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Tame Transients for Terrific Tones
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Guitars are percussive instruments, but we like sustain, so we’ll compress, amplify, overdrive and crunch to make the guitar’s sound persist. The downside: With that much amplification, the initial transient from the pluck of a string can overwhelm compressors, amp sims and other effects, which produces a nasty “pop” or “splat” at the note’s beginning.

Fig. 1: Pro Tools Compressor/Limiter plugin, with a guitar sustainer preset (the unused controls are grayed out)

Fig. 1: Pro Tools Compressor/Limiter plugin, with a guitar sustainer preset (the unused controls are grayed out)

This issue is most annoying with sustainers. These variations on a compressor use an extremely low threshold and high ratio (Fig. 1), with a hard compressor knee to keep the signal above the threshold longer to increase sustain. After the guitar signal returns below the threshold, there’s a huge pop when you pluck a string as the sustainer grabs the new note to turn it down.

You can reduce these transients slightly by moving the pickups further from the strings. Although this lowers the output, turning up an amp’s drive control can compensate. However, there are more effective ways to minimize initial transients, three of which we’ll examine here.

TRANSIENT SHAPER

This specialized dynamics processor affects a signal’s envelope by emphasizing or softening the initial transient. Typically, an attack control’s center position does nothing. Turning it clockwise emphasizes the attack, while dialing it counterclockwise softens it by ramping up the attack to the full level over a few milliseconds. Some transient shapers include a sustain control that affects the post-attack envelope. However, this doesn’t necessarily change sustain in the same way as a compressor.

Fig. 2: Lowering the attack and sustain controls with Native Instruments’ Transient Master plugin reduces the level of a note’s initial pluck.

Fig. 2: Lowering the attack and sustain controls with Native Instruments’ Transient Master plugin reduces the level of a note’s initial pluck.

Native Instruments’ Transient Master plug-in (Fig. 2) works very well to control guitar transients. You can greatly reduce a sustainer’s “pop” at the onset of compression by placing the Transient Master before the sustainer and pulling back on its attack and sustain controls. This can also help give better amp sim tones with hard-disk recording programs.

EXPANDER/NOISE GATE

Fig. 3: A noise gate with an attack time can reduce the initial pick transient

Fig. 3: A noise gate with an attack time can reduce the initial pick transient

For this technique, insert the noise gate plug-in before the sustainer, and set the threshold so that the gate shuts off when you stop playing a note. Setting an attack time (Fig. 3) allows the new note to fade in, so the sustainer can kick in smoothly, rather than suddenly. This isn’t as effective as a transient shaper, though, because the gate has to shut off before you play another note.

MANUAL FADES

The most labor-intensive option is to use your DAW to split every note (or chord) immediately before the initial pluck. If you select all the splits and apply a very short fade-in to one, they’ll likely all fade by the same amount. Your program may offer shortcuts, like options to “slice” at individual notes to create the split, but using a transient shaper is a lot easier.

Regardless of how you tame transients, the less aggressive attack may be just what’s needed for your guitar to sit better in a mix, or to sound better with a sustainer. One of these approaches will provide a solution.

The first several volumes of Craig Anderton’s new book series, Musician’s Guide to Home Recording (Hal Leonard), are now available both in print or as eBooks. For more information check out craiganderton.com

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