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Tone vs. Digital

(Can Digital Have Tone?)

by Phil Gates

Many a word has been said about one of the biggest trouble spots for us guitarists: we work all this time working on our tone, just to have it turned into sterile ones & zeros by a heartless IC chip. Can that be it for us? Surrender tone for ease of editing?

I propose to ride the fence. Iím going to play advocate and Devilís advocate for this situation. Iím not going to leave you hanging at the end though.

Just for reference: Iím a big fan of an even-order-harmonic-set-of-matched-tubes-driving-a-rippiní-Ďcouple-of-hundred-watts-natural-speaker-compression-sound. Thereís nothing like the breathing dragon of a big tube amp on 7 or 8, where it can REALLY get heated up, and settled in, and just FEEL that sound in front of eight 12" speakers.

Yeah, THAT Sound.

Yet, I also use digital processors & modeling amps as well. Especially when the eight 12" speakers on 7 or 8 on the "Wall bending" amp, might be just a tad over the top.

And also, we want to keep our ears in good shape for mixing!

In reality, if youíve been using a non-vintage stomp box or processor in the last decade or more, chances are youíre sound has long been digital. (Unless you specifically went for a processor with discrete components (no chips), and tubes that is). Most processors have been digital for some time, and 24bit processing has become the catch phrase of late, along with USB, Firewire, or S/PDIF digital outputs.

"If all of this is true, then where is my tone when I go direct?" You ask.

When I was cutting my recording teeth on 2" tape machines, I quickly found that tone was split between the characteristic of the amp sound, and the way the analogue tape machine would record it. Each manufacturerís 24track Sounded different. As well as the type of tape you chose to use. Now letís throw in the consoleís characteristics as well.

Nowadays, the battlefield is in the converters. The A/D converters you use make a big difference in your tone as it is recorded. Whether you choose from brands like Roland, Tascam, MOTU, Yamaha, or direct A/Ds like Apogee, There is a difference between each one of them and just like in the analog tape days, each can have itís own application. You may find that one is great for everything, or that one seems better for R&B than Rock & Roll.

Keep in mind that when digital first came out, everyone thought it sounded so "Sterile" and harsh. Which was pretty much true. That 2" machine we were used to had a lot to do with our bias towards the analog sound. We would record it "Hot" at +1, or +2 (over zero) on the VU meters, to get a bigger tone, and "warm things up". When technically, we were saturating the tape, actually causing distortion that was pleasing to us. The human ear is well used to some types distortion. Every time we speak to another person, the sound travels from our mouths, bounces off a few walls & objects, gets blended in with the outside ambient noise, and by the time it gets to the listener, it has in-phase elements, out of phase elements, distortion, possible beat frequencies with the ambient sounds, and we think nothing of it for the most part.

So next comes the digital age (and us screaming about how sterile it sounds), where there isnít any +1, +2 stuff. Zero dB is the end of the road. Nasty clipping is all there is to our sound after zero dB digital. That means thereís no chance to "warm things up" with out using EQ. If you recall though, after the initial year or so of the digital cleansing of our music, we started to dirty up digital. All of a sudden old- (excuse me)-"vintage" tube mic preís and compressors were coming out of the woodwork. Why? So that engineers could do what weíve been doing as guitarists for years- saturating (distorting) the sound with even order harmonic devices-TUBES!

Not distortion as we use it as an effect, but that "warm it up" vibe. Letís call it more saturation. Thatís a better term. I donít want you get those two terms confused.

So the big picture is, get that big sound naturally, THEN take a digital picture of that. Thatís what the big deal is about tube preís (pre-amps) or transformer preís. Get that tone first. Also when it comes to harmonic structure, tubes work in even-order harmonics, and the transistors in IC chips have to be odd-order harmonics by nature of how theyíre made. Even order harmonics are a more round, warm tone, odd order harmonics tend to be a more brittle, and more of a harsh sound. Especially when it comes to distortion.

Tubes-use Ďem if you got Ďem. If you have the space to mic an amp, go for it. If you need to go direct because of sound levels and neighbors that just plain donít understand (or thatís your gear of choice), you can use the line out jack on your guitar amp if it has one, or if youíre using a guitar processor there are plenty available with tubes in them. Other options would be to use a tube pre amp, or if you have an analog console, run your digital processor through that first, and then record it in digital.

I want to make sure to emphasize that there are plenty of great digital guitar processors that sound amazing right out of the box. This column is just more aimed at those of us that have a tube set-up, and are wondering if going digital when it comes to recording is going to have mind altering effects on our tone.

The audio examples included are the same guitar, recorded digitally. Audio example #1 GuitarDirect is just that. A í71 Strat plugged directly into digital recording software. Audio example #2 GuitarThruAmp is the same í71 Strat, same pick-up selected (the neck pick-up in both examples) plugged into an Ď80ís Mesa Boogie 1x12" cab. EQís flat, amp in rhythm mode. Then I recorded that into digital recording software. Take a listen to the difference.

I think even with MP3 quality, you can hear the brighter, more thin sound of Audio Example #1, versus the warmer, fatter sound of Audio Example #2. There will be places for BOTH of those sounds in your songs from time to time. The point is: My friends, it IS possible for digital to have tone!

Try it for yourself!

Listen to an example of Guitar Direct

Listen to an example of Guitar Thru Amp

Take Care,

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