I’ve been reviewing some recording/guitar playing gear lately. I’ve got a bit of an unusual setup, given that most electric guitar players don’t record directly, but instead play through an amp first. The sound coming out of their amp is then mic’d and that microphone signal is boosted up and recorded. This gives the recording the character of the guitarist’s amp, as well as the studio’s audio reflections and reverb. The problem with that setup is that it’s not very neighbor friendly – you really need a sound-proof space to record something like that effectively.
So, in my endless search for the right tone for a direct inject recording (that’s what it’s called with you hook the guitar to a preamp, skip the amp+mic stage, and go direct into a recording interface), I’ve tried at least 5 different approaches. Here, I’ll outline what worked, and what didn’t.
My recording setup consists of a MOTU 828mkIII audio interface and a MacBook Pro. The MOTU is an 8 analog in/out, 16 digital in/out, and 2 mic in audio interface, all of which can be recorded simultaneously using professional digital audio software, such as Apple’s Logic.
The guitar I’m working with is a Paul Reed Smith Custom 22.
These are the parts of the setup that remain constant throughout.
What Didn’t Work
Originally, I started with my guitar plugged directly into the MOTU interface. In this configuration, I had to push the trim on the input up into the +10–14 dB range. Trim is not the same as a preamp, so what I had done, along with increasing the sound volume, was increase the noise. But that wasn’t the real problem. Another problem with this setup was my guitars tone alone was too … flat, empty. It was missing some essential body and fatness.
Build Quality: 10/10 (hey — I like my guitar and interface, what can I say?)
Subjective Tone Rating: 3/10 (this sound sucked.)
My next attempt involved a Boss ME-50 multi-effects pedal on the signal in between the guitar and the interface. The idea was that the pedal would boost the signal from instrument level to line level. Buuut, that didn’t work out. The signal out the other end was a bit louder, but still not as full of a clean tone that I was looking for. I did, however, gain a relatively decent amount of effects for the price of (maybe) two stomp boxes. The distortion leaves A LOT to be desired. The compressor and noise gate on the pedal do, however, provide a large amount of sustain, and a mediocre amount of noise suppression, respectively (I always have to run the noise gate at full blast). Still not quite the sound I was looking for though. Still missing that body. But I decided to keep this one. I like the wide variety of effects, including a very nice stereo chorus sound.
Build Quality: 8/10
Subjective Tone Rating: 6/10
What almost worked
The Fulltone Fulldrive 2 was the closest I came so far to achieving the clean, sustained tone for which I was looking. It has a very, very nice, clean sustained tone when used in the “CompCut” (meaning compression cut) mode. With that mode disengaged, it goes into saturation almost immediately. Given that, my impression was that this was mostly useful as a distortion pedal, and not a preamp – and using it only as preamp was not getting my money’s worth (since I don’t play with much distortion). This was very close, but ultimately, not what I wanted in a preamp/direct inject setup.
Build Quality: 9/10
Subject Tone Rating: 7/10
Given that the Fulldrive pedal was very close to what I was looking for, I decided on two things: 1) I wanted to try something similar, but with vacuum tubes (AKA valves, AKA that thing before the transistor was invented – yea, they still make and use them), and 2) anything I tried from now on needed to be an actual preamp – no more stomp boxes (at least none without preamp in the name). I wanted tubes because I know a tube sound when I hear it – it’s fat, it has body and punch, and it just sounds good.
Seymour Duncan Twin Tube Classic
The Twin Tube Classic definitely fit the bill. The tube sound was *exactly* what I wanted. It definitely colored the raw guitar sound in a way that filled it out, bringing a certain fatness to the tone that was definitely missing in all the other tests (except for the Fulldrive – it also had some fatness, but it felt a bit more “digital” so to speak). The Twin Tube has two tube channels in it – one is internally biased for a bit more drive for lead. Switching between the two channels occurs seamlessly, without pop, and sounds great. This thing was pretty awesome for what it was aiming to do – provide a tube gain sound, covering the range from clean to overdrive and distortion. I definitely liked it, but, for lack of a better description, it lacked knobs. I wanted a tool I could use to really dial in every single aspect of the tone: how distorted are the low notes, how distorted are the mids, the highs? How much sustain do I want to add? Do I want pre-amp distortion, or power-amp distortion? More low-end thump, or more high-end twinkle? This pedal was very cool, and I had a really hard time bringing myself to return it, but… alas, not quite the versatility I was looking for.
Build Quality: 9/10
Subjective Tone Rating: 8/10
Coup de Grace
Tech21NYC SansAmp PSA 1.1
The one pedal to rule them all didn’t turn out to be a pedal at all. I bought the rack-mountable Tech21NYC SansAmp PSA 1.1, which is really just a long way of saying “badass tone machine.” This thing dials in any tone I can think of, from clean-lead-sustain, to so-distorted-i-cant-tell-what-chord-i’m-playing, and all the colors and variations thereof. Plus, it has a really kick-ass feature that the stomp box version does not: the internal signal path is entirely analog, BUT the control knobs are digital, and so is the microcontroller that controls the analog signal path. What that all translates to is this: memory! It has 128 programmable memory locations, each of which stores the settings of every knob. This is a tone-maker’s dream machine of a preamp. There are probably way better signal processors out there, but I have not, at least not yet, found a more versatile preamp. This has found a permanent home in my rack.
Sound: 9/10 (incredibly clean until you put the drive up above 3 o’clock)
Versatility: 9/10 (-2 for not having two channels, +1 for having stereo effects loop returns)
Build Quality: 6/10 (this thing definitely needs to be racked, as it’s top-cover feels a bit flimsy).
Subjective Tone Rating: 9/10 (one can’t ever be satisfied)
This would be killer paired with the Boss ME-50 and an MXR DynaComp. That setup would earn it a 10/10 on the Subjective Tone Rating.
It’s all about versatility. You don’t want to buy one stomp box, and have it collect dust for every song except for that one that you bought it for. Instead, you want something you can program, or dial in for the entire range of your repertoire. In my case, I found what I was looking for in the SansAmp PSA.