Have you ever heard a great sounding album and think “there’s just no way I could get my guitars sounding that awesome, how do Dave Otero, Devin Townsend and all the other producers do this?!!” Well, I am no professional but one thing I can say about 100% of real producers is that they all strive, fight and do everything possible for the best source material they can get.
What is source material? Well, source material is the information you feed into your DAW or whichever style recording rig you are working with. Your guitar, bass, drums, voice and every other instrument send source material to the DAW that can then be mixed, altered, processed and more into a finished product. Today however we are just going to talk about getting the best raw DI signal possible for guitar and bass but not just for your DAW, we want to help you improve your source material and signal across the board.
Having solid source material is important with analog and digital gear alike but with digital gear, a poor source can be exposed very quickly and it’s also much harder to deal with / hide from a mixing standpoint. Sadly many players focus more on the gear they feel they need to get the tones they desire but there’s a lot more to it before amps, cabs, pedals, modelers, plugins, processing and other factors come into play.
A lot of the factors we are going to discuss are seriously overlooked by many. I see user groups, forums and more full of questions / issues that come down to bad source material yet many of the suggestions they receive don’t involve the obvious issue, why? The problem is that while it’s fairly easy to explain why great source material is very important, it’s very difficult to explain how to properly attain it because much of it involves trial, error and experience.
I’ll be honest here, If you have poor source material, you aren’t giving any of your gear the fuel it needs to do its job and it’s very likely processing will have to be used to beef things up or in attempt to beef things up. Most gear is designed, tested and developed with a proper signal being fed into it to create the optimal conditions.
Many of the things on the list below fall under being crucial but they may not seem like crucial factors at a glance. When trying to decide what things are crucial to achieving great tone, I think about which factors can impact things negatively and significantly when they go wrong. Factors that can impact any set up no matter how expensive or any player no matter how talented.
As mentioned above, a great many things have to align to get great source material and some of it may seem pretty insignificant but I can guarantee that if the following things are in check, your source material will only get better. Let’s try and go in some type of order.
String gauge has been an intensely debated factor in guitar tone for decades. Some believe thin strings make for ideal tones and others believe heavy / thick strings get the job done in a superior manner. Personally, for rhythm guitar I prefer thick strings and for lead work, lighter strings work better but that’s personal preference.
The idea I follow most is really to strive to find the perfect balance of feel and resonance. This can be a long process of trial and error but finding the ideal strings for your needs will absolutely improve your playing and tone. String gauges are not so much crucial to good tone directly as they are a big part of the feel of an instrument. Having something that feels great to the player is still part of getting solid source material because it impacts the performance aspect.
Dull and old strings can kill great tone in its tracks and most players understand that the older strings get, the more dull they become. So why do I hear / see so many players playing with dead sounding strings?
Different brands last longer than others but eventually the dead skin and oils from your hands will take the life from all strings. If you are searching for bright tone with old strings, it’s not a wonder why it might not work out.
Strings can be quite expensive so having crisp strings 24-7 can be a bit of a challenge. Finding ways to get more life from a set can really help to stay on a tight budget. Here are three simple ways to maximize the duration of a set of strings.
- Wash your hands before playing your instruments
- Wipe down strings after playing with a dry towel
- Use a string cleaner / lubricator like FAST-FRET or something similar
We have covered pickups and the multiverse of reasons they are important to tone in our PICKUPS & TONE section located in the main menu. Anyone that tells you pickups don’t matter should instantly be struck from your list of trusted sources for advice. Pickups are very much a crucial component in any good guitar or bass tone so having at least intermediate knowledge on the subject really is essential.
Think of pickups like a microphone. You can take the best singers on earth, give them a $20 Radioshack microphone and no matter how well they are singing, the mic’s quality maxes out well before the quality of the singer’s voice. Bad pickups create similar obstacles in the way of create great tone. Is it possible to get good tone with bad pickups? Sure it is but you’ll work a lot harder to get it, it will be far more limited and it’s likely more processing will be needed.
Finding the right pickups for the genre / style you are after can be another world of trial and error but we at HASR have done all this trial and error so if we can be helpful in your pickup selection, never hesitate to contact us. The world of pickups is vast but we can help you figure it out! Please remember to see our pickup content for more info.
Many guitarists out there don’t know or care how to setup their instruments to play efficiently. No judgement here, messing with unfamiliar stuff can be intimidating. That said, I believe it’s imperative that all players know at very least the basics of how to set up their weapons for war.
To get started, the neck needs to be straight because nothing else can be done without it. Knowing how a truss rod works is essential because the necks on guitars can move so often with how heavily they are affected by climate and their surroundings. Whether it’s an overly dry place, an overly humid place, the stand or hanger the instrument is or a number of other factors, necks move and all players should know how to keep things in check.
Checking and adjusting the truss rod / neck tension is very easy to do. It’s a simple process that is explained literally thousands of times on YouTube. It’s very easy to check and even easier to adjust. It’s also pretty hard to do any kind of lasting damage during this process. Go slow, follow instructions and you’ll be fine.
Before getting to setting up your guitar or bass, check for fret issues. A raised or damaged fret can create chaos in your source material. Before getting to the following steps, any problematic frets will need to be repaired. It’s impossible to get the action, pickup height and many other things checked off the list with bad frets in the picture.
Fixing frets should be left to a professional but it’s not an impossible task to learn competently. It takes time, garbage necks for practice, fairly pricey files and lots of screwing up to even get a feel for so I always recommend consulting a pro for fret issues first.
Note: If you do decide to get into nut filing / cutting do NOT buy dirt cheap files as they only create more issues than they fix.
How an instrument is set up can make or break your source material in a heartbeat. Action is another huge piece of the well oiled tone machine many guitarists seek. Sure, a lot of how the action is set comes down to personal preference but if the action is too low, the strings will buzz out and if it’s set too high, pushing the strings to the frets will cause for notes to be bent sharp / out of tune. Find the happy medium and then adjust from there.
Part of doing the action is making sure the nut on your instrument is cut properly. If it’s cut too deep, the strings will buzz out at the first fret. If the grooves are too shallow, the strings will tend to bend sharp due to the large gap between the string and the first fret. Setting, adjusting, filing and really just anything to do with the nut is what I would call more advanced work that requires a lot of practice. Practice on a junk guitar a lot first.
Finding the right action for you is yet another thing in the world of guitar that just comes with experience. Trial and error is just the only way to know for sure and the DIY approach allows for players to better create a kinship with the instrument.
INTONATION / BE IN TUNE !
Being in tune should be a given right? Well how many times have you heard a band play out of tune? I have heard bands play out of tune on stage, on TV, on RECORDED ALBUMS and everywhere else. Get a reliable tuner and use it before every take while recording, between every song on stage and so on. Software tuners are a pain in the ass, get a reliable clip tuner for $20 and reference it often.
There’s more to it though. Have you ever been playing your guitar, tuned it up and then still had it play out of tune? It’s probably your intonation. It can be an incredibly frustrating experience for someone that doesn’t know what intonation is or how it’s fixed, I know the feeling well. Either way, if it’s out of whack, your source material will not survive.
This is just another thing about stringed instruments that seems a lot more complex than it really is. The simple version of “intonation” refers to the instrument being in tune all along the fretboard rather than just in one spot. An easy way to check the basic intonation of a guitar or bass is to hit a 12th fret harmonic and compare the pitch with a note fretted at the 12th fret. If the fretted note is sharp, the string needs to be lengthened if the fretted note is flat, the string needs to be shortened. Many fool-proof YouTube videos on intonation from experienced luthiers and techs are available for any style of learning.
How far your pickups are from the strings dictates how pickups respond to notes being played. Think of it once again like a microphone and how different mics have an ideal distance from the singer’s mouth. Most pickups have an ideal or “standard” distance to use as a starting point but ultimately it falls more under player preference.
Active pickups by design have to be much closer to the strings than passive pickups so the starting point for either will be different. All pickups are different! I have read people say things like “I always set my pickups at 1.5mm” which is silly because many pickups have very different optimal heights. There’s no universal height for all pickups, players just have to keep a screwdriver handy to find the right height. String gauge, pick thickness and personal style can all impact this factor so get ready for some…. yep, you guessed it TRIAL AND ERROR!!
POWER & CABLES
Like everything else, patch cables have different levels of quality. Cheap cables are fairly often made from lower quality components, invite more noise in and provide a lower quality signal so it’s easy to see how source material would be impacted. Every cable in the signal chain should be considered, including the cable connecting the interface to the computer.
Power issues in your recording space can add all sorts of fun to content with. Since these are very often issues outside of our control, having a good quality power conditioner should be part of any studio setup no matter how big or small. Power conditioners clean up your signal by cleaning up the power being given to your equipment while also protecting it from harmful surges.
INTERFACE / PREAMPS
A big part of the quality of an interface is usually measured by the quality of the mic preamps it houses. Sure there are other factors here as well but a good signal usually involves a good mic preamp.
When it comes to interfaces, having an input impedance of at least 1mohm is a very important factor in the quest for great source material because without it, there’s just not enough signal coming through to optimize the performance of your amp sims and more.
Following up on the interface, setting your input volume is another thing I would call crucial. Setting a proper input signal is one of the first things everyone should learn how to do with an interface.
I am not going to get too in depth on this one as there are probably hundreds of video on how to do it. Just make sure that it’s not clipping so there’s some headroom in the track. Headroom is how much room you have between the signal’s loudest point and the point of the signal clipping.
Learning how to set a proper input signal is a huge factor with literally every instrument you’ll ever record so take all the steps needed to ensure your input level is where it needs to be. Keep in mind that the ideal input level will change with different guitars and basses.
There are some out there that love the old line “it’s all in the player, not the gear” and other similar tidbits of wisdom. It’s not entirely correct but it certainly has merit. Good tone is not possible with poor picking technique because of the unwanted squeeks, squeals and other unwanted sounds that come along as a byproduct.
Every style of guitar seems to have it’s own different look at picking. Country has chicken picking, metal has trem-picking, chugs and pick squeals, lead work has sweeping and the list goes on. Not having the correct picking technique down means it will be harder to nail down certain tones.
Picking too hard, too soft, on a bad angle or inconsistently is another recipe for bad source material and a sure fire way to get on the nerves of anyone recording your playing. When recording all by yourself, consistent and proper picking will make a world of difference in the end result. Listen for scrapes and picking mistakes as they will often times stand out like a sore thumb in any mix.
The pick you choose can have a lot to do with your tone. The wrong pick for your style can end up creating unnecessary pick/string noise. This makes choosing the right pick material and thickness important. Every player plays better with a comfortable pick so when recording, try and use the picks you find best for you.
Giant thick picks made from stiffer materials can be comfortable to use but require more picking control. Every mistake or bad picking noise seems to sound bigger, more noticeable and more bold with a really thick and aggressive pick. it definitely takes some practice to get the attack right.
How you fret a note is always important no matter what gear / guitar you are playing. If your guitar/bass is set up properly, there shouldn’t be a whole lot of buzzing on the fretboard. Another culprit in the game of good / tone bad tone would be pushing too hard on the strings which will bend notes out of tune.
There’s no advantage in the world to holding the neck of your guitar like someone is trying to steal it from your hands so try to fret gently and smoothly. This can also include “lazy” playing where guitarists drag their hands around the fretboard causing lots of string noise. All of this can ruin source material.
MUTING / DAMPENING STRINGS
Part of playing guitar is string muting and it’s key for a number of reasons, source material being just one of the many. When a player doesn’t mute strings properly, it causes strings to ring out where they aren’t suppose to. When strings ring out, they will ring over the notes that are supposed to be the focus and thus ruining your source material.
This becomes exceptionally more important for lead work and solos as ringing strings will stand out even more. For this application, a string muter / dampener like Gruv Wraps, Billy Clips and even just a piece of foam or hair elastic will work in a pinch. This however is only an assistant rather than a fix as really learning to mute on the fly is the best answer.
I am the first to admit that I am not an expert of any kind when it comes to audio engineering but the list of things above is not just a list for professionals either. Everything on the list is achievable but most of it just comes with time. I hope by providing a few ways to clean things up and troubleshoot problems, we can help to take your tone and mixes to another level.