Now I know the image above will give some people fits. Just the idea of doing a gig without your favorite amp roaring behind you is enough to send people to their sheds, grabbing pitchforks and lighting torches. This article is about why some guitarists choose to go direct at gigs. Going direct doesn’t replace the traditional guitar/pedals/amp formula that has powered popular music for over 60 years. Bass players and acoustic guitarists have gone direct for years, and technology is catching up to the ears of electric guitarists. Of course, no one is trying to tell every guitarist to do this, but it does seem to have merit in certain situations. Those situations are exactly what we will be talking about here.
The Best Sound a Band Can Get
Generally, a band sounds the best to the audience when you have an attentive, knowledgeable sound person who is paid well by the band or venue. He also needs the right tools to balance the sound for the room. If all of the instruments onstage are blasting at full volume, the poor PA can’t keep up- and the people in the first few rows have their heads torn off by whatever instrument amplifier they are unlucky enough to be standing in front of. This results in an unbalanced mix that the sound person can’t fix. It might sound awesome onstage, but you want the audience to have a great experience too, right? With monitors, side fills, several amps/cabs, and a fort full of cymbals onstage, things get loud quickly, and everything competes for the same sonic space. It is easy for band members to get into ‘volume wars’ while the sound dude/dudette takes everyone out of the mix but the vocals right before they throw up their hands and shake their heads. The audience might not know what sonic problems are occurring, but they definitely will hear it. An audience member describing a gig like this to a friend might say, “I saw this band, but they sounded terrible.” No one wants that kind of review. We spend a lot of money on guitars, pedals, amps, and microphones. But many musicians at the gig just set everything up and hope for the best.
A band can sound good with conventional amps and PA gear. But it takes musicians who are sensitive to each other as well as the overall sound of the band. It takes a skilled soundperson who has the gear (and knows how to use it) and enough time to get a proper soundcheck. Going direct attempts to solve these problems. Adding IEMs (In Ear Monitors) solves more. Yes, you don’t have amps blaring behind you. No, you don’t look like Jimi at Woodstock. Yes, you have to get used to the way things sound and learn how to perform without amps.
Why Go Through This Dance?
I can give my own story as why I decided to go direct at shows when the band I am in uses our own PA. In a 5 piece band, with dense guitar, a busy keyboardist/organist, a 5 string bass, 3 vocalists and a cymbal-happy drummer, things were getting loud onstage. Our singer would have the monitors close to feedback all night (and it would feedback several times in the night). Live recordings, both in the room, or miked on TV or radio were a mess of frequencies, since setup times were quick, and we hoped for the best. My amp, a Mesa/Boogie with 6v6s & EL84s sounded amazing. But everyone said they couldn’t hear the vocals. When we listened back, we heard what everyone else (didn’t hear). We were a sonic mess. We tried clearing it up with EQs and amp placement. It sounded clearer onstage, but microphone leakage and feedback were still a problem, and the band had internal ‘volume wars’ with each other. Truth is, we didn’t always have a great soundperson. We were carrying a lot of gear. The venues we played and the sizes of the stages and audiences varied wildly. After several poor sounding gigs that left my ears ringing (even with earplugs), I started investigating. The first decision was to go with IEMs. This would eliminate the bulky monitors (with 1 poorly placed handle, mind you) and stop the feedback problems. It would free up stage space. The next problem was realizing that the amps onstage easily could overpower the IEMs that were directed right in our ears. So I came to the conclusion that the only way past this problem was to get rid of all of the amps.
That’s kinda drastic…I ain’t doing that…
Hold on now, this is my story, right? Anyways, realizing that I don’t use multiple amps live, and that I tend to stick with 1 basic amp sound, this was going to be easier than I thought. The amp sound I use is more of a Fender Twin sound with a little more mids, but not as much as say, a Deluxe. The gain is something I get from my pedals (like an 805 Overdrive and a Vapor Trail Analog Delay). I didn’t need a device for live playing that replicated dozens of amps, cabs, and microphones. My setup is simple: Good pedals plugged into a simple modeler like the Tech 21 Fly Rig 5. It is a simple amp modeler with reverb that I can even use as a full pedalboard if mine goes down. Getting use to IEMs with a well-mixed band took a little bit of doing, but after a few gigs, I had adjusted just fine. You can change your own balance of the band in your own ears, but it is sort of like listening to a CD and playing along with it. It is not much different than what I do at home, anyway, so once I got over the ‘hangup’ of not carrying my amp (my back thanks me), and not seeing my amp behind me, it made a lot of sense. We take 50% less gear now to gigs, and the recordings (and reviews) are much, much better. My ears don’t ring for 2 days after. I can still get glorious feedback (from my pickups hearing the PA sound), and all of the little tricks I do on guitar remain in tact. The pickups on my guitar still deliver the same sound. To my ears, it is easier to mix out front, and much, much easier to balance all of the instruments without all of the stage volume. We also have a lot more room onstage to move around.
Exit the Amp, Enter the Fractal Axe-FX II XL+
I spoke with Matt “M@” Picone, of Fractal Audio, about the increasing use of modelers for today’s biggest acts. Their flagship modeler, the Axe-FX II XL+, is used by bands as diverse as U2, King Crimson, and Taylor Swift. Increasing numbers of top-level guitarists are discovering Fractal’s dozens of effects/amps/cab/microphone models and the obsessive tweakability inhe
rent in their designs. In the credits of Fractal’s products, Matt Picone is listed alongside Cliff Chase, the company’s founder, president and DSP/Hardware engineer, as contributing to “everything else.” He says that title suits him because it spans a range of duties including support, artist relations, brand development, sales, marketing, PR, sound design, docs & manuals, e-commerce, business development, infrastructure and much more. Their products are not just for ultra rock stars, as Matt explains:
For those who are new to the idea of performing without a traditional guitar amp, why would somebody choose to not use the same setup that has worked for 60 years?
Woah… I think I’d better use a list to answer this question or it will really get away from me. How about a top ten?
1. Versatility – You’ve literally got the world’s largest self-contained virtual collection of amps, cabs and effects at your fingertips!
2. Weight – a LOT less. This is important if you’re leaving the garage for the first time and don’t have roadies, if (like me) you’re trying to not injure your back anymore lugging equipment), if you’re a touring band trying to spend less on cartage and more on crew, or if you’re a worldwide act who needs to truck and fly your stage rig between continents.
3. Control – a LOT greater, including the ability to improve on the past. This might just mean the ability to create a signature tone without limits, but it also includes things like how easy it is to switch, synchronize, or automate changes.
4. Precision – All of the above, plus a masterful suite of EQs, compressors, etc.
5. Consistency of sound from night to night/venue to venue (and anywhere else).
6. Greater reliability and less maintenance. (Seen the price of great tubes lately?).
7. No pesky stage levels. FOH engineers like control. They simply can’t create a mix in a smaller venue around a cranked 50W amp.
8. We talked about reliability but lets add security: you can back up your entire rig to a laptop (or dropbox!), then swap in a spare Axe-Fx anywhere on earth and be guaranteed the exact same playing experience. I’ve seen this save people after many a gear “accident” on the road.
9. Quiet practice in a bedroom, basement, hotel, tourbus with the same sound you’ll use on stage (just don’t be too tempted to tweak without inviting Fletcher and Munson!)
10. SOUND QUALITY! This really is first and foremost. You get all of the above PLUS a sonic experience which inspires creativity and brings out the best in your favorite guitars… in you.
What advantages does a ‘I use one basic sound’-type of player get from performing without an amp?
Perhaps all of the above except #1?
Your products are on the world’s biggest stages, with artists from U2 to Taylor Swift. Are your products only for players hitting stages with the best PA systems in the world?
I estimate that fewer than one in a thousand of all Axe-Fx units in the word today are used on world-class stages with great PAs. In fact, MOST players probably don’t use a P.A. at all, or rely on one to bring their personal sound to the venue (with the same caveats they’d have when mic’ing a traditional amp). These players use personal stage monitors, power amp and speakers, or a traditional guitar amp. And all of the things I’ve just mentioned should also be placed next to the many guitarists who are not playing on stage at all, ever. Studio monitors—whether they are modest to magnificent—give you a really satisfying new way to play.
If a band is recording their first album, what advantages do they have going ‘ampless’?
How about not needing a pro studio AT ALL for guitars and bass? This is the core promise of the Axe-Fx and modern recording technology. Now in your home studio you’ve got a mind-blowing amp collection for less than the price of one single amp! Some really incredible guitar albums have had guitar parts recorded at home.
But a lot of bands also go in to a pro studio for the shared experience… add to that the expertise offered by a producer and engineer. In this scenario, you might have a hard sell but I’ve had a lot of producers and engineers call me to order an Axe-Fx after hearing one in this context. Nick Raskulinecz, Richard Chycki, Jack Douglas to name a few. In some case guitar tones are prepared in advance on the Axe-Fx and then the “team” works together to decide what the album is going to sound like. I’ve also done consulting where the Axe-Fx was used to Tone Match the sound of stems from “the last album” or an old masterpiece. I also just saw a video where a band kept fooling this superstar producer by switching to the Axe-Fx and telling him it was the real amp he had set up in the live room. In all of these cases, you’re basically also dealing with many of the same things from the “top ten” list above. I also think it can save time and money. Just think about how easy it makes re-amping and how important that can be to notching things up a level… re-crafting guitar tones around a new mix idea. By the way, these things are all equally true for established artists as well; doing your first album is not really all that different in this regard.
If a player is really attached to their amp, how can they take advantage of the effects in your flagship Axe-FX II?
The Axe-Fx II is also the world’s most powerful hardware multi-effects. To use it with an amp, just create presets with no AMP or CAB blocks. Some people run separate chains of effects —some before the amp and others in its loop. This is called the “four cable method.” Or better still: match the sound of your amp and send THAT to front of house while you use your amp on stage in all its glory.
By the way, we also offer a floor unit designed expressly for this purpose: the FX8 has effects but no amp or cab modeling. It is really exploding right now.
Gigging without an amp has many advantages, but amps aren’t going away anytime soon. Whether you use an amp live or not, the overall sound of the band shouldn’t be an afterthought. It doesn’t matter how good you sound at home or onstage if the band itself doesn’t sound good to the audience.
Have you ever played live or recorded without a traditional guitar amp?