Guitar gear for session work can be a rabbit hole and a very slippery slope. However, sometimes we need less than we might think. Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 live performances were in short supply in my corner of the world. For the past 18 months, most of my guitar playing was focused on session work.
Every single one of these sessions was tracked in my study in the comfort of my home without setting a foot in a studio. I really miss the camaraderie and engagement with other musicians in a studio environment, but this will remain the modus operandi until lockdown regulations are lifted. Many guitar players are under the impression that you need a professional studio with a sound-treated room as a prerequisite for remote session work as an electric guitarist. In this article, I will show you what I use and the result has been accepted by both amateur and professional studios alike.
I am not going to cover the guitars I use in the scope of this article. Apart from guitars, you will need the following:
- A computer
- A soundcard/audio interface
- Recording software (DAW)
- Electric guitar amps and mics and/or guitar amp simulation software
- Reference monitors and/or earphones
- An internet connection
Let me give you background on my context as this will shed some light on my gear choices. I do not have a dedicated music room. The room that hosts my gear doubles as my home office. I’ve been working from home for the past 18 months. My house is situated in a typical suburban neighbourhood. I do not have the luxury of playing a 100-watt valve amp at full tilt, not even a 10-watt amp. And we all know that the best tones require volume. My gear choices are therefore aimed at playing as quiet as possible. This frees me up to record at 2 o’clock in the morning without waking the missus or the neighbours.
Guitar gear for session work: The amp and effects
As mentioned, I cannot record my amps at the volume required for decent tones. I, therefore, settled for a Kemper Profiler. Yes, it is a serious investment, but I purchased it to address very specific needs.
- It gives me access to almost every amp on the planet. And it sounds really good.
- It is dead quiet which allows me to record at any time of the day or night without disturbing anyone.
- I don’t have to invest in multiple amplifiers or decent mics to record those amps. This actually makes the Kemper cheap in comparison.
- I do not struggle with mic placement or phasing issues.
- The effects in the Kemper are on par with the best stompboxes (in the context of a full mix) negating investment in multiple stompboxes and a pedalboard.
I do believe that you can get equally satisfying tones with Kemper’s main competition (Line 6 Helix, Fractal Audio Axe-FX and the Neural DSP Quad Cortex). It all depends on how well you know the device and grasp the individual components that make up good tones. The workflow of the Kemper just works for me.
The Kemper, just like its main rivals, is an over-indulgence when you are starting out. Although they are awesome tools, none of them is a necessity to start remote session work.
In addition to the Kemper, I utilise the S-gear guitar amp emulation software from Scuffham amps. At $129, S-gear is a lot cheaper than a $1799 Kemper Profiler! Apart from S-gear, there are multiple amp simulation software solutions that I will use without hesitation to track an entire album (Some examples: Line 6 Helix Native, Overloud TH-U, Guitar Rig Pro and Amplitube).
Most of the session work I do require clean, edge-of-breakup, and classic rock tones. For these types of tones, I find S-gear most authentic. Compared to the competition It is limited in terms of the amp and effect options, and definitely not the first choice for high-gain sounds, but what you get is absolutely stellar.
Guitar gear for session work: The audio interface
I use the Focusrite 2i2 MK2. I used the 2i4 MK1 for a while with great success, but the unit had features that I did not utilise (like the midi ports). I do not have a need to record more than 2 channels simultaneously. However, a minimum of 2 channels is essential to utilise the full benefit of the stereo effects in the Kemper.
On the off-chance that I should have the need to record more than 2 channels simultaneously, I have the Zoom H6 field recorder as a backup audio interface. This gives me access to 6 channels simultaneously (1 stereo and 4 mono). Many people don’t realise what an awesome audio interface this unit actually is. If you need convincing, I recommend checking this out.
Guitar gear for session work: The DAW
I used a multitude of recording software in the past but eventually settled on Reaper for most of my sessions. Firstly, it is cheap as chips. Secondly, it is only 14MB in size and can run on much slower computers than most other resource-intensive DAW’s. If you require additional plugins for the post-processing of your recorded sound, then other DAW’s might make more sense. I include most of my effects while recording with no need for further processing. Reaper does everything I need, and more.
Here is a screenshot from one of my recent sessions in Reaper.
Guitar gear for session work: The Computer
This might come as a surprise, but I use a standard off the shelf PC. There is no MAC in site. It has 8GIG RAM, uses traditional hard disc drives (no solid-state drives) and has an Intel i7 3.6 GHz CPU – nothing extraordinary.
Guitar gear for session work – The Earphones
I do not use reference monitors (did I mention that I have to do this as quiet as possible?) and I don’t have a need to mix and master recordings. I use the Audio-Technica ATX-M50 earphones for an accurate reference of the tones I am recording. I do find that it enhances the treble and high mids slightly, so I compensate for that by adjusting those frequency bands in the Kemper.
An internet connection
You need to send your tracks to the producer or artist! I usually send mp3’s as a reference during the tracking process. Once we have finalised the tracks I render them in 24BIT WAV files and send them via WeTransfer.
Recording acoustic guitars is a completely different matter and require a decent microphone to capture a good sound. There are however a few hacks that you can employ in a crisis situation. More on that in an upcoming article.