This is a new montly feature by Brian Tarquin, a Multi Emmy Award winning composer/guitarist and owner of Jungle Room Studios.
It’s the age-old question of how to keep your guitar in the mix, without loosing the integrity of the tone. Engineers have been grappling with this for years to have it stand tall in the saddle without over dominating everything else. This is why the guitar was instinctively the best candidate to amplify, because acoustically the guitar has a very soft and delicate sound. Thanks to Seth Lover our dear departed friend Les Paul for the invention of guitar pick ups together with amplification, the guitar became the aggressive beast we’ve come to know & love, not to mention the back bone for rock n roll. I spoke with top-notch guitaristists of our day to see how they handle their tone in the studio.
“Though there are many moments of tonal splendor throughout LOVE GRENADE where my 59 Les Paul’s join the fray, plus the occasional throttling on those very special hollowbody PRS masterpieces as well, it is the combination of Peavey 6505s and some old pre-CBS Fender Twin amps that ultimately make the sound so wonderful. Regarding my choice to change up guitars and amps off and on during my adventurous musical career, it is a direct result of my being a music fan first and foremost, and in my inexhaustible quest for the ultimate guitar tone.” Ted Nugent
“My typical set-up is a BK Butler Tube Driver or an AC Booster through a Marshall JMP Super Lead and a Dunlop Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face or an old Ibanez Tube Screamer through a Marshall JTM 45. I have a couple of different Marshalls with a little different circuitry. Some are more Hendrix rhythm, big fender sounding, not as gainy with bigger, thicker rhythm tone, overdrive. Then I have some that are more super lead JMP that have a lot of gain within the amp. I’ll crank that up and get a lot of distortion from the amp. I also have a twin reverb that has eminence speakers in it and when you crank it up it has an interesting type of lead tone.” Eric Johnson
“I would plug my JS1000 guitar into various pedals, and/or, go into a variety of amps heads, then on to a Palmer speaker simulator. Then on to a few different mic pre’s; Neve, V72’s etc… Sometimes we would aim for traditional, other times not. Sometimes a plug-in would do the trick, or, just all the pedals we found on the floor plugged in and turned up! We had much success with the Mooger Fooger pedals, the Fulltone Ultimate Octave, a Digitech Whammy pedal, and a preamp called a Hafler Triple Giant. The latter had the most robotic distortion, totally devoid of warmth and feeling. But, in the context of a song like “Borg Sex”, it was perfect!” Joe Satriani
So obviously each one of our guitar heroes took various steps during recording, constantly adjusting their source, until they found the tone that worked for that particular song. This is a very important point because how many of us sit in a music store and get great tone out of a particular device or effect pedal, but find once brought back to the studio it absolutely doesn’t work in the mix. Ironically this can work in reverse where you play an effect pedal & think to yourself where in the world would I ever use it? Of course 2 days later when you’re back in the studio you try that particular sound for a quirky idea and “voila”, perfect for the song.
I remember speaking with Eric Johnson about various ribbon mics especially the beyerdynamic M160 and what he used. To my amazement he wasn’t really familiar with mics, in fact he left that whole decision to the engineer. He stated to me that he was always so concerned on getting the source to sound great; he never really cared about the recording process. Probably to guitarists this is the most essential, because like Eric, get the sound you like in the room thru the amp, effects, guitar, etc., and then capture it “on tape” or hard drive, whichever the case may be. Now it doesn’t have to be amped either, as we see with Satriani’s CD, “Engines Of Creation”. In fact when I asked him what amps & mics he used he said “No mics, no speakers! We thought it was a cool thing at the time, to make a record completely “in the box”.” It’s actually one of my favorite releases from him because he really kept his tone & sound, but incorporated electronica grooves. Neal Schon also told me that he did the same process for his solo release “I On U”;
“It was mostly direct. I used a lot of Roland gear, the GP6 and plug-in Amp Simulators. It was all done on ProTools. I did a lot of programming on the GP6. When you do not have access to a large studio where you can set up a couple of great sounding amps, the GP6 is a great alternative.”
However you record your guitar tones, the real trick is the treatment in the mix to make a statement. Of coarse this all depends on the style of music, ie: guitar instrumental music will be treated much differently than pop rock. But regardless there are certain easy measures to keep that guitar distinct. One is a good old fashion EQ process.
Since I own a studio, I’m a bit spoiled having a Trident desk at my fingertips with 32 channels of EQ. But there are plenty of EQ plug ins today that will do the trick. The important thing to remember is not to over do it. You want a little boost in the mids, but not too much that the guitar is too brittle. The best way is to really experiment and see how the particular guitar sits in track. Listen to the mix on as many different speakers as possible and see the common ground. There are so many factors involved from the type of music to the type of guitar used, so there really isn’t any norm to follow. I found using a parametric EQ rack is very useful, being able to really pin point the frequency you’d like to boost. Orban made a number of broadcast ones that you find for a couple hundred dollars on ebay. There is a Pultec plug in that works good as well.
Another way to really control guitar is the use of a limiter or compressor. It works like a charm and really helps keeps the guitar in the mix. In fact compressors gives guitars presence and controls the various dynamics, particularly on bass and crunchy rhythm guitar. I found using a mic pre/compressor Universal audio LA-610 specifically useful. One of the wonderful things about the unit is the onboard EQ, very subtle, but great on acoustic guitar, lead guitar & even bass.
For those of you who are not familiar with LA- 610, it is a channel strip format based on the legendary console modules developed by Bill Putnam back in the 1960’s. It combines the 610 Mic-Pre/EQ/DI sections and a T4 Opto-compressor. Because of its tube circuitry, it creates a very musical character and warmth. But one of my absolute favorite compressors is the Urei LA-4, which absolutely loves guitar, all guitars. The great thing about the LA-4 is it very transparent, capturing your tone and controlling the level in the mix. Extremely easy to use, I would recommend it highly; even if it would be the only compressor you ever bought.
Whether you are recording on hard disk or an old analog dawg like me, there are many factors involved making that guitar track take shape in the mix. The best way to approach it is to make sure you can hear every instrument in the mix along with the guitar. If the guitar is the lead instrument then treat it like you would lead vocals, as you can clearly hear in Satriani mixes. If your guitar is a rhythm instrument like in many of the Nug man’s songs, than make sure you have made sonic room for other instruments including the vocals. Sonically one the most interesting portraits is Eric Johnson’s use of various guitar tones via real amps to achieve a wonderful musical canvas. He using different guitars & amps to get his clean sound; as opposed to his overdriven sound. This makes the most sense, some cats get so attached to a certain guitar or amp, that they lock them selves out for change. For example if you want a twelve string sound, don’t just plug in a chorus pedal, use a real 12 strings.
But the most interesting conclusion is that the best achievements are the combination of digital technology and analog, the best of both worlds. I’ll leave you with the immensely charismatic message that Ted passed on to me;
“Ah yes, the sweet smokey BBQ greaze drip of the mighty Gibson Byrdland in the hands of a pure, primalscream aboriginal dogman fresh from a steaming gutpile campfire somewhere way back in the SpiritWild hinterland that we all love so dearly. Such romance! It is indeed the unleashing of numerous Byrdlands from my glowing arsenal of assault guitars that were not turned over to the evil government when they attempted to ban them years ago. It is insanely fun and the guitartone is merely the manifestation of our united love…”
About the author
Brian Tarquin is a Multi Emmy Award winning composer/guitarist and owner of Jungle Room Studios. Some of his accomplishments include, writing the theme music for MTV’s Road Rules, as well as producing music for many other TV shows such as CSI, ABC’s Making The Band, Extra, Alias and the Keanu Reeves film, The Watcher. In 2006, Tarquin opened his own boutique record label called BHP MUSIC, specializing in instrumental guitar music. Brian is also a featured music writer and has been published in magazines such as EQ, Guitar Player, Premier Guitar & Recording.