All About Tone – Ten Lessons I’ve learnt in using Digital FX to find the perfect sound

Last Updated on June 3, 2022 by IDS Team

Tone is the feeling, the “vibe” that your instrument reproduces, and from a technical point of view it is close to “timbre”. However, it is much more, is is what defines you as an artist and it is something that you never fully consider as finished or final, always improving and expressing your creative identity.

Less is more

It may sound obvious to seasoned professionals, but a common mistake of beginner sound designers is using too many FX and plugins layered on top of each other. Not only can this slow down the processing power of your computer, it can also make your music sound extremely muddy and difficult to distinguish between the different tones, sounds, and even, in extreme cases, instruments.

Separate different sounds

Separating different sounds in the mix means that each one can truly shine on their own. By keeping your distorted guitars at one frequency and your acoustic guitars at another, you ensure that they end up being appreciated for what they are. This may sound like an obvious piece of sound design and production advice; however, it goes deeper and means not just producing cleanly but also mentally separating the distinct qualities of sound within your mix so you can more easily decide what to do with them.

But also learn how they relate to each other

Separating sounds in only one part of this technique, however, by learning how different sounds relate when next to each other, you can decide what plugins to apply and how to position your different tracks. This means understanding that when placed immediately after that slow part, your epic guitar solo might sound completely different than if you put it at the end of the song after the climax.

Balance rich and thin tones

Just like a meal, every song needs balance – for example, those fat, bassy sounds of the analogue-modelled valve amp plugin you just picked up need to be counterbalanced with something to ensure your tone doesn’t get too muddy. Adding another plugin designed to work on the top end of the EQ spectrum such as a phaser or flanger could ensure your track doesn’t become monotonous or too overwhelming.

Ensure your plugins work with your guitar

This can be an easy one to overlook, but your guitar itself is responsible for a lot of your tone, as is how you play it. As sound designers, it is easy to get bogged down in the wealth of plugins and FX out there and easy to get extremely carried away with testing new ones, however, the relationship between your guitar, your interface, and your DAW is just as important to keep in mind. A guitar designed for metal such as an Ibanez will react differently to those fat, bluesy plugins you might be using for some of your slower tracks or guitar solos – especially if you sit somewhere in between genres- as a Les Paul would.

Make sure nothing gets lost in the mastering process

When mastering, it is important to remember that in the process of reaching for a polished song, it is vital not to let the quest for perfection get in the way of a real, human sounding recording. This is especially important for guitarists as whilst specialist production advice exists out there, a lot of the tutorials on how to use DAWs such as Logic X Pro are geared towards pop artists who may not necessarily be looking for a rough and ready sound in the same was as blues, rock, and metal artists might be. Therefore, whilst mastering any track, allow some of the imperfections to shine through, because they are what make each of them have a unique fingerprint.

Mix different instruments according to tone

Have you ever considered the tone of different instruments before you add plugins and FX? Your guitar might have a naturally really clean, bright sound, so adding a valve amp could be a good idea if you want it to sit a bit lower in the mix in order to bulk your track or leave room for other instruments on top. This is just one of the ways you can mix according to tone, and one of the best tricks is to consider your instruments as comparative and understand the before and after of each one – therefore, making heavy use of any mute switches for plugins can be a real-life saver.

Don’t forget to acknowledge the design and makeup of your plugins

This can be one for real lovers of sound design but acknowledging the design and creation process which went into your plugins means that you can understand them better and thus mix and master more cleanly and efficiently. Are you using true-to-life plugins modelled after real amps and FX pedals with all components inside just as exact? Or are you using strongly digitally inspired plugins such as some of the spacier sounds which have developed through plugins designed for the era of DAWs? It makes a difference it then you can know not only how these plugins interact with others technologically, but it will also inspire you to use them in more creative ways once you are more confident with them.

Know what you’re looking for as a result

Knowing your desired results can go a long way towards choosing plugins. Having an overall picture of the track complete with how you want it mixed and mastered as well as arrangement and how this will affect elements such as EQ means that this can enable you to understand how all your creative choices bounce off each other and interact. This can make the mixing and mastering process much easier because it makes you able to see how tracks are put together and taken apart again and how plugins, AUs, VSTs, and other FX come into this. Building a track from the results backwards can be a great exercise in experimenting with gear, and it also allows you to develop an identity for the track as a whole and thus yourself as a sound designer, guitarist, producer, and more.

But also, don’t be afraid to experiment.

Don’t be afraid to experiment. There’s a reason why tracks often have multiple versions including demos, bootlegs, remixes, and radio edits. It can sometimes be hard to identify what a track really needs to feel complete, but this doesn’t matter because with multiple possibilities, you can experiment with your gear to your heart’s content. It can become easy to get carried away with plugins, so why not harness this into something which becomes a creative bonus? You may thank yourself for it in the future when you have more material to draw on or are looking for inspiration for something entirely new.

Conclusions

These are just some ideas which can help on your creative journey as a sound designer – allowing you to think about your musical endeavours differently and not get hung up by the common mistakes and misconceptions which can plague a lot of beginners by using the same deep understanding of your gear which underpins any great piece of sound design.

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