No Stinkin’ Amps (or Amp Simulators)

An advanced technical diagram.

No videos or audio examples today — I’m in the midst of “reconfiguring” my studio. (That’s the technical term for pulling stuff out of racks, tangling all your cables, making an ungodly mess, and dissolving into a puddle of bitter, frustrated tears.)

But the good news is, I got some cool new stuff. I’m switching over a pair of large Pro Tools and Apogee systems to a minimalist Universal Audio Apollo setup, an audio interface that doubles as a plug-in host. UA makes killer plug-ins, but I’ve never owned any, since they’ve always run off of proprietary PCI cards, and the card slots in my computers have always been filled to capacity. Now that I have the UA stuff in my grubby mitts, I’m obsessing on the idea of exploring non-amped guitar tones, especially distorted ones. And I’m not talking amp simulators, but the distortion you get from overdriving a recording console’s preamps.

If you’re a tone geek, chances are you already know that some iconic guitar riffs were tracked straight into the recording console without amps. Examples include Roger McGuinn’s 12-string on early Byrds tracks (straight to the desk via two LA-2A compressors), Nile Rogers’ “Le Freak” hook (also heavily compressed on its way to a Neve console), and Jimmy Page’s devastating “Black Dog” lines (triple-tracked Les Pauls overdriving the inputs on a Neve console). And these are some of the first techniques I’m going to explore once I untangle the cables and mop up the tears.

Why now? Software emulations of these ’60s and ’70s hardware units have been available for over a decade, and there have been a number of very good and very inexpensive ones. But by and large, these emulations have only been partly accurate. They’ve done a good job of replicating the dynamics processing and EQ curves of the original devices, but have been less successful at cloning the coloration and chaos they provide when pushed to extremes. I can’t tell you how many of my producer and engineer friends have expressed sentiments along the lines of, “Those plug-in clones sound great at ‘normal’ settings, but they don’t sound like the real things when you push them to their limits.”

But that’s changing. The latest generation of simulations have become freakishly accurate, including all the weird/interesting stuff that happens when you wallop them. The first time I tried pounding the input of Universal Audio’s virtual Neve channel, the complexity and musicality of the distortion floored me.

Anyway, I’ll be posting some cool examples and tone recipes soon, including ones using really inexpensive, bedroom-studio-grade preamps. Sometimes these super-cheap preamps sound killer. (Back in the late ’80s and ’90s, more than a few guitarists obtained awesome overdrive by overdriving the inputs on those lo-fi four- and eight-track cassette recorders.)

Anyone here have any experience in this area? Any cool tricks and techniques?

19 comments to No Stinkin’ Amps (or Amp Simulators)

  • That sounds like a cool setup! Since I record in my apartment I haven’t used a guitar amp is years. Most of the time I’m using the amp sims in my Roland VM-3100Pro digital mixer. With a little tweaking you can get some very cool tones, even though it’s a little old. I also have the usual plugins in ProTools and Cubase and AmpliTube 3. The hardest thing seems to be those semi clean amp tones, but as you said, the plugins are getting better.

    I also also messed with some of the plugin models of old compressors and channel strips and got the to distort. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong, just what sounds good!

    In the past I have plugged guitars right into things like Tapco mixers and even a Panasonic boom box to get distortion. I would just crank them all the way up. I remember reading that Linsey Buckingham used the guts from a cassette recorder for all his distortion tones on the old Fleetwood mac albums. I did the same thing with a cheap cassette player when I was about 16! 

  • Peter

    “(Back in the late ’80s and ’90s, more than a few guitarists obtained awesome overdrive by overdriving the inputs on those lo-fi four- and eight-track cassette recorders.)”

    I’m so mad at myself for having given away my old tascam 4 track cassette recorder after the transport system got gummed up. The mixer, eq and preamp was really cool; thought the mackie was an “improvement” but uh… definitely not the same unfortunately.

  • Bear

    I’d always heard Black Dog was a couple of 1176’s used for just their preamps and in series.  UA even released a mic preamp based on those gain stages years back.
    A lot of the distortiony stuff of yore with old studio equipment was about impedance mismatches between components — I wonder if this can be fully captured in the box if the plugs are set up to play well with each other.  I’ll be paying attention to your clips.

  • You are a bunch of cheap bastards for trying to improve on the amplifier sound with no amplifier.  Dumb dumb idea and waste of time.  If you put up a 50 watt head and cab up against any of this crap you will notice massive differences, if you just poke around the internet and type stupid shit then that’s all you will have in your sound.   Do the real thing get an amp and overdrive it and quit ruining and trying to sell your shitty software processed guitar sounds to your listeners.

    • joe

      Um, the post is about using hardware preamps in lieu of amplifiers, as practiced by Jimmy Page, Roger McGuinn, Nile Rogers, and many other players. Having said that, debates about hardware amps vs. software emulations are always welcome. I can only assume that you would have been one of the 1.5% of guitarists who aced the amps vs. models listening test. Wanna try? No peeking at the answers, now!

      LOL — this morning I’m going to try to recreate the “Black Dog” tone by running a guitar through two $2,000 hardware preamps connected in series. After that I’ll be trying to mimic the effect in software on a $15,000 studio rig. So while I’m almost certainly a “bastard,” sadly, I squander way too much money on music crap to qualify as “cheap.”


    • JH

             Hey listen!   Of course its not like the real thing!  But!!!!!  It is getting better and better! And it is a hell of a lot more convenient. Why Move mics, cables……all the time.  Besides you cant own every single amp out there to get “that sound” at that particular time.    I actually gave up on mic’d recording. No more power soak…million cables….worrying wheres that sound interference coming from… 
          Besides what else does that mean…. If I want a mini-moog sound I need the real thing?…..A ob-x ?….. Or maybe a 32 track that will be converted to digital anyway!
          I think most of the people you write and record the music for are not going to hear the difference anyway. Maybe you and I would. Besides the money you make now a days doesnt justify the time spent messing with all that equipment.

  • JH

        Besides who’s being cheap!  Yea I may be cheap, but I am realistic!
    I dont think Joe is cheap!  I see that Strat on his wall behind him. I know what it is! Do you?
    Hmmm. Cheap?

  • JH

      Sorry Just venting!  Besides This is most likely in reference to recording! Not live playing!
    Everyone has their go to amp because you cant get into the same groove or depth of playing without a real amp! Thats the difference. But in recording you need versatility, and your (keyrob)  Marshall stack (most likely) will not sound like a Fender Princeton no matter what you do!

  • Oinkus

    People are stupid it is the one consistent fact about humanity. And for the record – Stupid Rules the Universe ! How about you just send me some of that “cheap” and  ” useless” stuff you got laying around Joe , I would put it to good use really !!!! 

  • zyon

    If I recall, I red an interview with Trent Reznor shortly after Pretty Hate Machine came out and he said he recorded all of the guitar on that album straight to the board with amps. that album and most of his others sold really well. Guess being a cheap bastard isn’t such a bad idea. 

    I wonder if people called Jimi a cheap bastard while he was busy reinventing how the world heard the guitar. I’m guessing Keyrob works for Marshall or something LOL 

    • zyon

      Sorry, meant to say “without amps” He recorded straight to the board WITHOUT amps. Should proof read before submitting I guess… 

  • Just mic up any speaker that you are amplifying a guitar through it doesn’t have to be a marshall or any other well known brand it could be home made if you would like.  The point of saying cheap is because you are spending so much money on your Avid software that loses more value than a new car driving off of the car lot in a matter of seconds.  I guarantee you that your so called 15k rig is not worth half of that anymore.  A very inexpensive speaker with only 1 watt running through it with a microphone on a speaker will capture tonality and be very expressive.  There is not any board, expensive preamp that can capture the tonal variations that a speaker gives when the volume knob on the guitar is varied from as low as 2 to as high as 8 on the output of the guitar.

    Recording without amps is laziness.  Reznor was on heavy drugs just like Page and Hendrix during the times you state.  Drugs within a musician equals laziness.  I’m sure the mix engineer was hating it, although all the listeners have gotten use to the sound.

    And in regards to the comment of needing a real hardware minimoog to get that moog sound.  Well, if you haven’t tried the real hardware then you won’t know will you.  I have a Memorymoog upgraded to a LAMM by Rudi Linhard and there is no comparison to software emulations.  The real deal Holyfield as Snoop says, really is the truth!!

    Saying that the emulations are getting better sounds like you really haven’t made use of the real hardware that is trying to be emulated. 

    • JTCM

      You know, you have a point. You cannot replicate the sound of a well recorded amp. It’s a great sound. But who says it’s the only sound? Emulation, while not often spot on, produces interesting and different sounds. Recording without amps, be it digital or analog, emulators or preamps, produces different sounds than with amps. Saying that the sound of an amp and a speaker is the only guitar sound worth using is ridiculous. What’s the point of using recording teqniques that have already been explored to their fullest? If you truly are happy with the standard analog rigs, that’s awesome. I’m glad you’ve found a sound that works for you. But the whole point of this blog- as I understand it- is to explore every possible guitar sound. Good, bad, ugly, whatever. And really, if you’re so opposed to experimentation, what the hell are you doing on a blog dedicated to it? Hey Joe I think what you’re doing here is great. As for the gentleman above me :ban:

    • joe

      Silly me. I thought it was “laziness” to apply the same methodology to every musical situation.

  • Colm Kelly

    I’ve tried chaining preamps to create distortion. It works quite well but there is always some top end stuff which is not particularly desirable. I guess this might be one of the places where the more forgiving nature of tape as a medium would really comes into play.

    • joe

      Yeah, true about those highs! Unless you’re going for a deliberately ugly effect like I usually some people do, it generally helps to cut a lot of top-end. And yeah, tape or pseudo-tape plug-ins definitely help. 

  • zyon

    Keyrob, calling Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Reznor lazy really shows your ignorance as a musician/producer. If Jimi was lazy, every other guitarist that ever played is an absolute slug. Oh, and I’ve read enough about Jimi’s life long producer Eddie Kramer to know that your assessment is about as outlandish as your original statement and then reply. 

    If every guitarist simply mic’d any ol’ amp with any ol’ microphone we would have absolutely no innovation in music. Also, you don’t need an expensive board to record direct. You also dont have to have a pro-tools setup. I set up a modest PC based recording studio with Sonar and I loved it. I did not have the cost of a new car, nor was I even close to that cost. 

    Personally, I like Mic’ing my amps too but I’d never go as far to say those who look for alternative ways to achieve tone are lazy. Lazy to me is doing things the same old way just to achieve the same old tone.

    This isnt my blog but keep in mind, this blog is about TONE EXPERIMENTATION. If that isnt your thing, then you are sort of on the wrong blog.   

  • young-jim

    this is exactly what  i do at home when recording at home , works amazingly with bass if your looking for a sound like the yeah yeah yeahs ‘maps’ or ‘Y control’  , i only use it through a small cheap mixer tho, in the studio i engineer at i wouldn’t want to risk it in case i mess it up since im a free lance engineer at the moment .

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