You are here

Guitar Recording Methods In Digital Performer

Digital Performer Notes & Techniques
Published February 2009
By Robin Bigwood

Achieving exactly the recorded guitar tone you're after is easier than it's ever been, with the facilities on offer in a DAW package such as Digital Performer...

Guitar Recording Methods In Digital Performer

In a modern DAW such as Digital Performer, there are more options than ever for recording guitar. Perhaps the simplest method, and the most tried and trusted, is to mic up an acoustic or an amp, and proceed as you would with recording any other miked source. However, there are, many more choices, at least for electric guitar and bass. You could:

  • Record, with or without pedal effects, from a DI box, guitar amp or audio interface with high‑impedance inputs, straight into a DP audio track.
  • Record a clean DI feed into a DP audio track using effects and processor plug‑ins hosted in DP.
  • Use a virtual guitar instrument (like those I discussed in Performer Notes last month) and record the MIDI data to drive it. You might then choose to treat the virtual instrument's output with the same processing as you would a real guitar.

So there are lots of possibilities and permutations, which might even be combined in one way or another, so I'm going to focus on some specific techniques in this month's column. Between them, they should cover a wide variety of guitar‑recording situations.

Acoustic Guitar

Plenty of great advice has been dished out over the years in the pages of Sound On Sound regarding mic choice, positioning and treatments for acoustic guitar, so I'm not going to duplicate any of that here. But there are several DP‑specific things that are worth thinking about.

Equalisation: Both of DP's bundled EQs (and plenty of third‑party offerings) offer the typical 'click and drag' control of EQ bands. By default, though, going for the 'graph' rather than the parameters will nearly always end up generating peak‑type curves when shelf types or low‑ and high‑pass filters might be a better choice. That's particularly true for acoustic guitar, when, for the sake of the overall mix, you'll often want to remove low, bloomy stuff and add a bit of top 'air'. For that, a gentle high‑pass filter and a high‑shelf boost will do the trick nicely.

In Parametric EQ, you can enable a couple of bands, switch one to high pass and the other to high shelf, and dial in settings to suit. In MasterWorks EQ, on the other hand, you'd enable the bottom left high‑pass filter and the 'green' band, switched to its lower 'High Shelf' mode. And when you need to work with peak‑type bands instead, remember that you've got variable‑response curves in MasterWorks EQ. Curves I and II are 'surgical' in nature and good for precise cuts, while III and IV are wider and smoother in character.

Stereo Issues: It's common to record acoustic guitar in stereo, or at least with two mics, in which case there's a lot to be said for using a stereo audio track for the purpose. Often you'll want to narrow the stereo image, though, or even sum to mono two mic signals differing in tone quality, in which case the Trim plug‑in will be your friend.

A stereo Trim whose pan settings are summing the signal to mono — very useful for controlling the stereo width of acoustic guitars.A stereo Trim whose pan settings are summing the signal to mono — very useful for controlling the stereo width of acoustic guitars.Here, positioning the Pan controls towards their 'center' setting causes the track to gradually narrow to mono, and if you go further they'll reverse position. This is a useful trick to know, too, if you want to pan a stereo track very far left or right in the mix; DP's Mixing Board stereo panners are actually balance controls, so if you use them to pan stereo acoustic guitar you'll get an apparent change in stereo positioning but one that's actually achieved by gradually turning one channel off. To achieve a true stereo 'pan', where both channels get steered to one side of the image, use the Trim plug‑in to 'mix the channels' and narrow the image first, and then use the Mixing Board pan. And, as if Trim weren't useful enough already, it can do phase reversal on separate sides of stereo channels, should you ever find that to be necessary.

Electric Guitar With DP‑hosted Effects

The quality of plug‑in guitar‑type effects and amp/cabinet simulators is now so good that in the studio you might well choose to use them over a hardware equivalent like a Pod, or even over the 'real deal' pedals and amp combo, to benefit from the far greater flexibility and sonic palette that most offer. However, the way that overdrive so completely transforms what and how the guitarist plays means that you nearly always need to run guitar plug‑ins at the recording stage, in real time, maintaining a low‑latency monitoring feed of the effect. Bearing that in mind, here's some pointers on how to best record guitars in this way

There are three main things to configure in DP: a small buffer size for low latency, an input monitoring mode that routes inputs through effects, and an Audio Patch Thru mode that actually allows inputs to be monitored. In DP 5 and 6 you'd do it like this:

Setting: Buffer Size.

Where: Setup menu / Configure Audio System / Configure Hardware Driver.

Comments: Make sure you're using an appropriate buffer size. A size of 128 or 256 ensures low latency. Some guitarists might also be OK with 512. As ever, the smaller the better, with the trade‑off being CPU hit.

Setting: Input Monitoring Mode.

Where: Setup menu / Configure Audio System / Input Monitoring Mode.

Comment: Choose 'Monitor record‑enabled tracks through effects' here if you're given the choice. Otherwise you'll never hear the contribution of your plug‑ins until playback of a recorded track.

Setting: Audio Patch Thru.

Where: Studio menu / Audio Patch Thru (anything other than 'Off').

Comment: This setting controls when and how live inputs are monitored during playback and recording. Input Only and Blend keep the input signal audible all the time, while Auto will mute it during Auto‑record when DP isn't punched in.

For quick recording, you'd create a mono or stereo audio track as necessary, configure input and output channels, record‑enable (or monitor‑enable), check gain and level, load up your favourite guitar plug‑in, and rock! This might seem like a no‑brainer, but it's important to realise that while your monitor feed will include the effects, the guitar records onto disk completely dry. This is often no problem, and arguably has a number of advantages. It lets you go on tweaking your effects setting after recording, if you feel so inclined, and you can also use the Duplicate Track command to build up multiple layers and panned effects using different plug‑in settings. The down side is that you'll have to freeze tracks if you ever want to reclaim the plug‑in's CPU drain, although DP6 users might find that pre‑gen makes this unnecessary.

The alternative to recording directly on to an audio track is to instead bring your guitar signal in via an aux track whose output is routed to an audio track. Why bother, though? The answer is that this method lets you record a true wet, treated signal on to the audio track, which then doesn't require your guitar effects plug‑in to remain instantiated on it as you continue to develop your sequence. The advantage is undoubtedly CPU performance — you just keep whatever plug‑ins you like on your single aux track 'channel strip', and by recording 'through' these, you save having to keep duplicates instantiated on all the guitar audio tracks you put down.

The down side is that you're denied the possibility of any fundamental tweaking of the effects on those tracks; just as if you'd recorded through a real effects and amp combo, you can add, and maybe modify, but you can't take away! Setting up an aux track channel strip is easy:

1. Create an aux track. Configure your guitar as its input, and an unused bus or bus pair as its output.

2. Create a mono or stereo audio track to record on to, if necessary. Set its input to the same bus or bus pair as you chose in step 1, and its output to your main audio outputs. You've now patched the aux track into the audio track.

3. Record‑enable (or monitor‑enable) the audio track, and you should get a live monitor feed of your guitar. Instantiate your preferred effects on the aux track, then when you're ready, hit Record.

Here, Guitar Aux is being used to record a little stack of plug‑ins wet into Guitar Track. The routing is possible thanks to the bus 1‑2 connection.Here, Guitar Aux is being used to record a little stack of plug‑ins wet into Guitar Track. The routing is possible thanks to the bus 1‑2 connection.

After recording this first audio track, you might then use the same 'channel strip' to drive all the guitar audio tracks you record. When all those are done, you could take the aux track off‑line, to reclaim the CPU hit of any plug‑ins it carries, while leaving it in place for any subsequent tracking. In the Track Overview window, click its blue dot in the ENA (enable) column to toggle its enable/disable status.

DI & Effects In Parallel

There's a lot to be said for simultaneously recording a clean DI'd signal and one that has passed through effects and/or amplification, whether that's a nice, beefy, miked‑up stack or an aux track channel strip with suitable plug‑ins. The technique works particularly well for bass guitars. You'd probably use two separate audio tracks for this, each set up in the normal way, and then subsequent judicious mixing of the two tracks can give a great balance between definition, weight and thickness. Sometimes, though, the success of this technique can be compromised by phase issues: often you're mixing two very similar signals, but one might have picked up a small delay, such as the roughly one millisecond it would take for the sound from a cabinet to reach a mic a foot away. [See our article in the last issue on recording loud guitars for more. Ed] In those situations the two signals need to be aligned once more, and there are a couple of ways to do it

In DP5, you could go Edit menu / Set Nudge Amount, to bring up the Nudge dialogue box, and dial in a suitably small amount, such as 0.5 milliseconds. In DP6, do the same in the Snap Information palette, which you can choose in a Consolidated Window sidebar cell or bring up with the Shift‑Control‑G shortcut. Then, in the Sequencer Editor, select all soundbites that you suspect might be a smidgeon late and use the left arrow key to nudge them earlier by the amount you just chose. You can do this during playback too, to monitor what each nudge does.

An alternative to the above is a little freeware Audio Unit plug‑in, previously discussed in the DP workshop back in March 2008, which can do track realignment in real time. Expert Sleepers' Latency Fixer doesn't process audio in any way, but it sneakily reports to DP that it does, and has latency, the amount of which can be set by the user. DP's Automatic Latency Compensation then plays audio on the track early to compensate for that latency.

The plug‑in is principally designed for correcting latency caused by external audio processing, but it's good for phase‑alignment duties too. You'll need to stop and restart DP's playback every time you change the latency value, though, as DP does all its ALC calculations as it goes into playback. The plug‑in is available from www.expert‑sleepers.co.uk/latencyfixer.html.

Guitar Effects With Bundled Plug‑ins

DP's bundled plug‑in suite covers most bases for general mixing duties, but notable for their absence are any truly guitar‑specific plug‑ins. However, using a bit of ingenuity, many of the existing plug-ins can be pressed into service for real‑time or in‑mix guitar effects. By supplementing with a few low‑cost or freeware DP‑friendly Audio Units, the range and quality of processing can be extended still further for little or no money.

'Stomp Box' Effects & Reverbs

Tremolo: DP's Tremolo doesn't quite date back to the '60s, but it has been around for a while, and gives plenty of flexibility.

Wah: Multimode Filter is capable of both regular rhythmic and input‑following autowah effects. Try a low‑pass setting, a centre frequency of around 800Hz, a touch of resonance, a 100 percent wet mix (mix value at 1.0), and range to suit. Then the LFO/Env modulation switch chooses between the two types of effect. If you're hell‑bent on achieving pedal‑controlled wah with Multimode Filter, it is possible, though pretty nerdy; I described it back in the dark ages of /sos/may04/articles/performernotes.htm.

Delay: There are two main choices here: the Echo plug‑in for straightforward single‑tap or more complex multitap delays; and the Delay plug‑in for impressive stereo ping‑pong effects. Also bear in mind that if you make delay‑time settings the same on both of Delay's channels, engage its low‑pass filters (try 1500Hz as a starting point), and don't use any X‑Feedback, you get an effect with a strong analogue or tape‑style vibe and no ping‑pong element. It's a little gem, this plug‑in, and well worthy of experimentation with guitar.

Chorus: MOTU's Chorus is capable of the sort of effects we expect from all those '80s records, as well as some interesting vibrato effects (try the 'Slow Vibrato' preset), but it's not the best sounding plug‑in by any means. Instead, check out the freeware MonstaChorus from www.betabugsaudio.com. That's a much richer effect, and easier to use too.

Flange: The bundled Flanger is pretty good, really, and the ability to run its channels in phase keeps psychedelic aspects in check when that's appropriate.

Reverb: MOTU's Plate definitely repays some time spent with it. It's very good for narrower or even mono treatments, and can sound quite 'vintage'. ProVerb also has some plates on board, and you can load it up with public-domain impulse responses made from all manner of interesting gear. Check out the cornucopia of old spring and analogue reverbs, for example, at www.xs4all.nl/~fokkie/IR.htm and www.noisevault.com. (A couple of quick tips: not all the ~fokkie impulses can be dragged to ProVerb, because some files lack header data, although others, like 'Vintage Spring Reverb', are fine. Stay tuned and I'll describe a fix for these and other troublesome audio files next month. Also, try using Firefox if Noisevault's IRs don't download properly in Safari.)

Tone Control

This is where things start to get really purist! Of course, EQ is an essential treatment in sculpting guitar tone, and DP users have a great one in MasterWorks EQ. However, you might achieve even more colourful results with third‑party plug‑ins: I'm personally a big fan of Waves Renaissance EQ and some of the Focusrite Liquid Mix emulations. None of DP's dynamics plug‑ins quite do what a Boss Compression Sustainer does, but MW Leveler can be really good on bass and overdriven guitar, and for fattening up most sources. For gating those cranked‑up, compressed signals, MW Gate gives by far the most control. You can read more about it in another pre‑history Performer Notes from back in June 2002, at /sos/jun02/articles/performnotes0602.asp.

Let's face it, though: the most important characterisation of electric guitar sound is that achieved by amplification, and varying levels of overdrive. DP has a plug‑in that aims to provide some of that character — PreAmp‑1 — but despite having the look of high‑end Focusrite gear it's, sadly, not very good. Or rather, the EQ and Compressor sections are good, but the 'Drastic' coloration mode gives results that, to my ear, sound like one of those tiny battery‑powered practice amps, and there's no cabinet or speaker modelling. However, you can tame the grittiness by following PreAmp‑1 with a ProVerb instance loaded with a guitar cabinet EQ, like those from www.grgr.de/IR, which definitely helps to tie the sound together a bit more.

Better still, though, are a couple of freeware guitar plug‑ins that are worth having even if you also own more sophisticated software. There's a really decent 'British Valve Custom' emulation from Studio Devil, at www.studiodevil.com/products. If you use high Gain and Drive, just follow the plug‑in with a Trim plug‑in to tame the level. There are also some quite dirty but very usable tones to be had from MDA's Combo plug‑in, from mda.smartelectronix.com/effects.htm. A Leslie simulation and even a Talkbox are in the MDA series too, both very usable indeed. You'll need DP6 to use the Talkbox, though, as it needs a side‑chain audio input.

Third‑party Plug‑ins

If you're prepared to throw some money around, there are lots of great guitar plug‑ins out there now. Some, like the $79 Studio Devil Virtual Guitar Amp or $199 iZotope Trash, do only amp and speaker modelling, and others, like the $380 Waves GTR and $399 IK Multimedia Amplitube, add in stomp‑boxes, tuners, and other goodies too. The results possible with some of these are really top‑class, and often better than what could be achieved with modest amps and mics in a less than perfect room. In DP, they're ideally suited to the aux track 'channel strip' recording method, as they can be very CPU intensive.  

Use Clippings For Favourite Setups

Guitar Recording Methods In Digital Performer

If you get into using combinations of plug‑ins to achieve your killer guitar sounds, remember that DP's Clippings feature can be a real help in saving and recalling favourite setups. From the Project menu, call up a 'New Digital Performer Clipping Window' and perhaps name it something like 'Guitar FX'. In the Mixing Board, select your plug‑in 'stack' by clicking one plug-in in its insert slot and shift‑clicking all the others. Then, pointing to the far left side of any of the slots (where the mouse pointer turns into a hand), click and drag into the Clipping window. That Clipping window, and your effects chain, will then be available in all other DP projects you work on. There's even more about Clippings in a Performer Notes article from not long after the Big Bang: /sos/aug01/articles/motunotes0801.asp.

Re‑amping

With guitar‑amp simulations being capable of imbuing such character, why reserve them just for guitar sounds? 'Re‑amping' all sorts of sound sources, from vocals to piano and drums, can be hugely successful for adding a bit of attitude and realism, and is the perfect antidote for prissy digital 'correctness'. With tracks already recorded, you've various choices as to how to virtually re‑amp, from simply adding plug‑ins to your tracks and freezing those tracks, to keeping an aux track handy with your favourite amp instantiated, and routing one or more audio tracks through it via a bus or bus pair whenever necessary. Purists with nice gear might also want to re‑amp for real: send your audio tracks to an audio output that's driving an amp, and simultaneously record on a new audio track that's being fed by the amp mic.

Published February 2009