Monday, February 7, 2011

Guitar Tone-Seeking Gearhead Obsessives Only (others may be bored)

So I spent a couple of days last week recording my guitar and keyboard tracks for the new album.  As a huge fan of Tape Op magazine (the BEST recording magazine ever), I’ve always enjoyed reading about recording instruments and vocals.  What I’ve learned is there is no set way.  The Tape Op ethos is to experiment and try something different than the norm as sounds are subjective and doing something “wrong” may sound just right.  With that in mind, I’ve tried "right" and "wrong" but have never been happy with my guitar tones.
     Enter Willie Samuels.  Now Willie already impressed me with his ability to get the best drum sounds I’ve ever heard come from our band.  Sure, but he’s a drummer.  It should be his forte.  I wasn’t expecting to get much of a different guitar sound as I still play the same as I always have and I’m still using the same basic guitar/amp set up.
     Willie asked me if I wanted to record my guitar from the “live” room where my amp was set up or from the control room.  I’ve always recorded in the same room as my amp (despite headphone bleed) as I’ve liked the ability to change the settings from song to song without running back and forth from the control room.  Willie had set up a mixer with headphones for me to monitor so I figured I was set.  I explained that my amp was a combo amp (Vox AC15) and I couldn’t replace the amplifier section from the cabinet (1- 12” speaker).  He suggested we try running my amp through a early ‘70’s Marshall cabinet with 4- 12” speakers.  That just frightened me as I didn’t think it would represent my tone.  I asked that I be allowed to try and set up my amp first and see what I kind of sound I could get.  I quickly hooked it up and was amazed at how great it sounded in the room.
     “Yep, that’s my tone and it sounds great in here!” I beamed proudly.
     Willie asked that we now try running my amp through the huge Marshall cabinet.  I skeptically agreed as he went to work hooking it all up.  Once he was set he suggested I try it out.  I played a jangly riff from one of our songs and was stunned.  The Marshall cabinet sounded fantastic.  The tone was huge!  It sounded like my guitar and amp  - but bigger and better.  It was the difference between listening to music on a transistor radio and a nice home stereo.
    “Uh, yeah.  Sure.  I’ll set up in the control room.”

So, we retreated to the control room after Willie set up a different mic on each speaker.  Not a one was the "standard" SM57 but a very expensive assortment of mics that together were worth more than our entire recording budget.  Willie explained that we could switch which mics were being used for each song to tailor the best sound.  Great idea.  He had also set up a room mic to capture some natural reverb and add depth to the sound.
     Once we were ready I began playing along to the drums, the guide vocal & “scratch” bass.  Willie leaned over and began moving my guitar’s toggle switch and tone knobs.  Once I got over the shock of having my personal space violated I realized he was dialing in a better sound.  He also fiddled with the gain and tone knobs on my amp, his own array of preamps, EQ and compression.  It was truly amazing to see how he was sculpting the tone as I was playing and he instinctively knew when the sound was “dialed in” and would stop.  I could hear how the different mics sounded working with each other.  Some sounded more edgy and some softer.  Song after song, Willie would work his magic on the guitar tones – adding more overdrive/crunch where needed or backing it off for a cleaner sound.  My main guitar is a semi-hollow-body Cort that I replaced the stock pickups with Folgers coffee crystals - I mean some TV Jones pickups to give it a more Gretsch-like tone.  I used that guitar on a little more than half the songs for the album.  I had borrowed a Fender Stratocaster for a more snappy solid-body tone from my neighbor, Guyle Tabor.  I was happy to find his Strat (modeled on a ‘70’s era Strats) had a great “out-of-phase” tone I love (think Alex Chilton’s tone on Big Star’s “Radio City” album).  It was a funky, slinky tone that was perfect for the balance of songs I had to record.
       I couldn’t have been happier with the tones I achieved on guitar.  After I quickly recorded a smattering of keyboards (mostly presets with a few EQ changes) I left the studio a very happy man.  Now, what I can’t figure out is why I didn’t always record guitar like that?  Oh, yeah.  I didn’t know Willie!

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