Back in the spring, I set about putting together a guitar pedal board in order to explore different sonic tones and have a quality studio rig with which to record guitar parts. I had hitherto achieved very good results using the Boss GT-8 COSM amp and cab models and so an ampless solution was very much my intention. My studio room is very small and I have neighbours so amping and cranking is not something I can do very much of. Additionally, I have often recorded with the band in the rehearsal studio, which is a harsh environment as it is as we are neighbours with some very noisy metal bands. Therefore DI was very much the order of the day.
My journey began with the AMT M1, F1 and CN1 pedals which I talked about in a bit more details in my previous article. These essentially gave me a Marshall hi-gain tone (modelled on the JCM800), a Fender clean toner (Fender Twin) and a very versatile cab simulator. This is all in the analogue domain which yields a very warm and well rounded palette of tones. I particularly love the M1 and it provides a very convincing emulation of the JCM. I used it extensively on the last Dawn of Elysium release Divide and Conquer. At the time, I only had this single pedal out of this setup, so when recording, I dialled in a very subtle “room” reverb on Logic Pro to simulate the room space in which a mic’ed up cab would be recorded. The M1 has a cab simulated output so this was used. The results were promising. I had previously used a JCM800 to record with on other recordings and to my ears it sounded very close indeed. The real magic came for me when it was multi-tracked.
I have not recorded in earnest with the remaining pedals but I have played with them a fair bit. The F1 has a very Fender-like clean tone. I’m not sure it’s quite to my tastes but since I have only been using my Les Paul studio so far it was probably not the best guitar/amp match. The CN1 brings many tonal possibilities. In fact it can be confusing at first. My first tendency was to set it to maximum cab size and speaker magnet size which sounded big. It’s tricky to find the microphone distance and rotation sweet spot. I guess when I do commit anything to disk, I will try multi-tracking and using slightly different settings for each track.
My next device was the Ibanez TS9 Tubescreamer. This interacted with the M1 really well. The JFETs in the M1 really do behave like valves in this application and the saturation made for a really powerful and cutting tone yet still with that sweet analogue sound. I played with this for hours and I have to say, the TS9 has been my favourite pedal so far. I think sometimes people misunderstand Tubescreamers. They have to be used in conjunction with some kind of pre-amp stage to get the best out of them. In fact, I have found that its job is to help you get the best out of whatever it feeds.
I had been intrigued with distortion pedals for a while since I had only ever really used either a pre-amp or a simulated pre-amp, which mostly provided all the heavy tones I had needed. Many of my friends were talking about the Electroharmonix Big Muff fuzz pedal and I saw many a board which included one. I started researching. The original Big Muffs are huge in size, probably unnecessarily so. Real estate was at a premium on my little board so I looked at the “Nano” series. Comparison videos and reviews convinced me enough that there is no real advantage to using the much larger device. Of the various flavours of Big Muff, the tonal characteristics seemed very similar between their original and reduced size counterparts. After all, the boards are made up of simple analogue circuitry and so I saw no logical reason why using surface mount technology would yield wildly different results from through hole parts. Despite a friend of mine wanting to sell me his original Big Muff for a very reasonable price. I just couldn’t justify the space.
So after focusing on the nano series, I watched various videos which compared the different flavours. At the time there were three variants, namely the Original Big Muff Pi, the Op-amp Big Muff and the Green Russian. For my ears, it was a toss-up between the Op-Amp and the Green Russian. I found the original a bit dull sounding, certainly on the videos. Too scooped and no real mid-presence. The Op-Amp seemed very versatile if a bit harsher sounding. The original Op-Amp was used prominently on the Smashing Pumpkins Siamese Dream album and I always loved that guitar sound. Billy Corgan made a video comparing the nano Op-Amp with the original Op-Amp and this convinced me that I could have access to those types of tones with one on my board. However of all the videos I saw, the Green Russian appealed to me the most and I decided to go for one of those with a view to buying the Op-Amp as well at a later date, which as you can see from the picture, I duly did. The Green Russian has a massive, warm, powerful sound with out being too dull. I have not tried it with bass guitar yet but on the videos it sounds great. I am not a fan of many overly distorted bass sounds since many of them simply aren’t very good and they prevent the bass from kind of doing its job. The Green Russian seems to deliver though.
Since the fuzz pedals produce such a heavily distorted tone, I opted to primarily experiment with feeding them into the F1. They both sounded great and in very different ways. I could spend months exploring the rich tonal palette of one pedal alone so this setup will keep me going for a long time. I haven’t really tried stacking the two Muffs to any big degree. It gets very noisy very quickly. Feeding the TS9 into the Green Russian has been a favourite so far and a combination which I want to explore further. I’m not sure in general about the F1 though. I think it’s just the particular Fender tonal characteristics which aren’t entirely to my taste but I have different guitars with which I can try it. Maybe I haven’t yet found the tone setting which works well with the Les Paul.
Regarding clean tones, I was curious about compression pedals. Opinions seem to be mixed on them. I idly started investigating them when a friend of mine kindly gave me the Buddha Chakra. I have had a little play with it but as with the F1, I don’t think it suits the Les Paul. Humbuckers tend to provide a certain amount of natural compression anyway and mine are very hot as they are. I think it will have application when recording clean, picking guitar. Since the rest of the pedals each apply their own type and amount of compression, I don’t think an additional pedal will bring anything to the table but it may be good for certain lead work. There’s a lot more experimentation to be had with it. In itself, it’s a very nice analogue compressor and I am very grateful to my friend for it. It’s not plumbed in right now simply because I have run out of patch cables.
The final piece to this setup is subtle but very effective. The TC Helicon hall of fame mini I bought with the intention of only ever using for understated room type reverb. As I described above when recording with the M1, I added a subtle bit in the DAW. This way, I have the whole simulation on one board from pre-amp to cab to mic to room ambience. It works incredibly well. The HOF is a powerful pedal and can be reprogrammed using TC Helicon’s Toneprint technology. The stock sound is a large hall effect which is nice but I would never ordinarily record with reverb in an obvious way as it’s always better to add effects after recording. I reprogrammed it with a studio room setting. It just gives the sound that bit of body. It’s the only digital part of the chain and I decided it is to be the only time based/modulation effect but it really does sound great.
I am really looking forward to recording with this rig and with my rock band Crash Scene Flowers, it will be the perfect opportunity to lay down some huge multi-tracked sounds. It has been an exciting and educational journey so far and I have my eye on one or two nice additions or substitutions. It has been great to go (almost) pure analogue with it after years of multi-fx and modelling. It lacks the versatility of the GT-8 which is why I will continue to use that for live applications but for recordings, it provides me with some very powerful tools in the box.
I hope you enjoyed this article. If you have any similar experiences or suggestions, then I am always happy to read your comments. This is a fairly new part of my guitar playing journey and I’m learning all the time. Many thanks to my friends who have guided me so far. I am fortunate to know so many talented and knowledgeable people.