Prog metal guitars are some of the most distinctive and huge sounding instruments in modern music. While some vocals may seem to sit above the mix in a larger than life capacity, prog metal is known for its soaring, wailing leads, crunchy rhythms, and crystal-clear cleans. Bands like Dream Theater and Periphery are masters of this style, with both bands featuring guitarists known for their technical proficiency and trance-like guitar tones.
Tones that used to depend on expensive boutique rigs and high wattage amps to get the headroom required have changed drastically over the last decade or two though. Today, even the pros are getting these tones in bedroom studios with basic recording setups. Prog metal guitar tone has never been more accessible for your mixes than it is right now.
Tighter Sounding Guitars
One of the defining characteristics of a prog metal guitar is it’s tight, dynamic sound. It doesn’t matter if you’re listening to rhythm guitars or leads; you’re almost always going to hear an upfront presence to those guitar parts. But what is it about their signal chain and processing that make them sound so tight?
Let’s start with two pedals found on most pedalboards: a noise gate & compressor. These two pedals perform different tasks for a guitar’s tone, but they’re both centered on tightening up a performance.
With the noise gate/suppressor, you’re working to eliminate unwanted sounds at the source. Use them to get rid of things like fret noise and buzz from hotter pickups. Other common tricks for cutting down on unintended noise include the use of mutes by the nut on the guitar to prevent strings from ringing out and gating/editing their guitar tracks in their DAW for an additional layer of control.
From a compression perspective, you won’t hear as obvious of an effect as the noise gate. A compressor at the front of your signal chain (just after the noise gate) will level out many of the inconsistencies that come with playing – especially in faster sections where your pick attack between different notes can be hard to maintain. A properly dialed-in compressor will have your softer notes sounding as loud as the ones you play harder without losing any expressiveness or style.
As virtual guitar rigs and home record setups continue to grow, so does the use of in-the-box solutions for both of these. Self-recording guitarists are quickly seeing the benefit of in-the-box gating and compression with a DI signal rather than investing in pedals to do the same thing, and they’re actually finding more control in the process. This is the reason we’ve included a gate at the front of each Toneforge plugin – to help guitarists achieve an optimal signal BEFORE hitting the amp.
Less Effects, More Amp Tone
Effects can be a great way to add a layer to your mix, but for your primary rhythms and leads in a prog metal track, you’re going to want something punchy & clear, which means focusing on getting a great sound from your amp and accentuating it with EQ.
One of the best ways to test an amp’s capabilities is to see how clear each note rings out, even when the gain or distortion is turned up. A higher end amp is going to have a sort of shimmer to it where your higher notes will ring out clear, whereas a lower end amp might start to sound hissy or fizzy when cranked up.
Check out how Keyan is able to dial in a boutique sounding prog metal tone in just a couple minutes using Toneforge Jason Richardson in the clip below:
As you can see, getting the amp dialed in was relatively quick for Keyan. He didn’t need to mess around with much on the amp itself – the Clarity knob gave him that higher frequency sheen he needed. The majority of his time was spent in the post-amp EQ, where he further tightened his sound by cutting out some low end and boosting the low-mids a touch.
The end result was a no-nonsense guitar tone with very little processing outside of the amp itself.
Developing Your Ear For Great Guitar Tone
Sometimes searching for good guitar tone can feel a bit like stumbling around in the dark. If you’re just playing through your amp without a reference, how do you know if your tone is good or bad? If it’s good, are you sure it’ll still sound that way in the context of a mix?
Toneforge Bootcamp was developed to help engineers, producers, and self-recording guitarists learn what it is about a guitar tone that makes it sound great. I’ll show you how to identify tones from references tracks and how to recreate them on your own. We’ll go from start to finish on how you can identify, record & mix any guitar tone as you’re hearing it on your favorite albums.