PART 2 - WHAT IS DIRECT RECORDING?
When you connect a keyboard, electric bass or guitar directly to your DAW microphone input using a D.I. box you are recording direct. No microphone, speaker or studio space was used because you did it direct-connected, electrically. Depending on your DAW hardware you may also have an instrument-level input which can be used instead of a direct box to record directly with no microphone or instrument amplifier involved.
When long cables, various AC power branch circuits, high-gain tube-amps and stompboxes are used together, Direct Boxes are used to convert unbalanced instrument outputs into balanced and electrically isolated signals which are compatible with virtually any XLR microphone preamp on the planet.
When you plug your guitar into a guitar amp a lot of tonal choices have already been made for you. The amplifier circuitry and speaker work together to create a sonic footprint that enhances the tone of your instrument. You need a microphone to record the speaker output so there is another variable in creating your sound. When you record an instrument amplifier with a mic you’ve also got the sound of the room to take into account.
Recording direct eliminates the amplifier, speaker, microphone, and the room that it’s all recorded in, so shaping your sound is 100% up to you. It is easy to sound bad when you go direct but fortunately we’ve got tools available to help get your sound going in the right direction.
Creating a satisfying distortion sound is one of the greatest challenges for guitar players who are experimenting with plugging in direct. In the above example I’m using two distortion boxes in series, these are feeding a Digitech Speaker Cabinet Simulator which is doing a lot of the tone shaping. Distortion boxes can sound very buzzy, thin and mosquito-like if they are connected directly without some sonic shaping. This Digitech pedal utilizes “impulse response” technology to enhance the distortion effects which precede it.
This is just one of many in a growing field of “cabinet simulators” meant to help tame out-of-control distortion tone. These boxes insert the magic you got when using a guitar amp.
The settings on the Cabinet Simulator pedal may end up being so specific for your distorted sound that your non-distorted sound (aka clean sound) might not sound good with the Cab Sim effect engaged. Switching three independent pedals (two distortion and cab sim) while performing can be challenging. It’s not easy to make a clean switch betweeen alternate tones with three separate footswitches to deal with.
In the following schematic the loopbox switcher brings the two distortion pedals and the cab simulator in and out of the signal path, with one footswitch.
A Loopbox switcher allows you to select a preset group of effect pedals with a single button press. This can be a lot more convenient than individually switching all three of these pedals one after another.
Loopbox switchers come in lots of sizes, from the small single channel shown above, to dual channel models by Radial and all the way on up to massive concert switching systems by Voodoo Lab.
Many guitar amplifiers have two or three preamp channels to give you the tonal flexibility you need to shape your sound for live performance. A single channel loopbox effectively gives you a second amplfier channel that you can bring in or out of your direct-recording signal with the press of one button.
ORDER OF PEDAL EFFECTS
If you use modulation and/or reverb effects these typically sound better if they come after the speaker cabinet simulation and distortion effects.
NOT AN AMPLIFIER - DON’T OVERDRIVE YOUR CAB SIMULATOR
It is not uncommon for guitar players to use boost pedals to overdrive the input-stage on their tube amplifiers. In my previous example of using two Tube Screamers in series, I use the first one to overdrive the second one. The output level of the second pedal becomes the distortion master volume.
It is critically important to understand that you should never “push” or try to overdrive the input stage on your direct box, amp-simulator or speaker cabinet simulator. Feel free to feed your amp sim with a big signal but don’t try to overload the simulator-input to achieve more distortion, it won’t result in good sound.
DELUXE DIRECT BOXES
Several manufacturers make direct boxes with enhanced amp simulations and tone shaping controls built in. Tech 21, Behringer, Strymon and Joyo are just a few. As musicians need to slim their “fly rigs” down to minimum size and light weight you’re guaranteed of seeing more all-in-one products like these coming to the marketplace.
WHAT ABOUT KEMPER AND HELIX?
These are awesome products and are capable of incredible guitar tones. If I was touring and playing live I’d use my Kemper Rack in a heart beat. For playing with a set songlist Kemper offers unpredented flexibility and programmability. But for composition and experimenting I like the freedom of selecting the elements of my tone completely on the fly and in the moment.
I’ve been on my direct-recording deep-dive for four+ years. I still have a separate isolation room where I can record a real Leslie 147 and two Marshall 4x12 stacks using microphones but I gravitate to the direct recording method because when it works it feels and sounds so good.
One of the greatest special effects is “lack of noise”. To be able to create a spot in a song which is dynamically interesting and naturally free of noise is one of the best special effects in a guitar players arsenal. A well connected direct recording setup provides ample opportunities for inserting silent breaks into your compositions.
High gain vacuum tube amps like Marshall and Mesa Dual Rectifiers are difficult to record due to hum and noise. They are extremely sensitive to ground-loops on their inputs which produce outrageous hum. Direct recording is not without hum and noise, it is up to you to build a system that has a low noise floor.
Finding a direct recording path is something that takes time and experimentation to get working for you but the payoff can be lower noise in your recordings, lower volume in your studio and overall higher quality tone.
Enjoy the adventure; Good Music to You!
©Sept 2021 by Mark King. It’s not ok to copy or quote without written permission.
THIS IS THE END OF PART 2. Click the link below to find out about direct recording with Impulse Responses and Reactive Loads.