Useful Stuff to Know » article » Guitar Amp Sim Secrets for Metal » Jan 23, 10:10 PM

Guitar Amp Sim Secrets for Metal

Alright so you want to record some metal guitars using nothing but your guitar, USB audio interface, and computer. Well here are some secrets to getting the best sound.

1) Use new strings. Not a secret more so than common sense. If you use old strings, you will get a rounder cleaner sound which works for some genres (traditional doom metal for instance) but for other styles of metal especially down tuned stuff where the harmonics are what cut through the mix, yes do use new strings. One pack of strings may last 2-3 songs max, and many studio pros change them every song or every day whichever comes first.

2) Use a thinner pick. For example, these Tortex Jazz III .60mm picks on Amazon. Why? Because the thicker your pick, the stronger the fundamental and lesser the harmonics, meaning the more dull and bassy your sound. One problem with amp sims (and interfaces) is that they’re not that good at representing the dynamic punch of a real amp, and your guitars may sound a bit fizzy or muddy or spongey in comparison. Fear not, just use a thinner pick whose transients are sharper (thus greater dynamics) and fundamental is lower (less bass muddying up the gain structure) and more mids and harmonics (that which makes a guitar sound aggressive). Indeed, using a different pick makes as much difference as changing to a different pickup.

3) Use a transient designer. This is a plugin normally used for drums, that makes the attack of a snare or kick sharper. But you can put this first in your guitar plugin chain, to make the pick attack even stronger and punchier. Though now that I’m using thinner picks I no longer find this necessary. You can also add it after the amp sim and before the cabinet.

4) Run a tube screamer / overdrive plugin before the sim. The TSE 808 is a good one. Your DAW might have one built in. The point of such a plugin is not so much to boost the volume (as in the case of a real pedal into a realm amp) but to cut the bass, boost the mids, and compress the signal via overdrive distortion. You need all three if you want the full tube screamer effect.

5) Use an EQ and Compressor plugin before the sim. This, instead of the tube screamer plugin. With this you can custom taylor the low cut, mid boost, and compression. The plus side is that without the overdrive distortion, you do get a cleaner sound going into the amp sim so that might help with note separation and articulation. Generally you’ll want to gently slope off the lows and have a broad gentle boost in the mids. You’ll notice how if you boost the mids too much or in the wrong spot you’ll get too much of a squeaky metallic sound in your chords. Dial that down to taste. With the compression, you’ll want to to have around 3 to 6 dB of gain reduction happening, fast release, and medium attack to let the snap of the pick attack through. So all you’re doing there is using the comp as a transient designer to let the attack through and then quieting the rest, which viewed from another perspective is like boosting the attack part.

6) Use an amp sim that has the tubescreamer/cut built in. An example is Lepou’s Legion amp. This one doesn’t require a tubescreamer, whereas if you wanted a tight sound with his Lecto sim then you definitely would need one. You can still use EQ/Comp prior to Legion if used subtly you want to taylor the sound even more.

7) Use a good cab impulse response. The impulse is 50% of the sound. The best ones I know are Recabinet’s impulses, Guitar Hacks, Catharsis (awesometime fredman), and the Messiah pack.

8) Mute your higher strings. Use a foam earplug or something to under the higher strings to keep them from ringing out as you’re riffing. If you want to get really fancy, also stick some foam under the strings at the headstock and behind the bridge, as they do resonate a bit. You may not notice it at first, but listen carefully with some palm mutes or stop-go riffs and you’ll hear them ring out. It’s subliminal for most listeners but subliminal is where some of the feel/impression is located.

9) Intonate and tune your guitar! Intonate after changing to a different string gauge, after lowering or raising the bridge, and after tuning to a different key. Then make sure to always tune before every intro / verse / chorus! But don’t tune between guitar track changes while quad tracking. So like if you have a verse consisting of quad-tracked guitars, tune to perfection before starting that, but once you record track 1, maintain that tuning as you go to 2, 3, and 4 unless godforbid you’re clearly out of tune halfway through. The reason is that if quad tracked guitars are too out of tune from each other (caused by re-tuning but not achieving the exact same tuning you had before) you’ll get a horrible phasey “off” sound. It’s better to start with 99% perfect tuning and maintain 99% tuning for all four tracks, than do the first two at 99% and the last two at 100%.

10) Use a reference tone when tuning. If you’re using a 25.5 scale guitar tuned to B and are having tuning stability problems like the tuner plugin doesn’t pick up the tone too well, or hitting the strings hard causes the tuning to vary annoyingly such that you can’t tell at what point of the tone you’re supposed to be in tune… Then load up a track with a test signal oscillator at the precise Hz frequency of your fundamental note in that part of the song. Tune your guitar and bass relative to that. This way you can pick hard/medium and your ear will know when the tuning best approximates the reference tone. This is easier than watching a tuner meter fluctuate. You can use both the meter and the tone together for best results.

11) If you suspect latency / delay is screwing up your timing, then do the following trick. In your DAW, enable the metronome click. Then take one side of your headphones or speakers and press the cup/speaker into/near your bridge pickup so that the guitar records these clicks magnetically. Hit record and go for 5 or 10 seconds. Then stop recording and zoom in on your audio region to see how the clicks match up to the beat/bar. If they are spot on, then you are the one who sucks with timing. But if they are early/late, then you’ll have to enable low-latency mode in Logic (if that’s your DAW) and/or adjust the recording delay in your program’s preferences to make up for it. Using this method takes the guesswork of figuring out how out of time your monitoring is.