The arsenal of guitar effects continues to grow change in terms of the flexibility and delivery of high-quality digital effects in the form of hardware and software processors. By the same token, in terms of the sounds themselves, there is very little that is actually new, and certain guitar effects remain as a basic core of sound that, despite some variations, remain staples of the modern guitar sound. Although some processors like the Eventide Harmonizer (now the H8000), a long-time studio favorite of guitarists, can get quite pricey, there are multi-effects units that are relatively inexpensive and can produce excellent premium quality sounds. Take advantage of these effects and don’t be afraid to experiment with not only with different combinations of effects in different order, but take the time to delve into the deeper level of control and flexibility that the new digital tools offer in order to create new and inspiring sounds. One high-level effects tip before we start: Subtle guitar effects, such as a light chorus or flange can be used throughout a song effectively, whereas more dramatic effects should be used sparingly, otherwise they can become overbearing and annoying. The more mangled dramatic effects work best in limited quantity within the framework of a song, particularly as transitions to or from a chorus etc. Distortion, a fairly dramatic effect, has become a standard of Metal and Punk, but the overuse of distortion has caused our ear to become accustomed to the sound and we no longer find it dramatic, merely standard and ordinary. However, if you want distortion to be a musically dramatic effect, use it to emphasize a chorus or a middle section of an otherwise acoustic song. (Listen to The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes,” or 3 Doors Down’s “The Better Life” CD, where the transition from acoustic to distorted guitars is used quite effectively to add intensity and emphasize the emotional content of the lyrics. The change in tonality also serves to refresh to ear and hold the listener’s attention.
The Old Standards: Chorus/Flanger/Phase Shifter
Chorus, flanger and phase-shifting effects are very common and important to most styles of electric guitar.
A well-used chorus can add fullness and sparkle to the guitar. Also, the rich sound of a chorus can elevate the level of the music by inspiring the guitarist and in turn the other musicians in the band. (Unless you’re doing it all yourself, then the former applies.) Recall that the pitch shifting effect of chorus is what creates the full sound. Too much, and the sound can become un-musical. (Unless that’s the effect you’re going for. The chorus effects are often part of a solo guitar sound used together with distortion, compression and delay. Finally, a smooth phase shifter can add color to a ballad or interest to a rhythm guitar playing funk-style music.
Reverb is the “secret sauce” in the final mix and is used primarily to smooth out the guitar to blend in the mix. Too much reverb can compromise the clarity and definition of a guitar part that is particularly well played. Conversely, reverb can hide many flaws in a marginal guitar part. Adapt to your situation.
Most electric parts sound good with a bright hall reverb sound, a decay time of about 1.5 seconds, a pre-delay of about 80ms, high diffusion and high density. This kind of setting offers a good place to start in shaping most guitar reverbs.
There are several other types of reverb that can sound great on many different musical parts. Experiment. Often, the sound of the guitar is interesting enough with delay, distortion and chorus that there’s really no need for much or any reverb. Clean guitar sounds typically benefit the most from interesting and more complex reverb; For instance, slow, open ballads and arena rock projects sound good with hall and chamber reverb using decay times in the range of 1.5-3 seconds. Faster, punchy productions usually work well with plate, inverse and gated reverbs that have a decay time between .5-1.5 seconds.
Try adjusting the pre-delay to add a different feel to the reverb sound. Longer pre-delays that match the tempo of the eighth note or quarter note can give both the effect of making the part sound closer to the listener and the effect that it was played in a large room.
Delay is used in a number of ways in the recording process, and as such, it merits a full discussion on it’s own (which we will have), but for our purposes, we’ll cover delay as it pertains to the guitar. Usually, with guitar (and vocals) we use what is called a slapback delay, which is typically related in some way to the beat and tempo of the song. The delay is often in time with the eighth note or sixteenth note, but it’s also common to hear a slapback in time with the quarter note or some triplet subdivision. The delay time can add to the rhythmic feel of the song. A delay that’s in time with the eighth note can really smooth out the groove of the song, or if the delay time is shortened or lengthened just slightly, the groove may feel more aggressive or relaxed. Experiment with slight changes in delay time.
It’s easy to find the delay, in milliseconds, for the quarter note in your song, especially when you’re working from a sequence and the tempo is already available on screen. Simply divide 60,000 by the tempo of your song (in beats per minute). 60,000 / BPM= delay time per beat in milliseconds (typically the quarter note).
Modern Effects: Modeling, Modulation, Filtering
Interestingly enough, most of what we call “modern effects” have been with us for quite some time. Ring modulators and filters are circuits that have been around since the dawn of synthesizers. In fact, speaking of The Who, Pete Townsend processed his guitar through an ARP 2500 synthesizer back in 1971. The only new technology in terms of guitar effects is modeling technology (e.g. Roland’s COSM and Korg’s REMS), and its job is to authentically replicate sounds we already have like acoustic guitars and vintage amplifiers. There are also other effects from the past that have become modern, by virtue of their use in contemporary music, such as tremolo, which is most effective when its pulses are timed to the music. This is a technique more easily achieved with a guitar effects plug-in that tracks tempo. Another “new” sound is the “Uni-Vibe” as it’s called on the Line 6 Pod series, or “U-Vibe” found on the Vox Tonelab. Both of these sounds were modeled on the famous Univox Uni-Vibe – a phase/vibrato effect that was designed to simulate the rotating Leslie speaker, invented in 1940 by Don Leslie. Interestingly enough, the guy who first built the Uni-vibe pedal for Jimi Hendrix is the same person who designed The Vox Valvetronix circuits in the Tonelab. (Everything old is new again.)
A ring modulator is an effect that uses an oscillator to generate a sine wave, which is then multiplied with the signal from your guitar to produce harmonics above and below the frequencies originally produced by your guitar. This creates complex and unpredictable pitches. In some cases, a filter is built into the output of this effect to let you extract just the lower frequencies if desired, and this can generate low sounds that could not otherwise be produced by a guitar.
This is an envelope controlled talking modulator that adds a human vocal sound to the guitar. The vocal character will change according to the input from your guitar. It also is a “modern” twist on the old talk-box made famous in the 70’s by Peter Frampton.
While each manufacturer has their own name for filter effects, such as “Filtron,” it is an envelope controlled filter, or, a filter that opens and closes according to the guitar input.
Pitch Shifting/Pitch Bend
Again, these sounds have been with us for quite some time. Pitch shifting was originally found in the Eventide Harmonizer, a studio tool built in 1975 that was used to thicken or electronically double guitars in real time. Of course, it’s pitch shifting abilities were quite limited as opposed to today’s technology which can create intervals as wide as two octaves and still sound convincing. Pitch Bend, is a digital means of duplicating the effects of a “Whammy Bar” on a guitar.
The “modern” delay effects tend to be more for the special dramatic moments of music, as stated earlier, which makes their usage more an issue of taste. Generally, “a matter of taste” is the most widely used cop-out in recording and a means that some people use to keep secrets while they pretend to disseminate information. However, in this case, taste, or should we say, your creativity really is the determining factor regarding how you choose to use them. The best advice I can give firstly, is to listen to what other people are doing, and not just people who are playing music you like, but other styles as well. You may find some great ideas that you may implement or create variations of for your own sound. Second, and this is important; get to know your processors intimately. Put in the hours and experiment if you want to be an original. Hendrix spent hours, day after day at Manny’s Music in New York trying out every new device and every possible combination of them. His producers did the same. Remember, all of the classic sounds we have today are the results of experimentation and happy accidents. I guarantee that there are far more failed experiments sitting in the tape archives than successful ones, but when you find the one that does work, the rest, as they say, is (or will be) history.