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Engineering the Guitarist
Getting the most out of your guitar player...
By Linda Taylor

recording (ri•kôr’ding) v. the making of a record, especially a permanent copy of sounds or images.

guitarist (gi•tär’ist) n. the provider of Power Chords, Skanky Funk, Steamy Blues, Chills, Trills and Fills. The second most popular member of the band (see Vocalist).

recording session (ri•kôr’ding sesh’un) n. an artificial environment in which the Guitarist is expected to provide Chills, Trills and Fills.

engineer (en’ji•nir’) n. one who is trained in a branch of professional engineering. One who is to blame when things aren’t professional.

In our quest for more gear, better sample rates and bigger computers, one element of recording hasn’t changed: recording the electric guitar. The studios may be getting smaller, but the amps are just as big, the pedals just as noisy, and the egos just as blinding as ever. Sure, you can try to avoid the pain with liberal use of your sample library (I do so enjoy the inclusion of 60-cycle hum on some of these offerings), but just as with brass instruments and overheads, recording the real thing is here to stay.

It doesn’t have to be a chore. If the guitarist is comfortable and his tone is happening then everyone’s going to be happy. As the engineer, it’s your job to get him there, and it’s going to require a little more than providing a free phone and PlayStation 2. Being a guitarist myself, someone’s who endured too many rocky sessions, I’d like to show you engineers a couple ways to make your guitar sessions rock.

Everybody’s Talking At Me

The engineer can kick-start a successful session by putting himself in the guitarist’s shoes. You just know the guitarist is going to bring every piece of equipment he’s ever bought in his life. He’s read all the “How To Be A Session Player” books, and figures that the first impression he’ll make is based largely on the amount of flight cases he has.

Do you have easy load-in to your studio? If not, maybe the kid down the street can be hired for $20 to help carry stuff. The guitarist is going to feel much more artistic later if his hands haven’t been mangled trying to un-wedge the Marshall from his Toyota.

Instead of silently tweaking your DAW and ignoring the guitarist, spend those first minutes getting some good vibes going. Talk to him about sounds, the session, the kind of guitar he’s playing, Hendrix, the last time you saw Clapton—you know, guitar stuff. You’ll probably get some idea of the guitarist’s relative recording experience, or lack thereof. Wouldn’t you like to get a leg up on your contingency plans?

The object here is to let him know you’re on his side. This way, in an hour or two when you start messing with his sounds, he’s going to be much more open to your suggestions.

That’s The Way I Like It

We’re taught that good engineering is capturing the sound. Actually, the guitarist wants you to capture his sound, the sound he’s used to hearing. And it’s probably not the sound at the grill cloth.

Let’s take a little sterility out of the recording environment. In my project studio (when I’m wearing my engineer hat), I like to keep a big piece of painted plywood handy to put over carpet, in order to simulate wood floors. It’s perfect for amps as well as acoustic guitars, congas, etc. Try different locations for the amp, maybe in a larger room, maybe take away the gobos and let it bleed. Put the garage back in “garage band”—drop the amp in there and have fun meeting your neighbors. I’ve frequently set up my speakers in the bathroom; the rattling of window blinds and various doodads gives the impression of snare buzz. Ahh...just like real life.

I know, I know, the venerable SM57 is the mic of choice for guitars. I think it even says so on the package. But is it always the best selection? With the availability now of relatively inexpensive and robust ribbon mics, there’s really no excuse for not experimenting. The Royer R-121 ribbon mic is wonderful for capturing warmth and fullness from the amp, and can easily handle loud SPLs. Try the Sennheiser MD 421 II for a different take on the dynamic mic. It has a larger capsule, and sounds a little more even through the upper mids than the SM57. Mix and match.

The guitar amp needs air, and I always cringe when someone pushes a mic up to the grill cloth. I can’t remember the last time I listened to a guitar from that position. Back that mic up a little; capture some of the room, that’s what the guitarist is hearing. I like to get about six inches off the grill with the first mic, then add a second mic a few feet away and higher. If you’re working with an open-back cabinet, try a mic there as well. The recorded sound will probably be woolly and distant, but can add some nice roundness to the face-on mic.

It’s all part of the collective tone, the sound of the electric guitar. More important, it’s the guitarist’s sound, the one you’re being paid to capture. The happiest I’ve ever been during any session is hearing that the engineer recorded exactly what I sent him. Smart man.

Try A Little Tenderness

There’s the tech side of engineering and there’s the people side of engineering. The good engineers show the people side and hide the tech side.

It’s common in larger studios to have the guitarist standing in the control room while tracking. This is certainly convenient for the producer, but not always comfortable for the player. The isolation from the amp is a little clinical for any level musician, but can be especially intimidating for guitarists who are less experienced as session players. The engineer can easily warm up this environment.

Encourage the guitarist to go stand by his amp, let him play, feel the amp rumble, tweak and get comfortable. He’ll be much more confident when he steps into the control room if he’s comfortable with the sound out in the tracking room. Here’s the important part: record these noodlings, record everything. In all likelihood, you’re going to be suggesting certain changes to his sound, probably ones he’s not going to be happy about, like “lose the delay.” He’ll be easier to convince if he can hear what you’re talking about.

The guitarist is going to play loud and you’re going to let him. This is not about your comfort; this is about the song. And the song is going to suffer if the guitarist ain’t hitting. There’s nothing as anemic as a guitar amp at about 21/2. Besides, anyone who tells you that a guitar amp sounds just as good at lower volumes has never played through one before. Your mics can handle it; simply turn down your preamps and gently nudge the control room volume down. I’m not advocating losing your hearing—if it’s truly a problem, make him go play by the amp and crank up his headphones.

It’s essential to understand that a guitarist hears through the back of his knees. That’s where the amp goes. That’s where his ears are. The only thing he can hear at ear level anymore is the constant din of the crash cymbal. Smushing his glorious sound through your puny NS10s and sticking them in his face is going to make him about as happy as Aretha in an air-conditioned room.

Play back your guitar tracks on the warmest, largest, most flattering speakers you’ve got. (We’ll assume you’ve checked for accuracy while he was warming up.) Save the evil NS10s for mixdown. Remember what he’s used to hearing. Capture his sound.

The Song Remains The Same

So does the guitarist. Sometimes you’ll be asked to record a player who just can’t seem to differentiate between live playing and studio playing. If the guitar player’s inexperience is showing, the engineer’s experience can save the track.

A less experienced guitarist may not be aware that every little fill that worked last night at the Roxy is not necessary for tracking. This is another reason to record everything. Listen back to the tracks together and determine what stays and what goes. Try to focus the player—point out that all the fills can be overdubbed later with a great sound, but now we just need a straight-ahead rhythm track.

Be aware that the novice session player may be reacting (and thus overplaying) to something he’s missing, some element of excitement. Try adjusting the playback mix, turn up the overheads and bass, bathe his guitar in reverbs and delays, and fool him back into the live vibe.

Few guitarists like to turn off their effects and record dry. Few engineers like to print effects, especially if they’re not mixing the song. It’s a drag to play guitar with nothing on it. It’s a drag having to rely on the guitarist’s XYZ Bangaround Delay-O-Matic when you’ve got your beautiful Lexicon sitting there. Here again, all our previously earned good vibes are going to shine through.

First of all, if it sounds good, then it is good—press Record and congratulate yourself on a great session. If it doesn’t sound good, then help him with his gear. Keep an open mind: sometimes, just sometimes, those cheesy pedals sound exactly right on guitar; grungy, old, stark, gritty, noisy…I don’t think you have that patch on your Lexicon.

If it really isn’t happening, then patch in that Lexicon and get busy. Show him the dynamic musicality of manually riding the delays during his solo. Record a couple of power chords dry and let him hear what a high quality reverb can add. Good vibes, good tracks.

Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)

During the recording of my album, I was fortunate to work with a wonderful engineer, Dave Alhert at Media Vortex Studios in Burbank, CA. Dave is a master of the “never let ’em see you sweat” school.

Dave’s enthusiasm for the project was apparent from the start. I felt as if I had a partner, someone completely committed to the final product. I quickly came to rely on him, not only as an engineer, but as a trusted pair of ears and another member of the creative process. His input was invaluable, and I even listened to him when he tried to change my sound. Probably didn’t let him, but I didn’t hit him, either.

When it works, it’s a beautiful thing. A couple years later, I’m still happy with my playing and the guitar sounds on that album. Credit in no small part because he worked with the guitarist, to capture HER sound. Smart man.

Linda Taylor is a guitarist, songwriter, film composer, and producer in Los Angeles. Contact her via talkback@recordingmag.com and learn more about her music on her website www.rubiconmusic.com.

 

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