Mr. Clean

June 16, 2008

Dear Dude,

I play in a death, thrash, speed metal band from Denver, CO. We mix both distorted and clean sounds live but have had many problems doing so. Do you have any tips for creating a good clean tone live? It seems like it is always louder then my distorted tone and just makes everything sound lame when the distortion is quiet and weaker then the clean sound. Both myself and the other guitarist use Krank Revolution guitar heads with Marshall cabs. Any help would be greatly appreciated!

Mr. Clean

Dear Mr. Clean,

Getting that perfect balance between your distorted and clean tones live can be a real pain in the ass. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen bands play live who have that great clean or acoustic part come in, and all of the sudden the guitars get real loud (the clean tone just cuts through) making the distorted guitars seem weak and washed out in comparison. So, what is the best way to get a nice clean sound and still get that killer distorted tone?

I’ll put it right out there on the table; this problem is so hard to deal with sometimes I try my hardest not to have to deal with it at all. In other words, I can honestly say that my constant frustration from getting that good clean tone has affected the way I write songs. So, is there no hope? Of course not, here are the 3 time tested ways I get around this problem when I, indeed, have to face it.

1. Duel Action: This is actually the professional solution and to me the best sounding, but unfortunately, for you and your boy, it means getting another guitar amp. Yep, the best way to get both that killer clean tone and crushing distortion is to use two amps. Just like the way I suggest running two heads together (using the whirlwind A/B box), the same concept follows for your perfect clean/distorted set up. Your best bet is to get a nice combo, I really like my Vox AC 15 but any fender, Marshall (pref. JCM 800, 900, or JMP combo) or Orange will sound killer. In theory you can use any amp that has a good clean sound. A combo works well because you don’t need volume or tubes to break up and usually you don’t want to have to set up an entire half stack just to get that clean tone live. Running two amps lets you set the distorted volume way louder then the clean. It also allows your soundman to dial in two different levels with two different mics. Using this system is really the only way that I have seen the dynamics of clean to distortion tones really pay off live. It allows you to get two distinctly different tones and blend the volume and kick of both so that you can switch appropriately between the two.

2. Pull out the pedal: The second solution is one that I actually currently employ live. It involves one piece of gear, the Ernie Ball Volume Pedal. I like the volume pedal because, it not only backs off on the gain when you sit back on it, but it also backs up on the volume. Using a volume pedal to get your clean tone gives you a way to make sure the dynamics between clean and distortion are very clear. It makes sure that when you slam that volume pedal down live that all the power and volume of your amp comes back too and that gives your overall sound that push you want it to have when switching from a clean to distorted tone. (Be warned if your running a noise gate this could cause problems. You may need to back off the gate or even turn it off before you decide to roll back on the volume pedal).

3. Better have a good knob turner: The last solution is one that I have seen bands at many levels try to use. But, it only works if you have your own trained and professional soundman. This third solution involves sampling the clean tracks from your record and using those samples live. This gives the overall sound of your live show a nice produced feeling and when done right can sound amazing. It does however have its limitations: it leaves a lot of room for mistakes, it means the drummer must play with either a click or the sample live if the part involves any other instrumentation, and It gives you the unfun ability to never change anything. It also relies solely on the competence of your live soundman so don’t try this with a guy who doesn’t know your songs or doesn’t know what he or she is doing because this option done wrong can leave you standing on the middle of a stage looking at a crowd with no sample playing.

Remember when you’re playing live and switching between distortions and clean it’s really all about one thing, dynamics. I mean that’s the reason you wrote the clean part in your song anyway, so it can have dynamics against all the distorted rock! So make sure you nail that component live. When done right there is nothing more sick then the dynamics that come from songs that weave in and out of distorted and clean guitars.

The Dude