Back at last – I kindof took the summer off from recording, as I had a lot of stuff going on. It was a bummer in a way, but it also meant I could get some distance and come back to the tracks with some objectivity. This week I was back to recording, and I was happy to find that a) the tracks were in decent enough shape as is, and b) thanks to learning a lot more about production over the last little while I was finding many ways to make them better.
What I have been doing musically in the last couple months, however, has been exploring more tones, and specifically, guitar pedals.
Since the software I use comes bundled with many, many effects, I’ve been happily using a bunch of them on recordings. However, there’s nothing like sitting down with a specific pedal – doing it the old analogue way – and really learning its strengths and subtleties. My priority has been distortion pedals, since they can be so fundamental to a guitar’s character. So far I have six dedicated distortion pedals, which run in a kind of loose spectrum of heaviness.
I should mention, first of all, that I use a great program called Guitar Rig when I play through my computer. It has a bunch of famous amps simulated – also very fundamental to a guitar’s color – plus a ton of effects based on famous pedals. It makes for a nice preview of certain effects before working out if you want the real amp or pedal. Otherwise, you can just bring your laptop to a show, plug in direct, and simulate all of this high-priced equipment. The program can be overwhelming in the amazing range of options, and I still feel like I’ve only skimmed the surface – perhaps I’ll talk more about it at a later date.
I’ll start with the first distortion pedal, then, the Boss SD-1 Super Overdrive:
“Overdrive” is the weakest type of distortion, and it’s good for classic rock and blues. I’ll play some Pearl Jam leads, and if you put the gain down really low it’ll give a bit of grit to a clean electric guitar. I was recently learning “Broken Levees Blues” by DJ Shadow (although he might have sampled it from another blues song) and the SD-1 really helped. I’m not sure how the SD-1 ranks among overdrives – the Ibanez Tube Screamer is the really famous one – but I’m perfectly happy with it so far.
Next we have the Boss DS-2 Distortion:
This is actually the successor to a pretty famous pedal, the DS-1, which has an extra setting for solos, with pronounced mids. Now, when you say “distortion” it can be an all-encompassing term, but it’s actually also a specific effect. The DS-2 is a great, all-purpose distortion, which sounds fairly standard simply because it’s been used on about a million records over the years, from Steve Vai, to Nirvana, Foo Fighters, RHCP, and ton of other artists. It’s great for those dirty Nirvana bar-chord riffs, but solos too, and if you turn the gain right down it’s almost like an overdrive. If nothing else, I’d say it’s the most all-purpose, versatile distortion pedal I own.
The Digitech Grunge pedal is something of a modern classic…
It’s similar to the DS-2 in many ways, but has a specific dirty, biting quality to it i.e. grungy. However, you can’t turn down the gain as with the DS-2 and use it as an overdrive, so in a way it’s a one-trick pony. This was one of the first pedals I got, and admittedly, since I’ve adopted the DS-2 it’s kind of a forgotten child of mine. However, I’m sure I’ll return to it, and I’ll also mention another great quality: when you use it with a flanger it sounds incredibly spacey.
The next pedal might be the most famous of all – it’s called the Big Muff Pi, and I have a more compact modern re-issue:
This is in a different category from overdrive and distortion…this is a “fuzz pedal”. This has also been used by many artists on many recordings, and may come across as a one-trick pony at first with its creamy, sustained, messy fuzz. I’ve found that it’s good for a few things, however. The first is, of course, the wall of fuzz, which sounds great when playing Smashing Pumpkins, for example. Actually, I have trouble turning this thing on and not playing the main riff to “Cherub Rock”. But it’s also great for leads, and playing the solo to Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” sounds incredible. Lastly, it’s good for bass guitar. There’s a bass version available, but the original sounds fine – it’s great for grinding, punky bass lines.
Death By Audio are a young company, making hand-made pedals out in Brooklyn, and I’ve got the Fuzz War:
This almost seems half way between the DS-2 and the Big Muff Pi, having both the grit and mess of a fuzz pedal, with the bite of a distortion pedal. This best of both worlds is good for bar chords, and perfect for anything with a garage quality. However, higher-pitched solos don’t seem to work as well with the DS-2 or Big Muff…the pedal seems to lose its character unless you get pretty aggressive up in the higher registers. As with the Big Muff Pi, the pedal is also great for grinding bass.
At the end of the spectrum is the Danelectro Black Coffee Metal Distortion:
This was something I bought when I was a teenager and basically wanted the heaviest thing I could find (before I realized that heaviness, energy, or aggression, has do with a bunch of different things in a song). Danelectro are on the cheaper end of pedal manufacturers, but this is by no means bad – like the Grunge pedal it sticks to a certain tested sound with not much variation. It’s good for modern metal of any kind, or some Pantera etc. Long term, I would probably check out a Boss metal pedal, but at the moment the heavy stuff I’ve recorded is more hard rock than strictly metal…as a matter of fact, I think many of the original hard rock and metal bands just used overdrives anyway.
So those are the six pedals. I actually have my eye on the Boss Mega-Distortion, which is known for nu-metal chords – something I’m not that into – but also good for Tool-like leads which could be fun. This seems like it could be the last link in the distortion spectrum. I also want to check out more overdrive pedals at the other end, as I’m sure you get a lot of subtlety. Have I actually been using all of these pedals on my recordings? Well, not yet…the finished stuff I’m working on at the moment is more acoustic, so I’ve been using Guitar Rig for clean electric tones, and of course recording acoustic guitar. However, these pedals are all part of the many musical explorations that I’ve been making.