in making your judgments. An important (maybe the most important) aspect of an amp-modeling plug-in''s sound is distortion, and the character of that distortion is what you''re trying to match to the material on the track and have fit with the other tracks. Switching models makes a huge difference, whereas tweaking a model''s controls (especially the tone controls) lets you home in on subtle differences.

In Guitar Rig Pro, use the browser''s Components tab to drag in modules from the Amp browser, clearing the rack between each selection. Each amp will be paired with a Matched Cabinet component; when you find an amp you like, swap in different cabinets using the Matched Cabinet''s preset menu or inc/dec (±) buttons. You''ll notice subtle but important differences. Once you''ve settled on a cab, tweak the amp''s tone and EQ knobs and the matched cab''s Dry/Air and Mic sliders. As an alternative, you can style your own cabinet and mic setup using either the Cabinets & Mics or Control Room component. You can use an amp without a cabinet and vice versa.

Unmute the other tracks one by one, selecting amp-and-cabinet combos that work well with the preceding choices. You are, of course, unlikely to use amp-modeling plug-ins simultaneously on many tracks in a real composition, but it''s a revealing exercise (see Web Clips 1 and 2).

Once you''ve chosen amps and cabinets, you might want to add some effects, but the subtler the better (see Web Clip 3). For electric-piano tracks, I use the Split module from the Tools browser to simulate tremolo. Put the amp and cabinet in the A side of the split, invert the B side (use the ± buttons), and use an LFO module from the Modulation browser to automate the Mix slider (see Fig. 1). For drums, I often create patterns with the Step Sequencer module to twist the midrange and treble controls in opposite directions.

I use the Pitch Pedal module from the Pitch browser with automation to create occasional pitch bends on the bass track. For pads and strings, I''ll use a Volume Pedal from the Dynamics section modulated by sawtooth LFO to create a pulse.

Len Sasso is a freelance writer and frequent EM contributor.