A couple of years ago I was working on a song where I added a rockin’ guitar part, and, as I do a lot more recording than playing these days, it took quite a few passes before I got enough good bits for a decent comp track. Then, by the time I got all the other instruments and vocals onto the song, the guitar part sounded a little thin. I couldn’t bear to go back and re-record the darn thing. I spent a lot of time with various effects before I turned it back into something acceptable, but I couldn’t help but wish I had been able to choose the amp sound at mixdown. That’s when it occurred to me that I can! Well, not actually for that track, but ever since that day, I’ve saved my amp selection until later. Here’s the basic 411 on how I delay my tonal decisions.
The big idea here is to record the guitar naked. (Uh, the naked guitar sound that is, not you.) Take the output of your guitar, and run it through a direct box (or a half-normaled jack in a patch bay) in order to split the signal. Send one part of the signal to the guitar amp, and let the player rip it up with a sound that inspires them through the amp they love. Put a mic in front of the speaker and capture that performance. At the same time, take the other part of the signal (the “naked” direct one) and record it onto another track (Figure 1).
So Many Sounds to Choose . . .
As you get close to mixdown, take that thin guitar sound and run it through an amp simulator—I used a Line 6 Pod—and choose the sound that best suits the final set of tracks. You could even send the signal out to a real amp if you think that will give you more of what you’re looking for. In Figure 2, notice that track 1 is set to output on Analog 3, which goes to the Analog 3 output from the back of the Digi 002 into the Pod. In order to listen only to the sound of the Pod, I set tracks 1 and 2 to No Output. I recorded the Pod in stereo.
Once you’ve selected a sound you like, try mixing in some of the original miked track, taking care to ensure all tracks are in phase. In Figure 3, the timing difference between the signal paths appears to be severe, but it only amounts to about six milliseconds. You can always move a track backward or forward in time to line everything up, but you might find that subtle timing variations make the guitar sound fatter. In my case, the Pod was recorded without switching to low latency monitoring, but it actually sounded better that way when mixed in with the miked guitar.
No More Sonic Anxiety
The main point is that whether you record digital or analog, you don’t have to be stuck with the original guitar sound if you take a few moments to plan and prepare. You have choices—many choices. Even after you hear the mix on a few different playback systems, you can change the guitar sound again if it bothers you in some way. Go ahead—give it another go around. Try a bunch of different amp simulations or other treatments, and take the time to really determine which sound drives the song best. You’ll never have to suffer from “tonal remorse” ever again.