Jun 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Heather Johnson
LESS IS MORE FOR VETERAN GUITAR HERO
After more than two decades and a dozen studio albums, it's a challenge for any artist to continue to break new musical ground. But when you only have guitar, bass and drums to work with — no vocals, maybe a keyboard on occasion — the quest for innovation becomes even more important. One of the most skilled artists facing that predicament — world-renowned guitarist Joe Satriani — finds that he can present his ideas in a new way by delivering fewer of them.
His latest collection, Professor Satchafunkilus and the Musterion of Rock, released in April on Sony/BMG, contains an even 10 songs and clocks in just shy of 60 minutes. But within that compressed time-frame, funk, jazz, Middle Eastern and hard-rock music all get their due, while Satriani's knack for creating complex arrangements within a solid song structure remains intact.
“When you're making a record, you want to create a pleasurable listening experience from top to bottom,” Satriani explains. “Instead of having 14 or 18 tracks that represent different creative paths, I decided to limit the ideas to just 10. This actually gave me license to go deeper into each new direction. So the song ‘Professor Satchafunkilus’ can be completely funky, syncopated and humorous, and can do it all the way, and ‘Andalusia’ can go all the way in another direction for seven minutes. So, thematically, I'm tightening up, but it's buying me a little more creative real estate on the other side, which sets me free in the end.”
Engineer and co-producer John Cuniberti, who has worked with Satriani for more than 20 years, had been rooting for the 10-song album for a while and was happy to see the concept to fruition. “Focusing down really allows you to create a theme and make a more interesting record,” he says. “Especially with Joe, the listener gets overwhelmed. There's a lot of guitar, a lot of notes for somebody to digest. The statement can be made in 10 songs.”
The process of writing, arranging and ultimately recording began in Satriani's home studio, a spaceship-like enclave containing a Pro Tools HD2 system running on an Apple G5, a set of Roland V-Drums, a couple of keyboards and, of course, a whole lot of guitar amps. “I started doing little bits of recording around '99,” says Satriani. “It went from using Logic on a laptop to getting a fully dedicated Pro Tools system. The last three or four records have had quite a lot of material recorded right here in this room.”
From his professionally tuned shuttle, Satriani recorded 16 or so demos, which he would later use during tracking sessions with drummer Jeff Campitelli and bassist Matt Bissonette. Satriani played drums when he was a teenager; he usually records drum patterns with the V-Drums into MIDI, creates a basic rhythm and then works out the guitar tracks. “He'll basically build up the entire arrangement and then edit those arrangements in Pro Tools,” says Cuniberti. “Once that's done, he has a choice of attempting either finished guitar parts or just using the demo guitars as a representation for later use. In the studio, there is a point where he, or we, decide which guitars we're going to keep from his demo sessions and which guitars we're going to replace.”
Turns out about half of the guitar parts on the record came from those demo sessions, as well as all of the keyboard parts. Everything else was recorded at The Plant Studios in Sausalito, Calif., in the facility's historic Studio A, which offers a 1,200-square-foot tracking room with a circa 1972 sunburst pattern on the sidewall and a much newer SSL 9000 K sitting in the control room.
Campitelli and Bissonette played together, with a click track and Satriani's guitar demos in their headphone mix. Campitelli sat at one of three drum kits, each miked and ready to go at all times, with Bissonette facing him and Satriani observing in the control room.
“Joe doesn't like to give them a lot of direction,” says Cuniberti. “We've learned over the years that it's better to hire good players and give them a lot of lead than rein them in if things aren't going in the direction you want them to go. If you start reining them in early on, you can almost feel the tension in the room, and that's the worst thing that can happen in a session. That said, there will always be some reining in because Joe already has a vision of what he wants.”
Cuniberti recorded four to six passes each of drums and bass and comped them together afterward. “The stuff they play for Joe is very complex,” he says. “Once they've played a song five times, they're pretty much done.” Bissonette plays direct through a Millennia Media TD-1 direct box. Once the guitar parts are finished, Cuniberti uses his Reamp interface to get “the lively action of a bass guitar amp. A lot of the music needs some growl from the bass,” he says.
The three drum kits Campitelli used include a small '60s-style kit set up in an iso booth, which they used for the title track. “We wanted a very close, dry, '70s dead drum booth sound,” says Cuniberti. “No ambience, just dirty and funky.” He miked this kit with classics such as a Sony C37 and Electro-Voice RE20. A larger “John Bonham” kit, set up in the middle of the room, was miked using a technique mastered by legendary producer/engineer Glyn Johns: “One of the overhead mics is directly over the drummer's head, pointed down toward the rack tom and snare. The other mic is placed near the floor tom, pointing at the snare. They're panned hard-left and -right so you get a nice stereo spread of the drums.” A kick and snare mic were then blended into the mix. A third kit, Campitelli's touring kit, was miked using Neumann KM54s for the overheads, an AKG D-12 for bass drum, a Beyer M201 for toms, and a Shure SM57 for snare drum top and bottom. All of the drums ran through Neve 1073 or Great River mic pre's before hitting the Pro Tools HD system at 24/96.
And what about those famous guitars, which included Ibanez JS1200, JS1000 and JS2PRM electrics (his signature line), a Bruce Sexauer FT-14 acoustic and a 1948 Martin 000-21? For the demo recordings, Satriani used either a Palmer or Marshall SE100 speaker simulator paired with one of his many guitar amps, including those from his signature Peavey JSX Series. In the studio, he played into either a CAD D189 or an SM57. For clean guitar parts and acoustic guitar, he used a KM54.
The expertise of Satriani's current studio team, as well as their history together (Cuniberti and Campitelli have worked with Satriani since the late 1970s; Bissonette since 1992) helped the sessions flow with few glitches, but not without surprises. For one, Satriani didn't expect quite so much of his demo work to end up on the final product. “Once we went from 16 to 12 to 11 to 10 songs, it became easier to see how these tracks didn't need to be replaced,” Satriani says. “I was also pleasantly surprised that Matt, Jeff and John came up with ideas that I wouldn't have thought of. Jeff changed the idea of what to play on ‘Professor Satchafunkilus,’ and there are other songs where John would come in and really make it happen with where he would put the drums, how he would record them and what parts of the kit he would tweak.”
Satriani and crew spent three weeks mixing at The Plant, where Cuniberti bypassed the SSL altogether to mix exclusively “in the box.” After three weeks, they moved to his home studio, affectionately dubbed Digital Therapy Labs, which offers a Pro Tools HD3 system and enough plug-ins to allow him to use the same techniques as he would during a traditional mix session.
“I haven't changed the way I mix,” he says. “I use the Waves API bundle for most of the EQ, the Altiverb reverbs — with those I can get my EMT plates, my echo chambers, my halls — and various compressors depending on what's called for. All of that is bused to a Neve 8-in/2-out summing box I built and then to an SSL stereo compressor. Joe and I have grown up with Neve, API and SSL consoles, so we couldn't divorce ourselves from them.”
For the three-piece instrumentals, Cuniberti referred to such three-piece classics such as The Who's Live at Leeds and Cream's Live Cream to determine how best to pan solo guitar-bass-drums. “They would pan the bass and guitar apart, which is fairly unconventional in modern music,” Cuniberti says. “So I went in and started pulling stuff apart, and Joe immediately got a huge smile on his face, and said, ‘That's it.’”
Cuniberti, who until recently operated Plant Mastering out of The Plant Studios, turned over the final mixes to Bernie Grundman for mastering. “Almost everything I've learned about mastering I've learned from Bernie,” he says. “It was a natural choice for me to go to him, and it's fun for me to watch him work. I don't question anything he does, although I'm always curious to read his notes!”
Professor Satchafunkilus and the Musterion of Rock hit retail not long after the 20th-anniversary edition of Surfing With the Alien, Satriani's groundbreaking second album and the second of many solo albums that he and Cuniberti would have created together. Their relationship works even as they challenge each other's creative boundaries. “He pulls no punches and doesn't hold back,” says Satriani of his engineering partner. “He says exactly what he's feeling, he's not afraid to change his mind and he's not afraid to change mine. And, of course, his engineering skills and his ears are amazing, and I've depended on that for two decades now. He makes me feel relaxed and confident, but we never seem to lose that edge where we push each other to do things better.”
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