Tips From Five Pros
It is almost impossible to overstate how important guitar has beenin the world of popular music, whether it is rock, R&B, folk,country, blues, whatever. Sure, drummers, bassists and keyboardists canall lay rightful claim to their essential roles, but somehow guitaristsget the lion’s share of the so-called hero-worship, whetherit’s quiet acoustic renderings, funky chicken pickin’, orpure jack hammer, amp-blowing death rock.
The brilliance may start with the player, but behind the scenes, inthe studio, is usually an attentive, resourceful engineer or producer,trying to catch sparks on tape.
Mix spoke to a handful of notable producers, engineers andplayers who have excelled at capturing great guitar sounds. Thanks toAdrian Belew, John Jennings, Skidd Mills, Michael Wagener and David Zfor their fine input.
Since the late ’70s, Michael Wagener has earned a reputation asone of the masters of great-sounding rock recordings. Wagener, who hasamassed more than 100 album credits, may be well-known for his workproducing, engineering and/or mixing aggressive hard rock projects likeSkid Row, Extreme, Ozzy Osbourne, Metallica, Megadeth and Alice Cooper,but he also has credits that range from Janet Jackson and Queen to ThePlasmatics. Wagener is currently producing a video called How to ReallyRecord Guitar.
“There is an important relationship between amp output andspeaker wattage. I subscribe to the theory that you have to push air toget your point across. That means I will always try to use an amp withmore power reserves than the RMS wattage of the speaker cab. Of courseyou have to be careful not to blow the cab to pieces. A tube amp ofabout 100 watts can have peaks around 250 watts, so make sure yourcabinet 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 wouldget from a transistor power amp. A tube power amp will probably giveyou a fatter, saturated sound, whereas a transistor amp will be cleanerwith a bit of a harder attack.
“Another very important part of the power amp is the outputtransformer. The output transformer can make or break the sound of anamplifier. Once, I had to exchange a blown output transformer of agreat-sounding Marshall 100-watt top. I never got the original soundback.
“The distortion doesn’t always have to be generated inthe preamp. Sometimes it’s better to keep the preamp sectionfairly clean and get the distortion out of the power amp or thespeaker. Speaker distortion is the smoothest distortion you can get.Unfortunately, because of the high volume, it also involves having avery good isolated studio, so the neighbors won’t get distortedas well.
“When you pick a speaker cabinet, there are a fewconsiderations to be made. What kind of sound do you want to achieve?Are you looking for a clean sound or a distorted sound? Is theinstrument going to be in the front or the back of the mix? Is it goingto be doubled? Are you playing single notes or chords or both? Howpowerful is your amp? Can your speaker cabinet withstand the poweroutput from the amp? Is your speaker cabinet too ‘big’ forthe amp, so it won’t push enough air? For example, a 4×30-wattcab would be a great, powerful cab for a 100-watt amp if you arelooking for a fat, distorted sound. If you are going for a cleanersound, you might want to try a 4×75-watt cabinet on the same amp. Makesure that the impedance of the cabinet and the amp match.
“Make sure not to download the guitar output by hooking up abunch of amps without a splitter. If you combine amps, it is importantto look at the amp input as a resistor or load on your guitar. When youput two resistors in parallel, their value halves—think about two8-ohm speakers switched parallel, resulting in 4-ohms. The smaller theresistor value the more current [or power] gets drawn by it. Yourguitar only has a very tiny amount of power available on its output, soif you simply Y-cord the guitar into two amps, you are liable to losesome of the pickup power of the guitar to the load of the two parallelamp inputs. The most noticeable side effect is probably a loss of highend or overall crunch.
“The input impedance of a normal tube amp is around 1 millionohms, and the output impedance of a guitar is normally around 250,000ohms. That is a pretty healthy relationship. If you combine two ampinputs, the input impedance goes down to about 500,000 ohms, which is amuch higher load on your guitar output.
“Sometimes, for creating sound options, it might be good toset up a few different amps and cabinets in different rooms—hardand soft, open and dampened. It also works well to have a certain ampjust produce the upper frequencies and another one just for the lowend. That way you can decide on the mix between the two from inside thecontrol room. If you have enough tracks available, record them bothseparately and mix them later when you have a better idea about thewhole 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 ZZTop’s hard guitar skronk to Robert Cray’s lyrical bluesstylings. Mills, who primarily works out of the legendary Memphisstudio Ardent Recording, has also worked with pop-rock wonders BigStar, Killjoys and Joe, Marc’s Brother, as well as Spin Doctorsand 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 reallylike Matchless amps. I think they are really cool. I have recorded thema few times, and they’ve turned out really cool. Some of myfavorites 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 againstthe grille. Sometimes, I will use a [Sennheiser] 421 or a [AKG] 451with a 57.
“I usually don’t like to EQ my mics, especiallyseparately, because when you’re EQ’ing separate guitarmics, you can get weird phase problems happening. If I’m going todo compression, EQ or anything like that, it’s almost alwaysafter the fact.
“I rely more on the actual sound. I will stand out by the ampbefore I start to EQ anything on the board. I’ll go out and standby the amp and just make sure that it sounds good. If I do any EQadjustments, I start first on the guitar amp itself. I won’t addboard EQ while I’m going to tape, because I really just want toget the sound of the amp. Sometimes I’ll compress the guitar totape, if I’m looking for a real heavy sound. One of my favoritesis the Valley People 440. It has a lot of versatility to it.
“For the most part, I don’t like to slam guitars. WhenI’m standing in front of my monitors, I like to have the feellike I’m standing in front of the speaker cabinet. In otherwords, I’m pushing a lot of air.
“You have to be careful with compression because you cansqueeze the life out of a guitar sound until it sounds paper-thin. Atthe same time, you don’t want to have the guitarist juststrumming along and have one section come bursting out at you. WhenI’m mixing, I would say that my all-time favorite guitarcompressor is the SSL compressor that is sitting in the board.
“Initially, I work with the sound of the player and amp. I getall of that together before I start thinking about what mics and whatcompression I want to use. I listen to the playing and see if theguitar and amp are most complementary to that player’s style.Experimenting with different amps, guitars and even picks can make abig difference. I usually like to have a lot of toys lying around, likea box full of distortion boxes and old vintage stuff. I like doingthese things to achieve the best complementary tone for theplayer’s style and the type of music, instead of having theguitarist merely plug in and mike it up and sit at the boardEQ’ing all day till I’m blue in the face.”
David Z is one of those producer/engineers who has had the good fortuneof being able to successfully defy pigeonholing. Z’s creditsinclude dance music divas Jody Watley and Nenah Cherry, as well as workwith Prince. He’s also done blues rock up-and-comers Kenny WayneShepard and Kid Johnny Lang. Other credits include Fine Young Cannibalsand the Freddy Jones Band. Most recently, Z has been working with thealternative insurgent country-rock scene, an arena in which he is verycomfortable. After all, he was a friend of and co-songwriter with thatmovement’s late icon, Gram Parsons.
“The role of a funk guitar is almost like that of anotherpercussion instrument. It’s playing a polyrhythm. Basically, infunk music, everything is a little more percussive. Everything is morea function of the beat than in many other styles of music.
“A lot of times, funk guitars are very clean, bright and oftenintensely compressed, because the way funk is played is like aslapping, hard picking technique to make it bite. It’s usually aFender guitar, because Fenders have a good short tone, meaning theyhave a quick attack and quick release on a note, as opposed to asmooth, long tone, like an acoustic or a Gibson or something.
“With Prince, we used a Hohner, which sounded like a Tele, butit was 20,000 times brighter. It would come off with that‘skanky’ sound. There is also that Gibson or 335 sound fordarker, 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 alittle bit more, such as a dbx OverEasy or an Inovonics. Those grabhard. Sometimes that is what you want. Usually, I will have it set witha slow attack, to get the head of the note, and then slam it. Then Ihave a fast release. I usually have it set at a 4-to-1 ratio, but itdepends. It’s totally by ear. That’s just a usual setting Imight use.
“Guitar amplifiers add some power, but they aren’t a bigpart of the actual tone of funk guitars. You want to get that speakertone, but the attack is a pretty clean tone. We are not looking fordistortion. Recording blues guitar, on the other hand, is more afunction of the guitar and the amplifier together because of thedistortion factor. A lot of times, I will use a ribbon mic, like aColes ribbon mic. A lot of times with blues guitar and also acoustic, Iwould take what I would call ‘multiple sources.’ Forexample, on the Big Head Todd & the Monsters record that I did, wehad a lot of multiple sources. We ran through a Leslie and we ranthrough a little Marshall. We miked the strings and then out of hisregular amp all at the same time. We then had four different soundsgoing for the same part. Depending on what you pick and choose, you canget some pretty cool textures doing that.
“Sometimes I will put what I call a ‘kamikaze’microphone focused on the bridge of the electric guitar. SometimesI’ll put that mic on a stand, or hang it from a stand, placed asclose as you can get it. I mainly use an ECM-50 or ECM-150 lavaliermic, or the kind of Sony that newscasters wear on their ties. I mightuse a 452, or [Neumann] KM84, a bright condenser mic, just to pick upthe zing of the pick hitting the strings. You’ve got to roll offthe bottom end. You’re just trying to get some sort of high-endthing. Obviously, you have to put the amp in another room from theplayer, or you won’t get anything worth using.
“If you mix a little bit of that in with what he’splaying, that adds a third dimension to it. You bring the sound into aneven bigger arena, and you can spread it out. I like to do that,because in that way, you can actually make the guitar itself becomemuch bigger-sounding. I may not use some of those elements, but I willusually try to take multiple sources.
“For Leo Kottke, we did a lot of multiple sourcing. We used acouple of mics, and we took a direct out of his pickup. We also usedthis guitar synthesizer that he had, a Roland VG-8. It added stringsounds or other textures that played way underneath what he wasplaying. It gave the music a real eerie quality.
“On Leo, I used the DI to get a little support and clarity. Ihad one signal running through a little Fender Champ in another room. Imiked 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-endareas, and it can really overwhelm you. I think the buildup is oftenaround 150 Hz. You have to be kind of careful with compression and micplacement. A little roll-off and distancing of the mic helps. I tendnot to compress very much.
“Actually, the big acoustic guitars can be deceiving becausethey can be great-sounding live, but then the microphone picks up allof this boom and it gets all screwed up. As a result, smaller guitarsare sometimes the best. The player obviously can make a bigdifference.”
Since the ’70s, Adrian Belew has earned the distinction of beingone of the guitar world’s most inventive practitioners. He hasappeared on albums by Laurie Anderson, Joan Armatrading, David Bowie,Herbie Hancock, Mike Oldfield, Robert Palmer, Paul Simon, Talking Headsand Frank Zappa. Belew has been a member of King Crimson, one ofrock’s most adventurous ensembles, since the early ’80s.During the last half of the ’80s, Belew has recorded twisted poprock with his group, The Bears. Belew has also recorded 11 solo albumprojects that have ranged from Beatles-influenced melodic pop-rock tothe ambitious 1996 release Experimental Guitar Series #1—TheGuitar as Orchestra, in which he created an orchestra throughsounds designed and executed through guitar and velocity-sensitiveguitar synths.
“Before recording, I try to program most of my sounds into themulti-effects units the way that I want them heard, so there is littleneed for extra things to be done from the console, in terms of dynamicsignal processing or EQ. Of course, there’s always a certainamount of EQ’ing that you will do.
“There are always happy accidents or things that occur that Ididn’t plan on happening while recording. I always welcome thosethings, but most of the time it’s important that I scientificallydevelop the sounds that I really want to use in a song in a way thatallows me to reproduce them again live. I really concentrate more on myguitar setup and its abilities to generate those.
“I like to build a single guitar sound out of severaldifferent guitar sounds. I may overdub three different guitars that areplaying exactly the same thing, but have different variations ofsounds. It’s important to me to create clean arrangements. Interms of sound, fewer parts are better.
“I have several choices of amplifiers that I use in severaldifferent rooms of my home studio. I use a DC-30 Matchless amp, whichhas an incredibly good tube sound. I keep it in my studio’s maplefloor room. I also have some other amps, like a Fender Twin, a coupleof Jazz amps and a Roland Jazz Chorus 120.
“I mainly like to play through 12-inch speakers. I’llput up a couple of AKG 414s on them and maybe have a room mic, like aC-24, so there is a combination of close mic and room sounds to choosefrom. It just depends on what kind of sounds I’m going for.Sometimes, I’ll just plug into the board and play straight intothe console. Most of the time, I like to go through speakers.
“If I’m recording guitar synthesizer stuff, Idon’t find that those sounds come out any better coming through aspeaker and a microphone, so I generally just take the signal direct. Imight go through a Tube-Tech to try to warm things up a little bit, ifpossible, and try to get the cleanest signal going right in to theboard. If I’m going to go direct with a guitar, I particularlylike the Eventide Harmonizers, because they have so many sounds.
“I have four different synthesizers. In my rack, I have twothat I use for all of my live sounds—they’re the RolandGR-1 and the Roland GR-50. I also have the older GR-700, which has alot of really nice analog-based sounds. I probably have designed about200 sounds with that unit. It’s a little hard to give it up, so Ileave it in the studio. I also leave a newer model in the studio calledthe VG-8. It’s not actually a guitar synthesizer, but it’syet another thing that I find works better for me in the studio than ina live application.
“The VG-8 has some really nice properties. In particular, itallows you to use altered tunings. You can write in altered tunings andthe guitar sound is very realistic. There are many available guitarsounds, and you can play harmonics and get string noises, and you canreally think that you are playing through a pickup, but you areactually not. In fact, you could use a guitar that has no pickups onit, as long as you’re using the MIDI controller, and you wouldnever know that you’re not playing through pickups. Again,it’s an excellent way to utilize a lot of different tunings, andthat is one of the things that I mainly use it for.”
As a producer, guitarist and songwriter, John Jennings has worked withsuch top artists as Mary Chapin Carpenter—with whom he has madeseveral albums that have yielded 11 Top 10 singles, 13 Grammynominations and five Grammy Awards—Indigo Girls, Iris DeMent,Janis Ian, Lyle Lovett and Bill Morrissey. Jennings’ most recentsolo 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 startingpoints, rather than rules. They work for me and may not work foryou.
“Go out on the floor and listen to what you’re going torecord. Don’t just throw up a couple of mics and do yourinspection from the control room. Mics and monitors can lie to you. Ifyou’re recording an acoustic guitar, listen with your faceparallel to the face of the instrument. You’ll want to be a fewfeet 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 fairlywell-balanced. Regardless of whether you’re recording in stereoor mono, this is the ‘zone’ you want to try to capture.
“Once you have found a sound that you like, walk around theroom a bit. Listen from behind the guitarist, from the side, and allover. There might also be another place you can add a mic that willhelp the sound overall. Sometimes you have to try fairly unconventionalthings to compensate for an instrument that is lacking in a particulararea, or to find a sound that fits a particular track. There are folkswho will try to convince you, before you even try, that trying someunusual mic placement may not work. Having been guilty of this a timeor two myself, I have reformed. I now say, ‘Whatever!’ Itonly takes a few minutes to find out.
“I personally prefer to record acoustic guitars in stereo, asI like wide images. I like to use matching pairs of mics and have aparticular fondness for KM84s. Point one toward the middle of the lowerbout and the other at the 15th (or so) fret. Put them a foot or so fromthe guitar, with the capsule roughly parallel to the face, and adjustthe distance to taste. You get that nice bottom end from the bridge andthe articulation from the neck.
“If you’re recording direct, try to have a few optionsfor DIs. It’s always best to be able to tailor a sound to aparticular track. As for recording electric guitars, I’m alwayssearching for better ways to do it. I’ve become a proponent ofthe ‘multiple mic’ method. I really like to try severaldifferent mics on different speakers and move them around a good bit.Do yourself a favor: Buy a Sennheiser MD409 and use it in conjunctionwith an SM57. I place the 409 about a foot from one of the speakers andpoint it toward the outer edge of the cone. I find the 57 useful inadding definition to the sound if the 409 seems a bit too‘soft.’ Nevertheless, there are many mics; try as many asyou can. There are really useful microphones that are not veryexpensive, like Radio Shack PZMs.
“When recording electric guitars, listen to the amp close upand at different points in the room. If the amp has multiple speakers,each may have its own character, no matter how subtle. Ask theguitarist 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 fromhead height, try to make a provision for that. In other words, put upanother mic!”