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Deconstructing the digital beast

Amp simulation software (aka amp sims) offer guitarists digital approximations of pretty much any sound you could feasibly think of, all from within your laptop or computer. By simply connecting your guitar to an audio interface, then into a computer running the right software, you can get close to more sounds than you could in a free-play session in the world’s biggest guitar shop. It’s crazy, if you think about.

From long-standing veterans like IK Multimedia’s Amplitube and Native Instruments Guitar Rig (part of the Komplete package), through to newer iterations designed to run on tablet devices, there is so much choice for guitarists looking to join the digital tone revolution. But give people that much choice and they can become…greedy. Imagine if you were given the keys to the chocolate factory. Chances are, you’d get fat. So how do you rein in your compulsion to stack effect on top of effect and get a sound which would be usable. Let’s take a look at some tips for taming your amp simulation software.

Horses for courses

When you have access to approximately 20+ distortion sounds, five delays, 12 reverbs, three tremolos etc etc it’s understandable that you might want to attempt ‘constructing’ a new sound. When adding new effects is as simple as clicking or tapping a couple of times, there’s no harm in having a go. We get that. But it can be easy to get lost in sound here, and once you’ve added your third gain effect in a row it can be ard to pinpoint exactly which one is creating that gnarly mid-range frequency you don’t like.

Have a play with the sounds in isolation before you start stacking them on top of each other. Some of the less intense effects might naturally complement each other, while the more far-out modulation effects might be required to cut through heavier gain settings. Keep your focus on what sound you’re aiming for, and build your tones carefully. And, if things are still sounding a bit over the top, remember the noise gate (built into most, if not all, sims) can help remove some of the hissing you hear.

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Stereo space

Also in-built in most sims is the ability to not only choose your amp head and cab, but also to choose different microphones. And, as with ‘regular’ recording, these can be manipulated into different positions and angles across the virtual cabinet. Recording engineers talk about finding the sweet spot of a particular speaker/microphone combination, and it’s the same here. Experiment with dynamic mics, condenser mics and placements across the stereo field to find the right place for you.

Don’t forget the others

If and when you begin using amp simulation software for guitars recorded as part of a wider band project, there are certain other things to keep in mind. As with any mixing task, the job is to balance the instruments in such a way that they complement each other, instead of competing. It’s here that you’ll discover the go-to gain/distortion sound you use while jamming alone probably won’t cut it in the context of a full mix.

In fact gain and distortion sounds are notorious for this; typically when you’re playing on your own you might compensate for the lack of a bass by dialling up the low end on the EQ controls. This is fine, but when you do this in a full band situation you’ll find the guitar, bass (even the kick drum) competing for the same frequencies which can make things sound very muddy, very quickly.

And again, as with full band recording, you don’t need nearly as much distortion as you think you do. Of course, the beauty of amp sims is that you can record a dry signal and add the effect on afterwards, so it’s easy to test the theory. Try recording a dry signal, placing it in with other recorded instruments, and then toning down the gain. You’ll find everything so much clearer and easier to pick out this way.

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The route to success

The final tip is slightly more advanced, but simple enough once you have your head around it. Most of the more feature-packed sims will allow you to ‘route’ your signal in one of many different combinations. You could, for example, run your guitar signal through one amp head, into one cabinet, then out to your DAW. Alternatively, you could run the signal into two entirely different head/combo setups.

The beauty of this is being able to theoretically get your high frequency cut-through from one rig, and your low end warmth from another, all using one signal. Add separate effects into each rig and you can see how this would be creatively exciting. But, as we mentioned earlier, take your time to sculpt your sound the way you want it, not what looks most impressive on your display. With a bit of restraint and experimentation, amp simulation software can give you the keys to a world of glorious tone.