It's the day after St. Patrick's day and I imagine a lot of my dear readers are hung over, so what better time to discuss the skull-splitting volume of amplifiers? ; )
Now more than ever, it seems as if the plug-in market is seeing more and more amp modeling plug-ins. I would imagine that a good number of electronic musicians who aren't guitar players overlook these. That's a shame, because amps and amp simulators can really add something special to electronics if they're used correctly. Never tried it before? Here's some ideas to get you started in your own experimentation...
1.) Keyboards- Apparently when they were recording "Black Celebration", Depeche Mode producer Gareth Jones enjoyed sending the synth sounds through guitar amplifiers. If you've ever messed with this, it's easy to see why. Sure, you can distorted the holy hell out of your sounds, but used more subtly, you can add everything from a slight increase in presence and weight, to some nice, organic grit. This can especially be effective on softsynths which can sometimes sound a little too perfect. If you have access to a real guitar amp, try sending your softsynths out to it, mic it up, and re-record the parts. Not only will you get a more 'alive' sound, but you may pick up some of the natural room ambience which can also give synths a more 'real' character. Granted, micing and recording an amp takes practice to get right, but that's part of the fun. Try using different mics, placing them different distances and at different angles (many amp simulators, such as Native Instruments Guitar Rig allow you to do this in software too). You'll be surprised at how drastically small changes can sometimes make to a sound.
2. Drums - Again, while you can go full-on power noise and distort drums into oblivion, used in a subtle way, amps or amp simulators can sound really nice on drums if you are after an edgier sound. Although nothing is out of the question, it's best to avoid using them on cymbals and toms as much as with kicks and snares. This can sound great on acoustic sounds, but I personally feel like it's most useful for adding interest to electronic sounds. There's nothing wrong with clean, electronic perfection, but it's undeniable that a little bit of imperfection can go a long way towards adding interest to sounds.
3. Vocals - The distorted vocal thing is probably a bit over-done, but it can still be a cool source of sounds for your sampler if you care to experiment. Try making different sounds with your mouth through an amp or amp simulator, experiment with different amp settings and see what kind of interesting textures or percussive sounds you can make. Play around with the mic, too. Placing a mic right up against your mouth (or body part of choice) will sound a lot different than if you are holding it 8-12 inches away. This is called the proximity effect and refers to the way bass frequencies tend to get emphasized when the mic is closer to the source. You can hear stand-up comedians use this all the time when they're imitating a sound effect such as an explosions, etc. And remember - the initial sounds you make are just the beginning. Take it into your sampler of choice, stretch it, filter it, reverse it, and toss all kinds of other effects on it and see how far away from the original source you can get.
4. Imitating Guitars - I'll admit to being a bit of a frustrated guitarist. I can play a handful of chords, but for the most part, the layout of a guitar just doesn't make sense to me in the same the keyboard does. The good news is, if you have an amp or amp simulator, you can do pretty convincing, basic imitations of rock guitars. Yeah, you won't have all the nuances of the real deal, but if all you need are some power chords or solos, you should have no problem pulling it off. There are two main things you should keep in mind for a convincing simulation. The first is voicing. Chords are voiced differently on the guitar than they are on a keyboard, and chords on a distorted guitar are voiced even more differently. Because of the nature of distortion, you'll want to use very open voicings for best result. For a power chord, just play the root note, a fifth up from the root note, and an octave up from the root note. The second thing to consider are the source sounds you use. I find that a Wurlitzer electric piano sound gives fantastic results for chords and general playing. If you're interested in solo sounds, do what Jan Hammer did on the Miami Vice theme. Take a monophonic Minimoog-type solo sound (squarewaves often work best) and learn to work the pitch wheel the way a guitarist bends strings. It takes practice to get right, but it's most definitely possible.
These are just a handful of ideas to get you started. Be warned, though, it can get extremely addictive once you get started!