The Bare Necessities of Modeling

GLC, a member at forums.somethingawful.com, asked:

Can someone point me at a “modeling for dummies” type of resource? I have literally never plugged a guitar into a computer in any way, shape, or form, and the last serious recording I did involved ADATs, which should give you an idea of how out of date I am. I don’t even know where to get started at this point. Like I see the modeling software people are talking about, but what kind of interface are you using? What are you using for output? I’m basically looking to plug a guitar in, play around with different amp sounds, and be able to quickly record things without setting up a lot of gear.

First, you need an audio interface with really low latency. This can be a sound card (preferably a professional or at least prosumer sound card) or a guitar-intended audio interface like IK Multimedia’s StompIO. That’s an expensive solution, but my experience with the Amplitube products tells me it’s worth it – I’d love to have the sort of deep integration and realtime control that it offers for the software suite for which it was designed. Its featureset makes my own Rig Kontrol 3 unit look pretty puny, but RK3 at least has comparably high quality converters and really low latency – and it controls Guitar Rig 3 fine. Still, StompIO is excellent, if you intend to invest big in modeling (since it is expensive, but comes with hundreds of dollars of software for no extra cash – the whole Amplitube suite). But there are other options if you’re not looking to spend that much cash. For example, at the date of this writing, Native Instrument’s Session interface is under $200 and comes with the full version of Guitar Rig 3, quite a bargain. And if you’ve got some time, IK Multimedia will be raising the bar with StealthPedal, a bus-powered but professedly quite high quality interface in an expression pedal which has all the expandability of StompIO and also works as a standard MIDI controller with any software you’ve got.

Of course, you’ll need some kind of software. All the big companies’ products have demos, so pick a few up to try out and see what really speaks to your creativity and tonal needs. Guitar Rig 3’s demo only works for 30 minutes and then shuts down, and you can’t load presets. Amplitube series products have an unlimited demo, but it stops working after ten days of trying everything out. ReValver MkIII lets you do anything with the program that a registered user can do, but you can’t save or load custom patches and it makes a swooshy noise every few minutes. Any of them will still give you a good idea of what you can do with the program, of course, so check ’em out. Oh, uh, Waves latest version of GTR also has a trial version that works for 7 days, though I don’t use that program.

Once you’ve got your interface and your software, you need to host the software in a DAW software. For the sake of trying stuff out, I’d  check out Reaper. It’s an amazingly professional DAW for a comparatively tiny price, only $50 or so for a non-commercial license (which means you can still make money on your own stuff, you just can’t accept money to work on other folks’ stuff), or $250 for a commercial license. GREAT features, very intuitive operation, and well documented. Also, the trial runs for like 30 or 40 days without any bugging you or feature limitations at all, and after that it continues to operate fully functionally for however long you want it to. The only thing it does, is at the start of the first use in every 24-hour period, it will pop up a window that takes 5 seconds to close begging you to buy the awesome program.

First thing you’ll need to do with Reaper is configure two things: your audio interface, and where you have your VSTs (the actual guitar modeling software installation). So go to the preferences menu and point it towards your VST folder, and tell it to use your audio interface. When configuring the audio interface, you will be balancing latency and stability. Low latency is desirable because you obviously don’t want to have more lag than absolutely necessary between playing a note and hearing it. Select “ASIO” and your audio interface, then pick (for now) a sample size of 256 or so. That’ll likely be more than you need, but it might not depending on how beefy your computer is. Work with it a bit on your own to figure out where it can comfortably be. If you’re hearing popping or clicking noises, and the audio is cutting out occasionally, your latency is too low.

Read the Reaper user manual (download it from their site) to figure out how to make a track and add an effect to it. Then make a track in the program and make sure the track is armed (read the manual) and that you’re monitoring it (read the manual). Now click “FX” on the track section and load whatever guitar program VST you’re wanting to try out. You should be able to strum a chord and hear it out of whatever speakers are connected to the computer now. Of course, for best results, you’re going to want to use active monitors or other full range, full response, flat frequency response speakers. A great inexpensive pair are Behringer’s B2031A “Truth” active monitors. The rare diamond in a goat’s ass, it’s a Behringer product that doesn’t suck and in fact offers remarkably good sound quality at the price range, competing with monitors up to $500/pair very well. There are other good options, of course, but I’m not going to go into them here.

From there, it’s just up to you to try out the presets, do some adjustment to the amp model controls, etc.; of course, make sure that your audio interface’s input volume is adjusted appropriately so that your guitar signal is loud and clear, but not clipping (no blinking red light when you pick hard).

If all this sounds like a lot of work, remember that amp modelers are basically intended for folks in two markets. First, studio guys who already have a respectably powerful studio PC and the requisite hardware (I/O stuff, monitors, etc.), for whom these are invaluable tools for the recording process, allowing tonal tweaks non-destructively right up until the damned thing goes to press. Second, folks who either want to have a wide variety of sounds available live with a minimum of fuss, or folks who want to be able to take their studio tones out on the road. Those are the laptop warriors who play direct into the board, through PAs at the gig. There are emerging options for the intermediate market, so keep an eye out if you want something simpler.

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