Don't Fret: Synthesizing Rock Guitars - KeyboardMag

Don't Fret: Synthesizing Rock Guitars

Use synths to create rock guitar sounds
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While working on a project recently, I realized that I needed a metal guitar riff to round out the arrangement. As fate would have it, my go-to guitarist, Shreddward (from the Bright Light Social Hour), was on tour. Since the deadline couldn’t wait, I realized I had to whip up the parts by hand using synths and effects. Naturally, I could have turned to a sample library for this, but I’m always up for a sound design challenge. So rather than rely on loops or a multi-sampled guitar, I decided to start from nothing and see what was possible. Within a few hours, I had some remarkably convincing parts that worked perfectly in the project. Here is the technique.

Step 1: While I could have used a multi-sampled clean guitar, I decided to start with an analog synth just to really push the possibilities. Since a real vibrating guitar string isn’t detuned (and detuning can wreak havoc before a distortion effect), I started with a single oscillator sawtooth patch. Narrow pulse waves are another good choice, depending on the overall tone you’re after. From there, I turned the filter cutoff to 75 percent and gave it a quick envelope with the mod amount set to maximum. On the amp envelope, I went with a long decay and release to simulate open strings for the power chords. Here’s what the settings look like in Reason’s Subtractor.

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Step 2: To re-create the strum of a power chord, I relied on Ableton’s Arpeggiator device, because its rate can be set in milliseconds. Here, I used a really fast setting of about 30ms. To make the strums even easier, I put a chord device before the arpeggiator, set to the tonic, a fifth, and an octave above. As Pete Townsend once opined, anything but a fifth can interfere with the distortion effect, so who am I to argue?

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Step 3: Listening to the sawtooth patch with the arpeggiator and no processing, you’d be hard pressed to imagine that sound turning into a guitar. That’s where the effects come in. If you’ve ever heard a metal guitar both dry and through a Marshall stack, you’ll understand. Instead of relying on my DAW’s overdrive and such, I opted for Native Instruments Guitar Rig, which is amazingly flexible and has some brilliant presets that are perfect for this application, even without additional tweaks. For the metal guitar, I used a preset called “Carlos in Europe.”

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Step 4: Lead sounds are even easier. You can skip the arpeggiator elements entirely. The secret here is keeping your playing style idiomatic, with wide intervals and a touch of pitch bend. For that lead component, I used Guitar Rig’s “Dyna Solo” preset on the same synth patch, minus the arpeggiator and chord devices.

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