Hi, I have heard stories about direct recording of the guitar. What are the advantages of doing this and can I do it with my IT setup?
Many classic guitar sounds have been recorded directly into the mixer, and this has been common practice for several decades. So what does that mean, exactly? Today’s stand-alone amp simulators and amp modeling plugins are intended to produce traditional amp-like sounds without the drawbacks and noise levels of the real thing. DI (direct injection) means plugging your guitar into a preamp and going straight to a hard drive or tape. It’s not about making the guitar sound like it’s going through an amplifier.
The output level of a passive electric guitar is roughly equivalent to that of a microphone, so it needs a microphone preamp that can provide a lot of low noise gain. But the input impedance which is suitable for microphones is not suitable for electric guitars.
Some preamps and audio interfaces have a high impedance instrument input, which makes life easier. If yours does not have one, you will need a DI box to remedy the impedance problem and balance the output. If you are using effects pedals, they should come before the DI box or the high impedance preamp input. Studio type effects such as compressors, EQs, and modulation devices should be connected after the preamp.
Now that we’ve established what direct recording is and how to do it, let’s discuss some well-known examples to illustrate how and why switching to DI can be the best option.
Traditional guitar amps and speakers are fairly lo-fi devices that crush the dynamic range, introduce distortion, and narrow the frequency range. In contrast, a properly interfaced direct guitar signal will sound super clean, dynamic, punchy, and much brighter. If these are qualities that you value, then going straight is worth trying.
Les Paul was one of the first representatives and it is no coincidence that he went on to champion low impedance pickups. In the early 1950s, Les probably had the clearest, cleanest guitar sound ever.
Two decades later, Nile Rodgers was also bringing a jazzy sophistication to popular music using his 1959 DI’d Stratocaster. Nile would tune into a Neve 31102 channel strip with boosted high and upper mid frequencies and some bass attenuation. He also added compression, but his trick was to simultaneously route the guitar through a Fender Deluxe reverb and combine the signals from the amp and the DI.
Listening to Chic recordings, the scale seems to favor the DI signal. This rhythm guitar approach to recording had a huge influence in pop and funk throughout the 1970s, 1980s and beyond. You can trace it through Prince, who usually plugs into an SSL mixer, to Cory Wong, who now uses Universal Audio plug-in versions of classic analog gear to get his percussion sounds.
And for solo sounds, think Another brick in the wall part 2. David Gilmour and producer Bob Ezrin achieved extraordinary sound by plugging a P-90 Les Paul Goldtop into an office and adding a ton of compression. The DI sound was then re-amplified – another reason to consider DI recording – and mixed with the direct sound. They achieved fuzztone sustain levels with barely a hint of distortion.
This one is controversial as the narratives have differed over the years and maybe Roger McGuinn doesn’t want to spread the Magic Beans. Dylan’s version of The Byrds intro Mr. Tambourine is the epitome of Rickenbacker’s 12-string jingle jangle sound and it is widely believed that Roger plugged his 360/12 straight into the Hollywood Columbia Studios mixing console.
From there, Roger recalls two compressors connected in series to crush transients and provide additional sustain, as well as a Pultec EQ. Over the years, Fairchild and Teletronix LA2-A compressors have been suggested and both are widely available as plugins. You can probably get a sound similar to Columbia desktop preamps using a Universal Audio 610 preamp plug-in.
It is possible that an Epiphone Ensign 2×10 amp was also used. The clarity and extended highs of the guitar sound indicate that if an amp was involved, it was mixed with the DI sound.
Country music and clean guitar sounds are pretty synonymous, so it’s ironic that a Marty Robbins recording session in 1960 resulted in the accidental invention of fuzz. Grady Martin was performing on a track titled Do not worry, with his Danelectro six-string bass going straight into an office channel with a faulty transformer.
The resulting blurry tone was retained, and when the song became a hit, other artists requested the same effect. The transistor circuit designed to recreate the faulty transformer eventually became the Maestro FZ-1 fuzz pedal. If you like fuzz, you might find things sound even more blurry when you go straight through a DI box.
Tube amps have a softening and smoothing effect on fuzz sounds, which can diminish their aggressive and rough qualities. You can also get improved clarity and definition if you use a fuzzbox without an amp, but you may need to reduce some highs to eliminate harshness.
Black Dog by Led Zeppelin is another dirty classic from DI. For this track, engineer Andy Johns routed Jimmy Page’s guitar through a mixer and pushed the mic amp up for distortion. Then the signal was sent via two UREI 1176 compressors connected in series.
The 1176 can be pushed into a really nice overdrive and, with one unit slamming into the other, they got a smooth, biting and very clear sound. It was also triple-tracked. Combining a Helios preamp plugin with 1176 plugins would be a good place to start.
Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick took a similar approach to electric guitar sounds on Revolution by overloading the mic preamps. The Hudson Electronics Broadcast is a germanium preamp pedal specially designed to simulate this type of desktop distortion and a great choice if you want a similar sound.
It’s time to DI
We have identified a few classic examples, but the list is endless. Honorable mentions go to Nirvana territorial piss, The Commodores Easy, various Hendrix tracks and many contemporary metal bands that blend DI tracks with high gain mic amps to improve definition, tighten bass, and add an aggressive edge.
Comparing guitar sounds directly recorded with mic amps is like asking whether Strats are superior to acoustic guitars for clean tones or whether the piano is better than the organ. They are entirely different, so the argument is pointless and the downsides only become apparent when you try to make one look like the other. Keep that in mind and give it a try.
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