Recording Guitar, July 1997

May 17, 2004 12:00 PM



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Tips From Five Pros

It is almost impossible to overstate how important guitar has been in the world of popular music, whether it is rock, R&B, folk, country, blues, whatever. Sure, drummers, bassists and keyboardists can all lay rightful claim to their essential roles, but somehow guitarists get the lion’s share of the so-called hero-worship, whether it’s quiet acoustic renderings, funky chicken pickin’, or pure jack hammer, amp-blowing death rock.

The brilliance may start with the player, but behind the scenes, in the studio, is usually an attentive, resourceful engineer or producer, trying to catch sparks on tape.

Mix spoke to a handful of notable producers, engineers and players who have excelled at capturing great guitar sounds. Thanks to Adrian Belew, John Jennings, Skidd Mills, Michael Wagener and David Z for their fine input.

Since the late ’70s, Michael Wagener has earned a reputation as one of the masters of great-sounding rock recordings. Wagener, who has amassed more than 100 album credits, may be well-known for his work producing, engineering and/or mixing aggressive hard rock projects like Skid Row, Extreme, Ozzy Osbourne, Metallica, Megadeth and Alice Cooper, but he also has credits that range from Janet Jackson and Queen to The Plasmatics. Wagener is currently producing a video called How to Really Record Guitar.

“There is an important relationship between amp output and speaker wattage. I subscribe to the theory that you have to push air to get your point across. That means I will always try to use an amp with more power reserves than the RMS wattage of the speaker cab. Of course you have to be careful not to blow the cab to pieces. A tube amp of about 100 watts can have peaks around 250 watts, so make sure your cabinet can stand that occasional peak. Also, if you use a tube amp, that peak is liable to come smoother than or not as sudden as you would get from a transistor power amp. A tube power amp will probably give you a fatter, saturated sound, whereas a transistor amp will be cleaner with a bit of a harder attack.

“Another very important part of the power amp is the output transformer. The output transformer can make or break the sound of an amplifier. Once, I had to exchange a blown output transformer of a great-sounding Marshall 100-watt top. I never got the original sound back.

“The distortion doesn’t always have to be generated in the preamp. Sometimes it’s better to keep the preamp section fairly clean and get the distortion out of the power amp or the speaker. Speaker distortion is the smoothest distortion you can get. Unfortunately, because of the high volume, it also involves having a very good isolated studio, so the neighbors won’t get distorted as well.

“When you pick a speaker cabinet, there are a few considerations to be made. What kind of sound do you want to achieve? Are you looking for a clean sound or a distorted sound? Is the instrument going to be in the front or the back of the mix? Is it going to be doubled? Are you playing single notes or chords or both? How powerful is your amp? Can your speaker cabinet withstand the power output from the amp? Is your speaker cabinet too ‘big’ for the amp, so it won’t push enough air? For example, a 4x30-watt cab would be a great, powerful cab for a 100-watt amp if you are looking for a fat, distorted sound. If you are going for a cleaner sound, you might want to try a 4x75-watt cabinet on the same amp. Make sure that the impedance of the cabinet and the amp match.

“Make sure not to download the guitar output by hooking up a bunch of amps without a splitter. If you combine amps, it is important to look at the amp input as a resistor or load on your guitar. When you put two resistors in parallel, their value halves—think about two 8-ohm speakers switched parallel, resulting in 4-ohms. The smaller the resistor value the more current [or power] gets drawn by it. Your guitar only has a very tiny amount of power available on its output, so if you simply Y-cord the guitar into two amps, you are liable to lose some of the pickup power of the guitar to the load of the two parallel amp inputs. The most noticeable side effect is probably a loss of high end or overall crunch.

“The input impedance of a normal tube amp is around 1 million ohms, and the output impedance of a guitar is normally around 250,000 ohms. That is a pretty healthy relationship. If you combine two amp inputs, the input impedance goes down to about 500,000 ohms, which is a much higher load on your guitar output.

“Sometimes, for creating sound options, it might be good to set up a few different amps and cabinets in different rooms—hard and soft, open and dampened. It also works well to have a certain amp just produce the upper frequencies and another one just for the low end. That way you can decide on the mix between the two from inside the control room. If you have enough tracks available, record them both separately and mix them later when you have a better idea about the whole sound of the song. If you record the [almost] same signal twice, you have to be careful not to get phase distortion.”

Producer-engineer Skidd Mills has worked on projects ranging from ZZ Top’s hard guitar skronk to Robert Cray’s lyrical blues stylings. Mills, who primarily works out of the legendary Memphis studio Ardent Recording, has also worked with pop-rock wonders Big Star, Killjoys and Joe, Marc’s Brother, as well as Spin Doctors and hard rockers Skillet and Audio Adrenilin.

“First off, to me the most important element is the player. That is where most of the tone comes from. As far as amps go, I really like Matchless amps. I think they are really cool. I have recorded them a few times, and they’ve turned out really cool. Some of my favorites are also old Marshalls, Hiwatts and old Fenders.

“I almost always mike amps the same. I usually use two [Shure] 57s on a cabinet, a little off-center from the cone, right up against the grille. Sometimes, I will use a [Sennheiser] 421 or a [AKG] 451 with a 57.

“I usually don’t like to EQ my mics, especially separately, because when you’re EQ’ing separate guitar mics, you can get weird phase problems happening. If I’m going to do compression, EQ or anything like that, it’s almost always after the fact.

“I rely more on the actual sound. I will stand out by the amp before I start to EQ anything on the board. I’ll go out and stand by the amp and just make sure that it sounds good. If I do any EQ adjustments, I start first on the guitar amp itself. I won’t add board EQ while I’m going to tape, because I really just want to get the sound of the amp. Sometimes I’ll compress the guitar to tape, if I’m looking for a real heavy sound. One of my favorites is the Valley People 440. It has a lot of versatility to it.

“For the most part, I don’t like to slam guitars. When I’m standing in front of my monitors, I like to have the feel like I’m standing in front of the speaker cabinet. In other words, I’m pushing a lot of air.

“You have to be careful with compression because you can squeeze the life out of a guitar sound until it sounds paper-thin. At the same time, you don’t want to have the guitarist just strumming along and have one section come bursting out at you. When I’m mixing, I would say that my all-time favorite guitar compressor is the SSL compressor that is sitting in the board.

“Initially, I work with the sound of the player and amp. I get all of that together before I start thinking about what mics and what compression I want to use. I listen to the playing and see if the guitar and amp are most complementary to that player’s style. Experimenting with different amps, guitars and even picks can make a big difference. I usually like to have a lot of toys lying around, like a box full of distortion boxes and old vintage stuff. I like doing these things to achieve the best complementary tone for the player’s style and the type of music, instead of having the guitarist merely plug in and mike it up and sit at the board EQ’ing all day till I’m blue in the face.”

David Z is one of those producer/engineers who has had the good fortune of being able to successfully defy pigeonholing. Z’s credits include dance music divas Jody Watley and Nenah Cherry, as well as work with Prince. He’s also done blues rock up-and-comers Kenny Wayne Shepard and Kid Johnny Lang. Other credits include Fine Young Cannibals and the Freddy Jones Band. Most recently, Z has been working with the alternative insurgent country-rock scene, an arena in which he is very comfortable. After all, he was a friend of and co-songwriter with that movement’s late icon, Gram Parsons.

“The role of a funk guitar is almost like that of another percussion instrument. It’s playing a polyrhythm. Basically, in funk music, everything is a little more percussive. Everything is more a function of the beat than in many other styles of music.

“A lot of times, funk guitars are very clean, bright and often intensely compressed, because the way funk is played is like a slapping, hard picking technique to make it bite. It’s usually a Fender guitar, because Fenders have a good short tone, meaning they have a quick attack and quick release on a note, as opposed to a smooth, long tone, like an acoustic or a Gibson or something.

“With Prince, we used a Hohner, which sounded like a Tele, but it was 20,000 times brighter. It would come off with that ‘skanky’ sound. There is also that Gibson or 335 sound for darker, funky chord sounds. Those are usually recorded pretty straight, with maybe a little chorus. They aren’t real elaborate.

“For compressors, I love the LA-2As or ones that grab you a little bit more, such as a dbx OverEasy or an Inovonics. Those grab hard. Sometimes that is what you want. Usually, I will have it set with a slow attack, to get the head of the note, and then slam it. Then I have a fast release. I usually have it set at a 4-to-1 ratio, but it depends. It’s totally by ear. That’s just a usual setting I might use.

“Guitar amplifiers add some power, but they aren’t a big part of the actual tone of funk guitars. You want to get that speaker tone, but the attack is a pretty clean tone. We are not looking for distortion. Recording blues guitar, on the other hand, is more a function of the guitar and the amplifier together because of the distortion factor. A lot of times, I will use a ribbon mic, like a Coles ribbon mic. A lot of times with blues guitar and also acoustic, I would take what I would call ‘multiple sources.’ For example, on the Big Head Todd & the Monsters record that I did, we had a lot of multiple sources. We ran through a Leslie and we ran through a little Marshall. We miked the strings and then out of his regular amp all at the same time. We then had four different sounds going for the same part. Depending on what you pick and choose, you can get some pretty cool textures doing that.

“Sometimes I will put what I call a ‘kamikaze’ microphone focused on the bridge of the electric guitar. Sometimes I’ll put that mic on a stand, or hang it from a stand, placed as close as you can get it. I mainly use an ECM-50 or ECM-150 lavalier mic, or the kind of Sony that newscasters wear on their ties. I might use a 452, or [Neumann] KM84, a bright condenser mic, just to pick up the zing of the pick hitting the strings. You’ve got to roll off the bottom end. You’re just trying to get some sort of high-end thing. Obviously, you have to put the amp in another room from the player, or you won’t get anything worth using.

“If you mix a little bit of that in with what he’s playing, that adds a third dimension to it. You bring the sound into an even bigger arena, and you can spread it out. I like to do that, because in that way, you can actually make the guitar itself become much bigger-sounding. I may not use some of those elements, but I will usually try to take multiple sources.

“For Leo Kottke, we did a lot of multiple sourcing. We used a couple of mics, and we took a direct out of his pickup. We also used this guitar synthesizer that he had, a Roland VG-8. It added string sounds or other textures that played way underneath what he was playing. It gave the music a real eerie quality.

“On Leo, I used the DI to get a little support and clarity. I had one signal running through a little Fender Champ in another room. I miked him with two mics, a 452 up on the neck and a 49 over the hole. Both were placed two or three inches away.

“Acoustic guitars have some sort of a buildup in the lower-end areas, and it can really overwhelm you. I think the buildup is often around 150 Hz. You have to be kind of careful with compression and mic placement. A little roll-off and distancing of the mic helps. I tend not to compress very much.

“Actually, the big acoustic guitars can be deceiving because they can be great-sounding live, but then the microphone picks up all of this boom and it gets all screwed up. As a result, smaller guitars are sometimes the best. The player obviously can make a big difference.”

Since the ’70s, Adrian Belew has earned the distinction of being one of the guitar world’s most inventive practitioners. He has appeared on albums by Laurie Anderson, Joan Armatrading, David Bowie, Herbie Hancock, Mike Oldfield, Robert Palmer, Paul Simon, Talking Heads and Frank Zappa. Belew has been a member of King Crimson, one of rock’s most adventurous ensembles, since the early ’80s. During the last half of the ’80s, Belew has recorded twisted pop rock with his group, The Bears. Belew has also recorded 11 solo album projects that have ranged from Beatles-influenced melodic pop-rock to the ambitious 1996 release Experimental Guitar Series #1—The Guitar as Orchestra, in which he created an orchestra through sounds designed and executed through guitar and velocity-sensitive guitar synths.

“Before recording, I try to program most of my sounds into the multi-effects units the way that I want them heard, so there is little need for extra things to be done from the console, in terms of dynamic signal processing or EQ. Of course, there’s always a certain amount of EQ’ing that you will do.

“There are always happy accidents or things that occur that I didn’t plan on happening while recording. I always welcome those things, but most of the time it’s important that I scientifically develop the sounds that I really want to use in a song in a way that allows me to reproduce them again live. I really concentrate more on my guitar setup and its abilities to generate those.

“I like to build a single guitar sound out of several different guitar sounds. I may overdub three different guitars that are playing exactly the same thing, but have different variations of sounds. It’s important to me to create clean arrangements. In terms of sound, fewer parts are better.

“I have several choices of amplifiers that I use in several different rooms of my home studio. I use a DC-30 Matchless amp, which has an incredibly good tube sound. I keep it in my studio’s maple floor room. I also have some other amps, like a Fender Twin, a couple of Jazz amps and a Roland Jazz Chorus 120.

“I mainly like to play through 12-inch speakers. I’ll put up a couple of AKG 414s on them and maybe have a room mic, like a C-24, so there is a combination of close mic and room sounds to choose from. It just depends on what kind of sounds I’m going for. Sometimes, I’ll just plug into the board and play straight into the console. Most of the time, I like to go through speakers.

“If I’m recording guitar synthesizer stuff, I don’t find that those sounds come out any better coming through a speaker and a microphone, so I generally just take the signal direct. I might go through a Tube-Tech to try to warm things up a little bit, if possible, and try to get the cleanest signal going right in to the board. If I’m going to go direct with a guitar, I particularly like the Eventide Harmonizers, because they have so many sounds.

“I have four different synthesizers. In my rack, I have two that I use for all of my live sounds—they’re the Roland GR-1 and the Roland GR-50. I also have the older GR-700, which has a lot of really nice analog-based sounds. I probably have designed about 200 sounds with that unit. It’s a little hard to give it up, so I leave it in the studio. I also leave a newer model in the studio called the VG-8. It’s not actually a guitar synthesizer, but it’s yet another thing that I find works better for me in the studio than in a live application.

“The VG-8 has some really nice properties. In particular, it allows you to use altered tunings. You can write in altered tunings and the guitar sound is very realistic. There are many available guitar sounds, and you can play harmonics and get string noises, and you can really think that you are playing through a pickup, but you are actually not. In fact, you could use a guitar that has no pickups on it, as long as you’re using the MIDI controller, and you would never know that you’re not playing through pickups. Again, it’s an excellent way to utilize a lot of different tunings, and that is one of the things that I mainly use it for.”

As a producer, guitarist and songwriter, John Jennings has worked with such top artists as Mary Chapin Carpenter—with whom he has made several albums that have yielded 11 Top 10 singles, 13 Grammy nominations and five Grammy Awards—Indigo Girls, Iris DeMent, Janis Ian, Lyle Lovett and Bill Morrissey. Jennings’ most recent solo album is Buddy, recorded at Bias Recording in Springfield, Va., where he has cut all of Chapin Carpenter’s records.

“For better or worse, I do have several ‘default’ locations for placing mics. I like to think of them as good starting points, rather than rules. They work for me and may not work for you.

“Go out on the floor and listen to what you’re going to record. Don’t just throw up a couple of mics and do your inspection from the control room. Mics and monitors can lie to you. If you’re recording an acoustic guitar, listen with your face parallel to the face of the instrument. You’ll want to be a few feet back from the guitar, and you’ll want to move around a bit, mostly from side to side. You’ll find the ‘sweet’ spot, where all the elements of the sound are apparent and fairly well-balanced. Regardless of whether you’re recording in stereo or mono, this is the ‘zone’ you want to try to capture.

“Once you have found a sound that you like, walk around the room a bit. Listen from behind the guitarist, from the side, and all over. There might also be another place you can add a mic that will help the sound overall. Sometimes you have to try fairly unconventional things to compensate for an instrument that is lacking in a particular area, or to find a sound that fits a particular track. There are folks who will try to convince you, before you even try, that trying some unusual mic placement may not work. Having been guilty of this a time or two myself, I have reformed. I now say, ‘Whatever!’ It only takes a few minutes to find out.

“I personally prefer to record acoustic guitars in stereo, as I like wide images. I like to use matching pairs of mics and have a particular fondness for KM84s. Point one toward the middle of the lower bout and the other at the 15th (or so) fret. Put them a foot or so from the guitar, with the capsule roughly parallel to the face, and adjust the distance to taste. You get that nice bottom end from the bridge and the articulation from the neck.

“If you’re recording direct, try to have a few options for DIs. It’s always best to be able to tailor a sound to a particular track. As for recording electric guitars, I’m always searching for better ways to do it. I’ve become a proponent of the ‘multiple mic’ method. I really like to try several different mics on different speakers and move them around a good bit. Do yourself a favor: Buy a Sennheiser MD409 and use it in conjunction with an SM57. I place the 409 about a foot from one of the speakers and point it toward the outer edge of the cone. I find the 57 useful in adding definition to the sound if the 409 seems a bit too ‘soft.’ Nevertheless, there are many mics; try as many as you can. There are really useful microphones that are not very expensive, like Radio Shack PZMs.

“When recording electric guitars, listen to the amp close up and at different points in the room. If the amp has multiple speakers, each may have its own character, no matter how subtle. Ask the guitarist where the spot is in the room that sounds good to him or her. If the guitarist is standing and has dialed in a tone that works from head height, try to make a provision for that. In other words, put up another mic!”

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