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Hi, I'm John. I write/produce music, podcasts and sound.

John @Burn7

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Audio Production Eng

Joined on 8/28/09

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Let's talk about Virtual Guitar Plugins!


So I just put out this song that took me roughly ~9 hours to complete from start to finish... But that's not what I wanted to talk about. What I wanted to discuss are virtual guitar plugins.


I don't play a single instrument in that track. It's all VST stuff which suits me just fine. The distorted rhythm/lead guitars are Shreddage 3's Hydra which you can hear sounds pretty gnarly. The acoustic and bass parts are some layered discountware samples from AIR "Xpand2!" that sound pretty bad but that's not a dedicated instrument plugin so it's not applicable to what I'm going to say next.


I'm well aware of the bad rap virtual guitars get with actual guitarists and... As a pretty fairly decent guitarist myself I love them. While they can certainly sound mechanical or unrealistic, with a focus on articulation I believe they make a fine substitute for the real thing***. I can understand the concept of "earning the chops" or "virtual guitars are cheating" but I completely disagree with people who entirely discount their use or their place as sample libraries.


First off, speaking to "earning the chops" the only thing I couldn't have played myself in the track is the solo section (which I intentionally made a little ridiculous to stretch what the plugin could do). In fact I wrote the structure out on my own 6-string before converting it over. In honesty it's partially why I can rationalize using a virtual guitar, because I don't feel as though I'm cheating myself of the experience/practice of playing it. So why didn't I just record that instead? Well, that leads to my next point.


Second, it's FAR more cost effective and less time-consuming for my purposes. I will be a metalhead until the day I die but at this point in my career I'm a composer first. Sometimes I want to add some depth and grit to my tracks without having to break out my own guitar, tune it, set up my amp/DI box, record the section, fiddle with distortion settings, re-record anything I fucked up, place it all in time and edit through any mistakes in the recording later. Not to mention it's cheaper to purchase a $150 plugin (Technically $450 altogether if we're including what I paid for Kontakt a while ago) than to buy a high-quality guitar and amp. Mainly the benefit for me is the time-saving aspect. Were I to have gone through recording each and every part individually with actual guitars this track would have probably taken me 50% longer than it did (~4+ more hours). There's certainly an argument to be made here about what that could have added to the track itself, but for what it's worth I don't believe that extra human element outweighs the benefits. Which leads me to my final point.


Third, and I know a lot of purists are going to hate this... But plugins have gotten REALLY good over the past 5 years. I agree that they can certainly sound robotic depending on the sample pool/depth or attention to articulation. Using the above listed track as a reference, knowing there isn't live playing makes it easier to spot the midi-lead tempo consistency in the track itself. But if I hadn't said that (and be honest with yourself), would you have even known during some of the rhythm sections this wasn't a raw recording? I know some people with damn good ears might but for the average listener who didn't know... Probably not. Especially considering how heavily and tightly edited modern metal is today, specifically the djent/melodeath subgenres where the mixing goal almost seems to be to emulate a bloody VST anyway, I don't believe the mechanical nature of having a plugin play pre-chosen notes using different pre-recorded samples is too far away from that.


Anyway that's my heavily anecdotal and subjective take on virtual guitar plugins. I just wanted to toss my 2-cents out there to the metal community on why virtual guitar plugins aren't the end of the world to me. There will always be bands that play a damn good live show and have real tight studio albums that should get the respect they deserve for their skill and talent. And while I don't believe bands that play live should use plugins on albums for some folks it's simply a better solution.


But I'm happy to hear counterpoints because I love hearing other perspectives :]


***In context of the track I listed, I'm specifically talking about the articulation of the rhythm guitars. I didn't try to mask the acoustic or bass samples from being mechanical because Xpand2! isn't a fully realized virtual instrument; Every note only has a single sample. I did humanize the acoustic a touch with reaper's midi editor tool but the samples themselves are such poor quality I felt it was unnecessary, especially since they're layered with other harp samples anyway.


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