Wednesday, June 13, 2007

My Laptop Guitar Rig

I've been getting many hits on the blog with search terms like "guitar and laptop" so I figured I'd take a few minutes and give the lowdown on my laptop guitar rig... this post will only be of interest to a subsection of guitar & computer geeks. If that ain't you, then read no further my friend.

Several years ago, I sold my racks of guitar effects & processors, convinced that it was redundant (and heavy) to use all of this dedicated hardware to perform functions that my laptop oughtta be able to handle by itself. I've since learned that this is not entirely true, although improving steadily as technology (and market demand for these gadgets) progresses.

I sold my tube pre-amp (an ADA MP-1) and my Rocktron Hush IIcx (guitar noise reduction). I still regret it to this day. I bought them both used, and sold them several years later for what I paid... they retained all their value, and sounded great. Oh well. I've since picked up a tube preamp, and a new guitar (with a humbucker, so I can avoid using my noisy single coil pickups if necessary).

So that's the first lesson... get the guitar signal into the computer using actual tubes. The amp and cabinet simulators are impressive, but still don't cut it (in my opinion). I use Amplitube, and Guitar Rig, but they both sound better when there's a tube in the signal chain before they get any audio. Here's the geeky goodness from the start of my signal chain to the finish:

1. Guitar
I have a heavily customized strat-style guitar. It has three Van Zandt "rock model" single coil pickups. They sound beautiful, but my guitar is very noisy. It doesn't play well with theater lights and clubs that don't have properly grounded outlets. I don't know if that's the pickups or my guitar - it could be that the guitar is not properly insulated and a good guitar tech could make it nice and quiet, but I haven't spent the money to find out. I've also got a custom neck, made by Warmoth. It's the biggest thing they could make for me that would still fit on a strat. I have Gotoh tuners. Recently, I bought a Les Paul "BFG" that has a humbucker and a single coil pickup. The humbucker solves my noise problem.

1b. Distortion pedal
When I'm not too lazy to bring it with me to gigs, I use a Buda tube overdrive pedal. It has two actual tubes in it and it sounds delicious.

2. Preamp
The output of the guitar heads to a PreSonus BlueTube preamp to get some real tube color before I send it into the computer. This is a nice, versatile, piece of gear. I got mine used, and I'm very happy with it. When I'm not using my laptop rig, I use this preamp & my Roland keyboard amp. This thing actually gives me a decent guitar tone through a keyboard amp.

3. Audio Interface
I'm using a PreSonus FirePod to get audio in and out of my laptop. It took me a few weeks to get it working nicely with Windows XP, but now that I have it set up, I'm very happy with it. It sounds nice. I've used it for recording in many different contexts, and it always does the trick. I picked mine up used (thanks Graham!).

When I first set up my laptop rig, I was using an M-Audio MobilPre interface. That thing is a piece of junk. I don't recommend it. The preamps do, in fact boost incoming signals. They do not, however, sound particularly good.

4. Laptop
I have a Sony Vaio with a Pentium 4. I will not buy another Sony laptop. It had a problem with overheating, which caused the CPU to slow down, which caused glitchy audio. Blowing the vents with canned air fixed the problem (for now). I also get some nice noisy interference, even when things are grounded properly. I've tried my audio interface on an old iBook, and there's NO NOISE. So I'm pretty sure the problem is inside the Sony.

5. Software
Once the guitar gets into the laptop, I'm using a variety of things. Mostly, I'm using Audiomulch. This is fabulous software (and cheap!). There's a large, active user community, and it keeps improving. It does lots of things that I don't use, but it makes a great environment for patching together contraptions for signal processing. It hosts VST's, so I can use lots of third-party processing contraptions, and it's very easy to manage signal routing and mixing. In some ways, it's like Max/MSP for guitarists (i.e. idiots). You can't build your own gadgets, but most guitar gizmos have been duplicated as free VST's. Almost all of the VST plugins that I use are available for free. The exceptions being Guitar Rig and Amplitube. Audiomulch is great for real-time processing, and I've been performing with it for several years. It's reliable. Can't say the same for all of those free VST's, so you need to keep an eye out for sloppily coded plugins that can make things unstable.

6. Control Surfaces
Now that all my processing is happening "in the box" I need some knobs and buttons so I can actually perform live and control this stuff. I use two: one UC-33, so I have knobs and faders, and one ART X-15 Ultrafoot. I picked it up used, very cheap, and it seems to be durable. One drawback is that the paint job is so horrifyingly ugly. I solved this with black paint and a paintbrush. I also don't like to have manufacturer's logos visible on stage, so I was happy to paint over that junk anyway. Audiomulch makes it so easy to map MIDI controllers to the software processors, even a guitarist can do it. With these two control surfaces, I have all the knobs, faders, and footswitches I could want, and set up is a piece of cake.

7. Outboard gear
When my laptop was overheating, I didn't trust it to do looping. So I put a Lexicon JamMan in my rack with the FirePod. Since the FirePod has 8 ins and outs, it was very simple within Audiomulch to make an aux send to feed the JamMan, and an aux return to bring it back into the laptop. Now that I have the laptop heat issue resolved, I still use the JamMan just to take that function off my CPU, and leave processor power for other stuff.

8. Amplifier
So, now the laptop has done it's magic and it's time to bring audio out into the real world... I use a pair of Roland KC-150 keyboard amps as a makeshift stereo PA. They are fairly small and lightweight, and versatile. They are transparent sounding, so there's no additional amp color added at this point. I also bought two long (50 foot) cables to go from balanced TRS 1/4" (the output of the FirePod) to XLR, so I can patch into a house PA when I'm playing in places with good sound systems -- and keep a balanced connection.

So I think that's it... that's my laptop guitar rig in a nutshell.

15 comments:

jen said...

my guitar rig:

my guitar has five buttons (although i'm not too good with the orange one yet) and a whammy bar.

SkeletalMesh ( KC ) said...

Hi,

Thanks for the detailed article. I am a computer nerd, learning guitar.

Recently, I am convinced I learned enough to make use of an overall upgrade. I feel right at home with gadgets and knobs. Liked your article so much. Once again, Thanks.

Brett said...

Thanks for the detailed info, this is really interesting! I downloaded a trial of Audiomulch, and while it was a lot of fun to mess around with, there was also quite a bit of latency (like two seconds), do you think upgrading audio cards to something that supports like 24/96 would fix this? Or perhaps getting one of the presonus units would fix this?

Jon Morris (Matis) said...

latency is going to be dependent on your audio interface -- and the settings for your interface. there may be a software control panel for your current interface that will allow you to change the buffer size / latency?

unless you are doing lots of analog inputs & outputs simultaneously - you won't need firewire. USB is plenty fast for stereo in & out with low latency... but a good interface is always nice.

good luck!!

Jeff said...

I have a very similar set up (as your laptop stuff) except I don't have the tube pre amp. I can record much better tones with the digital than I could ever do with tube amps and mics.. I am using guitar rig/amplitube into an EMU PCI card. However I seem to always plug back into my tube amp during live settings despite having a great PA. The sound just doesn't seem to work??? Is the tube pre-amp really the answer or is there a lot of color in a tube power amp and guitar speakers?

Jon Morris (Matis) said...

The tube pre does make a big difference, but going from laptop to PA in a venue has some disadvantages. It works really well for solo performances, or things like when I'm performing music for a dance company in a theater-type venue.

When playing club gigs with a band, it's hard to get the stage monitoring right. Also, in small venues especially, guitar direct from PA just doesn't seem to blend right with other instruments that may or may not be patched into the PA. Amp on stage works better in that situation.

That's when I use one (or two for stereo) of the Roland KC-150 keyboard amps. They are clean and transparent. This is just a workaround - it really doesn't deliver the same tone as a nice tube guitar amp. I make that tradeoff when I'm playing gigs that use all the fancy effects from the laptop...

These days when I'm not using the laptop rig, I use a Hughes and Kettner "Blue Series" guitar amp - which is solid state but delivers nice rich clean tones. That combined with the Budda tube overdrive pedal is a nice lightweight small-club setup.

John said...

Good article. Regarding the laptop noise, I had the same problem. Its inherent to almost all laptops, caused by the close density of items in a laptop. I have a different laptop, Dell Vostro 1500, which also has noise on the left audio channel. The way to fix this (or atleast greatly reduce!) is to install

Rightmark CPU Utility (RMClock). It is downloadable for free here:
http://cpu.rightmark.org/download.shtml

What it does is use all the unused capacity of your cpu, preventing it from idling and doing other things like passing on noise. I have no idea how that works to be honest, but it works. The noise level went from annoying, to barely noticable. To get the last total bit of noise to go away, I installed a bios update from Dell, but thats obviously not going to work for you.

One last point, always unplug your laptop from the power supply and run it from the battery, that makes a huge difference too.

Good luck, John

Jon Morris (Matis) said...

Running the laptop on battery power isn't practical for me since my Sony Vaio lasts about 30 minutes on battery power, less with other USB powered stuff plugged in.

I've had good results suppressing the laptop noise with two audio wiring fixes:

1. When patching into a venue's PA system, I use a pair of direct boxes between the audio interface and the PA system. In most cases, lifting the ground on the direct box takes care of it.

2. When direct boxes aren't available, I use a stereo "ground loop isolator" cable that I bought at Radio Shack. That doesn't always eliminate 100% of the noise, but it usually makes a big difference.

Avi said...

hey
thanks for article.

i have a brand new dell vostro
and i have these horrible skips in latency .it kind of went away when i increased the latency abit on my m-audio jamlab usb interface but its still there. its liveable but im not happy. you see,this machine is a dual core pentium with 2gig of RAM. and when i play on my desktop wich is half those specs i can play with the minimal latency the usb device allows-with no problems what so ever.
i saw what john said bout that clock speed thing.
gonna try it. i hope it works.
any one know the name of that bios update from dell? usin guitar rig 3 by the way

John said...

Hey Avi,

I also use guitar rig 3, among other things on my Vostro, in combination with a Line6 Toneport. The toneport is awesome. I have also tried the Behringer Guitarport, and that piece of sh.. gave my laptop blue screens. Apperently the drivers weren't well written for the Behringer, and therefore I suspect that maybe your problem is a driver issue.

Try reinstalling your drivers. Also in Guitar Rig 3 make sure that it uses the Jamlab as an Asio soundcard, not sounddirect or anything. Dont connect the jamlab through an usb hub, only directly into an usb port.

My solution of using that cpu manager, was ment to reduce noize/interference caused by your laptop. To do that, in RMClock, go to management tab, and tick "run HLT command".

However, the program is originally meant to manage your cpu and save battery life, as such you can also set it to "Maximal CPU Performance". Maybe that will reduce your latency issues.


For the latest Bios:
http://support.dell.com/support/topics/global.aspx/support/product_support/product_support_central?c=us&l=en&s=gen&~ck=bt

or just go to http://support.dell.com

But as of now, I dont really have a clue why you experience latency.

good luck! John

Avi said...

hey jhon thanks.
gonna do all that now and will post the results!

Avi said...

come to think of it .i actually got a blue screen once from my jamlab.only on my laptop though.

asm252hawking said...

Great article, very helpful, as I am just starting out with this kind of set-up, do you have a mock up or diagram showing what connects to what when it comes to the controllers and outboard gear to the amps?

Jon Morris (Matis) said...

sorry, I don't have a diagram or anything available at the moment.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.