Get Smart: Adding Guitars to EDM

Musicians are discovering that guitars are great for EDM (Electronic Dance Music).
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Musicians are discovering that guitars are great for EDM (Electronic Dance Music). With much EDM based on synthetic sound, adding a guitar’s organic quality introduces variety and interest you can’t get any other way. I record a fair amount of EDM, and, for me, the cut isn’t done until the guitar parts go on.

But it helps to meet the genre half way, like giving the guitar rhythmic qualities it might not have otherwise. Processing the guitar with effects synchronized to a track (or other instruments) makes the guitar fit tracks like a glove, and there are many ways to do this.


Fig. 1—MOTU’s Digital Performer can insert continuous controllers that cover a particular range of values and have convex or concave curves.

Roger Linn’s AdrenaLinn. This was my first ticket to live EDM performance with Germany’s Dr. Walker. We patched a MIDI output from his MPC beat box to the AdrenaLinn’s MIDI In, and all the AdrenaLinn’s cool sync effects tied right in with the song tempo. There are even some AdrenaLinn presets that lend themselves well to creating percussive—as opposed to melodic—sounds, so you can contribute to the percussion breaks.

Tap tempo. Many effects—particularly delay—offer tap tempo. As you’re not synched electronically, you’ll have to tap periodically to re-sync to the song tempo, but this works in a pinch.

Gates with external inputs. Feed electronic drums into a noise gate’s external input, and you can “chop” a rhythm guitar part based on the tempo set by the drums. Synching guitar to bass parts can also be effective.

Drumcoding. This was covered in my September 2013 column. You feed the guitar into a vocoder’s carrier input, but instead of controlling the vocoder’s modulation input with a mic for “talking instrument” effects, you control it with drums or another percussive instrument.


The live-performances techniques will also work in the studio, but you have even more options with computer- based recording.

Plug-in effect sync-to-tempo. Many time-oriented plug-ins (tremolo, delay, etc.) supplement a rate control with a sync-to-tempo option. For example, trigger delays at dotted eighth-note intervals, or sync the tremolo to quarter-notes. Polyrhythms work well, too. Send a track to two buses, insert the same time-based effect but set to different rhythmic values in each track, pan them oppositely, and then sit back and enjoy the cool effects bouncing between the left and right channels.

Fig. 2—Cakewalk SONAR allows drawing periodic waveforms (sine, triangle, square, random, ramp); here automation is changing the distortion parameter for Native Instruments’ Driver plug-in.

Effects automation. Many plug-in parameters are controllable with a DAW’s automation, and external effects can be controlled by MIDI data. You can draw freehand automation, then copy and paste for repetitive effects, but many programs simplify the process. For example, MOTU’s Digital Performer can insert MIDI controller data over a specific range with a particular curve, which you can copy and paste as needed (Fig. 1). Some programs (e.g., Avid Pro Tools, Cakewalk SONAR, and Steinberg Cubase) let you draw in continuous, periodic waveforms (Fig. 2).

Audio automation. Automating volume, EQ, pan, mute, and other mixer parameters can also provide rhythmic effects. As with MIDI automation, although you can simply draw this in freehand, sometimes you can automate drawing waveforms to provide the equivalent of a periodic LFO.

Craig Anderton has played on or produced more than 20 major label releases, mastered hundreds of tracks, and written dozens of books. Check out some of his latest music at