How To Turbocharge Tremolo Effects

Tremolo opens up numerous rhythmic possibilities for rock and dance music

Sure, tremolo is great for vintage effects. But with today’s plug-ins and recording software, tremolo opens up numerous rhythmic possibilities for rock and dance music. It’s crucial that the tremolo be able to sync to the host tempo, as this locks the tremolo rate to the rhythm. Usually you’ll see a sync button (Fig. 1). Enable this, and you can set a rhythmic note value for the tremolo’s period.

Fig. 1—The Tremolo in Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig 5 has a sync button. When enabled, the Rate control chooses among various rhythmic values.

The simplest option is to insert two tremolo plug-ins in series. I usually set the first tremolo in the chain to a fast “chop,” like 16th notes. The second tremolo gates this at a slower rate—such as quarter notes—to produce quarter-note “pulses” of 16th notes. A selectable LFO waveform offers even more options. For example, a square wave gives tighter volume transitions, while a sine or triangle wave produces softer volume transitions. Experiment!

Tremolo depth allows making the effect more subtle, or more dramatic. Mixing in more dry signal results in a subtler tremolo effect. Taking out the dry signal gives a choppy, highly rhythmic effect that’s right at home with dance music. A parallel tremolo effect also lends itself to stereo. Split your guitar to two tracks (or record the guitar and copy it to a second track). Because the tremolos in the two tracks can have different timings, panning the tracks opposite each other creates rhythmic effects that bounce back and forth in the stereo field (Fig. 2).

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 Fig. 2—A guitar track has been copied to create two parallel tracks. One has two Bias Tremolos (from Line 6 POD Farm Elements) inserted in series, with a 16th-note tremolo gated by a quarter-note tremolo. This track is panned left. The other track—which is panned right—has a dotted-quarter-note tremolo gated by a half-note tremolo.

Applying tremolo effects to bass (include a fair amount of dry signal to retain a solid low end) adds a rhythmic quality that locks the bass to the drums, thus propelling the song even more. This same kind of technique is also useful for background, rhythm-guitar parts.

Other tremolo options! Try using a time-based send effect, like echo or reverb, with guitar. Use series tremolo to chop the signal going into the time-based effect—only those sounds that pass through the tremolo will be processed. Chopping after reverb can also provide cool results.

As pop music continues to get more rhythmically oriented, being able to overlay rhythmic effects with guitar gives the best of both worlds: the guitar’s organic, expressive quality combined with rhythmic effects that provide a modern flair. Give this technique a try, and you’ll likely find plenty of places where your guitar will benefit from a rhythmic turbocharge.

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 thecraiganderton.