Building Better Direct Sounds, Hunting for Headphones, and the Universal Audio Ox

One of my teenage guitar memories is of trying to figure out how to get a decent direct recording sound from my 100 watt, Marshall half-stack. I still remember hearing the sound of my Tascam Portastudio literally melting from the inside out because I had no idea what I was doing or how to use direct boxes or attenuators.

But the reality is that, for most of us, the challenges of recording or playing at home often demands some sort of direct sound setup. It seems simple enough, but, as my Marshall-Tascam bbq experience attests, there’s some gear you need and hacks to know to get the best sounds sans volume.

Of course, there’s no single way to do this. This week on TPS, Dan & Mick circled back to the topic of playing direct. As always, the episode was an ideal blend of fresh takes on gear and pro tips on the topic at hand. Here’s a few topics that came up in the episode.

The Universal Audio Ox: Pro Studio Arsenal in a Wood-Paneled Box

One of the key items of gear that came out at NAMM last year and is cropping up atop of amps the world over is the Universal Audio Ox (a.k.a., the “amp top box”). That just has a nice ring to it. So how does it work and how would you use it?

At it’s core, the Ox is a reactive load box. This means you select degrees of attenuation, which lets your amp go full bore at any volume. This means you can always dial in that sweet spot. But don’t let the wood-paneling fool you, this is not old school piece of tech. The Ox also has an extensive speaker and room modelling system as well as a series of mic models. Between these sets of features, even if your home studio or playing environment is a broom closet, you have a castle of virtual recording spaces and gear at your disposal. As Mick noted, the Ox also partners up wirelessly with an iPad offering extended interface control and engineering of the virtual room/mic creation.

All in all, if you’re playing direct—either for recording or in a low volume environment—the Ox gives your rig the architecture and appointments of a professional studio.

Headphones Matter: Select and Curate them Like Pedals

As Dan & Mick reflected on a previous playing direct episode, they noted one of the potential variables that made it challenging to ferret out their best sound. Mick noted that viewers called foul at the choice of headphones: “there was a chorus of disapproval!” This time around, they both invested in a set of headphones that matched the caliber of their rig and stood a better chance at channeling its sounds.

Dan ended up going with a set by Nuraphone, while Mick went in for the Bayer Dynamic DT-880 Pro. They made their choices for different reasons. For Dan, the Nuraphone’s asset was their custom profiling capabilities. This meant that even for albums he’d listened to countless times, he was “hearing things in them I’ve never heard before.” For Mick, the choice was on the collective recommendation of an industry standard set of phones used by countless producers and engineers. “As I understand it,” he noted, “these are the [Shure] SM-57s of mixing and monitoring.”

So what’s the lesson here? Headphones are gear! (Insert “mind-blowing” GIF here). If you’re playing direct and foregoing the speaker cabinet that typically delivers your tone, then headphone choice is absolutely crucial. Ask around and find what works for you. As Mick commented, “Everyone’s got different preferences for headphones.”

Is There a Secret to Getting Great Direct Sounds?

So that’s a few words on gear. The main point being that, whatever your setup, take the time to research, experiment, and identify areas that are taking away from the overall tone. Beyond that, however, Dan & Mick offered up a few other pieces of advice.

After toying around with different levels, cab combos, and room sizes, Mic tossed in a bit of reverb. Lightbulb. “It seems very simple to me,” Mick remarked, “playing direct, getting a good sound in your ears, and enjoying it, is, low and behold about adding a sense of space. You can’t get that physical pump in the chest and you can’t get that interaction between guitar and speaker…but if you add a bit of reverb, room mics, or a plugin, it makes all the difference.” For Dan, it all came down to getting the headphones. “Getting the right headphones for this is just as important as everything else combined.”

If you’re on the hunt for your Holy Grail of headphones or other pro audio gear, be sure to enlist us over at Riff City to help discover your best gear solution for any volume.

TPS Rig Rundown:

Guitars: Gibson Memphis 1958 ES-335, Fender Custom Shop 1963 Telecaster.

Pedals, Mick’s Board: Boss TU-3S Tuner, Analog Man Sun Face BC183 Fuzz, Fulltone Octafuzz, Analog Man/Maxon SD-9 Super Distortion, ProAnalog Devices, Analog Man ARDX 20 Dual Analog Delay, Free the Tone Tri-Avatar Multi-Dimentional Chorus, Bigfoot FX Magnavibe, Supro Tremolo, Neo Instruments Min Vent II.

Pedals, Dan’s Board: Sonic Research ST-300 Mini Tuner, Analog Man Sun Face NKT Red Dot, Analog Man Bad Bob Boos, Analog King of Tone, Keeley D&M Drive, Vintage MXR Phase 45, Fredric Effects Dresden Synth Fuzz, Analog Man ARDX20 Delay, Strymon Timeline, Chase Bliss Audio Gravitas Analog Tremolo, Walrus Audio Fathom Reverb.

Amps: Marshall 1987x head and 1960AX cabinet, Victory V30 The Countess MkII and V212VH cabinet, Universal Audio OX, Two Notes Torpedo Studio.

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