Mr. Guitar Pro and Your Daughter’s Preamp

Brandon Drury —  July 24, 2008

Last night I recorded electric guitars for a country/rock sort of song for a client in Louisiana. I considered doing the electric guitars myself even though I have no clue how to play country music. The project was turning out very well so I decided to go ahead and hire a buddy of mine who is an extremely smooth guitar player and just happens to be the biggest guitar tone junkie within 100 miles, maybe even 1,000 miles.

With all the talk from the Mytek AD Converter shootout and the Recording Gear Quiz lately, watching a REAL guitar player in action was something special. It put all of this recording gear junk into perspective. I now know exactly why pro engineers start playing with preamps. THEY HAVE NOTHING ELSE TO DO!!!! THEY ARE BORED!!

Let me explain. When I’m producing / engineering a project, a big part of that is motivating a player to come up with parts that are better than he would have came up on his own. From there we need to get the performance and tone up to snuff so that we can capture what people consider a “great” guitar sound. When you have a guy who is either a professional guitar player or at least in the league of professional guitar players, you may just find that Mr. Guitar Pro will come up with a part that is better than what you had in mind. This is what happened to me last night. A real player who really has command of his instrument should have no trouble blowing away the producer’s expectations simply by being themselves.

In this specific song, I’m trying to walk that fine line between country and rock music. I want this to be able to play on country music stations, but I’m not exactly going for old school country with lap steels and such. I want more of an “ass kicking” country vibe. If I would have played guitars myself, the song would have ended up sounding like a Dr. Seuss versions of Guns N Roses or Motley Crue. Some of the rough versions I tossed down while experimenting where very close to this.

Then Mr. Guitar Pro walked in the door. Here’s just a short list of improvements from calling up my guitar buddy.

  • Guitars were perfectly setup with great intonation.
  • Guitars were in perfect tune and held perfect tune both due to the gear used and his playing
    The performance after one take was smoother than I would have done in a week.
  • The added guitar hooks and such really made the song come alive. I would have never thought of those in a million years. My version was little more than power chords, really.
    Years in years of research, trial and error, and searching were placed into his pickups, guitar, amps, speakers, cabinets, etc. His tone was exactly what we were looking for nearly instantaneously.
  • The overall musical effectiveness of the song (the combination of everything from the fingers, notes, pick, preamps, and room) was a ZILLION times better than what I had.

Getting Back To Recording Gear
We’ve discussed this whole high end gear thing quite a bit lately with the Mytek AD96 shootout and the Recording Gear Quiz

The big boys don’t deal with amateurs. In the big leagues, if you brought a guitar that wasn’t setup to a session, you wouldn’t be called back for another session. They don’t have time to intonate your guitar when they are renting a room for $3,000 per day or whatever. They don’t have time to deal with a player who can’t play in tune and they only deal with players who play smooth enough to sound pro. If a player can’t do all of this, they are replaced with a player who can.

The real musicians are obsessed with their instrument. They are totally nuts about the intricate details that make them sound great. (This is the one serious argument I have in favor of pro recording gear, actually). When a truly professional guitar player who talks about Mohogany grown in Honduras verse in America and the way that P.A.F pickups are wound not so tight and more randomly, you start to realized the minute details that make up a real musician verses someone who just makes noise. You get a feel for what differentiates the men from the boys.

Being that I’m not recording pro players much (not nearly as much as I would like) it became EXCRUCIATINGLY obvious to me just how silly it is for us home recording guys to get all wound up about preamps and converters if we aren’t recording pro caliber players. Remember, the difference between my crappy guitar playing and my buddies was ZILLIONS! We seem to debate in the various shootouts the objective difference in quality with the $1,000 preamps to the $8 preamps. Some say as high as 10%. Some say 0%. If we were to put that up on my scoreboard that ends up like this:

Mix With Cheap Pres and my guitar playing: 8.0
Mix With Expensive Pres and my guitar playing: 8.0 – 8.8

Mix With Cheap Pres and Mr. Guitar Pro: 1,000,000,000,000,008
Mix With Expensive Pres and Mr. Guitar Pro: 1,000,000,000,000,008.8

I Felt Like I Did Nothing
I was supposed to be producing this song. When Mr. Guitar Pro showed up he already had an idea what he wanted to do. (I sent him an mp3 the night before). He walked in, cranked up, I mic’d it, I hit record. What he did exceeded my expectations for the song! Done.

Engineers Don’t Want To Feel Worthless
I got to thinking what I would do all day if I was recording guys like Mr. Guitar Pro each and every day. I’m talking about drummers who know that “Popular Drum Company” only used Brazilian Beechwood for one year back in 1983 or who feel liberated when they use a click track (not the other way around which is typical for most drummers). I’m talking about musicians who have dedicated their life to a craft of making whatever noise comes out of their instrument the most pleasing thing possible and have serious talent to go with it (my fatal flaw!)

If I recorded these pro guys all day long, I know what I would do. I would start ambitiously looking for a way to dig deeper into my craft even to the point where the benefit was something that only I noticed. I would get really wound up about preamps and converters. I would go all out to make sure that I could do my part the best I possibly could. I would have the liberty of doing this because I already know the source is taken care of.

The Problem
The only problem is all this high end gear crap is useless when the source isn’t just good, but MAGICAL! If the source isn’t magical, a converter is not going to get you there. Neither is a fancy preamp. I can hear it now “Listen to that extra little extra something in the snare drum that your girlfriend can’t hear anyway as the drummer ruins the groove and the entire song with his out of time playing”.

The take must be EXCITING before a preamp provides any benefit. A boring drum take in a killer studio will always sound boring. Too bad! You can’t separate the signal path from the performance, unfortunately.

Develop Pro Taste Across The Board
If you really want your tastes in audio gear to be in line with the big boys, you should make sure you develop that same taste for musicianship. Sure, there are definitely big boys who scoff at some of the low end preamps that sound pretty damn good to my ears. However, if these guys were to deal with the average local musician they would have no choice but to commit suicide. (Alright, that may be a bit over the top!) They would nicely explain to Mr. Average that he isn’t capable at this time of giving the producer what he really needs to do his job properly. A replacement will be hired the following day. A replacement who is a lot more similar to Mr. Guitar Pro I’ve describe above.

The Real Preamp Test
Are you ready for high end preamps and converters? This is a fairly easy test.

How many musicians have you fired? How many sessions have you stopped because the talent was inadequate? If you are willing to cram just about anything in that preamp of yours, maybe you should go to the doctor and get that preamp checked out. It may need a shot. You officially have a whore preamp (which is not exactly what they had in mind when they came up with “gear slut”) How many songs have been contaminated by some sick disease infested performance / tone?

Put some thought into that. If this were your daughter’s preamp, would you let just any guy cram his sound into it? When I bring up the “daughter” concept, we suddenly start to think about something special that means the world to us and we protect to the death (bla bla bla, I don’t have kids yet so this analogy sucks!). This is SUPPOSED to be how we treat our songs. Without the emotional attachment, if our goal is to really make killer recordings, wouldn’t we have similar standards about the kinds of musicians and performances we put into those sounds as we do the other things that are really important to us in life (like our daughters)? I’m not gonna let just any guy cram his sound into my daughter’s preamp. I’m gonna get the 12-gauge out and explain that Mr. Average can get the hell out of here and not to come back. The guy that really has it together is the only guy I’m going to consider. In fact, I’ll gladly allow Mr. Guitar Pro to cram his sound into my daughter’s preamp as much as possible. I want to be there so I can watch (listen)!

Recording gear certainly has its place, but in almost every case it’s a subtle one. If we expect too much out of our gear, we’ll be disappointed without a doubt. We should be expecting more out of our musicians. I’ve written on this topic extensively, but this time I had the unique perspective of working with a true badass and I came up with an offensive image to go with it.

When you aren’t running around with your head chopped off making up for a non-magical musician who doesn’t have a clue how to get a magical sound out of the instrument, you have time to twiddle your thumbs and think about preamps.

I guess I should point out that I frequently do cram not-so-magical sounds into my high end preamps. Because I haven’t moved up to the point where I only deal with magical players, I guess I do whore out my preamps so I can get paid. In these situations, the preamp I use is irrelevant.

Brandon Drury

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Brandon Drury quit counting at 1,200 recorded songs in his busy home recording studio. He is the creator of and is the author of the Killer Home Recording series.

18 responses to Mr. Guitar Pro and Your Daughter’s Preamp

  1. Brandon, you have a twisted way of putting things, but yeah, most of this makes sense.

  2. I knew I was gonna catch hell for this one. I’ve already had one person ask me if I was sick. Of course, he clearly didn’t read the article. He just wanted something to be offended about. We all need that from time to time.

    I’m of the opinion that it takes something a bit extreme to unwind all the hype and propaganda associated with certain pieces of high end gear.


  3. To be honest I’m glad to see someone that appreciates everything that goes into being a guitar player.

    When I started playing guitar I had NO IDEA of the endless amount of time and frustration that actually goes into the whole process…. there’s way more to guitar playing than just playing a guitar. It’s overlooked by nearly everyone…

  4. Hi
    Been getting your mail for a bit now.

    As a guitarist of 25 years I hear what your saying here.
    I have just moved from Live sound engineering/playing live to a digi studio of my own (small budget!)

    I’ve just built my own strat from imported parts from the USA and it sounds better than all my other guitars I have a few now (they seem to breed!)
    The tone is everything!! and your playing effects the tone the most!

    I get great results from my Behringer DDX because what I play sounds great before I record it. Simple really

  5. hy brandon,i think you are totally right. you can record a good song also with no name gear if you have tough musicians. it is always the song and how it is played – not the xy-mic and the xy-pre amp that make a good record. as far as i know michael jackson sang into a sm58 when he recorded “billie jean”, which he held in his hand because he was dancing around during the session ….

  6. Hey Brandon, excellent piece! Goes to show that the old CICO principle (CRAP IN = CRAP OUT) is still very much valid. A mediocre artist is always going to sound mediocre, even if you put them up for a week in Abbey Road. And a great artist will sound great even if you record them through junk gear.

    And I really like the way you write stuff, so don’t go changing that just because some whiners don’t like it. In my personal opinion, if you go through life never offending anyone you’re doing something wrong. Keep up to the Good Work!

  7. Bravo,

    If people can’t see the passion and truth in this article there is no hope for them. I want to frame this and hang on my studio wall for the next “Green Day” wannabee band who complains to me that the reason I can’t “fix it in the mix” is because my gear isn’t “high end” enough. Guitars with bad intonation, non-tuned drums or old heads, flat vocals…the list goes on…and we are supposed to fix them. On a side note, talking about suicide, my brother was a vocal producer/engineer in New York for two years. His job was going over vocals, note by note, fixing every performance, because it seems the record company thought the artists looks were more important that if they could sing. Can you say Britney Spears? But then again, we all see how that turned out!

  8. Brandon,

    I LOVE your PASSION!! Quality is important. All of us strive for it and, most of the time, we have no measurement to take off from or a destination to go to. I know that I am not a “crappy” musician. However, I also know that Mr. Guitarpro is far ahead of me! In a way, this is stifling to me. I WANT to record songs only for friends and stuff because I “used” to be a dynamic performer on stage and could get an audience to stand up, and move and laugh and, sometimes, even cry. Now, my energy levels are low due to a now chronic illness. The “spark” and “liveliness” have been overshadowed by a bleak sound of despair and uncertainty. Yet, people still ask me to record for them! They have given me the “list.” What am I to do? I will perform as well as record to the best of my ability but, in the back of my mind I am always asking, “Will it be good enough?” What do you, and others, think of this?

    Again, your metaphor was spot on! Music is like a young virgin! You want her to be treated as well as, if not more than well as, possible. Don’t dress her like a whore if you want her to be a “lady.” Don’t let just “anyone” come sniffing around your door! Make sure that the BEST is all that there is because no one should settle for less than that! I think that last sentence just said it all in a nutshell. Again, “Make sure that the BEST is all that there is because no one should settle for less than that!”


  9. Refreshing to read. Retailers have a part in this too, the scorn which comes across when you insisted on buying the low end kit would break a weaker man.
    High end kit in studios that work 24 hours a day makes a lot of sense on realiabilty alone. For a partnership like mine which involves fitting in recording after working all day as computer programmer and phyciatic nurse, sorting out meals and making sure our children are happy does not need that sort of reliability. In a month I estimate our recording equipment gets used for 12-15 hours max so it should last a while with care so unless a retailer can really prove to me that one bit of kit is varstly superior and worth the money I go for the most I can get at the least price.
    Final point I have a Line6 Flextone amp a friend of mine who is a hundred times better player then I, but like so many good guitarists makes less then I do in my square john job can only afford a Behringer V-Amp pro no prizes for guessing who sounds best what ever equipment he plays through, which was the whole point to start with I believe.

  10. Hey, Brandon

    Awesome piece, man. You are damn right about everything you said. It’s very encouraging and motivating. I’m working my way on to becoming Mr. Guitar Pro. Let’s say another 10 years from now… I’ll be close if not Mr. Guitar Pro. I’m actually practicing more than recording. The source is everything.

    Anyways, thanks for sharing.

  11. Can we hear this pro guitar player in action?

  12. Very well put though a bit twisted…..I like twisted. I’ve been playing guitar for over 40 years but I was REALLY playing guitar for only about 20 of those years. That was my “buy a Les Paul and Mesa Boogie” years. I used no tone shaping tools and I was fast and reckless. When I finally woke up, I realized how important the details are to making a good guitarist and a good musician.
    1. Talent – Repetitive excercise helps the fingers but doesn’t do anything for creativity. That is a difficult thing to develop and measure but it is a necessary part to becoming a good guitarist/keyboardist/etc.

    2. Instrument – Once I learned about tone woods, pickups, tuners, compensated bridges,etc., it open a whole universe of possibilities. I searched for years for the perfect guitar. It never came but I have four guitars that will produce any tone you might want and then some. The point is that there is no single guitar that can meet the needs of a pro guitarist….there’s just no getting around that. The other thing is that you get what you pay for. There’s a reason a G&L Comanche cost $1700….and on up the scale.

    3. Amplifier – This is a matter of personal taste. As I grew older I began the realize that guitars each have their own character and tone. Then I realized that my current amp setup was simply a high-gain noise machine and it masked the character of my fairly expensive guitars. What a waste! This began my search for tone. I found two amplifiers that meet my every need. I use a Genz-Benz Class A amp AND an Class A/B Dumble clone. There are many, many more amps that sound better and worse and cost more and less but for my budget and taste, these two amps actually polished and finalized “my tone”.
    4. Stomp Boxes – This is another important discovery for me. However, it’s all to easy to “over-stomp”. So I was very careful how each of my pedals affected the character of the guitar. I got rid of those and over time, found pedals that were transparent. They applied the desired effect without changing the character of the guitar.

    I’m now 55 and wishing I had discovered this stuff 20 or 30 years ago. Talent is still the number 1 part of the formula. My guitar students can’t figure out how I can make their cheapy guitars sound so good. One last point….You can spot a professional musician by the way he/she handles and caresses his/her instrument. Before I start playing, I wipe my strings down, polish out smudges and fingerprints and tune up. I handle her gently making sure everything looks good and the strap locks are really locked. When I’m done, I wipe my strings down again, polish my guitar and gently put her away in her case. In return she sings when I touch her in different places. Sometimes it seems like she plays herself and I’m just a witness.


  13. Brando, although with a twisted sense of humor you presented the issue rather well. Unfortunately – the lower we are in the recording engineer chain, the more of the idiots that can’t tune, come in with guitars with rusted strings that had never seen a setup, with broken cables and drums that have been sitting in garages in 100 degree heat for 20 years (and still with those heads on!) we’ll get.

    On the other hand – many times a talented engineer has to deal with the same thing but the money is a little different. I’ll make my case – think Bob Rock having to deal with a talentless and obnoxious hack like Lars Ulrich.

  14. Well said. If every engineer worked like that 100% of the time everything would immediately sound better.

  15. you are right. you can record a really good matherial also with no name or lo-fi gear!

  16. Can we hear the sing?

  17. I mean SONG

  18. This article is absolutely right in some ways. A great musician, tone and room make it easy for even the novice to get a good sounding recording. I’ve been doing home recording for about 13 years now and i am just now getting to the point to where i am happy with the finished product. I would kill to start over from the beginning with the knowledge I have now, and maybe this painful passion of mine to sound like the big boys would make money.
    I have spent so much money on the cheap pre’s and gadgets over the years, that end up being paper waits at best. If I were giving advise to the up and comer I would say put your money into your control room first. In my opinion if you can truly hear the sound you are recording without room artifacts, you could go a little cheaper on pre’s and other gadgets. If you don’t go with the room first, save your money a month longer, buy the better gear, stick a great mic in front of the sound and maybe have a pro facility mix it down for you. Do neither and spend countless hours remixing and rerecording when you could be moving onto the next great song with some artistic passion still intact.
    All this said, the big boys use expensive pre’s and mics in great rooms because they don’t want to miss that great moment of tone or vibe during their sessions. I’ve done both live and studio sessions where the tone of the bands were so good that I put a mic in front of the instrument and never touched an EQ the whole time. That is basically what the pro’s get when they have the best gear and the best listening environment every time!!!!!!!