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Funky Guitar Processing

Steinberg Cubase Tips & Techniques
By John Walden

If you want something to spice up rhythm‑guitar loops to use in your funk and dance tracks, Cubase has just the Tonic…

Nobody who's listened to the late '70s and early '80s funk/disco music of Chic or Sister Sledge can have failed to recognise just how danceable rhythm guitar can make a track. In more recent years, that same rhythmic sensibility has become an important part of a range of contemporary dance styles, particularly house. I was recently fortunate enough to try out Rob Papen's excellent RG. This plug-in combines a programmable rhythm guitar engine with filter and effects processing and, for dance styles such as house, it's a great tool for creating a range of rhythmic guitar styles. The down side of RG is that you can't use the filter or effects elements to process your own guitar parts or loops — which got me thinking about how to create similar results using Cubase. So, armed with my trusty Strat and a few pre‑recorded guitar loops, I set to work….

A Sound Source

Whatever processing we might subsequently decide to apply, a well recorded original sound makes the best starting point. I started experimenting with two different sources: first, I played some parts in myself, recording them through a Line 6 Pod X3 using a clean sound with a touch of compression; and second, I created a couple of patterns in Rob Papen's RG, but without using that instrument's own filter, EQ or effects, so that they contained just the unprocessed guitar sound. If you want to work through the ideas in this column on your own system, then a small selection of these clips are available for download on the SOS web site at /sos/jun09/articles/cubasetechmedia.htm.

Step On

With our guitar parts in place, we need to look at what processing options in Cubase

might help us replicate those in RG. Probably the most influential (and fun) feature of RG is its filter, and Cubase includes an equivalent plug‑in, Tonic. This was introduced way back in SX2.2 (see SOS November 2004) and, while it isn't as versatile as some other filter plug‑ins (or the filter section of RG), it is capable of some great sounds, as well as being pretty easy to use.

Tonic: capable of gentle filter sweeps (as shown here) through to more extreme sound mangling.Tonic: capable of gentle filter sweeps (as shown here) through to more extreme sound mangling.The first screen (above) shows a good starting point if all you want to achieve is a gentle filter sweep with Tonic. Here, the settings in the Env Mod section are basically set to 'off', meaning that the filter is not subjected to envelope modulation. Any changes in the filter with time are therefore controlled by either the LFO Mod settings or, under user control, via the X/Y matrix pad (bottom left). The Cosine preset from the Step window creates a smooth, cyclical change in the filter, while the Depth setting of about 50 percent means that the tonal changes are not too extreme. The Rate control is set to modest two beats per step, so as to give a fairly slow sweep of the filter. The result is a slow change in the sound: not overly exciting, but enough to add subtle movement for a rhythm guitar part without attracting too much attention.

The step window within Tonic can be used to provide step‑like opening and closing of the filter that synchronises to the strumming pattern of the loop.The step window within Tonic can be used to provide step‑like opening and closing of the filter that synchronises to the strumming pattern of the loop.So far, so vanilla — so let's try something more radically processed. Probably the most fun is to be had with the controls in the Env Mod section, but experimentation with the LFO Mod and Step windows is well worthwhile. For example, selecting the Square preset for the Step Window and dialling in a rate of four steps per beat causes the filter to open and close (to an amount controlled by the Depth control) once every bar. If the timing doesn't quite match your playing (for example, if the strumming is slightly ahead or behind the beat), you can simply edit the step pattern to match. Using this same approach, you can fully customise the positions of the steps to match the strumming pattern so that the filter changes provide an additional emphasis to the natural rhythm of the part.

Bringing in the Env Mod controls adds some further possibilities by applying envelope modulation to the filter cutoff. Three modes of operation are offered (Follow, Trigger and MIDI). Follow responds to the dynamics of the input signal, whereas Trigger uses the input signal to trigger the envelope to run through a complete cycle. MIDI uses MIDI notes to trigger the envelope (from a keyboard or a recorded MIDI track — you simply set the MIDI output of the track to Tonic in the Inspector), with the filter cutoff tracking the note number. All of these can be useful, but as Follow responds to any volume changes in the guitar part, it is a good starting point. Adding in the Env Mod section allows for more creative possibilities — try these settings with the 90bpm example loops for a lazy wah‑like sound.Adding in the Env Mod section allows for more creative possibilities — try these settings with the 90bpm example loops for a lazy wah‑like sound.The screenshot below shows an example that produces a really nice wah‑style effect that syncs with the project tempo. Try it out with the 90bpm loops that accompany this article on the SOS web site.

Tonic can be pushed much further, as demonstrated by a number of the presets. For example, try the 'ReGroove 3' or 'Beat Restructure 2' presets. The first adds an extra pulse‑like element to the sound: try adjusting the Depth controls in both the Env Mod and LFO Mod sections to vary the effect. Very funky. In contrast, the second turns the guitar part into something almost percussive in nature — and adjusting the Cutoff and Resonance controls can change the tonal character of the sound to generate a turntable‑style effect (try this on the 90bpm loops). It certainly doesn't sound like a guitar!

Get In Shape

The Envelope Shaper plug‑in can either emphasise the percussive attack of the strumming or, as here with a low attack setting, make the guitar less guitar‑like.The Envelope Shaper plug‑in can either emphasise the percussive attack of the strumming or, as here with a low attack setting, make the guitar less guitar‑like.

Another key element in RG's arsenal is the Amp section. This is a synth‑like amplitude envelope, rather than a virtual guitar amp (although the latter is found among RG's FX options), and it can be used to create some interesting changes to the guitar sound.

Cubase's Envelope Shaper plug‑in can be used to achieve similar effects by, for example, increasing the Attack but giving it a short Length setting. This accents the initial portion of each strum, resulting in a much stronger rhythmic feel. Alternatively, decreasing the attack and increasing its length can make the sound less guitar‑like, although it also moves the rhythmic emphasis. As an example, set up an instance of Envelope Shaper after Tonic (any gentle filter sweep will do) and apply it to one to the RG‑based guitar loops I've created for download. The removal of the initial attack makes it less obvious that we're hearing a guitar, but the performance still has a guitar‑like rhythmic quality.

Delay Tactics

The ModMachine plug‑in can add some excellent delay‑based effects.The ModMachine plug‑in can add some excellent delay‑based effects.

RG includes a couple of nice delay settings in its FX section, and it almost goes without saying that the addition of some suitable tempo‑matched delay from one of Cubase's delay plug‑ins can add further interest and rhythmic movement to your processed guitar part. This does, however, need to be done with some care. If the playing is fairly busy, don't add too much feedback — or mix it too high — because the additional repeats will begin to sound messy. Where the original part is a little sparser, or at a lower tempo, you can probably get away with laying the delay on a little more thickly.

Any of the Cubase delay plug‑ins can be put to good use here, but if you want to create something more unusual, ModMachine provides both delay modulation and filter options, allowing the tonal character of the repeats to change over time. In combination with the filter effects of Tonic, this can give you some truly inspiring combinations. It's well worth engaging the Sync option for the Delay setting, but beyond that, experimentation is very much the order of the day. That said, there are a number of ModMachine presets for 'funky guitar', which provide obvious starting points.

Guitar No More

Above: For something more synth‑like, the Ring Modulator, Metalizer or Tranceformer plug‑ins do a nice turn.Above: For something more synth‑like, the Ring Modulator, Metalizer or Tranceformer plug‑ins do a nice turn.

If desired, a combination of the Tonic, Envelope Shaper and ModMachine plug‑ins can easily turn a simple guitar part into something quite unlike a guitar. However, if you want to go further down that road and create some synth‑like sounds, then modulation‑based plug‑ins such as Ring Modulator, Tranceformer or Metalizer can also be pressed into service.

For example, try a combination of the Tonic settings shown in the initial screen shot (just a gentle filter sweep) followed by the 'Boomerang' Tranceformer preset and apply it to one of the downloadable example loops. The end result is rather ambiguous in terms of harmonic content, but takes on the character of a synth‑based percussion part. If you replace Tranceformer with the 'Cobalt' preset from Metalizer, a little more of the harmonic character is retained and a soft, rhythmic synth part is generated. This can sound great when a more lightly processed version of the guitar loop is panned to the opposite side of the stereo image, because the two parts obviously play together very tightly.

Order, Order!

Right: Don't be afraid to experiment with the order of the effects processing – made easier by the drag 'n' drop function allowing easy re‑ordering of Insert effects within the Mixer channels.Right: Don't be afraid to experiment with the order of the effects processing – made easier by the drag 'n' drop function allowing easy re‑ordering of Insert effects within the Mixer channels.

As with all such creative processing experiments, there are no set rules as to the order in which the various plug‑ins are combined. It's certainly worth trying Envelope Shaper both pre‑ and post‑Tonic, because the order of the processing can produce very different results, particularly when using higher Attack settings in Envelope Shaper. Similarly, placing ModMachine before Tonic gives Tonic's filter something different to work with, and therefore produces a more complex output. As with a number of the ideas outlined here, I've created a series of channel presets to illustrate this. Along with the example audio loops, these are also available for download from the SOS web site at the URL given earlier.

If you fancy turning a simple funky guitar part into something that might be more suitable for synth‑based dance or electronica styles, I've no doubt that a dedicated and well‑equipped tool such as Rob Papen's RG makes it easier to get instant results. But if RG and its ilk are luxuries you can't afford, the plug‑ins provided as standard with Cubase include all the necessary processing and effects, and together are certainly capable of some very similar effects. Time for me to get the funk outta here!  

Tip: Wave Goodbye To Slow Boot Times

If you run Cubase or Nuendo on a PC, and find that your Waves plug-ins result in a very slow boot-up time for your DAW, there's a free solution at hand at www.xlutop.com/buzz/zip/shell2vst.zip.

Download and unzip the file to your Waveshells folder, drag your existing Waves DLL files onto the shell2vst.exe file in Windows Explorer, then simply copy the resulting Waves folder to your VST plug-in directory, and remove the existing Waves DLLs (that is, back them up in another location) and you're ready to go. The first boot-up of Cubase will take a while — because all the plug-ins need initialising again — but thereafter you should find that your load time is dramatically reduced. What's more, you should now be able to organise your Waves plug-ins in folders, making them much more manageable in the Cubase or Nuendo GUI than they are with the default Waves installation. I don't know whether users have been experiencing similar problems on Mac-based setups — I don't have my Waves bundle installed on the Mac — but if you have, feel free to drop us a line. Matt Houghton

Knob Fiddling

As much as I like Tonic, it does have one real irritation: accurate setting of any of the rotary knobs is really fiddly using a standard two‑button mouse. However, if you have a mouse with a scroll‑wheel, thankfully, things are a lot easier. With the mouse cursor placed over the control you wish to adjust, the mouse wheel can be used to rotate Tonic's knobs more accurately and, as usual, the setting is displayed in the panel immediately beneath the Env Mod section. This also works with other Cubase plug‑ins including the Monologue, Embracer and Mystic synths [Not to mention the Channel Faders! — Ed]. If you also hold down the Shift (or Alt, depending upon the plug‑in) key, this can give even finer control via the mouse wheel.

Published June 2009