In a previous article, I went over the basics of signal flow: the pick, the pickups, cables, effects and amp. This article will concentrate on some of those ‘forgotten’ (but just as important) aspects of our sound.
Guitarists spend lots of money on guitars, pickups, boutique effects and high-end tube amps. Some even go as far as spending lots of money on ‘the best’ cables, and a wireless system can easily be several hundred dollars/pounds/euros/rupees. But what happens when that signal goes into the amp? Is our quest for tone finished? Ask any performing guitarist, and the answer is a resounding ‘No!’.
This subject can take several articles in itself. While expensive amps might have the absolute best speaker paired with the amp itself, there are many mid-priced & good sounding amps out there that can sound great with upgrading a speaker. Replacing speakers is usually an easy upgrade for even us guitarists, and you can transform a tubby sounding amp into one with more clarity, more bass and less mids. The opposite is also true, and there are about as many varieties of speakers out there as amps. Here, research is our friend, and if you are thinking of upgrading your speakers, chances are you can find reviews and even videos of someone else who has done the exact same thing. Speakers can be made to break up easier, emphasize certain frequencies, handle more power, or simply be lighter in weight than stock speakers. Instead on giving up on that mid-priced tube amp, try a speaker swap first, and you might fall in love with your amp all over again.
Keep in mind to swap speakers with ones of the same ohm rating as the stock ones. Some amps can overheat or lose power with an ohm mismatch, and some can function fine with mismatched ratings (my Boogie is like this). If you don’t know, read the manual or contact the manufacturer. But the easiest thing to do is look on the back of the stock speaker and it should list how many ohms it is.
The cabinet your speakers are in have a lot to do with the sound too. If the cabinet has an open back, it is easier to hear from many different angles on the stage. It spreads the sound around, which might be important on bigger stages. Closed back cabinets, like the standard Marshall 4×12 are much more focused. They are a lot tighter in the bass, and a lot more directional, since the sound can only come out of the front. As a result, standing or sitting right in front is very loud, and on either side, the volume is considerably lower. Personally, when I am onstage, I love the tightness of closed-back cabinets, but I find the focus and straight-ahead sound dispersion disorienting (and crazy loud), but lots of people dig it.
Unless you plan to only ever play in your bedroom, basement or band room, it is worth considering the microphone which will go in front of your speaker to get it to the PA or recording device. After all, a bad sounding microphone can reduce that expensive guitar and amp into mush. There is nothing more frustrating than tweaking that rig to sound perfect in the studio and onstage only to hear it back and hate the sound. It sounds great in the room, and on the stage with the band, so how come it sounds terrible on the recording or through the PA? Well, the first step after your speakers is the microphone. Microphones come in all types, probably as many as pickups or amps. Guitarists would do well to learn a little about audio engineering and figure out how to capture your awesome tone with microphone. If you have a geeky audio friend, ask his/her advice about capturing your sound. Listen and learn from them. Mics used onstage need to be more durable (and are much less expensive) than studio microphones. It wouldn’t hurt to find what speaker in your 4×12 sounds the best, and moving a microphone just a few inches in either direction can make a big difference in the sound of your rig. Again, it doesn’t do any good to spend the money on a great rig, and stick a $20 microphone in front of it for a recording. Studios should have a good mic collection, but you can help the engineer who sets it up by knowing a good place to start. Live, there are many options, and each have their own unique sound. If you have a mic you know works well, bring it with you to the gig and use it instead of the one you borrow from the bassist that is currently rolling around the back seat of his mother’s Oldsmobuick.
I use one of these live and recording for the consistency and ease of setup. These eliminate the microphone/speaker combination, and provide a consistent signal to the DAW/house PA. I have never heard one that sounds exactly like a well mic’d up rig, but it sounds a lot better than a hastily mic’d cabinet and provides a very consistent sound in the studio. It allows me to ‘take control’ of my live sound. Again, it is personal preference here, but for me, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Check out Jay Hale’s excellent article about them here.
If you record, or practice in an apartment or late at night, you owe it to yourself to get a good pair of headphones. If you are going to a studio, it helps to bring headphones that you are used to, and when practicing at home, the goal is to get the pair that translates the sound of your rig the best. I look for a fairly flat response: That is, I don’t like the boost in bass that most consumer headphones provide. Headphones don’t need to be expensive, but you will need to try them out with mixes or commercial recordings you are very used to. It is common (though not ideal) to mix demos on headphones, so they might be serving that purpose too, so you’d look for something with a fairly flat response. Besides sound, comfort is important too. Some people like headphones over the whole ear, and some like ones that rest on the ear. If you are recording for all night, comfort will certainly be an issue. I learned a lot about the types of headphones by reading this site.
Seriously, take care of them. They are more important than your hands, and when they are damaged, they don’t repair themselves. Ask Phil Collins or Pete Townshend, both of whom had to stop performing for long periods of time due to tinnitus, or ringing in the ear. I know it is cool and all to stand in front of a wall of amps, but if you do that a lot, you will do some serious damage. That rig you curated isn’t useful if you can’t hear it. Any long-term exposure to high decibels is sure to wreck your ears, so have reliable ear protection in your gig bag always. Ear plugs these days are a lot better than they used to be, so you can get ones made for musicians that cut down the volume without sounding like you are under a pillow. Even custom molded plugs are not expensive when protecting this most important piece of your signal flow.
What are the most important parts of your signal flow? What is your next purchase you will make to get that sound you hear in your head?