Digital multi effect processors has come a long way the last couple of years and are widely accepted as an alternative to analog stompboxes. I started out with a Korg A4 and a Boss GT3 before settling on pedals. These days my home studio is equipped with a Line 6 POD X3 that I use for recording demos etc. Spending some time on deciding on the right unit for your needs and learning how to use it will help you get the tones you want.
Most digital multi processors on the market promise to deliver THE tone for any guitarist. Trying to meet the demand for vintage sounds most units also feature sims of classic pedals and amps. What is THE tone? Does Line 6 market their POD series as the ultimate Gilmour-in-a-box? Does Boss promise that you’ll sound just like Hendrix with their vast collection of classic amp and pedal sims? The answer is obviously a huge no and it would be a bit naïve to think that any unit would suit your very specific needs. My experience is that while some are better at producing overdrive and distortion sounds other units are better for cleans and modulations.
For a Gilmour fanatic it’s tempting to just quit the whole analog stomp box insanity and go for a much cheaper Line 6 POD, which after all feature simulations of Hiwatts and Fender Bassmans, Big Muff, Fuzz Face, Tube Driver, Binson, UniVibe etc. It’s all there. But as it says in the manual – all amps and effects are simply simulations or so called “based on” models. They’re not the real thing.
Keep in mind too that a simulation is created on given factors. We instantly think of Hiwatt and Stratocaster when one mentions a Big Muff but for a technician at Line 6 it’s perhaps more natural to use a Les Paul and Marshall as a reference for the Big Muff sound. Perhaps they listened to a certain BB King song as a reference when they fine tuned their Bassman sim? Mic placement is also crucial and no unit can simulate how you’d place the mic on your amp.
Although all these digital units allow the user to have full control you can’t control how they were designed. That’s why we also prefer different analog pedals. I like triangle Big Muff but you might prefer Sovtek models. Apples and oranges. My point is that it’s wise to keep this in mind and not trying to force a simulation to sound like something else. As an example, to get the Muff tone I want on my POD X3 I’m using a Mesa/Boogie stack with a Dynacomp and Leslie sim with a Les Paul loaded with PAF humbuckers. Hardly the typical Gilmourish setup.
Regardless which digital multi processor you’re using you should always start off with matching the in/out levels. This will give you the best signal and more realistic sounding effects. Start with plugging the guitar straight into the amp or soundcard/PC and set them as desired. Plug the guitar into the multi processor. Switch off any effects and amp sims and set all global levels to unity with the initial guitar+amp/soundcard signal.
As none of these units have a unity bypass level you need to engage bypass mode as well and set the volume. I prefer muting the bypass allowing silent tuning. The same exercise goes for using software like Guitar Rig and Amplitube. Make sure all your levels are unity with the “unplugged” signal. When all levels are set on your processor or software you can start adding amp and pedal sims and set these as desired.
Assigning amp and effects
As mentioned above it’s easy to get temped by huge collections of amps and pedals but remember that most of these are simulations of analog units and they will behave different. In most cases you will have to think outside the box and “unlearn what you have learned” to quote an old Jedi. Don’t get frustrated or embarrassed that you can’t get the Hiwatt and Big Muff sims to sound how you want but try all amps and pedals if you must to find your tone. In most cases you’ll realize that David’s amp settings will apply to most models but you might also realize that you have to switch cabinets or mics. It also helps understanding how certain effects are designed. What’s the idea behind a RAT? Or a Tube Driver? I get the best Tube Driver tones on my POD X3 using a Marshall JMC800.
Keep in mind too that volume is a key element for great sounding tones. Set your amp sims first and then add the effects. Match their volume as you would with a real amp and analog stompboxes. More on that here.
Digital processor + amp
Start off with matching the levels on your digital unit with the amp as described above. This is crucial to get the best tones. I recommend that you don’t use any amp sims with real amps. It’s easy to think that you can turn you VOX Cube into a Hiwatt stack but an amp sim is basically just another distortion unit designed to sound like a specific amp. If you’re using an amp sim with an amp and then adding a distortion or overdrive you’re basically adding distortion on distortion (even if the amp sim is clean), which again means more noise.
Remember to consider each effect that you assign as an analog stompbox and don’t go overboard with settings that are too high or too much off how you’d set the analog counterpart. If the effect doesn’t sound right then simply try the next. Keep the patches simple as well. Although you have just about any effect available doesn’t mean that you have to use them simultaneously. Noise filters, compressors and EQs can just as much ruin your tones as improve them so apply the same rules here as you would with analog stomp boxes.
Digital processor + analog stompboxes
Using analog stompboxes with digital multi processors allow lots of different setups and tones. I used a Boss GT3 as a dedicated EQ, modulations and delay unit by assigning overdrives and distortions to different pre set patches. Each patch were setup with different EQs, modulations and delays and the delay was also assigned to a expression pedal allowing me to control the delay volume for different parts in a song. I could use a single distortion and by assigning different EQ setups I could make it sound like David’s ear pinching fuzz on Time or his silky smooth leads on PULSE.
Not all stomp boxes likes to be placed next to digital units though and vintage fuzz, certain Big Muff models and also the Tube Driver might sound thin and harsh.
Remember to place the analog pedals correct in the chain. Although there are no rules I’d place wah wahs, compressors, fuzz, distortions, overdrives, boosters and EQ in front of the board and modulations and delays after it. Most units also feature send/return connections allowing you to place pedals anywhere in the chain. You can also use the send/return for loops like looping a fuzz and delay assigned to a pedal on the processor that you can stomp in/out for the funky part on Echoes.
Digital processors studio setup
Many of us are using digital multi effects in a studio setup via a soundcard and computer. Whether you’re recording or using this setup as your main sound stage instead of an amp you should have some basic knowledge about how a guitar tone behaves in different environments.
Again, start with matching the levels on the digital unit or software with the bypassed signal as described above. Assign an amp sim and effects for the desired tones. Keep all tips and principles as described in this article in mind.
It might be obvious but the sound coming from your headphones or studio/PC monitors is not the same as the one coming from your amp. If you’ve ever been to a studio and heard a mic’ed guitar cab pouring out of the studio monitors in the control room you’ll know what I mean. An amp will colour your tone with its circuit and your settings but perhaps equally important the tone will also be coloured by the speakers, the construction of the cabinet and the amp’s placement in the room.
All this will be simulated with a digital processor and studio monitors can’t compensate for a 100w tube stack and the natural acoustics it makes. This means that a POD simulating a Hiwatt and a Big Muff will never sound like the real thing on your computer but rather a simulation of how a mic’ed cabinet would sound like in a studio. This fact combined with what I mentioned above in regards to how these sims are designed means that you have to put your self in a different mode than on a stage.
I always design a patch while listening to the song I’m either recording or playing along with. This forces me to not think like when I’m on a stage but rather tweaking the tones to fit into the given song. What this basically means it that I’m rolling off the bass, increasing the top and maybe even scooping the mids a bit. If you’re using a recording software like Garageband, Logic or QBase you can also use a hi-pass filter on the track and cut everything beneath 100Hz (or even more). This is of course something you can easily do, and must do, when you’re mixing the final track but it also helps matching the tone to the studio monitors.
This is no rocket science but there aren’t any easy ways to great tones either. Please share your tips and experience with us!