Dialing in an epic guitar tone shouldn’t be a complicated process. It’s the whole reason we started the Toneforge series – to give guitarists and producers of all experience levels a chance at getting the same great tones they hear on their favorite records.
But even when great tone is easily within reach, there seems to be a barrier to entry for some. Too often, people blame the main parts of their rig when it’s the pieces in between causing their grief. So, the next time you load up a virtual guitar rig and hit record, make sure your signal chain is up to the task with this helpful checklist.
Make Sure Your DI Is Up to The Task
Direct boxes (also known as Direct Injection boxes or DIs) are an absolute must for anyone working with live guitars and virtual guitar rigs. They effectively step your Hi-Z signal down to a manageable impedance level for your interface, allowing you to feed your guitar directly into your recording setup.
And I know what some of you are thinking... “My interface already does that!”
Well, yes and no.
There’s nothing wrong with using the Instrument input on your interface in a pinch, but there’s really no substitute for a dedicated DI. Just like the preamps in your interface, the Instrument inputs are there for convenience, but they usually come at the cost of quality. If you have the chance to pick up a dedicated DI, there are a few really good options on the market starting around the $100 - $200 range that will really level-up your recordings.
Signal Cleanup Before Your Amp
If there’s one luxury afforded to us by working with virtual guitar rigs, it’s the ability to control anything and everything before and after the plugin however we need to. While hardware rigs are limited to the pedals that go in front of the amp, a virtual rig can take advantage of a bunch of processing before hitting that input.
Most commonly, engineers and producers will use this part of their chain for clean-up. A simple high-pass and/or low-pass filter can help get rid of any hum or buzz in your signal and tighten things up significantly. By addressing these issues before the amp, you can also eliminate some of the problem frequencies we’re often stuck treating after the amp with EQ – hitting it in different ways that bring a whole new character to its sound.
At a minimum, you should be using a noise gate at the front of any guitar rig, especially in higher gain configurations. Noise gating is the easiest way to tighten up your tone without a bunch of tweaking – just set your threshold level and you’re up and running!
No matter how much you do before your virtual guitar rig, there’s no doubt that the amp itself is going to change your sound. If it didn’t, we’d all just be running around using direct signals for clean tones!
Amps do a lot of great things for electric guitars. They soften some of the harsher aspects of them while adding plenty of harmonic saturation, warmth, and distortion. But what comes out the other end doesn’t always play nice in the context of a mix.
This is where post-amp processing comes into play. Working some dynamic processors like EQ and compression in after your amp can be a great way to take control of your tone when the amp’s settings just aren’t quite getting the job done.
Beyond that, this is also where you unlock the potential of bus processing – treating your guitars as a group rather than individual tracks. Understanding how they all interact with each other in the context of a mix is an underrated skill for many new engineers, but one that will make your mixes pop.
Just check out this mix walkthrough from Roberto Granados:
Hear all of the different variations in tone he was able to get with Toneforge Misha Mansoor? While the standalone tones were amazing, it wasn’t until he worked out his post-amp processing that things really started to take shape.
Forging Any Guitar Tone
If you’re still struggling to get your guitar mixes to sound like you want them to, rethinking your approach might be best. Tone matching should be easy with the right process, which is why we introduced the Toneforge Bootcamp.
In this training course, you’ll learn the critical listening, impulse response, and tone shaping techniques used by professional mixers around the world to get the sounds they’re after quickly and easily.