FEATURE: Digital editing for guitarists

Once upon a time, if you wanted to record something at home, chances are that you had to do it with a clunky four or eight track portable studio set up. My first was a Yamaha unit from the mid 80s, which I bought second hand out of the local paper when I was 14. I logged hours and hours of time on that thing, bouncing down tracks, faking a bass by manipulating the tape speed, recording backwards solos, and generally making a whole lot of noise. One time I created a Ministry-esque rhythm track and recorded Simpsons quotes directly off the VCR, relying on my mad pause button skills to ensure the ‘samples’ were recorded at the right point in the song. Today even the simplest computer can be an entire recording studio, and the rules have changed. You no longer have to worry about losing a little bit of treble every time you play your track, like you would with a cassette. And if you flub a part, it’s really easy to fix a note or two. Try that on a tape deck.

For the last year or so, my recording system of choice has been Pro Tools LE. I’ve stumbled upon a few cool tricks which apply to pretty much any digital work station, so feel free to try these at home. Just don’t hurt yourselves.

TWINKLE PANS: Record a stereo track of a single chord with a panning effect moving from left to right, timed to sweep the sound from one side to the other over the length of each bar. Then chop each bar up into 8th notes, and juggle them around randomly, so you get the chord sort of ‘twinkling’ across the stereo spectrum. You might hear a slight clicking sound at the start or end of each 8th note. If that’s the case, just draw in the tiniest of fade-ins and fade-outs at the start and end of the note, and you’ll be fine. You can also try using a tremolo effect, which you can lock to the tempo of the track, and set to fade in and out of the note naturally.

RHYTHMIC TREMOLO: Similar to twinkle pans, chop a bar into 8th or 16th note segments, but this time, instead of moving them around, delete some of them, to create interesting rhythms. Be a little bit lateral and see if you can find interesting polyrhythms or syncopations you might not have come up with any other way. Even if you’re not sold on the tremolo sound, you can still use it as a songwriting tool to write new riffs, which you can then play ‘manually.’

INSTANT KEYBOARD, JUST ADD REVERB: For fake keyboard sounds, use a reverb effect with the mix turned to 100% effected sound and a second or so of reverb time, then tremolo-pick single notes or octaves as fast as you can. With the un-reverbed note and any sense of definite rhythm removed from the signal, you’re just left with the general harmonic information. If you bring down the bass and treble frequencies and notch up the upper mids a bit, you can create a very interesting texture underneath extreme metal riffing.

DELAYED EFFECT: For a unique delay sound, copy the guitar track to a second track, move it back by 1 or 2 beats compared to the original track, then apply effects only to the shifted track, so you can have, say, flanger or pitch shifter happening only on the delays. Imagine your original melody line being repeated as a diatonic harmony, or drenched in deep vibrato.

THE MULTI AMP VIRTUAL RIG OF DOOM: Many amp modelling programs feature the ability to use two virtual amp rigs at once, but if that’s just not enough, or if your modeler only offers one sound at a time, copy and paste the same guitar part onto multiple tracks, and process each one differently to achieve otherwise unattainable sounds. This is especially fun for getting vaguely Frank Zappa-ish sounds: Try separate tracks of a completely uneffected guitar, a distorted guitar with a very short delay, a distorted guitar with a stationary wah effect, and a distorted guitar with an envelope filter, all at once, panned to various points in the stereo spectrum.

LOOK MA, I’M A SYNTH: Lock a modulation effect’s tempo to the speed of the song and feed it into an envelope filter for crazy synth-like swells. Try it on two tracks, panned hard left and hard right, with the modulation tempo set to quarter notes on one side and whole or 8th notes on the other; set each envelope filter to emphasise a different frequency; and compress the hell out of each side. You should get a phat, rhythmic ‘wub’ sound with a million and one uses, from Tea Party-style post rock apocalyptica to rave freakout.

I hope you have fun with these, and are inspired to come up with new editing tricks of your own.

GEAR: All hail the Ibanez Soundtank DL5 Digital Delay!

I just dug out my old Ibanez Soundtank DL5 digital delay pedal. These came out some time in the 90s, and I remember a Guitar World review referring to them as “fat little potato bugs.” The advertising campaign showed the pedals kitted out with tank tracks, charging over a hill, while such hardasses as Ministry’s Mike Scaccia posed in full military regalia. Because nothing says ‘trained for lethal combat’ like plugging into a little plastic potato.

Anyway, my DL5 was a birthday present when I was about 15, which would mean that as of this past July I’ve had it for, gulp, half my life. Yipes. The pedal wasn’t working any more (after it gave up the ghost I gave it to my baby son to bash around – knobs and footswitches aplenty for tiny hands and feet to learn coordination). I’ve been on a bit of a pedal spree lately – buying new ones, firing up old ones – so I took it apart to look for any loose solder joints to see what I could to do make it live again. I couldn’t find anything, but I gave it a general clean-out, and now it miraculously works fine, though the switch requires a good hearty stomp to activate.

Now that I’ve played about a million delay units, I appreciate this one a lot more. It doesn’t sound as warm as my MXR Carbon Copy, but it’s a little soft around the edges compared to a Boss digital delay. The repeats sound slightly smoothed over, and when used with a good power supply it’s very quiet. When used with a bad one, it sounds like the background noise on the Death Star.

Delay time is only 400ms, but that can be doubled with a simple mod if you care to get tweaky. Construction feels a little flimsy, and battery life is remarkably low, but despite these little niggles, I still really like it, and I’ve made a permanent place for it on my pedal board. I might put it in a true bypass loop just in case the switch gives me any further trouble, but as it is, it’s a fun little pedal with great slap-back sounds. It’s also really good for that Van Halen ‘Cathedral’ trick, where you hammer on notes while working the guitar’s volume knob, and let the delay fill in notes in between the ones you’re playing.

I’ve found a few helpful links to getting the most out of the DL5.

Here’s the schematic at
Experimentalists Anonymous.

Meanwhile at the fantastic DiscoFreq site there’s a great article containing the mods for doubling the delay time, increasing the feedback level for near-infinite repeats, and fixing the intermittent switch.