From amp sims to vintage emulations, plug-ins are part of today’s virtual effects racks in the studio. But if your setup also includes virtual instruments, you may be able to take your guitar places it has never been before. By replacing the synthesizer’s oscillators with your guitar’s audio, you can not only take advantage of a synth’s built-in effects, but you can “gate” your guitar by hitting keyboard keys, add Mooglike filter sweeps, do sound design, and more. Here are the steps to make it happen.
• Check whether any of your virtual instruments accept external inputs. If so, when you install them, they’ll also install an audio plugin version. Some suitable synths are Native Instruments FM8 and the outstanding Absynth (whose processing is off the hook for innovative sounds); FXpansion Amber, Strobe, and Cypher; Xils-Lab XILS 3; Cakewalk z3ta+; Arturia Mini V and Arp 2600 V2, and one of my favorites, the Modular V2 (the software equivalent of a giant Moog modular synthesizer).
• Consult the plug-in’s documentation about how to feed in an external audio signal (of course, you’ll also need to patch your guitar into your computer’s audio interface). For example, with Absynth, specify Audio In for the oscillator. Cakewalk’s z3ta+ automatically accepts an external input, so set the oscillators to None to silence them when using a keyboard. Arturia’s Mini V models the original Minimoog’s external input, down to the level control and overload indicator.
• Optionally, enable MIDI control for the synthesizer. As with feeding in external audio, enabling MIDI control varies among different DAWs. Some DAW plug-in implementations can recognize MIDI inherently, so you simply assign a MIDI track’s output to the plug-in. Others require enabling the plug-in for MIDI control.
• Although you can do a lot without MIDI control, adding a keyboard potentially lets you trigger and gate sounds to take advantage of the instrument’s filter and VCA. This brings you at least halfway to a guitar-synth sound without having to get involved with MIDI. Furthermore, a control surface can provide real-time effects parameter tweaking.
• After you’re set up, the fun part is finding out what you can do with your new toys. Absynth is a sound designer’s dream—you can warp a guitar beyond all recognition with effects like frequency shifters, ring modulators, and the “Aetherizer.” Cakewalk z3ta+ is more like a multi-effects with added sync and modulation capabilities, while playing the Arturia Mini V from a keyboard can trigger, chop, and do sample-and-hold type filter effects that help a guitar fit like a glove into EDM and other dance-music styles. And if you like Moog-type sounds, the Arturia Modular V2 lets you take those sounds one step further, thanks to its expanded set of modules.
The usual delay, chorus, reverb, tremolo, and the like have served us well. But if you’re ready to go to entirely different places, the answer to world-class sonic mayhem may lie in a virtual synthesizer.