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Your tone in the band

I want to use this page to give you some tips on how to sound better – and more at home – in your band. In short, how you arrive at ‘your’ tone. A tone that sounds great in your living room at low volumes will generally not work in a band context. Why?

Well, it’s because many instruments are being used simultaneously in the band. Their frequencies all overlap, and only the distinctive parts of the sonic spectrum will come through.

Indeed, there are loads of different roles in bands, so the “frequency soup” differs depending on the group.

That said, most bands don’t just have bass and drums, but more common features that we have to take into consideration in order to master any situation.

For me, AC/DC is a great example of how a band’s sound works. With two guitars, bass, drums and vocals, you get the feeling that this is a band whose guitars always sound amazing.

The reason for that is simple: the two guitars have plenty of space because all the other instruments are secondary to them and give them plenty of room, frequency-wise, in the mix. AC/DC’s sound was probably created and refined through trial and error in the rehearsal room. So you can see that every great sounding group has developed their own recipe for their own band sound, and you’ll find that in every genre – from jazz to metal.

Not enough Mids
Sounds that you’ve created at home (i.e. on your own, without fellow musicians) just don't cut the mustard in a band context. Tones that sounded fat, bold and aggressive when you were playing at home use exactly the same frequencies as the bass and drums, and so won’t stand out at all.

Use less Bass. Turn the Mids up, and even decrease the Highs to experience a different sort of High with AMP1’s Custom Controls. You’ll still need to make sure these agree with the other instruments in the band, though. Hint: The classic EQs on guitar amps make the Mids disappear when you turn the Highs up, and add Mids when you decrease the Highs. In contrast, the controls on AMP1’s 3-band EQ do not influence each other. This makes searching for the best sound settings much easier and, once you’ve found a great tone, you can remember the settings like a numerical code. My code is 7-5-5 (Bass-Middle-Treble).

Chiming Highs:
In a band context, clean tones often sound too thin. Because of the overlap of Mids from the other instruments, the only Highs we hear are piercing. Here, it can often help simply to turn up the Mids while backing off the Highs. For AMP1’s Clean channel, I designed a special Character Control that allows you to enjoy the stable Mids you know from classic guitar combo amps. To access it, just turn the Clean Tone Custom Control anticlockwise – depending on your speakers, of course, you might have to turn it up a bit more. The Middle control should not be at less than 5. Thumping bass vs. smaller tones
It often happens that the bass and guitars are using similar frequencies. This can lead to rumbling and throbbing sounds. Test things out a bit, and try turning your Bass control up and down in a band context. If nothing’s rumbling, then you can play with plenty of Bass. This’ll make the guitar sound bigger.
If your bassist allows it, try turning his 120Hz control down a little. Any rumbling should disappear completely, and you’ll have a super fat tone!
To get a better feeling of frequencies and how they overlap, you can also try playing your guitar along to a backing track. You should set your amp up so that it sounds good with the backing track and cuts through the mix. When the backing track stops, you might be surprised at how your dry tone sounds. It should be noted that the recorded signal – in comparison with a live band, whether onstage or in the practice room – will have been thinned out, and the frequencies processed, at the mixing stage. It’s worth experimenting with the tone controls on occasion, until you find your perfect sound for your situation (be that in the band or recording at home).

Mastering different sounds

Modern amps often let you save a range of different sounds that can then be accessed by footswitch. When the need arises, and with skilful use, this variety can really enrich a band’s sound. Right now, such a wealth of sounds is in demand with guitar players in cover bands, who need to be able to accurately reproduce the widest variety of music styles authentically. From personal experience, I can say that a small but perfectly functioning set of sounds is usually better than an elaborate tap dance on the pedalboard. On top of that, each sound requires a different playing style, and each of these has to be mastered first. It takes a long time for a player to really get to know the varied playing styles, and to be “in control” of the numerous sounds and playing techniques. Because of that, you shouldn’t get too stressed – you want to focus on actually playing the guitar, and not on chasing as many sounds as possible.

While watching some live bands I’ve noticed how the guitars simply disappear when the rest of the band starts playing too, even though the players on stage can still hear their own sound loud and clear. In particular, the channel switch between Overdrive and Clean – which is something virtually every player uses – seems to cause problems. The reason for this is very simple: the frequency spectrum varies too much. While the Clean sound works, the Overdrive sound disappears – in this case, lots of the Mids are normally missing. If the Overdrive sounds full and fat, but the Cleans are thin, then there’s too many Highs and, at the same time, too few Mids. Tones that sound amazing when the guitarist plays unaccompanied often sound thin and lack substance in a full-band context.

Stompboxes and overdrive pedals have never been more popular. The main reason for this is that they actually work! If you run a pedal through a clean or slightly overdriven amp, then the frequency settings you’ve chosen on the amp will remain largely and noticeably intact and audible. The main reason for this is that you don’t need to change the tonal settings on the amp at all. The sound changes from the pedal stay within the acceptable range, without changing the frequency spectrum of the amp.

AMP1’s four channels were constructed separately and were optimally matched to each other in terms of frequency. With the effective 3-band EQ, the overall sound can be quickly and easily adapted to suit your amp cab and your band’s sound. The biggest advantage of this is when playing live, where you would otherwise have to adjust four tonal settings. Using the Custom Control, you can add nuanced timbres to each individual sound. For me, AMP1’s Vintage Channel is the reference point to which I adjust all my other sounds. You can also achieve beautiful clean sounds through this channel by backing off the volume pot on your guitar. To make the sounds match perfectly, I first select the Vintage channel, and then switch to the Clean channel. Then I use Custom Control Clean Tone to adjust the sounds to each other.

AMP1 Custom Control Tone:
When you turn the CLEAN TONE anticlockwise, you’ll get the typical “Californian” clean sounds for country and funk, with plenty of fullness in the Mids. This works particularly well with single coil pickups. If you’re using a guitar with humbuckers, use it in “split coil” mode or turn the CLEAN TONE clockwise to increase the Highs.
Again, if your guitar has humbuckers and you want pearly clean tones, use it in “split coil” mode or turn the CLEAN TONE clockwise. If you want clarity and shimmering highs from your humbuckers, back off the CLEAN TONE. With the Clean Tone turned all the way down, most humbuckers will deliver balanced, warm, rounded jazz tones.

If you turn the Classic Tone control anticlockwise, you’ll get classic sounds, while turning it clockwise will result in more modern tones. I would advise you to turn these down slightly if you’re using single coils, or up a bit if you’re using humbuckers. MODERN TONE is a totally extreme control, which will give you two completely different – and seemingly incompatible – tonal options. Turned down, you get creamy, warm, singing Classic Lead Sounds that don’t grate at all – in the style of Gary Moore or Eric Johnson. Turning it up gives you the exact opposite: the world of metal, featuring ultra-modern metal sounds with extreme amounts of bite and dry bass that’ll make classic rock fans’ hair stand on end, but will bring a massive smile to the faces of metalheads. Here, you must show your own colours!

Home & Recording

At home, what you want is as vibrant and full a sound as possible at living room levels. With AMP1, a single 1x12 cab will do the job (the upcoming BluGuitar Nano CAB or FAT CAB, for example). If you just love the punch and overtones of a howling tube amp, you’ll need a PowerSoak to tame the volume levels. Using the REMOTE1 foot controller, you can operate AMP1’s integrated PowerSoak within the home from anywhere between 150 mW and 2 Watts. If there’s no guitar speaker available, you can connect your headphones or home stereo to AMP1’s Recording Out port. Be careful with the volume levels, though! The Recording Out simulates the sound of a guitar speaker with a very elaborate 7-stage analogue filter circuit. In contrast to digital solutions, the signal is never converted, and therefore has a super quick response, with no latency.

There are many options available to you if you want to record with AMP1. The simplest is to use the Recording Out and, at the mixing stage, use a few effects to position the direct and dry guitar sound perfectly in the mix. This works fine even without a connected loudspeaker. When you do use a loudspeaker – even if it’s only at room volume levels – the sound from the Recording Out will be that little bit more vibrant and punchy because of the “current feedback”. This current has an effect on the sound, since it allows the power amp and speaker to work together in tandem. With REMOTE1 and the help of the PowerSoak, you can bring the amp into saturation while reducing the power. This lets you keep the volume level bearable and you will also get more overtones and punch from the amp for your recording.

Of course, you can also position a microphone in front of the loudspeaker for recording. In that case, I would record both the microphone signal and the direct Recording Out signal. In your recording software, after you have recorded you should make sure you compensate for the time lag differences from all signals, to make certain they are all in phase with one another. Later, when you get to the mixing stage, you can still make any necessary adjustments to the mix ratios.

Miking up – an art in itself
Anyone who has ever tried to record a guitar amp with a microphone will have had the following experience: through the microphone, the signal sounds completely different to what you hear when you’re stood directly in front of the amp. So, how do you mic up an amp correctly? Here are a few tips from my experience. Put the microphone really close to the speaker – this is also known as “close miking”. If you were to put the mic further away, then power and presence would be lacking. Sure, if you have a large recording space, you can record the amp with multiple mics. The different amounts of time it takes the sound to reach the mics can result in so-called phase shifts. The time differences, though, can be compensated for with modern recording software. Here, the craft of the sound engineer begins. In the studio, but also live, close miking – without any ambient sound – is almost always used. If a certain sound space is required, it is conveniently supplied by the mixing desk. In live situations, the picked up guitar sound is sent back through a PA system into sound spaces with sufficient reflections. Therefore, in these cases, close miking is the right solution. The decisive factor is always the quality of the direct – close miked – signal. Naturally, a miked guitar speaker offers up the most authentic solution. But the placement of the mic in front of the speaker is an art, because every centimetre you move it alters the sound radically, making a balanced sound very hard to find. I’ve spent hours in front of a speaker, moving the mic around and finding the best position and angle, in order to to find and then mark my own “sweet spot".
The sound of the recording is one thing, but the playing feel also has to be right. The sound also has to be big and powerful, otherwise you won’t ‘feel’ it.

Regardless of whether you’re recording with a mic or through the direct Recording Out signal, a little post-production – with echo (even just a bit, so it’s almost inaudible), reverb, and minimal EQ and compression – will make you sound vibrant and natural, and will deliver professional sounding results.

There are three different types of reverb that help me with this: Plate, the good old plate reverb, which can be heard on early Van Halen albums. Their sound simulates larger rooms, like sports halls. During mixing, I use plate reverb to define the depth of the room in which the guitar is being played. The reverb time is between 1.5 and 3.5 seconds. Room – a small room can get the guitars to sound particularly wide. You can also use this effect in conjunction with short delays. Nowadays, I also like to use short convolution reverb IR Responses for this. In the 80s, the ‘Eventide’ Chorus was particularly fashionable.

The simulation of a real genuine space, in my opinion, is very well suited for giving a sound real height, as well as depth. It’s also worth trying out mixing the various miked and Recording Out signals.
Trying out a mix with all of these effects is worth it – mainly because you need to check the different volumes against each other. Often I only use very little of two of these effects, but the third one very prominently. If I were only to use one of the effects, though, something would be missing.
It’s also worth lightly EQing and compressing the guitar and reverb signals again. This is because every instrument needs its own space in the mix, and everything you take away somewhere gives other instruments more room. Here’s the motto: slim down everything as much as possible without losing character or making the sound lifeless.