Digital guitar processing: uncolored in, colored out

Back in the day we used this old saying: “you can’t fix it in the mix.” This is no longer true today since we can fix almost anything in the mix. Nowadays most people record in such a way that everything will be edited and fixed later on. It’s like photoshop, it’s all about processing.

So we changed the way we record music because of technology. It opens new ways to do things. Thanks to that, nowadays we have more control over sound than back in the old days. Something that has affected me a lot as a guitar player. Having much experience and knowledge about these things it gave me the idea to write about digital guitar processing in a series of blogposts. I hope you like it!


RAW recording

The way we record audio nowadays is like how most photographers and videomakers record as well: using a RAW, uncompressed format. Most DAW systems will record in either 24 bit or 32 bit floating which allows a lot of room for postprocessing.

Using this method for recording guitar totally changes the way amp-like tones can be produced. Not only is this true for recording guitars, the same method is used when using a Line6 Helix or a Kemper Profiler for example. The key to this method is that the guitar runs through an interface which does not color the sound at all.

All interfaces today are capable of capturing a super clean noise-free signal from your guitar by using a direct cable connection from the guitar straight into the interface.

I will always record with the volume control(s) and tone control(s) fully open. Maybe only when choosing 2 pickups together I might adjust the volume for the right amount of blend, but in general I want to capture the hottest fully uncolored signal from my guitar. I check the peaks using the meters of my interface and set the gain of the pre-amp on the interface just a tiny bit below clip level (just before it goes over 0 dB).

No impedance weirdness

A traditional guitar signal using amps and pedals creates a colored signal not only because of the amp and the pedals but also because of the impedance differences between them.

Every step in the signal chain changes the tone. For example when using an old Fuzz Face pedal you can clean up the signal which goes brighter when you lower the volume on your guitar. Buffered pedals keep the high-end of your guitar more or less in tact compared to pedals without a buffer which might lower the high-end of your signal.

When processing the guitar digitally this is no longer the case. Lowering the volume on your guitar will not introduce impedance colorisations it will simply be a matter of less volume and more noise will be introduced as a result.

You should see the signal chain between guitar and interface as an uncolored connecting, while the signal chain between guitar, pedals and amp is a colored connecting where every step in the signal chain might have a huge impact on the sound.

It’s all post-processing

The key to digital processing is: convert a signal into a digital signal as clean and uncolored as possible. This signal we can then post-process in any way we’d like.

When creating it’s often hard to make the right decisions and thanks to post-processing we later choose the right sounds. A guitar part we’ve recorded for example in 2016 can be processed with the latest plugin from years later.

Or you can send your RAW-tracks to a producer or engineer who chooses the perfect guitar sound for your track. The possibilities are way more flexible than the old way of working where everything was committed during recording.

This way of working opens a whole new world for us guitar players. And this is just the beginning.

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