67: Getting the Absolute Most out of Your Guitar Recordings

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OK, we’ve talked about recording guitar and bass DIs a LOT. Is this episode any different? 

Yes! There are ALWAYS more things to test within your signal chain. On this episode Vadim takes you through his latest guitar DI recording experiments. He tried four different tests:

  1. Old strings vs new strings
  2. Hi-Z input on his interface vs. connecting through the Little Labs STD Cable Extender
  3. With and without engaging a compressor built into his preamp
  4. Hi-Z input on his interface vs. “the be all end all” DI chain with a bunch of clap trap

On this episode you will learn:

  • How to “design” a good riff to use for A/B testing
  • How much of a difference new strings really make – both for DI recordings and reamped tones
  • Several reasons why running A/B tests on your own signal chain are important
  • The important factors to consider when doing A/B testing
  • The thought process that goes into deciding what to put into your signal path
  • Why a DI tone difference may not always amount to a difference in the final product
  • Why (or at least how) Vadim is a bad scientist and really set some unfortunate traps for Ben in this shootout

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Vadim’s Studio Site – Get your FREE test mix today! – https://www.calmfrogrecording.com
Benjamin’s Studio Site – https://www.dreamloudstudio.com
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Getting the Absolute Most Out of Your Guitar Recordings

I know. I know. Another episode on recording guitars?!? Didn’t we JUST do one like three weeks ago?

Well. Yes. On episode 64 Ben took us through a few of his guitar shoot-outs. Specifically, he was testing three DI recording scenarios for guitar and bass:

  1. Recording by plugging the instrument directly into the high impedance (or Hi-Z) input on his interface
  2. Recording by going through a Passive DI box
  3. Recording by going through an Active DI box.

This week, on Episode 67, it’s my turn to put my signal chain to the test.

Why Do Another Guitar DI Recording Shootout?

Why would do this now? I’ve been working on recording better sounding guitars since I was 13 years old.

Here’s the thing.

Of the many things I’ve learned doing DIY recording for the last 20 years, the biggest one is this:

True progress is made by compiling many incremental improvements

I can’t really think of any one thing I’ve done that’s led to a 50% improvement in the sound of my recordings.

Sure, occasional gear upgrades can help but it’s more like Improving a specific piece of gear gets you 2%, learning a better mic technique gets you another 2%, learning proper gain staging gets you 3%., etc.,

A few years later, when you look back, you realize that you are worlds away from where you started.

Back to recording guitars. I’ve done countless shoot-outs of my guitar signal chain. This has helped me:

  • Understand the sound, strengths and limitations of my gear
  • Get to a workable result faster when I need to work quickly
  • Make many incremental improvements

Despite this, I still like to sit down roughly once a year and do a handful of A/B tests. I do this to test new ideas, new pieces of gear and to continue making those incremental improvements towards that sweetly unattainable perfection.

The Guitar Signal Chain Tests

This time, in preparation for recording a new single for a band I play guitar in, I decided to run several tests.

To run the tests, I used a series of two-chord riffs. In general, when doing this kind of testing, I like to pick riffs that:

  1. Are indicative of roughly what I’ll be recording
  2. Include variations in picking style and palm muting
  3. Are easy to play consistently

I also like to record the sections in repeating bars so that I can quickly toggle between setups during A/B testing.

Test 1: Old Strings vs New Strings

We’ve all heard a thousand times. In fact, on this very podcast, we’ve said it a hundred times: restring your guitar and bass before going into the studio. Why? New strings will sound better.

I’ve been believing and saying this for years and I actually remember thinking as a kid how much better my guitar sounded with new strings. However, is this really true? And, if so, is it true even for high gain guitars?

I decided to put this to the test.

I recorded my riffs, changed the strings and did a quick guitar setup, then recorded them again.

I’ll leave the spoilers for the end of the article.

Test 2: Recording by plugging directly into the Hi-Z input vs recording by first plugging into the Little Labs STD Cable Extender

I have a friend who’s a total gear head. In fact, I think some of the things he believes are a bit “snake oily” and I’m always skeptical when he makes claims about stuff sounding “better”.

That said, he once came over with a super expensive guitar cable – swearing that the high end shimmer it added was worth the crazy price tag. I was super skeptical but after some testing with a regular old cable I had laying around, I was actually convinced that there was a noticeable difference in tone.

Cables, especially with lower quality cables or long cable runs and on guitars with passive pick-ups, do have a tendency to “suck” some tone out of the guitar.

This kind of makes sense intuitively to me – though I’m not an electrical engineer and can’t exactly explain it. The guitar is a high impedance output. The current coming from it is very low. It makes sense that long cable runs would add resistance and affect the tone negatively. Also, higher frequencies are more difficult to transmit cleanly. So, again, some high end tone suck almost makes sense intuitively.

The Little Labs STD is designed to buffer the signal coming off of the guitar by using a few batteries and a special cable with a transistor in it. Honestly, that’s all I’ll pretend to know about how this thing works but WOW. This test kind of blew me away.

Test 3: Recording through the Hi-Z input vs engaging a compressor with a fast attack on the preamp channel

This one is a bit more esoteric. My preamp channels each have a built-in compressor that you can set to a fast attack or a slow attach. I generally don’t use this when recording guitars but I know, from other shootouts, that engaging this compressor on other sources leads to a slight low end roll off and a bump in the 1kHz midrange region. This behavior is like a more subtle Tube Screamer effect and sounds like exactly what I want in my tones. So I tried it!

Test 4: Recording through the Hi-Z input vs “the whole enchilada” chain

I actually did way more than 4 tests. For this last test, I really went all out.

I’m comparing the bare bones, plug directly into the Hi-Z input to the following chain:

Guitar -> Little Labs STD -> Preamp -> Compressor -> Transformer

The transformer is the output transformer on a bus compressor I use on my mixing chain.

Similar to the compressor function, I know from previous shootouts that this transformer also adds some midrange and really puts sources right in your face. Again, I thought “why not? That’s about what I’m going for” and, again, I was pleasantly surprised with the result.

During the episode, we play all of these examples so you can hear for yourself what’s going on.

You might be thinking “so what? I don’t have any transformers or compressors or DI boxes. Why do I care about this?”

The point is not to replicate anyone’s set up. Your goals and takeaways should be:

  • What to listen for and how to listen
  • How to set up a good A/B test
  • How to think about your gear (including all those shiny pedals) when considering a signal chain to record through.

—Spoilers—

 

Test Results

I’ll be brief here. I promise

Test 1: Old Strings vs New Strings

My “old strings” were a few months old but only had about 4-6 hours of playing on them. Yep. I don’t practice guitar. That said, the new strings still had a slightly brighter top end and a slightly tighter, less flubby low end. The difference was not as large as we expected and was even less obvious after the tones were amped. Nevertheless, our conclusion was that it’s absolutely worthwhile to change your strings before recording. 

Test 2: Hi-Z vs. Little Labs STD

This one blew our minds the most. The STD was MUCH brighter and more exciting than going into the HI-Z directly and this is crazy because all it’s doing is eliminating the tone “suck” out of the guitar cable. I’ll never record a DI without the STD again. 

Test 3: With and without the compressor engaged

I know from other shootouts that the compressor built into my interface performs a slight low end roll-off and pushes the 900Hz area of the signal – which is great for moving things forward. That’s why I thought I’d try it on the DI and, sure enough, I liked the sound slightly better with it engaged. This difference was pretty subtle though. 

Test 4: Hi-Z direct vs “the whole enchilada”

I basically just did this test to demonstrate what I ultimately thought was the best chain possible (of all the tests I did on this day) vs just plugging the guitar directly into the Hi-Z. You’ll have to listen to the episode to hear the difference. It’s a HUGE difference but the Little Labs STD is really doing the bulk of the work there. The compressor and transformer I put into the chain just sweeten the tone very very slightly. This will be my chain for high gain guitars going forward…at least until the next shootout!

 

Vadim Kharaz

Vadim Kharaz mixes and produces music through his studio Calm Frog Recording.

He co-hosts the DIY Recording Guys podcast with Benjamin Hull because he knows that with a bit of knowledge and minimal gear, it’s possible for DIY musicians everywhere to get pro-quality recordings.