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Doing the Combo Mambo

June 28, 2005
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Apparently the developers at Native Instruments lusted after an amp collection too, so they created the Guitar Combo series of virtual amps, which work in stand-alone mode or as plug-ins (VST/DXi2/RTAS/AU). The line consists of the Plexi Combo, Twang Combo, and AC Box Combo — available individually or as a Triple Pack.

So is this going to be a review? Naaahh, I helped write the manual so I’m recusing myself. But because I wrote the manual, well, I’ve logged a ton of hours with these little guys. And as I’ve often said, the most frustrating part of writing manuals is all the cool stuff you find out about after it went to the printers.

So, here’s some of that cool stuff. But also note that these techniques apply to any guitar amp plug-ins, even though the Combos are obviously well suited to these applications.

SUPER STEREO, TAKE 1

Although adding reverb can create a stereo image, the main Guitar Combo sound remains centered. But just as guitarists split their guitar to two amps, you can get some great stereo textures by splitting your guitar to two sequencer tracks (or copying an existing guitar track to a second one if you’re re-amping). Insert a different amp in each track, select complementary presets, then pan them toward the left and right (Figure 1).

How you pan makes a huge difference. Extreme left and right creates a “hole” in the middle, and sounds almost like two guitar parts playing in unison (adding a short delay plug-in before one of the amps can heighten this effect). Another useful option is to pan one amp full left, and center the other one. This weights the image toward the left, which creates room in the mix for, say, a piano panned more toward the right — yet still gives a huge guitar sound.

After setting up the amps in stereo, you’ll probably want to tweak their settings. For example, the image will be weighted toward whichever amp is “crunchier.” If that’s what you want, fine. Otherwise, crunch the other amp a bit more, or vary panning or levels.

SUPER STEREO, TAKE 2

Now try the same thing, but flip one channel’s phase switch and vary the channel’s level — you’ll hear major tonal changes. With sounds panned left and right and full cancellation, you can drive a truck through the center of the stereo field. Just remember to check for mono compatibility at the master bus.

Tweaking settings is unpredictable, because boosting may cause an increase or decrease in level or frequency response, depending on what is or is not being thrown out of phase. Experiment!

SERIAL KILLER SOUNDS

Putting two hi-gain amps in series will likely give the same out of control crud you’d get with hardware devices. But if you use one amp to “condition” the sound and the other to ultra-crunch, the results can be pretty cool. Interestingly, the results were never quite as expected — for example, one time there was a big midrange peak, yet neither amp by itself seemed to have this kind of peak. So what? It’s all about more options.

RIDING THE BUS

The Twang and AC Box have reverbs. The Plexi instead has a delay module that produces standard delay effects, but can also do sweet “backwards tape” sounds that are sooo ’60s.

So there I was, with the perfect Twang sound. Yet I wanted to add the backward tape effect. Solution: Insert the Plexi Combo into an effects bus, set it for minimum crunch, turn up the delay big-time, and send some of the Twang signal to the bus. I ended up with mostly Twang crunch, and an overlay of light-the-incense echo effects.

SIGNING OFF

Sure, guitar amp plug-ins do a credible job of fulfilling their intended function. But in a virtual environment, they can pull off a few other tricks as well . . . just like these.

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