I stumbled upon a series of videos that Visual Sound released a few years back. They basically got Nashville (but not only) studio guitarists in a studio and asked them to show how they used their pedals.
There are tons of creative ideas in those videos, for every style.
My two favorites are probably Kenny Olson…
… and Michael Elsner, who uses his guitar and Visual Sound pedals in a series soundtrack context, creating all sorts of atmospheres:
Often we spend days or even weeks working on THE guitar tone in our bedroom (or perhaps that is just me). Once we are pleased with it, we proudly bring it to a practice session or to a gig and suddenly it does not sound that good at all. The most common complaints are that it does not cut through the mix or does not come out very clearly. Your band mates might even complain they cannot discern what you are playing (again perhaps that is just me)…
And even if you think you don’t have these problems, try to take notice at your next practice session or live gig, you might realize your tone can be greatly improved. I will cover live situations here but a lot of these tips are valid in recording situations as well. The biggest difference is that in a recording situation you have always some sort of possibility to rectify the tone during the mixing phase but a live gig is a fleeting moment…
I know that the first thing that people do to be more “present” is to just turn the volume up and up and up… We have all done it. This might work but will ultimately ruin the overall sound of the band as you will be over present, dare I say deafening?
There is a few changes you might want to try before pumping the hell out of your volume knob:
if you have a lot of spatial effects such as delays and reverbs, you might want to turn them down or even off, at least just to see if your guitar cuts through the mix better. Remember that the presets on the shiny new multi-effect unit that you have just bought are probably “over the top” to make it sound better when you try it out in a shop.
If you have a setting for mediums on your amp (or modeling amp, distortion pedal, multi-effect, etc.) you might want to try to increase it. On its own, it might make your sound unpleasant as a majority of us love “scooped” tones but, in a band situation, that might give you more presence. The body of the guitar tone is in the mids. And this is probably why the Tube Screamer is such a popular pedal as it has a mid range hump that will make it cut through the mix.
Lower the gain: apart for styles that require extreme amounts of gain such as death metal, I often find that lowering the gain, even if it makes some licks harder to play, will give you more dynamics, expressiveness, and ultimately an improved presence. It will require some readjustments in your playing but it might we worth it.
Play less: I know us guitarists have a tendency to want to “show off” but remember that, sometimes, a song might be best served by very simple licks or chords. Try to think of how your guitar should fit with the rest of the band and listen to your band mates, this is not a competition! And also if you play with a second guitarist and/or a keyboardist, try to find complementary parts and not to play the exact same thing (think Rolling Stones here).
There are numerous compressor pedals on the market and every multi-effect includes a compression effect. They are especially useful to get that “clicky” clean sound for country licks and funky rhythm parts or placed before a distortion to increase the sustain and fatten things a bit.
But I find they can also be very useful in recording situations especially when you cannot crank an amp or when you have to record direct. After all, compressors were not primarily invented to be guitar effects but they originated in the studio and are used in recording and mixing situations all the time, not only to avoid distortion but also to put forward some parts, smooth a bass line or increase the sustain of a guitar part, etc. The list of applications is endless.
So, a while ago, I was recording direct using my trusty Marshall JMP-1 preamp and I was using the clean channel with my pedal board laden with overdrive, distortion, delay, etc. in front of the preamp. I found the tone to be a bit static and unrealistic. I then decided to try using a compressor, a BOSS CS-3 modified with the Monte Allum opto plus mod, in the effect loop of the JMP-1. So yes that means that all my other effects were placed before the compressor kicked in.
This is counter intuitive for guitarists as you are always told to put a compressor first in the chain but sometimes rules are meant to be broken. Note that some guitar compression pedals are not exactly studio grade so results may vary but I was quite satisfied reproducing the same trick with a standard MXR Dynacomp, the compressor of all guitar compressors (my model has nothing fancy, it is unmodified and was made in 95).
The resulting tone was more realistic and lively be it clean or colored by overdrive or distortion pedals. The difference is subtle but, to me, having a bit of compression at the end of the chain mimics the natural compression of a clean but loud tube amp.
I have recorded a demo using my Fender Stratocaster equipped with noiseless Kinman pickups, a RAT 2 distortion and a BOSS DD-3 Delay into a clean Marshall JMP-1 plugged directly into the sound-card (an EDIROL FA-66).
The CS-3 had the following settings: Level at 3 o’clock, Tone at 10 o’clock, Attack at 10 o’clock and Sustain at 11 o’clock.
So girls and boys, just experiment and try to put that compressor at the end of the effect chain especially after a modeling or tube preamp if you record direct. I also suspect that a low volume amp could benefit from having a good compressor in the effect loop.