I recently watched a video featuring Eddie Kramer, the sound engineer of acts such as Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and occasionally the Beatles. In this video, he explains how he has worked with Waves to create a series of “plug’n play” software plugins, each dedicated to the processing of either guitar, drums, bass or vocals. The guitar plugin features compression, slapback echo, flange and reverb. And he goes on saying that the slapback echo brings a bit of an “analog” feel but that it is not an effect that is very popular anymore.
So this got me thinking. The slapback echo, also known as slap echo, was very common in the 50s and 60s. It was created by recording with a tape recorder and playing back the same tape a fraction of a second later using another “head”, generating a single repeat type of short echo. Its use is very obvious on early rock’n roll and rockabilly records, particularly on vocals. It can also be heard on the guitar on a number of Hendrix tunes like “Voodoo Chile Slight Return” where a slapback echo augmented by an old plate reverb creates a really cool dripping kind of tone. It is easy to reproduce with today’s analog or digital delay pedals as well as software plugins.
I experimented with my recording software (Cubase 5) and put together this video that shows the same tone without and then with a slapback echo. I think it is pretty cool, I might use it more in the future! See after the video for some slapback settings for the Cubase delay plugin and the good old BOSS DD-3 delay pedal.
For the basic tone I used my 1978 Telecaster with a Fender Champ tube amp and then kicked in a Pro Co RAT 2 distortion pedal (settings on the RAT 2: DISTORTION at 2 o’clock, FILTER at 3 o’clock and VOLUME at 2 o’clock).
In Cubase I used the following delay settings:
With a BOSS DD-3 digital delay pedal, the following settings will give you a nice fattening slapback echo: Mode 200ms, E.LEVEL at 12 o’clock, F.BACK at 9 o’clock and D.TIME at 4 o’clock. You might want to vary the E.LEVEL or D.TIME to taste.
It would be easy to reproduce this effect with any other model of delay, just set the “delay time” between 70 and 200ms and the “feedback” quite low to have just one repeat.
As a guitarist, sooner or later comes the question of the volume balance between rhythm and lead tones.
You probably all know the devastating feeling of playing the best solo of your life only to be told later on by members of the audience that nobody could hear it!
In 2010, one could think this is a trivial problem but it is not. This is essentially due to the fact that a volume or gain modification anywhere in an effect chain can have a big effect on the overall tone. Unless you are a rock star and your sound engineer knows exactly when to boost your volume, there is a number of solutions to this problem that I will list in this post.
Using the guitar volume control or a volume pedal
The first solution that comes to mind is of course to use the volume control of your guitar. After all, why is there one? The problem is that reducing the volume of your guitar will reduce the amount of signal sent to your pedals and amp thus directly change the amount of distortion/overdrive in your tone. It can fit certain styles like blues rock where rhythm work is not as dirty as lead work. For instance, Jimi Hendrix made use of this extensively on stage: he could go from clean to dirty just by manipulating the volume of his guitar (note that the stratocaster is especially good for that). It also works well if you are more of a clean tone player. Using a volume pedal at the beginning of your chain is the same thing as using the volume of your guitar except it might be more progressive. You will have the same problem though: reducing the volume will reduce the amount of overdrive or distortion from any device placed after.
Using an amp with multiple channels
Another solution is to use an amplifier with 2 master volumes or 3 or more channels so that you can dedicate some of them to rythm work and some of them to lead work: usually these amps are not the cheapest and offer slightly different tones depending on the channel but they can be a good solution. For example, the high end models of the Marshall JVM series feature 2 master volumes and are programmable which makes them very flexible. Note that for those of you who need tons of distortion for their rhythm tone, a lot of 3 channel amps (especially those made in the 90s) won’t cut it since the middle channel is often tailored for crunch tones rather than devastating ones.
Using two overdrive/distortion pedals
This is a very flexible solution: you can set the volume of one pedal in “rhythm mode” and the one placed after in “lead mode”. In lead mode, you can have the two pedals together for more gain or just the lead pedal. It can be tricky to switch from rhythm to lead but it is doable especially with BOSS or Ibanez pedals which have a large switch. One stomp and you can switch off a pedal while switching on the other one. Combining two overdrive/distortion pedals is a broad topic in itself and I will soon post about it. A few recent distortion/overdrive pedals feature a “boost” switch to increase the volume for lead work, check out the Satchurator and the upcoming Ice 9 overdrive designed by VOX for Joe Satriani or the ZVEX box of rock.
Using a multi-effect unit or a modeling amp
Those of you with super sophisticated gizmos don’t have much of an issue since you can program rhythm and lead patches. They can even sound good plugged straight into a PA. This is not something that purists love but I have used my Line 6 Pod straight into a PA for gigs with very good results.
Using a clean boost or volume pedal at the end of your chain
If you play against a clean amp and all your overdriven tones come from pedals, this is by far the easiest solution. A clean boost pedal will take the signal and make it louder without altering it. I personally use a BOSS LS-2. The LS-2 can also be used as a looper to switch between 2 chains of effects or use them in series, each chain having its own volume. I have heard the MXR micro amp is also pretty good placed after a chain of effects to increase the overall volume, not to mention all the boutique clean boost pedals. I stress that you need to have a clean amp with enough headroom because otherwise the extra volume might make the amp clip (which can also be a cool effect). Alternatively, most equalizer pedals feature a general volume control and will be able to get you a nice boost, check out the BOSS GE-7 or MXR 10 band EQ. And of course, you can also use a good old volume pedal but at the end of the effect chain rather than at the beginning as mentioned earlier in this post.
If your dirty tone comes from your amp, it is a bit trickier. People have had good results using a booster and or a volume pedal in the effect loop providing your amp offers such a facility. Be careful what kind of pedal you use. Most of them are OK but some of them won’t work in an effect loop since the signal strength is too different from a guitar output (check out the impedance). Check also that your effect loop has an adjustable level because in this case it will probably adapt to any pedal.
The beauty of this “end of chain” boost solution is that you can boost either your clean tone or your distorted tone which gives you a wide variety of tones for soloing.
Note that placed at the beginning of the effect chain, say right after your guitar, a clean boost pedal will have a different effect. If it is placed before a distortion/overdrive pedal, the more gain is dialed, the less the clean boost will have an effect on the overall volume, it will rather have an effect on the amount of distortion (this is because a side effect of distortion or overdrive is that the tone gets compressed). With a moderate amount of gain on your overdrive/distortion stompbox, a clean boost will fatten your tone and moderately increase the volume which is like going from the crunch to the lead channel on a 3 channel amp. As always when unsure, just experiment!
Solving the lead volume issue is linked to your style of playing and one or several solutions amongst those I have mentioned in this post might be available to you. And don’t forget that the volume is not everything and your tone will have to cut through the mix as I have explained in a previous post. Also you might want to check another one of my posts about the use of compressors at the end of your effect chain, it is a possible solution to boost your volume for solos although I have not always found it workable in live situations.
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.