How – and why – to combine traditional amps with modern DAWs
Like the majority of guitarists, I have spent many years improving the sound of my instrument through an amplifier. I eventually refined this knowledge of analog guitar tone to the point where I was writing books about it. Then, about a decade ago, I discovered the fantastic things one can do with a guitar through a laptop, and I began playing into an audio interface through amp sims and plugins, which I then piped directly to the PA. At the same time, I was living in a parallel universe of still playing gigs through my traditional pedals and amp. I yearned to somehow combine the two methodologies, and my desire only increased after I saw the brilliant, Norwegian guitarist, Eivind Aarset doing just that.
The issue I encountered was just enough latency to cause a comb-filtering effect between the signal going directly to the amp and the one going through the computer, messing up the tone I had been honing my whole life. How did Aarset sound so good using a laptop with his pedals and a Vox amp? In an interview he revealed that he ran the laptop signal to the PA rather than to his amplifier. Interviews with other guitarists combining laptops and amps showed they did the same thing.
Aarset and the others have the advantage of a dedicated sound person who can craft the perfect balance between amp and laptop in the house and monitors, whereas guitarist, Dan Phelps, uses a sophisticated configuration, akin to Aarset’s, but more self-contained. Phelps runs his guitar through his pedals into his Benson amp head. Between the head and the speaker he has a Fryette Power Station, splitting the signal. One path goes to the speaker and the other to his audio interface and into his laptop. From the interface outputs, he runs stereo into a pair of powered speakers.
The configuration used by Phelps, Aarset, and others, is essentially wet/dry/wet, with the wet sounds running through full-range speakers or the PA to maintain the full frequency spectrum that is added by digital effects, while the dry signal bypasses the laptop or iOS device to maintain pristine analog tone and presence.
The simplest way to create this kind of setup is with the guitar running (post whatever hardware effects you wish) into something like the Lehle P-Split II box to route one signal into an audio interface and the other path to the front end of your amp.
The audio interface can be anything from the pedal-sized Orange OMEC Teleport, which can send the signal to either a laptop or an iOS device, or the larger iConnectAUDIO2+, which can do both simultaneously.
If you are not splitting the signal post an amplifier, like Phelps, you might want to use an amp sim in your DAW or iOS device. With the right setup, there is no reason to sacrifice the analog tone you have spent countless hours crafting for the unlimited sonic potential of digital apps and effects.