Chunky. Thick. Heavy. Crunchy. Aggressive. Snarling.
This list could go on and on, but there’s no denying that well recorded, properly mixed 8-string guitars are a powerhouse of impactful tone for any metal or hard rock song. This tone is something metal engineers have been trying to perfect for years with varying levels of success and coloration that defines their style.
Until recently, this tone meant all kinds of compromises for guitarist too. An 8-string can’t take full advantage of its sonic capabilities out of an 8” or 10” speaker that can’t accurately amplify low-frequency content. This meant many guitarists had to do without, or upgrade more of their rig than just the guitar.
More recently, amp simulators like the Axe FX helped 8-string guitarists find the right balance: more tonal options, various modeled amps and speakers, entire effect chains… But they still had their drawbacks.
These modelers and simulators were hardware based and frankly, couldn’t sound as natural as a real speaker (that’s not to say they didn’t sound good in the right situation). Revision after revision offered more power and better sound. We still ended up with a “canned” tone, where everyone with these tools could achieve a good sound, but struggled to sound unique.
These processors (even to this day) struggle with one thing you’ve got a plethora of in your studio: processing power.
The Case For Virtual Guitar Rigs
Emulating a real amp, or even building a brand new one virtually is an absolute hog on resources, but if you’ve got a computer capable of recording a multitrack session, you’ve likely got a computer with enough power to overcome that obstacle. That’s where your hardware is still failing you.
Everything in a guitar signal chain can be meticulous to map. Things like tubes, voltage, effects, speakers, etc. all need their own set of programming to make them sound realistic. This is where your computer excels and rack processors often fall short.
I remember my first time using a rack processor years ago and how excited I was to try it out. It was a shiny piece of hardware that took up a couple rack spaces and looked like the future – who wouldn’t expect a great tone out of that? After a few minutes of tinkering though, it was glaringly obvious that the hardware couldn’t do the routing I was already doing in Pod Farm at the time. Even the simple stuff that it could handle wasn’t as intuitive as the software.
Hardware emulators and modelers have grown leaps and bounds since then, and the line between them will continue to blur into the future as resource requirements are minimized and processors become more affordable and powerful. For my sessions, I’d rather stick to the flexibility and tone I can get when all of my CPU cores are at my disposal.
8-Strings In The Box
Working with 8-strings in the box is about as simple as it gets from a recording standpoint, and about as flexible as it gets in the mix. By tracking through a good DI box, you can capture the full range of your instrument from the start. As you continue to mold the sound through a virtual guitar rig like Toneforge, you can act on the tone with as much ease as turning a knob on a live amp or pedal.
Double Trouble: For maximum size and impact, make sure you double track your rhythm guitars and spread them wide in the mix to build a massive wall of sound.
Mixing Without Mud
With the right virtual guitar rig for the job, you can start with a tone that’s already optimized for extended range guitars. I find that some of my favorite amps have settings that go right down the middle, and for 8-string guitars, this is almost the exact case with Toneforge Misha Mansoor.
When I do need to add a little something extra, it’s usually a slight boost to the highs to give it just a little more clarity and brightness to balance out the giant low-end tones that you traditionally hear.
If boosting the high end is creating a brittle or harsh tone in your track, taking a different approach with some harmonic distortion/saturation can add some shine to the top end without the negative qualities the EQ alone might accentuate. This can be done with a saturation plugin, or right inside of Toneforge as you see Fluff use in his video below:
Hear how the harmonics are cleaning up the muddiness traditionally found in the lower registers of 8-string guitars?
Finding The Right Fit
Let me tell you a bit of a secret: I hated the first session I worked on where I had to track an 8-string. I didn’t like the sound I was getting and no matter what I did, I couldn’t get it to sound any better. I questioned my abilities as an engineer before I finally realized I was still just working out my workflow.
Today, you can sit me down with any 8-string guitar and I can guarantee you I’ll get a great sound of it in minutes. How’s that for an overhaul? I’ve experimented enough now to know what I’m looking for and how to get it. It’s not anything special I’ve done, just a lot of practice to get where I’m at today.
I say this because I’m sure there are engineers out their doubting themselves too, but they’re not bad engineers. They’re just trying to find their style and might need some feedback to get there. Whether you’re looking for feedback or want to see how your approach stacks up against your peers’, the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum is a great resource to get some new ideas to craft your own workflow.
Hope to see you there!