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Recording Mythology, Pt. 16 / In Search of ‘That Sound’

There’s a reason that I call this series of articles ‘Recording Mythology’. There are no hard and fast rules to the art of recording music (besides having decent material, keeping the recorder heads clean and degaussed, and not recording while drinking), so I like to err on the side of caution when giving ‘advice’. These are techniques that work for me, given the format and approach that I use, but, used as a guide, they should put most beginning recordists on the right path and keep some of you from having to resort to nothing but experimentation for the next twenty years before getting close to what you want to hear (like I had to do).

A Facebook friend recently asked me how I achieved ‘that sound’ on my acoustic guitar parts. I had to think about it for a moment, because at first I wanted to answer him with, “Oh, I don’t know, just lucky, I guess,” but then I opined that luck had played very little in the sound I had attained. I’d worked hard for several years, mostly with moderate results, in order to arrive at what I finally deemed as an acceptable sound.

Besides, tastes vary. What suits one individual may not necessarily be the sound that another is trying to attain. However, when multi-tracking an array of instruments which may include percussion, piano, organ, bass, and electric guitar, it doesn’t take long to come up with little more than noise soup. With every instrument vying for a space within the available sonic spectrum, making room for every instrument in order for it to be heard, something referred to as ‘shelving’, becomes something of an art.

In order to answer his inquiry satisfactorily, I, naturally, had to think back to the beginning of my quest.

My infatuation began with the first ‘proper’ stereo I ever heard music through, probably around 1974. Although merely adequate by today’s studio amplification and monitor standards, it sounded better than an eight track cartridge tape played through ‘wedge’ speakers which were sitting on the deck of the rear window of a 72 Nova, but in comparison to mp3s and earbuds, it beat the hell out of these items. By ‘proper’ I mean that the speaker were toed in at an angle around 45 degrees in order to give the listener a ‘sweet spot’ in which to sit. It goes without saying that some illicit substance was probably being smoked as well, but I was listening to America’s first album (the band’s name served double-duty as the album title), and recall being blown away by how the performers acoustic guitars were panned through the stereo spectrum. At the outset of the song Children, three seperate guitars were being strummed: left channel, down the middle, and then right channel. And they sounded so crisp and close. The sound nearly jumped out of the speakers and sat in my lap. I remember thinking, ‘Wow! How do they do that?’ Little did I know that I’d spend the rest of my life trying to get my own recordings to sound as good.

I still give the album a spin every once in a while. The recording was probably done on a tight studio budget. The material is kind of dated, of course, and there were some minor gaffs and one really bad drop-out in one channel on one of the tunes. I always wondered if one of the boys played the wrong chord and the producer just muted the track at mixdown, but now I wonder why they didn’t do a punch-in. After forty years, though, it still sounds pretty sweet, and I don’t have to be smoking anything to enjoy it.

The record was recorded at Trident Studios in London, with Ian Samwell and Jeff Dexter producing, and Ken Scott was the engineer. All three of these people are to be credited with the sound on the album, because it could have been the engineers placement of the microphones, or the producers choice of mics, or perhaps their ears and subsequent tastes in EQing. I don’t know what brands of guitars the guys were playing, besides, it really doesn’t matter.

There. There’s some truth in those last couple of sentences that took some time for me to learn.

A lot of ‘honesty in advertising’ gets everything all convoluted for beginners and they wind up spending all of their money on this or that $4000. guitar, as nothing else but ‘the best’ will give them the sound that they crave. Nonsense. I sold guitars in a retail music store, and my best piece of advise was for the shopper to close his or her eyes while I played various guitars. They thought that I was joking at first. “You just tell me what you are wanting to spend and I’ll play guitars in that price range. You tell me when you like what you hear,” I’d tell them. I sold 70% of the acoustic guitars that left that store. But, from experience, I can tell the reader that most people came into the store wanting to buy a headstock. Next reason in line was “the guitar that (insert name here) plays”. These are the worst two reasons to hang a guitar around your neck. One well known producer stated that the worst guitar in the world to try and get a good recorded tone out of was a Martin D28, and that nothing less than a Neumann U47 would capture the sound adequately. Most of us have to work with far less expensive equipment. Luckily?

The truth of the matter is that the main concern should be that the guitar is well made and plays well. Personal discrimination comes into play on the second point, but as long as the instrument possesses a solid top (as opposed to a laminated one), the tone is going to be superior and the instrument will end up lasting longer. Laminated top guitars tend to ‘bow’ up with age on account of the tensile strength is compromised. Speaker cabinets are built with laminated woods because of a specific property, in that they are non-resonant. No one wants their speakers to resonate at a particular frequency because that frequency will affect the sound of the music. Thus, it only follows that a laminated guitar top resists resonating. But this is precisely what you want out of a guitar. I’m not implying that a laminated top will not resonate at all, but most of the nice sounding overtones and harmonics that make an acoustic guitar sound good come from the integrity of the top. Solid top guitars will start in the $300. to $400. range.

I don’t care if you play an old Harmony. I am capable of stating with a certain amount of bravado, that if you can play well enough (and provided that the neck is straight and it stays in tune) I can record the guitar and make it sound good, and I’m here to tell you that, with a bit of practice, you can too.

Now, there are a few basic studio necessities, of course, but you don’t have to rob a bank to get decent acoustic guitar tracks on your recordings. Most producers will tell you that they’d take crap equipment over crap talent any day. “Garbage in, Garbage out.” is a favorite saying. So how did I get ‘that sound’?

My equipment doesn’t come close to the top shelf stuff. Here’s how I route my signal: I use an Audix F-15 condenser microphone, which sells for under $100. Next in line is a Studio Projects VTB1 preamp, around $120 at the time (they’ve gone up, though). A condenser mic requires +48 volts phantom power to operate. My old Tascam deck doesn’t provide such, so I route the signal through the VTB1 first. The unit has a solid state circuit and a tube circuit. Normally, I’m really big on tube sound, but for the acoustic I keep it really clean and use the solid state circuit. I do not want my acoustic to sound ‘warm and fuzzy’. I route this signal into the mixer and then ‘send’ the mono signal out to one ‘in’ channel of an Alesis 3630 compressor (they can be had for $100. all day long). As long as the signal is +4 (or lowZ) going into the mixer, the signal coming out of the send jack is going to be lowZ as well, even though most ‘send’ and ‘return’ jacks accepts a 1/4″ TS plug rather than the XLR type, which connects the mic to the preamp and then to the mixer. Basically, this makes the outboard device an extension of the innards of the mixer. Next, from the compressor ‘out’, I route the signal to the left ‘in’ of an Alesis Nanoverb, and from there I take both left and right ‘outs’ from the Nanoverb back into the ‘return’ jacks of first, the original channel (left) of the mixer and of an (right) adjacent channel, panning the corresponding channels either hard left or hard right. I hope that I explained myself clearly.

In order to keep this article brief(er), I’m assuming that the reader already has a grasp on the settings of the outboard gear, because the operation of each unit is a chapter in itself. Suffice it to say that the input and output volume controls are ‘zeroed out’, that is to say the signal is neither boosted, nor cut.

With everything else turned all the way down, I power up the equipment and then put on the headphones (a really good set, mind you, not the ‘mega bass’ consumer sort), and then I bring up the channel sliders on the mixer to the ‘recommended level’. Next, I turn up the input volume of the preamp until the LEDs on the VTB1 begin to light up. I usually use the low frequency cut-off on the pre. I like to keep the signal hot, but out of the red. The meter on the VTB1 can be switched from the input signal to the output signal, so after I position my mic (touchy subject for engineers) I strum open strings whilst I twiddle the pre knobs with the other (ah, the advantages of recording solo) until I get my levels set; first the input and then the output. When I turn up the output of the preamp, I do it slowly because I’ve already assigned the input of the mixer to the tracks on the recorder and also have my monitor (headphone) level turned up. Since I should begin hearing the sound of the guitar in the headphones at this point, I don’t want to destroy my hearing.

So there, I hear the guitar, right? Now what I want to do is listen to the guitar. Here is where the tweaking takes practice. The secret to a good guitar sound is proper equalisation. Recording an acoustic guitar ‘flat’ is never an option unless the only other track going to be laid down is a vocal, and even then, EQing is almost always necessary. The human voice and the acoustic guitar will both occupy much of the same frequency spectrum and besides, there are lots of bad sounding overtones that come out of an acoustic. Our ears tune these out automatically when the guitar is being played, but the microphone hear everything, and will unapologetically put it back in your face. Most of these overtones result in a ‘muddy’ recorded sound. The individual channel parametric equaliser is the best tool that you have on the board. I generally cut freqs rather than boost them. The rule of thumb is that cutting makes the signal sound better whereas that boosting makes it sound different. If you have a good sounding acoustic, why start boosting frequencies? The key is to begin by removing offending frequencies. I try to keep the two fundamentals in the upper bass and the chimy top end. The offending tones are usually found in the lower midrange freqs, somewhere between 250 Hz to around 500 Hz. Besides, I always leave a donut hole at around 300Hz for one of my electric guitars fundamentals, so I scoop that freq out of my acoustic pretty deeply. Then I kill everything everything completely below 100Hz which leaves plenty of room for the bass. If my strings are getting old, maybe I’ll boost a little at around 6 or 7 kHz to sweeten the top end, but not much. I don’t intend to be vague, but I don’t use my eyes to EQ. I’ll slowly sweep through the freqs until I hear the improvement I’m listening for. Usually my eyes are closed!

I like to think of recording music as slight of ear magic. After all, we can’t actually put all of the volume or sound that an instrument or amplifier is capable of generating onto digital or analogue media, but what we want to do is strive to make it sound as such. The frequency and stereo spectrum gets crowded and everything has to fit in. After I record all of the tracks on any given tune, everything sounds full and rich and stands out in the mix, but if I solo monitor any of the tracks individually, it usually sounds like crap. After I put a click track down, I’ll record a scratch track of either acoustic or electric guitar to work off of. I put the headphones on first and then get my tone, because every microphone exhibits certain characteristics and I want to hear what the mic hears.

After recording the guitar several years and experimenting with different string compositions and types, I settled on silk and steel strings. These strings sound dull and lifeless in comparison to phospher bronze strings and would not be the natural choice for playing live, but then again, my primary objective was to record. When I recorded with them for the first time, the difference was striking. No nasally overtones and no annoying string squeal, no harsh ringing that threatened to shatter glass. The mellow tone rendered a sound that was exactly what I wanted, so I tweaked the neck and stopped string shopping.

Years of recording numerous acoustic guitars also helped me to discover that the best sounding acoustic to use in the studio is a parlor, or grand concert body style. Live, these guitars have a tight, drier sound without all of the boomy resonance of a dreadnought, but they shine in the studio. Who wants to spend $1000. on a big jumbo just to scoop everything out below 100 Hz on a recording? After coming to the preceding conclusion, and at one time having owned a Martin 0018 grand concert model, I opted (while working at said music store, I might add) to invest in a new brand of guitar from a company that a friend and a few business partners had begun. This was the ill-fated Tacoma Guitars. The company didn’t go broke because their guitars sucked however, they simply spread themselves too thin and then the economy went to hell. There is something to be said for timing and luck.

For once I got lucky.

Johnny Nowhere is a straggling artist and massager of words.



About Johnny Nowhere

Johnny Nowhere is a songwriter/composer and owner of Hell Paving Company, music publisher. Johnny doesn't really exist outside of the music industry and Facebook. He is simply a figment of my imagination.

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