You can get usable tones from an amp simulator like Amplitube.
I know that this is a sacrilege, but it is possible to get a nice guitar sound from an amp sim. While my first inclination is always to mic up my amp, and I’d rather just do that if I am working on a very sparse mix where every little detail of the amp can be heard, guitar amp simulators like Amplitube are definitely useable.
What are the advantages of using an amp simulator?
You can set it up quickly. Placing mics up on the amp is a lot more time-consuming and allows for much more error than plugging into your interface and pulling up a sim.
You can just use it to monitor. When I’m in a rush, I like to track my guitar with Amplitube, then once I’m done editing everything, re-amping the track. I turn off the sim, route the guitar through an output on my interface and into my amp, then mic up the amp and record. It sounds exactly like it would should I have cut the track with the amp in the first place, and is much easier to edit (especially if I want to use the amp’s spring reverb.
No bleed into vocal or drum mics.
What are the disadvantages of using an amp simulator?
When used improperly, they can sound horrible. I’ve had sessions that were started with scratch tracks using Amplitube and the guitars sounded terrible. The only way around this is to have a nice bank of presets that go to as soon as you launch it.
They will use some CPU resources.
Snobs. You’ll get purists that will turn their noses up at you and claim that your guitar sounds like crap without even listening to it. Again, people listening with their eyes instead of their ears.
Can a Modded MXL 990 Compare to a More Expensive Mic?
My MXL 990 Mod vs. a Blue Baby Bottle.
After I completed my mod, I ran both the MXL 990 and my Blue Baby Bottle through my Apollo Twin to compare. While the Baby Bottle is by no means an expensive mic, it is a very nice-sounding mic indeed. I have used it for a couple years, and know its sound very well. I figured that I could tell what the MXL should sound like in comparison to it.
The differences that I heard.
First, there was a significant difference in output between the two mics. The MXL had about -6db less output than the Baby Bottle, which made it a bit of a pain to set the gain for. Once I finally got the levels pretty similar, I noticed that the Baby Bottle had a bigger bottom end in comparison to the MXL, but the MXL 990 was much more defined in the high end.
Take a listen yourself.
I did one take of the first verse of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City.” Not the best performance of my career, but definitely works to showcase the differences between the mics.
I’ve never modded a piece of gear before. I have soldered guitar and XLR cables, and I’m somewhat technically inclined, but I have no training whatsoever.
The MXL 990 Mod
There are a load of mods that one can do to this mic, but I’ve read that 90% of the sound is determined by the capsule, so I decided to switch out the capsule with an RK-47 from Microphone-Parts.com. Apparently, the RK-47 is a take on the capsule from the U47 capsule, and is supposed to be extremely defined and clear, without being harsh.
Performing the actual mod on the 990
Installing it was a breeze. The only part of the entire mod that I found challenging was the soldering of the wires to the board. If you’re even remotely skilled with a soldering iron, you’ll probably have an easier time with it than me.
The Focusrite ISA 220 is one of many channel strips that have be born of Rupert Neve’s ISA 110 design of the 1980’s. It is a lush, 3d, rich preamp/di that also features EQ, Compression, a De-esser, and a limiter. For whatever reason, not many people in the recording community know about it, and its price has remained fairly reasonable. It has been discontinued, and used units go for around $800 USD.
It has a glassy, lush high end that goes very well with DI guitars. I’ve been able to do recordings with this as a DI, then ran it through Amplitube, and was able to get a convincing guitar/amp sound that no one ever took for a DI guitar. All of the guitars on this track were done with this preamp running through Amplitube: The Nearing – Two Strangers.
I have never recorded bass with it. It would definitely work on bass, but I have a Focusrite ISA One that I prefer on bass. I find that the ISA One has a bigger bottom end than my Art Pro MPA II. Now, if I were going for an overdriven, present rock bassline, I would reach for this, but I don’t really record that much of that kind of music.
What about on vocals?
I think it sounds great on bright microphones. It probably wouldn’t be my first choice if I wanted to get R&B style vocals with lots of sheen, since I have the ISA One for that, but it’s definitely usable with any mic that I own.
I really like this preamp. I have preamps both more and less expensive, yet I continually use this one. It has a nice effect on sources whose content is primarily in the mid range (vocals, guitars, amps,) and I’ve found it useable on sources such as bass depending on the application
In marketing programs, there is talk about the Coca-Cola paradox. In blind taste tests, people prefer Pepsi over Coke. However, in taste tests where the participants know what they are drinking, they choose Coke. Why?
The feelings that the Coke brand elicits from drinkers make the difference. The ads, the design of the can, the classic logo, all of them contribute to override your taste buds, making your think that you like their soda more than the Pepsi.
There is a lot of this in audio. We all have the idea that a certain classic album was recorded with a certain microphone or preamp, and in turn, start to believe that a recording sounds better because that piece of equipment was used.
The Sound on Sound Preamp Shootout
In October of 2012, Sound on Sound did a preamp shootout. The idea was to use a player piano that played the exact same performance every time, with the same microphones, but different preamps. The preamps were:
ART Pro MPA II
GP Electronics PML 200E
Maselec MMA 4XR
AMS Neve 1073LB
SSL XLogic VHD
Mackie VLZ Pro
Participant Impressions vs. Reader Impressions
One of the most interesting aspects of the article was about how they thought that certain units sounded better than others while they were doing the shootout. In essence, some of the more inexpensive units sounded “cheap” while some of the more expensive ones sounded “fuller”—all impressions by presumably experienced audio engineers. None of these impressions held up once the readers of the magazine got hold of the files used for the article. Unmarked files were made available for readers to rate, and the staff posted the results at the end of the month.
For the tests done with the condenser mic, most highly-rated preamp out of the bunch was the $299 ART Pro MPA II, a unit that readers preferred over units costing 8x more. What is most remarkable about this was the similarity between preamps costing very little (one can get 8 channels of the Mackie VLZ Pro preamps for $100 on eBay) and famous preamps such as the AP! 2124+. What is even more remarkable is that the staff “heard” the preamps differently based on what unit was actually being used.
Try It Yourself
Sound on Sound has the files available for download here. Give them a listen and tell us what you hear. Before checking out which file is which, do you hear the difference? Is it still worth dropping thousands on a new preamp?