Virtually all composers using a computer based DAW use at least one keyboard to create their music. Many also have a guitar. For some time it’s been possible for composers to use the huge number of excellent sample libraries to create a wide range of instrumental sounds which, with careful arrangement, can and do sound pretty authentic. So while many composers spend all their time wrangling their sample libraries the poor old guitar gets left in a dusty corner. I, I should hasten to add, am not one of those people. I use my guitars a lot in my compositions. Sometimes the guitar sounds like a guitar but many times it’s very un-guitar like and used for pads, soundscapes, sound effects or to support some other component of the music. It all helps to add a more organic and three dimensional feel to the end result.
So where do I start with my guitar mangling. The first thing to say is that I have developed, and keep developing, a portfolio of sounds that I’m comfortable working with and know how to use. The second thing to say is that I’m often after something that will complement the other components of the music, so more Sigur Ros than Steve Vai. I’m a Logic Pro user but my techniques are applicable to all DAWs. I use Logic’s superb in-built plugins, world class plugins like Native Instruments Guitar rig, some really good free plugins, such as the Atom filter, and my collection of hardware effects and pedals. When it comes to the actual guitar more often than not it’s the electric guitar I reach for but acoustic can give interesting results also.
For something like a pad sound I tend to lose the fast attack of the guitar, I use a volume pedal or sometimes play the guitar volume knob as I play, or some envelope effect. Delays and reverb play their part as do modulation effects. I often use the shimmer setting (dense reverb/delay with pitch shifting) available on a number of plugins and hardware pedals. If something with a bit more aggression is required distortion is added, but I try not to overdo that as distorted guitar takes up a lot of frequencies. I use simple tremolo a lot as well, often at extreme settings, with a bit of distortion and pitch shifting you can achieve a nice, organic, synth-y sounding pulse. Sync-ing with the DAWs tempo plays its part here too. A filter with a very slow rate, maybe 1 or more bars, can also be very effective. For more ‘out there’ sounds and effects things like reverse reverb, granular processing and pitch shifting can take your guitar mangling to new levels. Disrespecting the guitar strings also can yield good results. Scraping, hitting and if you can rustle one up a cheap violin bow will all add to the available sonic textures. Sometimes it’s only necessary to have these new sounds really quite low in the mix to add that extra interesting dimension, particularly when you’re supporting other components.
Using the above techniques to create a new sampled instrument in something like Kontakt or Alchemy can also be very rewarding. I would encourage everyone to create their own sampled instruments, whatever their source instrument. It’s a great way of adding something that adds to the uniqueness of your sound and it’s a great way to learn the ins and outs of these powerful instruments.
The added bonus to all this is of course you can use your own synth plugins as the sound source and have them mangled in the same way. There is something, however, about the guitars basic tone that allows it to carry a lot or effects processing more successfully than synth tones which are often very harmonically rich and can overwhelm the effects chain. You don’t need an expensive guitar either. Brilliant guitars are available from Squier, Ibanez, Yamaha and many others for £200 new or less. Gumtree and Ebay are also a good source of instruments at the cheaper end of the market. Think for a moment how much we all spend on plugins and sample libraries! So all power to the guitar as a new way to generate interesting and musical sounds. Remember there are absolutely no rules and (wild) experimentation is to be encouraged. There are some fabulous new sounds waiting to be discovered!