Session Guitar: To Mic or Use Amplifier Emulation in the Studio?

Hello, fellow guitar freaks!

This week I'm going to discuss a topic that's been on my mind a lot lately: Is it better to mic an amp on a track or use an emulator? (By emulator, I'm talking about an external box like a Line 6 Pod or an internal software based amp simulator like Amplitude.)

Now I know that, like me, most would say an amp wins this discussion hands down. I've been watching a ton of shows about the recordings of classic albums from Cream, Tom Petty, Meatloaf, Deep Purple, etc. Most are not very technical about the gear, but the pictures show a pretty good glimpse into what gear was used. And I own a lot of the same gear. It's always a Marshall, Fender or Vox amp. (Vintage? No! They were new at the time!) A Neumann U87 or 67, Shure 57 or Sennheiser 421 mic. A Neve or Trident preamp. And finally either an 1176 or LA2A compressor by UREI.

Classic gear. Worth thousands. Typical sound. Dry, fat, lays in the track well. Oh and not many guitar tracks used. This was not by choice. The tape machines used were either eight to 24 tracks. So there were limitations. And yes, they were tracked to tape. A big difference from digital for sure, but not for this discussion. So put that away for a while.

On the other side, we have what we call amp simulators or emulators. Modelers. They do a good job. I even believe some do a great job. Depending on the situation, I can get a sound that I and the client are perfectly pleased with for about $500 or less. But am I settling and taking the easy way out? I decided this past week to not be lazy or fast in my studio. I was going to mic up my amps, position my mics, dial in my sounds, experiment with how hard to hit the pre's and comps and get as close to the classic sound as I could or even better. Get the best sound I could from some great gear.

Tubes were cooking, gear was being plugged in and allowed to warm up, multiple mics were setup. The basic chain was a Neve1272 or UA pre. 1176 or Summit compressor. SM57, U87 or Royer Ribbon mic. Guitars were either a Gibson or Fender. I dialed in the sounds to match some CD's with some of my favorite classics. Machine Head with Deep Purple and Ritchie Blackmore. Bat Out of Hell with Meat Loaf and Todd Rundgren. Cream with Eric Clapton. And I got close. It sounded big and beautiful in the room and warm and cuddly and succulent beefsteak-tomatoey in the studio!

And as I was laying down these tracks on country songs and rock songs, I was having a blast. I was loving it! Doubled tracks left and right. Solos up the middle. Maybe some harmony -- and done. Then I let it sit for a day or two. I wanted a fresh perspective.

I came back the next day and gave a listen. Something was wrong. It was all good. It was even great in its own sweet way. But it just sat there. It was pleasant and very English and proper, if that makes any sense. But it was just OK for the track. And I knew my clients would not have been blown away. So, like an alcoholic about to go off the wagon, I made sure no one was watching, and I plugged in my Floor Pod. I chose one of my favorite presets that I made myself and added a track. It was what I could only imagine that first drink must taste like after a long while.

So bartender, I had another! I added another track; dialed in a lead sound that seemed to jump out ... all effected and bright and fat and over-saturated. And it was good. It was better than good. It was what I would expect it to be. Correct for the job. All the way across the board on every count. The story doesn't end here.

I came back the next day and still felt the same. The Pod tracks just killed the tracks that you need $10,000 to create. But, being me, I tried something else. I tried a more modern amp by Peavey. A more modern mic by Royer. And An SSL pre. This time the sound was closer to the Pod sound. And quite different from the classic sound. Interesting. I also noticed that something else became apparent. A combination of the two or even three sounds seemed to be the best. However, I also noticed that the Pod tracks could have lived alone and been fine. The modern mic sounds, however, did benefit from some direct simulation. Very in your face. No room.

Conclusion? I have, my opinion, you will have yours. All the sounds were excellent. However, for today's music and what the "sheeple" are trained to hear, and maybe the shortage of fine engineers who understand what a signal is and what a wave is and what sound pressure is and how to actually use hardware instead of slapping an L1 on every track and thinking they know what music is supposed to sound like and ... O ... I'm back. I lost it there for a minute.

Conclusion? I like the combination for whatever reason. Today is today and yesterday may have to stay yesterday. But, damn, I like the smell of tubes in the morning. It smells like ... music.

Till next time …

Ron Zabrocki on Ron Zabrocki: I’m a session guitarist from New York, now living in Connecticut. I started playing at age 6, sight reading right off the bat. That’s how I was taught, so I just believed everyone started that way! I could pretty much sight read anything within a few years, and that aided me in becoming a session guy later in life. I took lessons from anyone I could and was fortunate enough to have some wonderful instructors, including John Scofield, Joe Pass and Alan DeMausse. I’ve played many jingle sessions, and even now I not only play them but have written a few. I’ve “ghosted” for a few people that shall remain nameless, but they get the credit and I got the money! I’ve played sessions in every style, from pop to jazz.

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