So, this place has been quiet a while. I happen to have picked up a new hobby in the past few months of trying to write terrible songs using terrible guitar and bass skills, and composing and all that fun stuff. Songwriting has been something that's interested me since high school, but lack of recording ability, instruments (bass, drums) etc has prevented me from realizing the complex sound I want to make. Also, lack of basic music theory to even know the basics of how to decompose a song and what makes things sound good. I'm beginning to rectify all this and I'm mainly using VST plugins and amp simulations. They solve a lot of problems like being automatically easy to record, and giving you variety for cheap.
I mainly started this cause I wanted to play guitar but didn't want to waste money on a cheap and usable, but probably terrible sounding amp. So, I used headphones and amp simulation software to make due until I could save for a real amp... Still waiting for that ;). If I ever have a surplus of money, I got a lot of stuff I'd like to buy, but at the same time, the struggle to not compensate for lack of skill with expensive equipment is very real.
Anyway, I wanted to write down here some of my recommendations and "tips".. I may eventually even write a series of blog posts about what I try, what works, what doesn't work, and other things as I attempt to learn guitar, bass, drums(MIDI), composing, songwriting, mixing, and mastering all at once. Don't take my word for fact on any of this. I'm definitely still learning, and just trying to write down something that might help someone who tries the same thing in the future. Also, apparently guitar players that don't play blues, country, or metal is apparently pretty rare on the internet. Why is that, anyway?
And because all of this will vary depending on playstyle, I like Brand New, the whole "pop punk" genre (yea, that's a terrible genre name like "emo") apparently like The Wonder Years, old school Green Day, Death Cab For Cutie, some R&B like Black Keys, and quite a lot in between.. Oh, and of course some some high school classics like old school Fall Out Boy and Panic!. So, I strive for rock but not metal, and acoustic but not country, eccentric but not "indie", complicated, but not overly processed. Just perfectly in-between.
So, assuming you have a guitar and want to get started without an actual amp, here's what you'll need. First off you need at least 2 pieces of hardware. A USB interface and something to monitor with. You can monitor with non-monitor headphones/speakers, but you'll get colored sound and trust me, it's a headache to try and correct for that. Buy some cheap studio monitor speakers or headphones. It's extremely helpful to have both.. but you'll strive for as many different sources as possible. You know a master is good when it sounds good in every source you throw at it, from your cheap bass-heavy headphones, to your car's cheap stereo system.
I haven't found pair of studio monitor speakers I can highly recommend. The ones I have don't really have enough bass, but they work good enough. My headphones (which I do recommend) is Audio-Technica ATH-M30X. My USB interface is a Focusrite Solo (make sure it has a instrument level input!). You can find them for a bit cheaper on ebay for some reason, though they appear to be brand new and factory shrink wrapped.
You should be easily able to get a decent USB interface and some kind of monitor for less than $200. Maybe less than $150 if you catch a sale like I did.
My DAW is Reaper, because it's cheap, has an unlimited trial/evaluation, and is very easy to use, despite having tons of features. It's trivial to get started with, but anytime you want to do something more complicated, you're just a google away from finding where the appropriate feature is located.
Now, the tough part. There are a literal shit ton of amp simulations out there. I'm pretty sure I've tried at least 50% of them that had free trials. Here I will try to sum up my thoughts on them.
This is what I currently use. Bias has tons of different amp models but the core piece of the amp puzzle is it's "tonestack". I've found the built in speaker simulation isn't the best, but it's good enough. Don't turn up the amp volume all the way. You'll get this really annoying hiss at around 3khz that will kill your ears. Instead, increase the output level if required and for most amps leave volume at 60% or less. There are quite a few good tones hiding in here, and everything is quite easy to tweak. It also has a nice trial system of no time limit, but giving you occasional silence. I think the super heavy amp sims sound pretty weak, but that's not the sound I'm going for anyway so I don't care much.
This is from Peavey, and having heard and experienced a nice Peavey growing up (my dad had one), I would definitely say ReValver gets pretty close to that mark. That being said, I couldn't get a tone that I personally liked out of it. This sounded pretty nice for classic rock and metal, but that's not the tone I was going for. I tried this for probably a weak before giving up. I just couldn't get the right kind of tone out of it. I might revisit it in the future however. It also can at least load external IR response libraries for speaker emulation and I like it's microtransaction payment model, since many times it seems like I'm only interested in 1 or 2 amp and cab models. Though there is a significant amount of things you just have to buy with no opportunity to try it out first. That's not cool. The circuit tweaking appears more powerful than Bias, but it is complicated to know what will even make a significant impact on sound since nearly everything is tweakable (and I have some electronics experience!). Swapping out tubes is simple enough, but changing resistors and caps seems like a bit of overkill.
POD Farm X2
This is one I was surprised to see missing from a lot of reviews. It's not great by any means, but I felt like it was definitely the easiest thing to get a usable, even if a bit mediocre, tone out of. I still use it for bass amp/cab simulation since apparently no other amp sim actually cares about bass and sticks with the typical "bass/middle/treble" setup, where "bass/low-mid/high-mid/treble" tends to work MUCH better. That being said, Line 6 is... Well, I'm a gamer and the first thing that comes to mind with them is EA (Electronic Arts). They'll nickle and dime you to death, and nothing that they do is super great, but it is at least passable. I upgraded to the paid version intending to get the DR-102 amp.. So, I plopped down $100. Now, I look for the amp sim... Hmm.. Not here, strange. Go look on the store. Oh, well I have to buy it separate. Hmm, All these amp sim packs seem to be $100... Wait, this one with all the other amps I'm interested in is a $200 package instead!? ok, fuck that. Refund time. (fun fact: I got a refund but for some reason their servers still think I'm licensed). The only other useful thing I found POD Farm had in their licensed $100 version is a not terrible bass overdrive pedal. All the other stuff that is in the base $100 version that isn't in the free version seems to be just not good.
I thought this would have great potential, but I never could get out of it what I wanted. I'll have to revisit it in the future to see if my better level of experience can let me tweak things better..
I really wanted to like this, I mean REALLY. The concept of just a few great amps rather than a huge variety is something I can get behind. However, I just couldn't get anything out of it. Every amp I tried seem to just have that "kinda metal really trebbly raw sound". I couldn't get anything that would be of use to me. It always just sounded too raw and required stupid amounts of EQ and notching to get it to sit in the mix without sounding terrible. I'm sure people will tell me I like things too "processed", but this is from a computer.. You don't have a chance to let the room absorb the noise, and I'd much rather the amp sim producer tame that for me with some processing rather than me, since I probably won't do as good of a job.
This is a great compressor that I still haven't quite got all the options mastered for yet. Use a compressor for everything! But don't use it too much! heh. But seriously, this compressor has a nice subtle color to it and the UI despite being confusing, actually makes a bit of sense after a while.
Other than Molot, I mainly use the Rea suite of plugins that comes with Reaper, they meet my modest needs thus far
Drum Mic'a (drums)
You have to wade through a German website to get this downloaded, but once it's downloaded, the actual program has an English option. This is the most realistic and nice sounding drumkit I've discovered to date. Get it into Reaper with Kontact, insert new MIDI item, select the time range for the MIDI item, solo the drumkit, make sure the playback is looped, and push play.. Now compose a drum loop. Coming from Hydrogen, an easy to use but terrible sounding drum machine, this thing is miles ahead, but you have to fiddle with your DAW a bit more.
I'll try to update this post when I find something new or discover something
Tips and tricks
Don't do the typical thing you'd do when playing guitar alone, turning middle down, and turning bass way up, and treble at 75%. It won't sound good in a mix. In a way, a lone guitar kinda should sound a bit harsh, but when it's in the mix it'll be what provides that nice upper end.
This may have to be it's own article one day, but this is my impression of the strings I've tried thus far (and YES, strings are important, don't skimp on them!)
DR Tite-Fit Medium (guitar/electric)
I tried these on a whim from a guitar center recommendation. I actually thought something was wrong with my guitar's pickups after this time. No brightness at all, just dead tinny bass on all strings. Absolutely garbage. Changing these out was the best thing that ever happened to my tone. I do intend to try these again since I do have an extra pack, but I'm really not hoping for much
Ernie Ball Regular Slinky (guitar/electric)
These are my typical goto strings. They sound good, though they don't seem to last a long time even with my light playing (I need to change every 2-4 weeks). They have a good low-end with that kinda "stringy" sound, but without being overly bright.
Ernie Ball Super Slinky (guitar/electric)
These are the lighter gauge version of the regulars. They are definitely easier to play, but tend to be more tinny and with more string buzz. Unless you're doing lots of solos and bending, I wouldn't recommend them much.
Ernie Ball Regular Slinky Cobalt (guitar/electric)
These are the new bunch. I was hoping they'd last longer, but after 4 weeks they're definitely needing a change. They seemed to degrade more evenly at least. The finger marks are pretty obvious on them, but they're definitely still playable. They are brighter than the non-cobalts, but surprisingly not significantly, and I think they have a bit better sounding low end and middle.. They're definitely interesting and I recommend anyone try them. Though they are more expensive, these are my favorite right now.
Ernie Ball Regular Slinky (bass)
I'm a lot newer to bass than guitar and still scouring for the right tone, but these did pretty well and sounded a lot better than whatever brand strings my bass came stringed up with. My only complaint is that the low E string tends to not quite give enough audible oomph. The other strings sound fine, but it seems like something is just off about the E string. I play in standard and half-step down tunings and it just didn't sound great in either of them on the E string
Ernie Ball Power Slinky (bass)
These feel very similar to the regular slinky, but gives that extra oomph I was looking for. They're still pretty bright (especially new), but the E string actually carries some weight behind it. These are thus far my favorite that I've tried. These definitely put a bit more stress on the guitar though, and standard tuning doesn't really seem right on them with their gauge. Half-step down sounds fine though, so it's good with me since that's mostly what I play.
Overall for strings, you're just going to have to try them. They're cheap and if you don't like them they're easy to change out. The only thing to be careful of is when using a significantly higher or lower gauge you may need to change your guitar's setup. But yea, don't skimp on them, and if your guitar sounds dead, try a string change. Some strings come out of the package dead even!
Anyway, I guess this is kinda the beginning of a series, eventually I'll get my blog updated so that I can treat it as a series appropriately. I want to share the kinda stuff I try, some sound clips, and maybe even provide some full projects that you can try yourself if you're that bored. Keep in mind I'm learning though, and this is basically just me live blogging my learning experience and documenting the moments when I think I've made a breakthrough.