Often, when starting a studio you'll download all the free goodies you can get - join gearslutz to understand 'Why You NEED a Real Amp', and cry yourself to sleep because your tone sucks and you're unable to find out why.
Well, that's why i thought i'd make a very quick guide on How to Improve your Guitar Tone in 5 basic steps; so keep reading and if you know anyone who's tone sucks as much as yours did before this post, share it with them too!
1. Actually Spend Some Money (or at least when there are sales!)
There are some REALLY good freeware plugins out there that will get you very far - but taking your tone to the next level WILL require a little bit of spending, and it doesn't even need to be hardware!
A good example first off is your Cabinet sound. There are some great ways of emulating your guitar cabinet but for me the best has to be Impulse Responses, and in particular Non-Linear Convolution (click here to understand what Impulse responses are!)
My go-to winner for cabinet simulation by far, is Two notes Audio Engineering - Wall Of Sound Plugin.
The plugin is CPU light, easy to use, and initially free to use. Not only does it include professional sounding cabinets, an ever expanding library where you can purchase new cabinets from INSIDE the plugin (the average is about 6-8 EUR by the way to it's really not expensive!), and simulation of the Poweramp section of a head in every way you can think - but you also have access to mixing 4 cabinets and Mic's in every way you can think, AND it includes Studio Grade processing units for Compression, Reverb, EQ, and an Exciter all built into one plugin.
Honestly I could write about how much this thing changed my life, but maybe that deserves its own post...? Who knows, but the main thing is you need this in your life, so go get it!
2. Multi-Band Compression to tame that Low-Mid range
Possibly one of the most under used processes on Guitars (and in general) is Multi-band Compression. Let me explain why this is better in a lot of cases than EQ as quickly as I can.
EQ is typically for shaping the sound of the recorded source and removing unwanted frequencies / boosting wanted frequencies. When applying this to guitar, your tone can quickly become saturated with several notches, and mixed with ear fatigue, your tone will suffer very, VERY quickly especially when used on the lower mid-range of your guitar tone. This technique is, in short, a one-stop-shop to a thin, wispy, piss-poor tone that even a Turd couldn't polish - yes you read that right.
So, this is where Multi-band compression comes in. When you don't want to eliminate the frequencies because they're only sounding unwanted on certain parts (think palm mutes, higher strings, sustained notes and chords, etc.) and they just need taming on those certain parts; Mulit-Band compression helps to compress that frequency range in particular, for that particular part, and still manage to retain your overall tone with no sacrifice.
A few good examples are Fab-Filter MB (my go-to), Waves C4, and pretty much every single DAW will come with thier own version of a plugin included out of the box.
In any case - i would recommend using a band from 80-90hz to 250-350hz. Once you've got the band size, reduce by a max of -4db, a ration or 2:1:1 - 4:1:1, and finally adjust your threshold to a point where it ONLY attenuates the low-mid frequencies when they are un-wanted and not all the time!
3. Don't focus all your time on 4Khz.. it's getting old now.
Now, I'm not saying it's not an important place to concentrate on - trust me I hate that frequency range as much as the next audio nerd, but it's not the one place you need to focus on.
Personally, I try to attenuate 3.5Khz and 4.5Khz with sharp bell peaks which in turn pull down 4Khz automatically. But this isn't the only pace an EQ can be very powerful - High Passing at 80hz will eliminate rumble and help clean up your overall mix by allowing your sub frequencies from the Bass Guitar, Lower tuned shells from the Drum Kit, Room Mics, etc. to shine through.
Another great thing to focus on is frequencies that stand out too much on your tone - usually in the low-mid range that can make your tone 'boxy' or 'woofy'. I'll say it right now, I hate 300hz. It's the bane of my life on any guitar tone and it's just down to wood resonating in the way it does - BUT, that being said, without it your tone will sound shrill and waaayyy too thin, so a few basic rules to follow are:
Small Cuts (around -2db or -3db), with a Bell Q of about 2.5 to 3.
Use a bell peak like described above and boost around 6-7db - move across the frequency range of the EQ, and when you find somewhere that pokes out too much, cut by a small amount.
Don't Cut everywhere - try to listen in the context of the overall mix un-soloed, and figure out where frequencies are clashing - then when you cut them they will make a genuine change to your mix and your tone rather than just blind mix changes.
Lastly and most importantly - A/B COMPARISON. I can not stress this enough, any time you make a change to your tone using EQ, listen to your change, then Bypass the EQ, then listen to your change again - and decide if the cut or boost helps your mix and the tone overall!
4. Get yourself some GOOD accessories
It may sound stupid to some - and I totally understand consrving cost as much as possilbe when starting out, however; you can do that AND get a professional quality at the same time.
I wasn't going to add this as a topic, however after recently aquiring some budget price accessories which I genuinely thought were going to be a means to an end, I'll never buy Hi-End price cables or accessories again unless it's for a specific purpose, colouration to the tone, etc.
Now, Who is that company?! Well, if like me you follow any Gear Vlog/blog out there you may or may not have heard of Hosa Technology, or more precisely their Edge Series cables and accessories from Beau Burchell, Ryan Bruce, and Glen Fricker as a few examples.
To an untrained ear, admittidly, it is hard to hear a precise difference in tonal quality. But a visual representation for example shows night and day differences; transients are more defined when DI recording, sonically there is less distortion, and it may just be me - but the tone sounds slightly brighter and extended on the Low-end particularly on Bass Guitar - not to mention the build quality feels stronger than most of my past relationships...
These are not only stupidly high quality accessories, but also at a stupid low price across the board of their range for all products, each as good as the last. Seriously, if there's one thing you're going to be buying next - consider Hosa Tech as an upgrade and revitalise your tone!
5. Practice and Pick Hard when playing
When starting off, I wasn't really too sure where to start but I wish someone had given me this advice early on - Practice.
Practice every day. Even if just for an hour, it helps you mantain your motivation, your skill will increase the more you play, and you'll fall into a technique that feels comfortable to play in.
And on the topic of technique, fall into the habit of picking hard, and downpicking where you can - the attack of the pick has a geniune impact on your tone, and 90% of your tone is in your hands and how you play.
In short, in the words of Brian Hood - 'Pick like a bitch, get a bitch tone.' It really is as simple as that.
Lastly, push yourself out of your comfort zone and don't be afraid to fail at what you're learning - it'll take time but in the long run you WILL notice the changes to your playing and tone the more time you put into it.
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