I AM WELL AWARE this is the era of digital- modeling plug-ins. Sitting within every studio’s computer system is a vast selection of amp models, speaker models, microphone models, stompbox models, environmental models, and every signal-processing effect you can imagine. But my favorite piece of studio technology remains the humble “pass-through” tube.
The pass-through is nothing more than a piece of PVC embedded in a wall that is used to run cables from instruments being played in the control room out to amps miked up in the studio’s live room. Not every studio has one of these simple marvels, but it’s among the first things I look for when checking out a new studio for a project.
I like the pass-through concept, because I can instantly communicate with the engineer and producer in the control room while I’m recording parts, and, as an added bonus, I am also hearing exactly what they are hearing over the studio monitors. There’s no struggling with a talkback mic out in the studio (which constantly has to be clicked on and off), and no dealing with getting a comfortable mix in your headphones while standing in front of a very loud amplifier (the track is never loud enough in the cans, so you often suffer from volume fatigue much faster). You can also assemble a variety of amplifier heads in the control room and run a high-end cable out to a few different speaker cabinets in the tracking room.
The amp heads sitting near the control room window are set to drive several different cabinets in the studio’s live room—all courtesy of a cable routed through a simple “hole in the wall.”
Obviously, many of these same advantages are present when using guitar plug-ins. You can sit in the control room, have conversations while playing, instantly change signal chains, and so on. But two things always bring me back to the glories of the pass-through tube.
For one, I am a cable geek, and I’ve done thorough testing of dozens of brands to determine which cable sounds best for clean tones or distorted tones. Therefore, when using a head or combo, I select a cable based on the part I’m playing. I know it sounds overly tweaky, but I aspire to the standard of “every little thing affects the tone, and every little upgrade you do can make it better.” This is why I don’t like electronic pass-through systems, where you plug your guitar cable into a panel on the control-room wall, and a jack on the studio wall is used to run another cable to an amp. I’ve never thought this method sounded very good, because I distrust the quality of the cable in the wall. I’ve heard that every coupling degenerates the signal a little bit, and whether or not that is true, nothing sounds better than my own single length of high-quality cable passed through the wall.
Second, while a whole lot of current guitar music is played directly into a computer using amp simulators, at the same time, we are in the middle of another golden age of amplifier design. There are so many great-sounding amps out there by both large companies and boutique builders. So, do yourself a favor: Step away from the screen, find a great amp, mic it up, and be sure to use my favorite studio app to record that wonderful tone—the pass-through tube.