An Alternative To Recording Guitar Based Material

Level: Beginner/Intermediate. Focus: Recording sounds (instruments/vocals) from external sources as separate tracks for arrangement in a DAW as consistently as possible.

Ultimate Guitar
Background: I'm a "Professional Hammer Chewer" (say it out loud), having recently gone through the pain for converting from a Traditional Amp/Pedalboard Based Setup (Instrument -> Pedalboard -> Amp -> Mic -> Sound Interface -> DAW) to a Computer Based Setup (Instrument -> Sound Interface -> DAW). These are my experiences based on as much reading as I could do to help understand the conversion. Regional: Based in South Africa, not all equipment is easily/readily available. I tend to prefer products that have local distributors and support. I've found Dell, Roland/Boss and Yamaha to be very helpful locally. Consistent & Flexible: I mention these concepts a lot as it's important to me, I don't just play one genre or one instrument so being on a budget I need something that I can setup for guitar, bass, vocals or drums. With the old pedalboard setup(s) I couldn't achieve flexibility, with the POD X3 Live I found it tricky to achieve the same tone day on day - as my tastes changed, I tweaked settings and because I also used pedals in the FX loop, it got complicated! I'm using : Reaper (DAW) + a few free plugin's NI Guitar Rig 4 (AMP/FX Emulator) NI Kore 2 (Synths/Drum Sounds) NI Rig Kontrol 3 (Sound Interface) Fender Strat ('95 MIJ) Hohner Jack Bass Roland TD-8 electronic drum kit Shure SM58 (vocals) Dell D820 Laptop SE Munro Egg's (Monitor speakers) Wanting to record a few tunes floating around my head, using guitar, bass, drums and vocals and having struggled to find a brief useful overview of my setup on the 'net I read and combined as much info on the typical usage of Guitar Rig & DAW's by other musicians. Here's my 2c! 01. DAW Having previously used Ableton and CakeWalk (way back in the day), I was looking for a DAW that was cheap/free and that was simple in the beginning, but could grow as my understanding grew. Reaper, Audacity and MU.Lab all qualify. After giving them all a run, I found that I personally didn't enjoy using Audacity and MU.Lab. Functional they were, but I found it tricky/limiting in actual use. After trying out Reaper (and spending three months reading the manuals!), I felt that this was a product worth exploring further. Great support from the forums, plenty other users and a "evaluation" period that made the product as good as free... (I licensed mine eventually - I think it's incredible value). Nothing against any of the other DAW's (Cubase, Protools, etc.) - If I had received a copy of Cubase LE with my sound interface, I would have used that. 02. Sound Interface/AMP/FX Because I really dislike struggling with settings and I'm a self confessed Non-tweaker - I thought that Guitar Rig w/Rig Kontrol would be the easiest setup for me to get used to, while orientating myself in the digital world of recording instruments. I can't say it's "plug 'n play" simplicity in it's use, (setup involved on your computer hardware & software - it's a learning curve!), but once you read the manual a few times, ask a few questions on the forums and make a few attempts at recording - you'll find a method that works for you.
  • Note: You can use Guitar Rig software with most sound interface(s)! E.g. You don't have to get the Rig Kontrol hardware. What rig control does is combine the controller (foot switches/pedals) with the sound interface. Alternatives to this could be a Focusrite Scarlett with a Beringher FCB1010 midi footboard. I'd recommend going this alternative route if you like a bit of tweaking or you already have a sound interface. Currently I'm getting consistent results by hosting Guitar Rig in Reaper as a VST (Virtual Instrument). Low latency (time between playing a note on your guitar and hearing it playback through the "speakers") & realistic sound (E.g. Does my strat still sound like a strat? ) - Also GR "seems" to run better hosted by Reaper than run as a standalone application - go figure! A previous setup was a Guitar -> POD X3Live -> SoundForge. Imho, POD do make great sounding "emulators" and the hardware seems rugged and I could have used it as I am using GR w/Rig Kontrol - but I would have had to fork out some extra $$$ for "POD Farm", their version of the GR VST plugin - In hindsight, perhaps I should have tried that - But since I prefer the GR software UI to the POD software UI, I'm happy (for now!) Q: Why the **** are you using VST's at all? It just sounds stupid and unnecessarily complicated. A: Once I record a decent signal via the VST route, I can alter/tweak any part of the AMP/FX emulator, while not having to re-record the entire piece. E.g. Once I've recorded something, I can tweak/apply new FX at will in the DAW/VST. Quite different from the MIC'ed up world of "one-shot" recording sounds! (Of course, you could use a mic -> DAW with your AMP and still get the functionality, but the mic will capture the flavor of your amp and may hinder the tone via the GR VST) 03. Guitar/Bass Imho, it really does not matter what flavour of guitar/bass you prefer, as long as it's properly setup. (Are you comfortable playing your instrument - no buzzes from the strings, humming from the electronics, crackles from the pots/jack, etc.). Action, Intonation & fresh strings all play a vital part in getting consistent results. I've modded a MIJ Strat: re-fret, gotoh locking tuners, kinman noiseless pickups + K7 wiring mod, new pots, jack & wiring, graphtech saddles & trees, etc... And now it's studio friendly - I can record pretty much anything through it and it sounds consistently good (No matter how much gain I throw at it - Kinman pickups are great, imo) I'm told that using a DI box (E.g. Sansamp) for the bass is the way forward, at the moment I'm treating it as a guitar using GR to simulate amp (there is a sansamp emulator too). I'm not a huge bass player, so I'm still finding my way. 04. Drums Currently I'm using a MIDI approach - Using the TD-8 I record a midi pattern into the DAW, quantize/tweak the pattern (I'm Not a drummer!) and then use a Kore sound bank to replay the drums. This gives me flexibility to tweaking the sound post recording (E.g. using different sounds for snare/kick) and adding parts if required. Alternatives to this are : Superior Drummer, EzDrummer, etc... 05. Vocals Errrr, I'm still on a learning curve here! I've gone for a cheap 'n cheerful Shure SM58 (Industry standard... Whatever that means). Nice thing about the Shure, is that it's a sturdy dynamic mic that you'll not easily damage while you are learning/playing around with recording using the mic. Again I'm using Mic -> Sound Interface -> DAW setup. GR does have vocal patches and they are useful, I just haven't spent much time getting a preferred sound (yet). Organizing a pop shield and a vocal booth are in my immediate future... 06. Computer A lot of contention here...A laptop will suffice if your needs are simple. I'm using a ancient Dell Latitude D820 (Core2Duo, 2GB Ram). Since I use this setup live (I play a few times/yr) a laptop is essential. I prefer Dell because the latitude series is tough and the warrenty is excellent. I can run upto 6 instances of GR (E.g. 6 tracks in Reaper each running a GR VST, all playing back simultaneously) before I run out of horsepower. Fine for live use or simple recordings, but I know a i7 Ivy Bridge upgrade is in the near future.
  • Note : Do not think a powerful computer will instantly solve any latency issues - you'll have to get to know you hardware/software and manage your installation (Upgrades, patches, etc...) carefully. I would use a dedicated computer for audio. 07. Speakers/PA When using emulators (Guitar Rig, Revalver, POD X3, etc.) you will benefit from a "full range" speaker system. Simply put, you will not get consistent results using your guitar amp with emulator software as guitar amps/speakers are "voiced" for guitar. As I understand, the software will output a full range signal that is best reproduced as transparently as possible (E.g. a PA or keyboard/acoustic amp). I'm very lucky to have a pair of SE Munro Egg's and they are nothing short of amazing. Quality monitors Really help during the final mix/mastering of your tunes, I tend to hear reverb/delay and stereo far better on the Egg's and this helps getting a mix with "space" and "depth". Subjectively, I can hear if I used the Egg's or my other cheap set of monitors for the mix/mastering - when playing back a mix on a third system (E.g. in the car or on headphones). 08. Other Stuff Cables: Get the best cabling and connectors you can afford - instrument cables for instruments and speaker cables for speakers - sounds stupidly obvious, but trust me it's a good rule to follow for consistent results. Technique: Upgrades in components may show up "sloppy" playing technique (The Kinman pickups were a lot more "sensitive/dynamic" than the stock pup's - it took 6 months to get used to them). Acoustics: There is a lot to be said for having a dedicated area for listening and recording sound in - especially with a decent set of monitor's. Also when using a mic, you'll want a space that lets you capture the performance without the extraneous environmental noises (E.g. Cars, planes, neighbours). There are many, many articles on setting up a home studio, vocal booth's, etc. Check 'em out. Reference Tracks: If you have an idea of what music you want to record (E.g. Metal, Hard Rock, HipHop) - pick a few tracks in the genre you think are representative of the sound/feel you are aiming for. Keep listening to these reference tracks as you record, mix and master - it'll keep you ears/brain "calibrated" on the sound you are aiming for and keeps your recordings "honest" as you are not listening to your recordings in isolation - but in reference to tracks you would like to emulate. Mixing/Mastering: A topic that can span volumes of writing, the final polish that takes your tune and turns it into a finished product - Imho, this is where reference tracks become essential. And Don't Forget: To play with your tools, use your reference tracks, do some googling and searches on forums and most importantly have some fun! References 1. Knowledgeable, active & friendly community of SA based musicians. A great articles section - goes from basic to detailed in plain English. The forums are also a great source of knowledge. 2. NI forums: Seems to be a bit quite lately, but for getting to grips with the NI software/hardware, it's the place to start. 3. Sound on Sound magazine: Great place to read up on current hardware (especially sound interfaces and monitors). 4. Reaper forums: It's the DAW I'm using and knowing your DAW really helps in getting consistent results. There were many more, but these were the most frequently referenced. In my current GR setup the only thing I miss is an FX loop to use a few of my wah pedals - aside from this I'm quite happy with the setup for live and basic recording. I am busy playing with methods of incorporating a pseduo FX loop, but don't hold your breath!
  • 11 comments sorted by best / new / date

      Lord_Hondros wrote: Hammer Chewer said quickly sounds like amateur.
      *Facepalm* Thank you. I was gonna go crazy thinking about that.
      Nice post, i use FL Studio, it comes with built in effect processor. Amplitube (free) is also nice effect processor.
      nepallic wrote: Nice post, i use FL Studio, it comes with built in effect processor. Amplitube (free) is also nice effect processor.
      Hiya, many thanks for the comment - The post was motivated by a similar one by 'EpiExplorer' - I thought instead of critizing, 'could I do better?' I recall using Fruity Loops 3.X a long time ago, but hadn't thought about FL studio as a DAW. Having said that, my housemate and I were chatting about some DJ's in 2004/5 that were touring europe using only Fruity Loops as their production/performance tool. Amplitude is definitely an alternative to GR/Revalver, etc...I just like the Guitar Rig user interface. That said, if I were to do it all over again I'd probably not go with the NI Rig Kontrol hardware - would have looked at either m-audio, presonus or focusrite sound interface, added a FCB1010 footboard with Reaper and Guitar Rig (software).
      Lord_Hondros wrote: Hammer Chewer said quickly sounds like amateur.
      Thank my guitar teacher for that one, I guess 30+years of teaching jazz guitar does that to a person. I also had a palm2face moment the first time he got me with it!
      DisarmGoliath wrote: You have the sE Munro Eggs? Damn, wish I had that kinda budget for monitors!
      Okay, I'll come clean, they are not on my budget =D My friend bought them last year and hadn't used them, so I got to setup them up, burn them in and enjoy the fidelity. It's -sort of- payment for a gig we did a while back. This guy has a lot of equipment that gathers dust, so I get to play with all sorts of cool stuff (VJ projectors & controllers, NI Maschine & Traktor software/hardware, 10K PA system, Protools & Finalcut).
      King Donkey
      Good article. May I ask why you prefer this approach to recording music rather than the traditional setup? You probably mentioned it in the article and I just missed it, sorry if I did.
      King Donkey wrote: Good article. May I ask why you prefer this approach to recording music rather than the traditional setup?
      Aloha, thanks for the comment and question - I didn't really get into the detail why I feel a computer based setup could be preferable to the traditional pedalboard setup - I reckon it comes down to personal goals (and taste?). Btw, I do use this setup live. Please bear in mind, I'm not a tone junkie - I don't care to sound exactly like SRV, Jimi, Metallica, etc...I prefer to use these great masters of tone as a basis for my own quality sounds. For me the benefits are : 1. Convergence & Flexability - I dislike seperate solutions - E.g. one physical setup for guitar, a differing one for bass, etc...I believe (and I'm probably mistaken...=D) that one setup should be able to (via differing logical setups, E.g. patches in GR) handle electric guitar, bass guitar, acoustic guitar, vocals for both performance and recording purposes. Okay, I only have two inputs on Rig Kontrol - this can easily be solved by changing to a interface with more inputs. 2. Consistency - because of the multiple setups (& budget constraints) re-using pedals in differing setups and changing settings constantly, day on day, I couldn't guarentee my exact settings. It was less confusing/frustrating with the POD X3 Live, but still I didn't feel that I had consistency there either (I still used pedals in the FX loop). In hindsight, the POD X3 Live was a good tool, and I could have set it up to function as I am using GR now. When it came to the software UI (user interface) I just prefer GR's 'programmer' approach to working than POD's floorboard approach (if that makes sense). Also, because I'm not using a amp - this ceases to be a 'weak link' in the chain. E.g. If I do not have access to my amp of choice, I lose a chunk of my tone - a big deal when you are on the road. On a big PA (E.g. 10K -> 40K+), I can hear the difference between a 320kps MP3 and a WAV file and I also hear the difference between a mediocre pedalboard and a quality setup. In my humble experience, big PA's are very unforgiving on tone, what you can get away with in your garage or small club, does not apply on a big rig! 3. Ease of recording - Whenever I play, I can tap one key and record. I've also setup the drums (or metronome) to playback with one key for jamming purposes. 4. Budget - with a emulator (GR, Revalver, Amplitude, POD X3, etc...) I have access to a lot of amps and FX, I otherwise would not be able to experiment with. And in GR I can do some funky **** with signal paths and modifiers that I havn't ever seen in a stompbox. 5. Imho, Not all pedals are equal - there is significant effort involved in setting up a quality pedalboard. E.g. Boss Metal Zone is a noisy beast and did not have a 'true bypass' (Although it is possible to mod it). So there is a some thought (and work) required to setup a quality pedalboard that does not colour your tone and outputs quality signal that can be used on a big PA. The disapointments : 1. One of the reasons why I originally went this route was to be able to output midi messages via the pedalboard (footswitches&pedals) to other controllers external to my setup (E.g. VJ equipment). But due to how NI implemented midi on Rig Kontrol, it didn't quite work out as I had thought, you either can control GR with the footswitches OR a external midi device, but not both at the same time - a bit of a fail =( 2. No FX loop to blend in pedals that you cannot live without. The X3 had a switchable FX loop - which worked really well. I'm trying to find a way to get similar functionality w/GR, without overly complicating matters. There are stomp boxes that can provide some of this functionality, I just have to get one locally and play with it. 3. It ain't plug 'n play. Like anything else, it takes some time and effort to figure out what you want and how you can achieve it. Overall I'm 95% happy with what I've achieved in this early stage of the conversion (18mths and counting) and I will not be returning to a pedalboard only scenario (But I will experiment with adding a pedal or two - I'm really missing one of my modded wah pedals!)