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Most guitar players know that an amp with a speaker (real or emulated) is a critical part of a great guitar tone. In fact, you might even find that many players scoff at the idea of recording without an one. And while they may be right that recording “direct in” won’t get you a great conventional tone, it can get you a great unconventional one. Not only that, but recording direct opens up a variety of creative possibilities that an adventurous guitar player or recording engineer can add to their repertoire.
The speaker within a guitar amp has quite a few effects on your tone. Perhaps most importantly, each speaker adds its own sort of “EQ curve” to the sound of your guitar. This usually smoothes out and re-voices the midrange, bumps some low end, and cuts off high frequencies. The speaker also physically moves slightly slower than some of the audio signal that it receives, which smooths out transients. On top of all that, each speaker adds its own subtle compression and distortion to your guitar sound.
Doing away with this part of the signal chain therefore really has a not-so-subtle effect on your tone. You might find that going direct your guitar sounds pluckier, brighter, and probably lamer. But with the right finesse, you can get some really interesting guitar tones that would not be possible with an amp. In fact, many bands have been recording direct or “straight into the board” since the inception of modern recording.
One way to get a great unconventional guitar tone direct is by overdriving (yes, that means intentionally clipping) your audio interface’s preamps. Typically speaking, we’re taught to avoid clipping at all costs—and it’s true that clipping can be disastrous. But when used intentionally for a guitar tone, that exact distortion that can ruin a perfect vocal take can make your guitar sing.
So try plugging your guitar straight into your interface’s guitar input and turn your gain knob all the way to 10. Your guitar will clip like crazy and a mean fuzz tone will result. One result of both the distortion type (clipping) and the lack of a speaker is a “hairy” tone with present upper midrange.
Here’s a clip with a telecaster straight into Spire Studio’s preamps cranked all the way up. Note that rather than using Spire Studio’s Soundcheck feature (which will ensure a clean and clip-free recording), you’ll have to manually set the gain to 10.
So you can clip straight into your interface preamps—what else can you clip? The short answer is pretty much anything as long as it’s output is guitar level or line level (that means don't plug your guitar amp’s power output directly into your interface!). You can look into external preamps (which can all have different sounds depending on their design) guitar pedals (like overdrive and fuzz pedals) and beyond.
Here’s a clip of a Stratocaster into clipped external preamp plugged into Spire Studio’s line level input. Note the subtly different timbre: a different midrange, and an even “harrier” sound than just overdriving Spire Studio’s preamps.
Now that we’ve found a really interesting direct fuzz tone, here it is with a rhythmic delay dialed in from Spire Studio’s “Big Air” pedal. Combining recording effects with direct tones is a great way to expand your palette even more.
As we talked about earlier, one of the results of omitting a speaker from your guitar’s signal path is a wider frequency range, especially in the high end. This can result in a more high-fidelity, or “airy” sound. You can use this to your advantage and bring out different sounds from your guitar pedals.
Here’s a clip of a clean direct guitar tone drenched in reverb. Hear the way that the reverb shimmers without a speaker.
While recording guitar direct might not be the perfect sound for every song, this technique can yield some really interesting tones that might be just what you need to spice up your recording. So try these techniques out for yourself and find out how these sounds could fit into your music!
Lastly, don’t forget that nothing musical exists in a vacuum; think about how these sounds could compliment your music and fit into the bigger picture of your recording. While these direct sounds are really cool, too much of them might fatigue a listener, so find that balance for yourself.