This article published in #Issue 18 in winter 2016.
Computers have come a long way since I was a kid. Long gone are the days of the Commodore 64 (readers under 40 can Google it). Back then, the idea of having a software-based virtual amplifier that would respond and sound like the real thing was a pipe dream. Since then, however, computers have advanced to the point where simulated amps are relatively commonplace. As a recording engineer I have resisted this trend, but today we will immerse ourselves in virtual reality using Peavey’s new David Ellefson ReValver Artist Bundle.
David Ellefson is one of the founding members of legendary thrash metal giants Megadeth, as well as the author of several books, including My Life With Deth and Making Music Your Business…A Guide For Young Musicians. Over the last three decades, Megadeth have accumulated a vast array of gold and platinum records, ten Grammy nominations, and a worldwide following. Ellefson’s recorded bass tone has always been harmonically rich and had the ability to cut through the sonic wall of doubled rhythm guitar tracks and blazing solos that inhabit Megadeth’s 14 studio albums. Will the David Ellefson ReValver Artist Bundle recreate his tried and true tones in your humble home studio?
Setting the Virtual Stage
First of all, what is reamping? Traditional reamping (re-amping) in an analog studio is accomplished by capturing the direct signal of the guitar or bass, and then playing back the direct recording through a mic’d amp, while simultaneously recording the result onto a second track. A reamp box is used to “fool” the input of the amp into thinking the incoming signal is originating from a bass, rather than a mixing board output. This allows the engineer to experiment with various amps and mic placements post-session, without an artist or producer hovering over them. Virtual set ups like ReValver make this process even more streamlined by doing it all “in the box.” The advantages are clear:
- No need to schlep amps to and from the studio.
- Complete isolation of bass tracks.
- Endless tone-tweaking and mixing options.
- Consistent sound from day-to-day, week-to-week, or however long it takes to finish your album.
- A fantastic solution for home studios where space and decibels are limited.
There are several ways to make use of virtual amps. There are apps out now that can turn your smart phone or tablet into a decent-sounding practice tool, or even a live rig replacement, if you are so bold. Desktop versions tend to have more features. Many can be used as a standalone program. Just make sure you set them up for the lowest possible latency (the time it takes for your audio interface and computer to accept, process, and then reproduce your signal). If you plan on recording direct through an amp simulation plugin so that you are hearing the processed signal as you play, it’s a good idea to set the hardware buffer size to a low setting. This control can usually be found in one of the setup dialog boxes of whatever recording software you happen to be using. Having a low setting for HD buffer size will make your articulations fast and responsive as you play through a virtual amp. You may, however, experience some artifacts in your playback signal. Large HD buffer size, on the other hand, ensures consistent sound quality, but will increase the lag time. In other words, you may hear your note a split second after you play it. This leads to an awkward and frustrating performance. Of course, you can always bypass any latency issues completely by recording the performance without the virtual amp, and then applying it later.
At my studio, we try to have our cake and eat it, too. We like to track both a mic’d amp and the direct signal at the same time. Many bass amps have a direct out, or you can split the signal right out of the bass, sending it to both an amp and direct box, simultaneously. Of course, having a loud bass amp in the same room as the drums will result in signal bleed (not necessarily a bad thing), but you’re more likely to get a groovy performance if everyone is comfortable and can play off of each other, as they would during a rehearsal or show. You can then blend the direct signal with the mic’d, or ditch one for the other.
For this review, we recorded direct, only – relying entirely on ReValver to replace head and cab and supply our tone. Our main studio machine is a 2011 Mac Pro Dual Quad-Core with 8 Gigs of RAM. We run an AVID TDM system using an HD/IO interface and Pro Tools 10. For basses, we chose a Fender Precision, a custom Carvin, and the affordable Ibanez Mikro. All of them were run through the Focusrite preamps that come standard on the Avid C|24 control surface.
The ReValver installation process was easy. The installer downloaded and installed the software with no hassles. Registration and activation were painless, as well. I chose to attach the license to an existing iLok2, but other options are offered if you do not own an iLok2. The original iLok is not supported. My particular license activated all the amps, effects, and cab sims available. This includes not only the David Ellefson signature bundle, but all the guitar models and cabs as well – which are also quite impressive. ReValver can run as either a standalone application, or within your favorite host DAW as a plug-in. I opened up Pro Tools 10 and inserted ReValver into a new stereo track as an RTAS plug-in.
The user interface is straightforward and resembles its constituents, as far as basic layout and functionality. The plug-in window cannot be resized vertically or horizontally, which proved to be a minor gripe when dealing with multiple monitors of varying resolutions. Basic controls for loading and saving presets and adjusting input and output reside at the top of the window while the virtual equipment rack fills out the rest of the view. This view can be switched between a pedal board layout, head and cab layout, and rack effect layout. Input gain options and a tuner are also simulated. It did not take long to learn how to navigate through the different options and presets. The user interface is friendly, easy, and graphically pleasing.
The presets included in the David Ellefson bundle make use of Audio Cloning Technology (ACT). This trademarked bit of software wizardry can capture the sound of your bass, analyze it, and then alter its output characteristics to match those of the C-Thrasher ACT Bass Guitar, BC-Bird ACT Bass Guitar, or Peavey Zodiac Bass Guitar. The idea is to not just model amps and cabs, but instruments, as well. After selecting one of the bundled presets, a dialog appears asking you to play “as many notes as possible” while a progress bar tracks your input. For me, it worked best to play several different ascending chromatic scales. A client of mine was less successful in quickly filling the progress bar and needed a little coaching to get the job done. The end result is well worth the extra effort. Modeling different microphones and amps and making use of cabinet impulses is commonplace, but Peavey’s attempt to model instruments is a new and exciting prospect. I had a chance to chat with Scott Mire, Program Manager for Peavey Electronics, to discuss ACT in greater detail.
Chris Cavera: Could you elaborate a little more on the topic of Audio Cloning Technology (ACT) and how it relates to the creation of instrument profiles?
Scott Mire: In amp modeling and cab modeling, there’s a lot of use of convolution reverbs and impulse responses where you basically are creating a profile of the sonic signature of a certain speaker. But, you know in that case, if you are creating an impulse response of a cabinet, the truth is, you’re not only capturing the sonic profile of the speaker, but also the microphone, right? Because it has to pass through microphones to begin with.
CC: Yeah, there’s a whole signal chain there.
SM: Exactly. But not only that, let’s say the microphone’s a certain distance from that cabinet … you’re going to pick up the room. So, usually with cabinet impulse responses, you’re really capturing two or three different things. We worked for a couple of years to really work on cabinet modeling … our technique, to see if we could expand on it and improve it. Because, really, everyone was modeling cabinets the same way. You send, let’s say, a sweep wave through the cabinet, you capture it, you deconvolve it, you create an impulse response, and then you have some software that will load it up and apply it to the signal. That was incredibly effective and obviously it was good, because it’s what everyone did. But we just wanted to take it another step. I’d say we worked about a year and a half, and we developed a new technique to improve upon the creation of impulse responses. For example, there’s also an electrical relationship between the head and the cabinet, and we wanted to be able to capture that information on a cab-by-cab and head-by-head basis. So, we figured that out, and then I think we really improved upon the back-end process of creating these impulse responses. Our original goal was to improve the cabinets, but then we realized we had a process that applied to different areas – areas that quite honestly had not been done before in modeling. Because if you’re going to talk about modeling, we’re already modeling microphones, we’re already modeling amps, we’re already modeling cabinets. Well, what about the instrument? The instrument has a lot of properties that collectively make up the sound. The wood, how the instrument resonates, what pickups are in it, how high the pickups are … there’re so many factors. So we went through this process of taking the technology we had improved for the cabinets, to see if we could apply it to instruments.
CC: What you’re talking about there – all the different factors that go in – you’re also going to have to consider technique and articulation as well, right? Like what happens if you use a pick, instead of fingers?
SM: We do both; yeah you’re 100% right. When we create these instrument models, every playable note on that instrument is profiled for every pickup position with both fingers and pick. And then also, we will do fingers and pick where we play really aggressively because – especially with the bass – the strings hitting the frets is a vibe all its own. Many people play that way. Some of the best bass players in the world, if you solo their tracks and you listen to it, it sounds like they’re working on a Buick. You know? So that’s part of the vibe, too. It takes a long time … it’s a process.
CC: You’re not just talking tonal characteristics and frequencies, you’re also talking transients – all the little things that go a long way towards making up the total performance.
SM: Yeah. Recently, we did a model of a Zon bass. It had two pickups and a piezo in the bridge. You do the front pickup, you do the back pickup, you do both pickups … so that’s three times you have to go through the process. And then, in the case of this bass, the piezo could be blended in with the pickups. So we did four more at different stages: 100% piezo blended in, 75%, etc. When we analyze these instruments, they’re being analyzed in tens of thousands of points, so it took us quite awhile to get there. It’s really just all about options, and giving people the ability to get what they’re looking for.
The Dethly Touch
For me, the David Ellefson Artist presets are useful just as they are, which is a typically rare phenomenon when it comes to factory presets. In the worst case, they will at least serve as excellent starting points that can be further tweaked to achieve the desired tone. They all make use of the Hangar18 Bass Amplifier. It’s modeled after the Hartke LH1000. In the real non-virtual world, this head offers 500 watts per side at 2 ohms, 1,000 watts at 4 ohms in bridged mono mode, 3 12ax7’s up front, and solid-state output. The virtual rig’s controls include the toggle buttons for a “bright” EQ curve, a built-in limiter, and the standard volume, bass, mid, and treble pots. When you add the included instrument models, CE-Bass Chorus Pedal, Grinder Bass Overdrive Pedal, a rackmount graphic EQ, Hangar18 Drive 410 Bass Cab, and the Hangar18 XL Bass Cab, the tonal possibilities quickly multiply. And we have yet to consider the ability to choose between a variety of popular microphone models and placements, which once again make use of Audio Cloning Technology.
“When Peavey approached me about introducing bass amp models to ReValver and developing a signature bundle, the thing that excited me the most was the opportunity to model my whole rig from the instrument, to the amp, to the cab,” said Ellefson. “While I’ve always been aware of the depth at which Peavey models amplifiers, I think their ACT technology, which they use to model instruments, is pretty amazing. The results I’ve heard in the modeling process are really exciting. I hope this bundle will help players find their sound, like I did. But mostly, I hope it makes them excited about playing.”
The Bottom Line
ReValver itself is available as a free download at Peavey’s site. The David Ellefson ReValver Artist Bundle can be had for $21.99 and includes the following modules: The Hangar18 LH1000 amp model, the Hangar18 XL 4.5 and Hangar18 Drive 4x10 cab models, the BC Bird Classic, C-Thrasher, and Peavey Zodiac instrument models, and the Grinder, Graphic Equalizer, PRESSOR, and CE-Bass Chorus effect models. With more instrument, head, and cab models being added all the time, ReValver and the David Ellefson Artist Bundle are affordable and handy tools to have around. They can help you achieve consistent tone that will punch through a mix and provide a solid foundation to any project.
SIDE PANEL INFO
|Model:||David Ellefson ReVavler Artist Bundle|
|Operation:||Standalone or as a plug-in|
|Included Modules:||Hangar 18 LH1000, Grinder, Hangar18 XL 4.5, BC Bird Classic Bass Input ACT library, Graphical equalizer, C-Thrasher Bass Input ACT library, PRESSOR, Hangar 18 Drive 4x10, CE-Bass Chorus Pedal, Peavey Zodiac Bass Input ACT library|