I use amp sims. A lot! I’ve used ’em all, and basically, I like ’em all too—just as I like different amps and guitars.
However, I have noticed an amp sim phenomenon I’ll call “the annoying frequency.” I don’t know if it’s caused by the modeling, the digitalness of it all, some weird resonance in a pickup interacting with the amp sim, or just the mysterious kind of malicious voodoo that enters our recording world from time to time. But one thing the annoying frequency does is make people listen to amp sims and go, “I dunno, I like my Fender Twin better . . .”
It also messes up a track, as the guitar doesn’t mesh right with the other tracks. So is there a solution? That’s why we’re here— keep reading.
So What Is the Annoying Frequency?
Guitar amps are anything but flat response little beasties, and amp sims take that into account. At least to my ears, though, sometimes these resonances get out of control, and create a synthetic sound that lacks the organic warmth of a physical guitar/guitar amp combination (and always remember, they are a combination). These resonances are different for different amp simulations, guitars, pickups, and even playing styles. You may not even notice these resonances unless you’ve worked enough with amp sims to recognize them; but you do know that what you hear isn’t quite right.
Seek and Destroy!
To find these annoying frequencies, we need to make them ultra-annoying so we can identify them. Here’s the technique:
1. Turn down your monitor speakers, because it’s going to get ugly. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. And if you’re wearing headphones, be particularly careful.
2. Patch a quality parametric EQ plug-in with bandwidth controls (not a “quasi-parametric” with fixed bandwidth) after the amp sim. Four bands should be enough.
3. Make sure the parametric stage is in bandpass mode, narrow the Q (resonance), and do a massive gain boost—around +12dB or so.
4. As the guitar track plays (it’s helpful to loop a section that’s representative of the track as a whole), sweep the parametric’s frequency control. At some frequency, you’ll almost certainly hear a really major response peak, and your meters will go crazy as they pole vault into the red zone. This is the sign of a candidate “annoying frequency.”
5. Now bring down the parametric’s gain control below the nominally flat response, and it will take the annoying frequency down with it.
As you do this, listen to the sound— don’t pay attention to the EQ settings, as they’re going to be pretty whack compared to what you’re used to when employing EQ normally (Figure 1). You may find that notching a frequency by –15dB is necessary to get the desired sound, and for something like a scooped amp effect, it may seem like you’re scooping out everything; but judge the sound, not the response curve.
If there’s more than one annoying frequency, you may need to repeat the “find and cut” process a couple more times. But after you’ve found and tamed these frequencies, you’ll have a smoother, more “amp-like” tone that will do your tracks proud.
Postscript: After describing this technique to a talented musician friend of mine, he asked, “But what if that resonance is part of the amp’s sound?” Well, I figure there’s nothing wrong with using amp sims to correct a problem in the physical amp’s original sound or emulation (or even if there isn’t a problem, to modify the sound). Remember, all that matters is the emotional impact on the listener, and on us. If the ultimate sound isn’t exactly like a [fill in the blank] amp but sounds better, where’s the problem?