The Beginner's Guide To In-the-Box Guitar Tone

For someone looking to simplify their guitar recording process while simultaneously improving their sound – there’s no better option than moving to an in-the-box recording setup.

For a lot of engineers, moving their guitar recordings in the box seems like a daunting process. Far too often, engineers give up without fully understanding why they’re not getting the results they want.

As an engineer and producer that has contributed to in-the-box guitar tones that have gone on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies, I know it can be done. I’m the proof that monstrous, professional tone can be achieved without ever touching a physical amp.

Best of all – I’ve been doing it this way since I started recording music, so I’ve run into the same hurdles you’re probably facing right now.

Let’s take a look at some of the biggest issues engineers run into when switching to an in-the-box guitar recording workflow.

The Gear 

The first thing I always like to point out is how much more forgiving my workflow is on my wallet than building a collection of physical amps would be. When I first started recording, options were limited for small studios and home recording. Engineers were stuck using whatever was available, and if they didn’t have an amp, they were at the mercy of whatever the guitarist brought to a session.

As you’ve probably experienced, there’s not a lot of variety in that approach.

But with in-the-box recording, the equipment list shrinks significantly. You have the flexibility to cut out everything between your guitar’s output and your interface. That’s everything from your pedals you use to the amp and microphone.

And if you’d like to use your pedals still? No problem. They can run into your interface’s Instrument input as easily as the clean guitar signal.

Your signal chain shrinks to:

       · Guitar
       · Interface
       · DAW

It doesn’t get much simpler than that.

If you’re finding your interface lacks clarity and detail when it comes to recording directly, a dedicated DI box can be a great investment. There are tons of options out there from companies like Radial and Countryman.

What To Do Once You've Got It

A raw guitar DI isn’t all that appealing to anyone. It usually sounds brittle and anemic on it’s own, which is one of the biggest (and most misleading) places engineers start to fall off the wagon.

Your guitar amp’s clean channel really isn’t all that clean; it’s boosting your guitar signal significantly and leveling it out in a way that’s appealing to your listener’s ears. As the amp’s circuits get pushed harder or you switch to a high gain channel, amps start to break up in an overdriven, harmonic way.

Toneforge gives you virtual access to real amp tones, with the same level of control and detail that you’d get with a physical amp. Using a virtual guitar rig like Toneforge Guilty Pleasure, musicians and engineers can dial in high gain amp tones and a collection of guitar pedals.

Adding to the realism, engineers can choose from microphones and different placement options, just like they would on a physical amp.

Toneforge is guitar tone simplified – meaning getting a great sounding guitar with a DI is a breeze.

Optimizing Your Sound

The biggest benefit of using a virtual amp is probably how much time it can actually save. Some plugins like Toneforge Jason Richadson come with 3 amps: Clean, Rhythm & Lead. Having these options make it easy to A/B different sounds in a way that isn’t possible with real amps without a bunch of extra (expensive) equipment.

Once you’ve found your preferred amp settings, you can actually dial in your tone ever further using impulse responses. Impulse responses open up a whole realm of possibilities by adding more speaker/cabinet/microphone options.

RELATED CONTENT: Hear 20 Variations Of Your Tone In 30 Seconds

Once you’ve got your amp tone, all that’s left to do is massage it into the rest of your mix. There are two approaches: use additional plugins after your Toneforge insert or use the built-in post-processing found in your Toneforge plugin.

I usually use a combination of the two, but the built-in post-processing offers one huge benefit – it’s been built specifically for whatever version of Toneforge you’re using. It’s optimized to give you the best possible sound for that guitar.

In Toneforge Guilty Pleasure, we knew we were building a high-gain amplifier. As such, we looked at what I was using the most with other high-gain amps and decided a guitar-focused EQ & limiter were the way to go.

The end result was something better than I could’ve hoped for – the built-in EQ & limiter sounded better than my go-to plugins that I used to use on almost every high-gain amp.

Since they were both built right into the plugin, there’s no extensive menu diving to get the right sound. It’s all right there & ready to go.

Our Last Trip

For engineers & producers looking to get the most out of in-the-box guitars, I’ve got a simple but effective tip:

Use fresh guitar strings when recording DIs.

It’s got nothing to do with the quality of the instrument or the power of your virtual guitar rig, but clean strings will give you a vibrant, lively tone. If you’re looking to see the best results from any instance of Toneforge, you’ll want to start with a well-recorded DI (and that means using fresh guitar strings).

RELATED CONTENT: How To Digitally Restring Your Guitar

Want more tips on recording in-the-box?

If you’re looking for more tips from our community, come join the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum on Facebook. There, you’ll find thousands of like-minded engineers sharing advice and tips just like the ones we share here.

Happy mixing!