I’ve been recording music for over half of my life. Whether or not that makes me some kind of “knowledgeable” person pertaining to the art is open to question. I mean, I learned how to do nearly all of what I do through trial and error and reading magazines such as Recording plus countless interviews with producers and engineers. It was tough and took a lot of time, but lately I’ve had quite a few folks inquire on the streaming sites, wondering how I do some of the junk I do so. At first I was hesitant, but then I figured why not just tell everybody? It’s not like I’m telling anyone how to make their own bathtub Uranium or anything, besides, it’s something that requires practice, and like so many other things in life, some folks simply aren’t willing to put forth the necessary effort, whereas others are. Those who do will be aptly rewarded.
I’m thinking that this subject is going to require quite a few individual posts, so I believe that it would be best to break everything down into general categories.
I suppose a good way to start would be to address all of the crap which almost everyone has been led to believe that has to be done to get good recordings. There are lots of myths and I’d like to dispel a few. That leaves more room for the facts, which are usually much less dramatic.
1) You don’t have to have a 100 watt amp to record with. Page and Clapton and even Mr. Hair Shirt himself, Ted Nugent knew this a long time ago. That’s why their recordings sounded so good and had so much depth. Nugent used a 25 watt Fender Deluxe to record “Cat Scratch Fever”. And I’m not a big fan of his, but I dare anyone to put the album on and not agree that his guitar sounded monstrous.
See, this is how it works, and it’s simple physics: The biggest microphone diaphragm is about one inch in diameter. Most guitar amps have either 10″ or 12″ drivers. Basically then, what you are attempting to do is shove all of the sound coming out of the big speaker into the tiny microphone. This represents a bottleneck. Now, the mic, most often a dynamic mic, tries to take all of that sound and convert it into electrical energy, but all things which operate on this principle exhibit physical properties and limitations: When someone cranks a Marshall Plexihead up to 11 and sticks a SM57 in front of it, ask yourself, what is going to happen? What I’m trying to get at, is that volume is implied, not actually recorded. The louder the amp, the more compressed the diaphragm of the mic becomes, thus the mic exhibits less in the way of dynamics. It is not unlike trying to force a river through a garden hose. That goes without saying that most people who have experience at it will agree, that in order to get ‘that sound’ out of a Marshall, one almost has to turn it up to 11 in order to get the power amp to drive the speakers into distortion. Not a very good way to stay in good graces with the neighbors, nor very utilitarian from the standpoint of the amp, if you ask me.
The best thing to do, conversely, is to use a low wattage amp that begins to distort at a low volume, or one which has a separate pre-amp gain. (I’m talking about tube amps, here. I’ve never heard a solid-state amp that replicates the wave compression that naturally occurs in a vacuum tube when it’s being driven.) Likewise, if the master volume is set at a reasonable level, and the microphone is placed right up against the grill cloth of the amp, and the mic pre is turned up to just below the level that it distorts, you can’t help but get a big sound.
I begin to doubt the integrity of anyone who starts in with all of this “I can’t get my tone unless I turn all the way up” garbage. This is generally a comment that they’ve read some guitar god make in an interview and which they feel bears repeating. When pressed for more specificity, it usually becomes clear that they have very little first-hand experience at achieving ‘tone’.
Volume is one thing, tone is something completely different: I’ve directed player after player to my ReverbNation page to prove my point, in which I used a metal can which originally contained goat milk. I’d installed a two and three-quarter inch speaker in the top and used the contraption as an extension speaker for my Fender 15W Blues Jr., which, in turn, I close miked with an SM57. I had the amp volume set to a level where one could easily speak over the sound. Then, using a Boss BD-1, I recorded this little ditty, entitled “Vanished”:
There are two acoustic guitar tracks and two electric guitar tracks, one of each panned left and the other panned right. One of the electric guitar tracks were recorded with the 12″ amp cabinet speaker and the other with the goat milk can extension. Can you distinguish which is which? Perhaps it doesn’t sound like a Marshall, then again, it didn’t need to, and more importantly, I achieved a tone that was mine rather than someone’s else.
I know that the magazines tell you that you need the biggest, the most expensive , the quietest, the prettiest and the one that Slash uses, but the sad fact is, they’re just trying to sell you something in order to stay in business.
Give me a low watt tube amp any day.
Johnny Nowhere is a songwriter/composer and publisher who wishes he’d never begun a blog because it takes up precious studio time. Visit him on Facebook or LinkedIn, or you can hear his tunes on ReverbNation, IMGlobal, SongRamp, Not Just French Music, or SongClash, or download single tunes from YouLicense.com.