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6/07/2010

The must-have package - Intro

A new guitar era has begun. The futurist guitarist now has a myriad of new options to express himself, with astounding technological opportunities. A myriad of new tricks the 70's and 80's guitar icons would have given their fortunes for. Playing the guitar nowadays is no longer limited to the amplifier-pedals-guitar trio. A new element was born to integrate a perfect quartet: the personal computer.


Personal computers are everywhere. And they can do everything. Helping musicians is no exception. In fact, even in this branch, PCs have become so complete and powerful that they can even ultimately replace the other 3 elements of the perfect quartet I mentioned. Yes! Even the guitar itself! You don't believe? Keep reading...


A whole new world of software for guitar players makes it possible to transform your PC into an amplifier and pedals rack. Without going into all the details right now, you basically only need an interface to "transform" ("convert") the jack of your guitar into some sort of PC soundcard jack or, even better, a USB cable (more on this later). Furthermore, if you don't even have a guitar but want its sound, there are several software options that give you a guitar sound from scratch.


But now you ask... what are the advantages of software versus their "real" old-school counterparts? Well, space saving, money saving and versatility are some advantages. But my two favorites are these: 1 - software never gets broken nor outdated (especially the one with regular patches/updates); 2 - software is highly customisable and in most cases allows non-destructive tweaks: what I mean by this is you can play your guitar, record it and then choose the guitar gear you played with, without definitely changing the recorded sound. This way you can experiment with endless amplifier-pedal sets without having to play again for each try.

Ok, now what do you need? Quite simply, two things: an interface and...software!


Interface

If you have a guitar, this part is a must. Without it you won't be able to use any software at all. Although you will need to put some money on it, the range goes from a few bucks to a couple of hundred (or even thousand!) dollars. But rest assured: you DON'T need to spend a fortune to get professional sound! Not even close!!
Now, there are basically two ways to set up your PC for your guitar:
- You can buy an adapter to go between your 1/4'' guitar cable and your 1/8'' PC soundcard input (costs two or three bucks)
- You can buy an interface that receives the sound of your guitar and sends it to your PC via USB (best-quality option)
(- actually, there is a third: firewire. But this requires special cables AND a new soundcard. It's a bit more complex. I don't want to get you confused. The other two options are, in my opinion, enough for you)


You can choose either, but my personal reccomendation is a USB interface - it gives you more quality on your sound: FAR less electronic noise added to your tone. And you can get a USB interface that does the job just fine for an almost-symbolic price. There are very expensive interfaces too, but their price goes off the roof because of their additional features (plenty of buttons, a bunch of software CDs coming along in the box, blablabla...). You can get software alternatives for free on the net. So, all you really need is an interface that has a low noise-to-signal ratio, that is, that adds as little unwanted noise as possible. The rest is by the way. ;)
By now, I can give you one suggestion. The Behringer UCG102 Guitar-to-USB Interface. It goes for around 35 dollars on ebay, and it does the trick. Please note I used this example because it was the cheapest I could find. But cheap in this case doesn't mean bad. As I said, the difference between the cheapest and the most expensive has more to do with the additional rings & bells that come along than the essence of the gadget: its "guitar-signal-to-PC-signal conversion". Even the cheapest gadgets in this field can do that conversion pretty much as well as their top-end cousins.
This interface, like most of them, comes with some basic software like a multi-track DAW (Digital Audio Workstation, a program you use to manage, record and edit the different tracks of a song you are recording) and some amplifiers/effects modelling software (which allow you to set up your own virtual gear, choosing from a variety of amplifiers and pedals from within the program). They may not be the best in the world, but they can be a start for you. We'll discuss some good free alternatives later on.


Now, just so you get familiarised and know what people are talking about if you do some net research, I'll give you a few names of widely known interfaces that are a little more expensive:


  1. Lexicon Omega Desktop Recording Studio

  2. M-Audio Fast Track Pro Mobile USB Audio/MIDI Interface

  3. Digidesign Mbox 2 USB Audio/MIDI Pro Tools LE Interface

  4. Lexicon Lambda USB Desktop Studio

  5. M-Audio MobilePre USB Portable Audio Interface

  6. M-Audio Fast Track USB Computer Recording Interface

  7. TASCAM US-1641 USB 2.0 Audio/MIDI Computer Interface

  8. Digidesign Mbox 2 Factory Bundle

  9. Line 6 TonePort GX USB Recording Interface

  10. Lexicon Alpha USB Desktop Recording Studio

As a matter of fact, these are the top 10 best sellers on guitar center.


Software

Now that you have a way to connect your guitar to your computer, you only need a way to make it sing! Now, this time I'll start by mentioning a few all-around names of software packages that give you modelling:



  • Amplitube

  • Guitar Rig

  • POD Farm

  • Waves GTR

  • ReValver MkIII

  • Simulanalog Marshall JCM900 (free)

These are arguably the six most respected brands on this field. If you know about amplifiers, I can tell you Amplitube made a partnership with Fender and both developed Amplitube Fender, a product that reproduces very realistically several top-end Fender amplifiers; ReValver was developed by Peavey itself, and it is the best at reproducing Peavey amplifiers; Simulanalog Mashall JCM900 has no partnership nor direct relationship with Marshall, but I've realised the vast majority of users state it is the best solution to give you the feel of this classic Marshall amp.

Ok... but what about those free solutions? Right. If there was one I would put on the top of the list, it would be...


  • Simulanalog Marshall JCM900
No big surprise ;). What else? Well, there are hundreds... Most of them seem too primitive right from the start just by the way they look... Ok, look at this list. Alright, I'll give you a list!!... :P

There is a bunch of interesting options on this site too: http://guitar-sound.info/

I'm not giving you an explicit TOP whatever, because there are hundreds if not thousands out there. And there is not an urge to know the best right away, since you can try any of the free software very easily. All I can help you with is a starting list for you to start your own road to find programs that please you.

One last note... What about playing a guitar without having one? Well, there is software even for that. I won't write too much about it, but I can give you an example of a program that does just that: RealGuitar. Listen to some samples here. Amazing, huh?

Hope this helps you on your quest ;). Next, I'll do a metanalysis of the best paid/non-paid programs, I'll talk about other technological wonders that are at the disposal of the modern guitar player and will keep updating and enhancing this very post if I find a way to explain more/better without making it all too confusing. Keep in touch! ;)

Happy string pulling! ;)

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