After all, what am I simulating?
In 1989, the American sound engineer Andrew Bartta created the company Tech 21, creating the now very well known Sansamp pedal in the early 90’s, which introduced a new concept of amplifier modeling, analogically simulating the main equalization characteristics of 3 well-known brands of amplifiers, Fender, Marshall and Mesa-Boogie. With Sansamp, it was now possible to record online, directly with the instrument plugged into a soundboard or directly into the recorder, or to play live by plugging the guitar or bass directly into the PA system, giving for the first time the instrumentalist the opportunity to literally have at hand several amplifier options, very similar to the same models, if they were on stage or in the studio, microphoned. Since then, the music market has seen a veritable flood of products that simulate everything and everyone, and in the vast majority of cases end up delivering nothing of the sort. Again, this is not a post about simulators, but I want you to understand some of the basics when it comes to “simulation,” especially given the innovative features that the MOD platform currently offers musicians.
First of all, simulation is really nothing more than an attempt to recreate a certain specific tone/sound produced by (usually, tube) amplifiers that have become world-renowned over the past decades. Today, the simulation process, thanks to the incredible digital technology that permeates the most accessible equipment, allows you not only to have a simulation of a certain amplifier, but of types of speaker, different types and sizes of cabinets, microphone position (and mic type as well), room characteristics, among several other options. But, basically, the simulation of a certain type of amplifier tries to recreate a sound alternative based on, guess what? There it is again… Equalization. Yes, what characterizes the sound of an amplifier X or Y is the final sound result, which can have an attempt to reproduce using equalization parameters in the sound of your guitar, even if it is with other equipment that is very different from the simulated original. In other words, it is not enough just to choose the presets “Fender Bassman” or “Marshall Plexi” to think that you will have the sound ready and equal to the original (a sound like what, really? In electric musical instruments there are so many parameters of adjustment in sound production that, even if you physically get the same equipment, you will hardly be able to fully reproduce a certain timbre in a 100% identical way…). Some important considerations here:
-first, try before you simulate something, listen to some record or watch some video (in these times of YouTube and Instagram, there is no excuse…) where you see/hear the desired amp in the simulation. What characterizes the sound of a Fender Bassman? I wonder why Metallica used Mesa-Booggie amps on their heaviest and most classic albums? That Angus Young sound comes from Marshall heads plugged into 4×12 cabinets, what characterizes this sound so much? What about the sound of Brian May’s Vox amps? What is used by Andy Summers to have that clean, modulating sound in Police’s songs?
-ok, second part: just because someone is using one of the amplifiers mentioned above, for example, doesn’t mean that they will have the exact same sound as A or B, who use the same models. Well, it’s not enough to just put the preset and think the sound is ready, you have to dig and tweak and fix it! The sound of each one of these artists above is the result not only of the choice of amplifiers, but of the guitars, strings, picks, the position of the amplifiers and the microphones, effects, and, mainly, the personality of each one of these musicians.
I repeat, musical personality. What is musical personality? Just to help you understand in the clearest possible way, I went to the good old paper dictionary, and look how it defines “personality”: essential and unique character of a person. It is exactly this character, this way of doing something, and in the most specific case, doing it while playing an instrument, that makes you recognize B.B. King or Jeff Beck or Steve Morse or John Scofield, Billie Eillish, U2, Hendrix, Queen, Moby or yourself, in a few seconds of music, that makes you know how to distinguish the countless sounds that make up this sea of digital information in the Spotify era. Personality is everything. It is you, exposed, 100% face to face. No masks. And that is exactly what is most needed nowadays, as incredible as it may seem. After all, how can it be in an age with so many options and this endless variety of types of information, how can it be that we have so many people simply imitating the sound that few have created?
The answer to this question is long, tortuous, and beyond the scope of our humble blog post. But it is something you should think about, always. After all, why have so many options for simulators if most new guitar players have never listened to the originals? What exactly are they simulating? Just the names of the amps? Just because it is written that this preset simulates a Marshall does it sound like a Marshall? Does it?
I will leave here an example on the MOD platform, where you can play your instrument through different types of amplifiers and speakers. What are the basic differences between the Dyna 2×12, Freeman 4×12, Match Chief or Peav 4×10 options? use YOUR EARS, try to describe the sound nuances when playing, with the same instrument, these variations. Be creative!
You play what you are
Yes, it sounds like a self-help philosophy, but it is the absolute truth. There is no way to be different. You will never play like someone else, even in a “perfect” cover band. Of course you can emulate and simulate, consciously, because this is also part of the job of a professional musician. If I want, I can create specific sounds and tones that are known and used by other musicians and artists, because sometimes it is necessary for a recording or performance. But in these cases, consciously I am replicating, reproducing something that I know is not mine, but that I have the necessary references to create such voices needed for a certain work or gig. And I don’t want to spend the rest of my life doing that. At some point you will want, you will feel the need to create your own sound, your own timbre, your own unique voice.
The tone that you like and want to be able to reproduce is the product not only of a series of different pieces of equipment that cost a few thousand dollars, but also the result of study, phrasing, the way of playing, the way a certain musician thinks and listens to his music, his personality as a human being, his way of being. Some play in a more timid and restrained way, others have a powerful and giant sound. There are those who have more screaming tones, while many others prefer a more intimate and discreet sound. All this belongs to the mysterious circle of attitudes that make up a person. You will not have a different timbre from your personality. There is no way, because it will not sound genuine, true. The truth is that only a small part of the sound produced by any musician comes from the equipment. This is the truth that the industry tries at all costs to hide, because it is necessary to sell more and more new equipment. Of course new equipment is always welcome, but you don’t need to change everything you have to have a guitar sound with personality and originality. So use what you have now and gradually add new tools to your sound arsenal.
Next month I will bring specific examples of features about different types of digital amplifier and effects simulation. Stay tuned!
Guitar player, composer, Ph.D. in Music and Improvisation, Brazil