Amp Emulators

I think amp emulators are the great invention of our time for guitarists. Not just for performance, but also for practise. I know a lot of guitarists will think I’m overstating things here but I’m going to explain what I think is so wonderful about them and hopefully change your minds.

Bad Rap:

Amp emulators have gotchn a bad rap and think this has happened for a number of reasons.

  1. In the past, they’ve sounded terrible and deserved the reputation that they gained.

I’ve owned various pieces of emulating equipment over the years that have claimed to sound just like a real valve-amp. A lot of these failed to sound like a decent solid state, never mind a nice tube rig. Pulling a tone from these beasts has been challenging and ultimately really good practise for being able to get a half-decent tone out of just about any piece of equipment. Until fairly recently though there’s been no point in using them in a professional context at all.

  1. People aren’t very skilled at using them and thus can’t get tone out of them.

Like anything, pulling a good tone requires practise. Just plugging in and hoping for the best is not going to cut it. You can tweak these devices endlessly and learn a hell of a lot about tone in the process.

  1. We enjoy the mystique of the vacuum tube.

I’ve got a beautiful valve amp as well as my PodXT. I still think that the valve amp sounds slightly better, but I’ve used my Pod much more often in recordings lately. Why? Well..

Multiple Amps:

I worked as a session guitarist for many years. By the end of my session days, I would arrive at the studio with only a guitar. Most of us can’t afford to have 20 classic vintage amps, so having the next best thing in one box save a lot of money and lugging.

Practise Your Tone:

Being able to practise your tone is a great boon to a guitarist. It doesn’t matter how well you play, if your sound sucks no one will appreciate anything that you have to ‘say’. I remember it being said of one of Australia’s top sessions players that “he practises his tones, like other guitarists practise their scales”.

Imitating the sound of your favourite guitarist can be painstaking at first, but its a beneficial exercise. Record yourself on a multi-track playing along with your favourite guitar sound. Then listen back. If the sound of your guitar doesn’t disappear into the recorded track, go back and try again.

Consistency:

There are so many variables in pulling a nice tone that it makes it hard to reproduce that great sound that you had yesterday, never mind the last time you recorded. So being able to recall a ‘patch’ and do another take a week or two later, or to improve your tone as your ears get better over time is a lifesaver.

As always, if you have any questions, email us on help@independentmusic.com.au or head over to our contact page to organise a free, no obligation introductory lesson.

 

Amplifiers and Tone – part two

 

The
continuing saga of getting a good tone out of your guitar and amp,
this time we talk about doing it without bleeding eardrums.

Power Amp
distortion:

Ever played
a vintage amp with no pre-amp gain control (nothing marked gain or
distortion). How did players get overdrive/ distortion out of these
old beasties. Well, the old fashion way, with power amp distortion.
What is it? Its when the power amp part of your amp is overloaded so
much that it starts to clip or distort. How do we achieve it? Simply
by cranking the amp to 10, this usually pushes the power amplifiers
circuit beyond its limits and brings about distortion. Many argue
that this is the sweetest kind of distortion. Unfortunately with a
100w amplifier, this can be a painful experience and unless you’re on
a very big stage, or very well soundproofed studio, your sound
engineer probably won’t appreciate it much. So, what alternatives are
there?

Power Soaks
/ Breaks / Attenuators:

Power Soaks
(they come under a lot of different names) are devices that attach
between your poweramp and your speaker box. These handy tools reduce
the amount of volume coming out of your amp while its running at full
tilt. This way you get that great cranked sound without the hearing
damage.

Amp Mods:

There are
various ways that your friendly valve amp repairer can modify your
precious valve amp to be quieter without loosing its tone. Most of
the amps that you hear live or on album have been mod’ed in some way
or another, so its worth talking to someone who knows to see what
they can do for your amp.

Output
Ratings:

This may
sound obvious, but, getting a smaller amp is a great solution. You
can buy vintage style, high quality amplifiers that have very low
output ratings. Some have an output as low as ¼ of a watt, yet still
will drive a 2×12” or 4×12” speaker cabinet. These amps can be
easily cranked without any danger of breaking your ears. I’ve seen it
argued that in a studio situation, these amps can end up sounding a
lot nicer as the mics that your using will be operating at a much
less distressing SPL (sound pressure level), thus allowing the mic to
sound its best.

Speaker
Simulators:

You can plug
your amp directly into a speaker simulator and then straight into the
mixing console. This way there is no sound coming out of your amp at
all. Volume can be controlled by the engineer and everyone is happy
(as long as you’ve got some foldback to hear what you’re doing).

Amp
Simulators:

These solid
state devices (like the line 6 pod for example) do a great job of
emulating (modelling) real amplifiers. They’re incredibly convenient,
inexpensive and the volume is really easy to control. One of the best
live mixes I ever heard was when the band was all D.I’ed via some of
these devices.

As always, if you have any questions, email us on help@independentmusic.com.au or head over to our contact page to organise a free, no obligation introductory lesson.

 

Amplifiers and Tone – part one

This is the first part of a two part article on amplifiers and tone. There’s just too much going on here to fit it into one article, so here goes part one:

  • Pre-Amp Distortion

Always use as little distortion as possible. This will give you punch and clarity. Too much distortion makes your tone sound mushy, and sometimes scratchy and nasty. If you’ve got a screaming legato style lead solo to do, then of course you’ll need a lot more gain than when you’re playing a rhythm part.

Listen to recordings of your favourite artist and try to hear how little distortion they use. You’ll often find that its a lot less than you thought at first. In a recording situation, the heavier guitar tones are often beefed up by doubling, or quadrupling etc. the guitar part in the recording.

  • EQ

Guitarists often set their amplifier EQ in what we call the ‘smiley face’ setting. Scooping all of the mid-range frequencies out and boosting the bass and the treble. This sounds good in the bedroom, or when you’re playing by yourself. When you put this sort of EQ setting into a live or recording situation, the guitar will often sound mushy and will make the whole mix messy unclear. Players often try to combat this by pushing more high frequencies into the sound, unfortunately this just hurts your ears and doesn’t do a great deal for clarity.

Getting rid of the mid-frequencies also gives us a false sense of security, in that it ‘covers’ our playing mistakes to some extent and allows us to not pay attention to the other factors that make up our tone (how we strike the string etc.).

Try setting your amp with all of the controls set flat (no boost or cut, this is usually around ’12 o’clock’ on most amps), and adjust the way that you strike the strings, the way your volume and tone controls are set on the guitar and play around with leads and effects units in between the guitar and the amp. Then subtly alter your EQ to change any problems that you hear.

Guitarists often forget that they’re not bass players, and boost the bass frequencies to give them a ‘fat’ sound. What we hear on record is often the combination of a guitar and a bass guitar being played together. Don’t try to replicate this sound by yourself (unless you have no bass player in your band / recording). Lose us much bass frequency as you can stand, and that way you won’t interfere with the bass player’s part of the frequency spectrum. You’ll find that your bands sound is much clearer and has much more impact if you’re all giving each other a clear slice of the frequency spectrum to operate in.

As always, if you have any questions, email us on help@independentmusic.com.au or head over to our contact page to organise a free, no obligation introductory lesson.

Guitar Tone – Everything in Between

So you’ve sorted out your technique, got your guitar set up to produce a good tone and still your tone sucks. What’s going wrong? Well, its probably everything in between you your guitar and your amplifier. What can we do about it? Well lets see what things get in the road of our tone as it heads towards your amplifier.

Guitar Leads: A lead is a lead, right? Wrong! The first thing you should do is get yourself into a quiet room with your amp, get some leads and A/B them. Plug in one lead, play a phrase, and then plug in another and repeat the phrase. Switch between the two. Can you hear the difference?

Different length leads will give you different tones. I’ve found that longer leads reduce the amount of top-end in your sound. You can reduce the impact of a long lead run by using a ‘line driver’ which changes the impedance of your guitar signal. A ‘line driver’ will allow you to have long lead runs without loss of signal quality. Lead quality is also a big deal when it comes to tone. Just buy good quality leads.

Try experimenting with leads that use varied jack plug materials. Chrome ends are brighter in sound than brass ends, which give a rounder sound. Also, try a curly lead (like what you see Hendrix using). The curly lead produces a darker tone compared to its straight cousin.

Stomp Boxes: So, you’ve noticed the difference between different leads, Lets plug in some stomp-boxes. Now that you’re listening closely, you’ll probably notice that your tone is different with a stomp-box in the signal path compared to how it was without the pedal, even without the pedal switched on.

Effects pedals add metres of cable length to your signal chain. Your tone has to travel through the entire length of the printed circuit board of your pedal unit. This can be a long way, and this is why your tone suffers when a stomp box is added to your setup. This problem is compounded as you add more effects to the chain. To add to this, stomp-boxes are relatively inexpensive devices and the components in them often aren’t the best quality. Have a listen to your sound with the effect turned on and off and see how much the frequency response of your sound suffers. If you notice a lot of treble or bass frequency loss, then your pedal probably hasn’t got the best of components in it.

What can we do to solve these problems? Well, a line driver will fix the length of line problems. The cheap component issue can be fixed by sending your unit off to the various places advertised on the web who do component upgrades / mods. Also, try not to run too many effects units in a chain at once. Think carefully about what effects you really need and cut down to just that.

As always, if you have any questions, email us on help@independentmusic.com.au or head over to our contact page to organise a free, no obligation introductory lesson.

Your Guitar and Tone

This post we’ll be talking about your guitar in relation to tone, and what role your guitar plays in your overall sound.

Body Timber:

Strangely, people often consider timber an unimportant factor when choosing an electric guitar. Listen to the guitar with the volume turned completely off to get a good idea of what the guitar really sounds like. At least if it has good tone acoustically, and not so good when its amplified, you’ll know that its not the guitar itself. Replacing the pickups should give you a better tone. Common woods are Ash, Swamp Ash, Alder and Mahogony. Try to play as many guitars as possible with varied body wood. This will give you a feel for what the different timbers sound like.

Fingerboard Material:

Fingerboard material plays a big role in the make-up of your sound. The two most common types of fingerboard materials are rosewood and maple. Rosewood tends to be darker in tone. Maple needs to be lacquered to stop it from absorbing moisture. This layer of lacquer, in combination with the timbers natural sound gives the maple fingerboard a much brighter sound compared with rosewood.

Strings:

Thin strings tend to give you a thin sound. The thicker the gauge of string, the rounder your tone will be. Keep in mind that you’ll get less ‘bite’ out of really thick strings, so try to find a set that gives you enough treble as well as being thick enough to give you body to your tone. You can choose steel or nickel strings. Nickel tends to produce a more mellow tone than steel strings. Steel will give you a higher out put volume and a brighter sound in comparison.

Scale Length:

The distance between the nut and the bridge is called the ‘scale length’. Aside from having an effect on feel (and thus how you vibrato on the instrument), a shorter scale length will produce a darker sound than a longer scale length guitar. Scale lengths of full size guitars vary from 24” to 25.5”.

Pickup Height:

Getting out a screw driver and having a fiddle with the screws that control pickup height can be a really rewarding exercise. As the pickups get closer to the strings, not only will they produce more output, but also your tone will get brighter.

Volume Control:

The volume control does more than just effect your volume. As you back your volume away from maximum towards zero, you’ll find that the top-end (treble) is reduced. This is a handy trick for getting different tones with only a subtle adjustment.

Obviously there are many more variables in getting a good tone from your guitar. When time permits, I’ll get back to these articles and flesh them out a little more.

As always, if you have any questions, email us on help@independentmusic.com.au or head over to our contact page to organise a free, no obligation introductory lesson.

 

The Player and Guitar Tone

 

‘The Player’
is where it all starts. If the tone you’re producing isn’t good, then
nothing else in the chain afterward is going to save it. When you
hear a great guitarist, it doesn’t matter what instrument they’re
playing, it always sounds like them and it always sounds great. So
what makes a player produce good sound? Let’s break it down into the
following:

Pick:

The
material as well as the thickness of a pick makes a difference in
tone. I avoid picks made out of ‘glossy’ materials. Thinner picks
tend to produce more harmonics, and also a brighter attack. Thick
picks are good for a jazzy tone as they produce that marimba-like
tone necessary for a classic jazz sound.

Grip:

How tightly
do you hold the pick?. Gripping tightly tends to create a very
bright, brittle tone (it also makes your strings more likely break).
A loose grip will give you a fatter, rounder tone. Try it yourself
and listen closely to the sound. Sometimes (like if your playing surf
music) an extremely bright tone works well.

Angle of
Attack (vertical):

When you
swing the pick does it travel parallel to your fingerboard, or does
it tend to arc down towards the body of your instrument. Swinging
parallel will increase your sustain and give you a clearer tone. If
you angle your picking action down into the fingerboard, string
‘crash’ will result. This produces a shorter, slightly strangled
tone. Sometimes this is cool, but you should be able to do it on
demand, rather than have it happen randomly.

Angle of
Attack (horizontal):

Try
hitting the string with the face of the pick parallel to the string,
and then try rotating your pick so that the edge strikes the string
first. With the string rotated you should get a fair bit of ‘scrape’.

Placement of
Attack:

Between
where you’re fretting the note and the bridge, there is a lot of
string to play with. Experiment picking at different places within
that length of string. Picking somewhere in the middle of the string
length will produce the most volume, and the sweetest tone. Picking
up against the bridge will give you a bright tone, moving towards the
fretting hand will give you a rounder tone.

Synchronisation:

Having
both hands arrive at the same time, i.e. your fretting hand touches
down on the string at exactly the same time as your picking hand
strikes it. This will increase sustain, give you clearer tone and a
habit of listening closely to what you do.

Experiment
with all of these things, and listen closely to the results. Record
them if you can, and you’ll start to get a feel for ways that you can
improve your tone dramatically.

As always,
if you have any questions. Please drop us an email on
help@independentmusic.com.au or use our contact page to book a free, no obligation introductory lesson.

Intro to Guitar Tone

Guitarists are always in search of the the magical piece of equipment that will improve their sound instantly. Rarely does just adding a box or rack summon the magic tone fairy. So, in this article I’ll be outlining some of the things that can help save your tone, and hopefully help you make more considered purchasing decisions.

Tone is a personal and individualistic thing. That having been said, there are some things that people who are considered to have good tone have in common: clarity, impact and an interesting timbre.

We need clarity so that we can be heard without having to turn up excruciatingly loud. ‘Amp Wars’ will result, and your sound guy(girl) won’t be happy having to compensate for your volume battles. Some amps change tone at different volumes. So, by hiking your volume higher and higher you’ll be destroying all of your carefully considered EQ settings.

Impact means that our tone doesn’t sound hollow or weak and that what we’re ‘saying’ is going to have an affect on our listeners. Clarity has a lot to do with impact, because if you’re ‘mumbling’, what you have to say won’t really affect the audience because they just can’t hear you.

‘Timbre’ is a term used to describe the way a sound sounds. From a technical point of view, timbre has to do with the harmonic makeup of your sound. If you want a more technical definition, search for timbre at wikipedia . Basically, the richer and more complex the set of harmonics our sound contains, the warmer and fatter it will sound. Rich, fat tones have a real emotional impact on the listener (yourself included) so its an important thing to cultivate. Hitting a note with a rich, warm tone is enough to inspire the rest of your performance.

Below are the four steps that go into producing your tone. All of these things directly affect your Timbre, Impact and Clarity.

  1. The Player:

The way that you fret, hit and hold the guitar. Even what picks you use have a huge impact on your sound.

  1. Your Guitar:

Its not just the pickups or body timber that make a big difference in sound. The condition of your frets, your pickup height and fingerboard timber all count.

  1. Everything in between:

Leads, stomp boxes, multi-effects pedals and wireless systems. All of these things suck the life out of your tone. How much depends on the quality of the equipment that your using and how cleverly you put it all together.

  1. Your Amp:

Most amplifier EQ is weird compared to normal audio EQ, and most people set their EQ without really listening.

I’ll be covering these in detail over the coming weeks. In the meantime, if you have any specific guitar tone questions that you’d like to have answered. Please drop us an email on help@independentmusic.com.au or head over to our contacts page to sign up for a free, no obligation introductory lesson.