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Thick and Crunchy Guitar Distortion Without Using an Amplifier or Effects Pedals

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Read Time: 5 min
This post is part of a series called Producing Guitar: From Recording to the Finished Product.
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In this tutorial we will explore how to produce a nice thick and crunchy distorted guitar sound using nothing more than your guitar plugged straight into your soundcard, a freeware guitar amp modeling plug-in and some step-by-step technical wizardry. For this tutorial I'll be using Cubase 4, but the principals would be the same in any audio sequencer.

Note: this tutorial contains embedded audio that will not display in a feed reader. To hear audio, click back to the tutorial or download the Play Pack for this tut (scroll down to the end).

Step 1

First, start a new project and set up a mono audio track by right clicking in the track area and choosing "Add audio track", then choose "Mono". In Cubase, if you have not already done so you will need to set up a mono bus. To do this, go to the devices menu and choose "VST connections" / "Add mono bus", then click on the newly created bus to choose the input for this bus from your soundcard (this would be the input that your guitar is plugged into, usually "Mic In"), then close the window.

The next thing you need to do, as shown in the image below, is select "Mono in" on the audio track input/output panel on the left. This routes the mono input bus to the audio track.

Step 2

Next, record your guitar part. In this case I'm recording over 8 bars. I've dragged the left and right locator flags to bars 3 and 11 as a visual reminder when to start playing. I will press the record button (on the transport bar) slightly before, but start playing at bar three.

Step 3

In the picture below you can see the recorded audio. Listen to the dry guitar riff below:

Step 4

Keep things tidy by trimming the track to bar 3-11 by dragging the white boxes in the bottom corners of the audio track.

Step 5

If we play back the track now we will hear that it is the dry clean sound of the guitar straight into the sound card.

We could have used a microphone to record the sound of the guitar played through an amp, but another alternative is to apply a VST amp modeling/distortion plug-in as an insert effect.

IKMultimedia AmpliTube would be a superb plug in for the job, but there are also some great freeware alternatives, including the mighty Green Machine CM (a freeware version of the Green Machine Amp VST included with Computer Music Magazine) and this is what we will use now. Or, you can download a 30-day trial of the full-version.

Click the edit button for the audio channel, and in the channel settings window, browse for your distortion/amp modeling plug-in by clicking on the insert effects panel.

Step 6

Here I have selected the "Power Smoke" patch. It's nice and crunchy without being too fuzzy. The resulting sound is good--but still a bit weedy sounding.

We need to beef-up the sound by double-tracking, which means recording another guitar track, played exactly the same as the first but on another track. Simply copying the first track to another track will not sound as good, because it is actually the slight variations in timing of two separate audio tracks that creates a subtle chorus type effect.

Once we have recorded the two seperate tracks we will pan one of them hard left and the other hard right. This is the key to the sound we are after.

Step 7

Right-click on the audio track and select "Duplicate Tracks". This will copy the first track and audio, including the inserted Green Machine CM plug-in, to another track.

Step 8

As I have explained, we don't want the audio from Track 1 as we are going to re-record the guitar part on Track 2, so use the eraser tool to delete the duplicated audio in Track 2.

Step 9

Now we have erased the duplicated audio in Track 2, we are ready to re-record our guitar part.

Step 10

Using the same methods from Step 1, record the guitar part again and trim the audio to keep things tidy. For best results, make sure to play the guitar part exactly as you did in Track 1. This will keep things nice and tight.

Step 11

Select Track 1 and on the left hand side of the panel for that audio track drag the pan slider all the way to the left.

Repeat this procedure for Track 2, this time panning it all the way to the right.

This is sounding a lot thicker and crunchier now, but our work is not quite done. We can enrich the sound by routing the outputs of both tracks to a group track and adding a plate reverb effect to the group track. In addition to a great-sounding result, another advantage of this is that the volume of the group track will then control the volume for both guitar tracks and they can still be adjusted relative to each other. Any effects on the group track will be applied to any tracks routed to it.

Step 12

Add a group track by right-clicking in the track panel and selecting "Add group channel track".

Step 13

On each audio track, on the panel that says "Stereo out", click and select "Groups-group 1". This routes the output from the tracks into the group track.

Step 14

Now click the edit button for the group track and add a reverb effect as an insert effect, with the wet mix set to about 10%. In this case I have used Steinberg's RoomWorks with a vintage plate patch. This adds a nice finishing touch to the sound.

Step 15

Listen to the finished product:

Hey presto, we have a decent guitar sound without even going near an amp! You could further enhance the sound by experimenting with the EQ for each track, probably rolling off some sub-bass and boosting some of the mids. Use your ears, and go with whatever sounds good to you!

Download the Play Pack for this tutorial (3MB)


  • Audio files
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