I once played at the Reading Festival in England. A review of the show referred to my pedal steel as a “knitting type contraption.” From then on I have often thought I should publicize my appearances with the sales pitch of a free sweater giveaway at the end of every show.
My point is that the pedal steel guitar is not an instantly recognizable entity, at least in some circles. Unless you are somehow familiar with country music you probably haven’t seen one up close, you probably have never tried to play one, and you probably have never recorded one. But chances are good that you may have heard pedal steel many times.
With this article I hope to dispel a few myths about the pedal steel, show how the instrument works, and give you a few of my own techniques for recording. I’ll also share with you the thoughts of a couple of other steel players and/or engineers who have graciously submitted their choice of recording tools and techniques for this article.
The Pedal Steel Guitar
If you’ve ever tried to play slide guitar or lap steel, you know that certain open tunings disallow certain intervallic structures unless you slant the bar or bottleneck. Chordal possibilities are severely limited, bar slanting or not. Non-pedal steel evolved into pedal steel to answer these limitations.
The pedal steel is designed such that the indigenous tuning of the instrument can be changed in a most succinct and musical manner (see decription of pedal mechanism below), offering the player a vast number of melodic, intervallic and chordal possibilities. In the hands (and feet and knees) of a good player, movement amongst these elements can be exquisitely fluid and very deeply musical.
Yes, a guitar
The reason the instrument is called “pedal steel guitar” is that first and foremost it really is a member of the guitar family of instruments. Second, while one hand plucks/picks the strings, the other holds a bar (usually a cylindrical object with one end rounded) that is most commonly made of steel (I’ve also seen and/or used glass, plastic, wood and metals other than steel bars). The bar is pressed against the strings to alter the pitch(es) of the string(s), to the same effect to which other string players use their fingers to obtain the desired pitch, or more closely related to how a standard guitar player might use a (bottleneck) slide.
Lastly, a pedal steel guitar has pedals which are foot-controlled mechanisms that alter the inherent tuning of the instrument, as are the knee-operated knee levers.
The underside of a professional model pedal steel is a rat’s nest of mechanisms. Here’s a greatly simplified explanation: The pedals link to pedal rods that connect to the undercarriage. In the undercarriage the pedals and knee levers connect to the changer mechanism—this is where the manufacturer (and/or subsequent modifier) determines the functions of the pedal and knee lever changes.
In day-to-day operation, this is where the pedal and knee lever changes are tuned. The changer is under the bridge and controls the movement of bridge pieces that are unique to each string. The bridge pieces are mounted on an axle that allows the pedals and knee levers to control a side-to-side roll, either in groups or independently, depending on the functional setup of each pedal/knee lever.
Here’s how the pitch is altered: Rolling toward the center of the instrument, thereby relaxing the string tension, lowers the pitch. Rolling away from the center of the instrument, thereby increasing the string tension, raises the pitch.
The concept is ingenious. I’m still waiting for synth manufacturers to devise an equally versatile interface for enabling simultaneous glissandos in opposite directions while maintaining common tones at the same time. I’ve been playing pedal steel for more than 25 years and I’m still in awe of the meta-intelligence inherent in the instrument’s design. Thanks are due to Shot Jackson, Buddy Emmons, Paul Bigsby and the other pioneers of the instrument for instilling so much musical intelligence into such an expressive instrument.
Recording The Pedal Steel
In my opinion, there is no one best way to record pedal steel, just as there is no one best way to record electric guitar. All recording is about sculpting sounds that reinforce the composition and production.
If a producer gets to handpick musicians for a project, choosing the player with the right musical style and sound is the first step. When the player shows up for the session, choosing how to record the equipment the player decided to bring to the session should be based on matching the player’s sound with the rest of the sounds in the production.
Recording myself—in stereo
I own a few amplifiers/systems I use with steel. If I have the luxury of hearing a track in advance of a session, I’ll choose which system to bring to a session based on the sound of the track and the style of the music.
I’ve played a lot of country music in my life—four and a half years in the house band at The Saddle Rack, “California’s Largest Nightclub” should qualify. But my recording career has been largely based on the sound I developed during my stint with American Music Club, and later furthered on my solo album Slider.
The system I used for both of those projects was as follows: A Dekley D-10 pedal steel fitted with custom made EMG pickups into a Peavey Rockmaster (tube) preamp, into an ART SGE MachII effects processor, into a customized stereo-pot volume pedal cannibalized from a Goodrich model 120, into a Lexicon LXP-1 reverb into a Mesa-Boogie 2-90 tube power amp, into a pair of JBL D-130 15" speakers mounted in custom-built open-back cabinets (my design, my construction).
While recording Slider in my home studio I used a pair of Neumann KM 184 small-capsule condenser mics which in turn were plugged into a pair of Brent Averill repackaged API 312 preamps. These in turn were plugged into Digidesign Pro Tools. The mics were placed approximately eight inches distant from the speaker cone, angled at about fifteen degrees from the edge to the dome, with the element about an inch toward the edge side of the meeting of dome and cone.
The sound of Slider is very ambient. Since I was writing, playing, producing and engineering when I recorded that album, I didn’t have to guess what was going to happen in the mix, I already knew. This enabled me to feel comfortable recording with almost all the processing coming from my performance rack, as described above. In Pro Tools I did some eq’ing, compression/limiting and additional processing.
Mics, mixers, and limiters
In my studio I’m currently limited to four different microphone pairs: KM 184 as mentioned, Neumann TLM 103, Oktava MC012, and Royer R-121. I almost always use the KM 184s on the above setup, but if I’m looking for additional body, my next step would be to try inserting a Brent Averill (passive) Line Mixer between the APIs and Pro Tools. This device inserts a “passive transformer balanced mixing network” into the signal path.
Transformers bring something special to the party—not easy to quantify in words, but in my opinion one of the things people love so much about old Neve preamps is the effect that their transformers had on their sound.
If the Line Mixer doesn’t satisfy, then I leave the Line Mixer in the path and set up the Royers. I’ll hang them as perfectly close (coincident) to the KM184s as I can. I’ll either plug them into another pair of Averill API 312s, or into a pair of Averill repackaged Neve 1272s. From here they join the KM 184s in the Line Mixer, and off to Pro Tools it all goes.
Since making Slider I have procured an old UREI 1178 stereo limiter. My current choice is almost always to insert this before the above-mentioned circuit goes to Pro Tools. Generally I’ll select a 4:1 ratio, set the attack at about half (12:00) and set the release to complement the tempo of the track so that the limiting for a given note is finished just in time for the next attack. I’ll set the input according to what sounds right and set the output so as to maximize level while avoiding peaking. Initially I set the inputs and outputs up in the “A/B” (tracking) mode, then once levels look right to me, I’ll switch to the “Stereo” (tracking) mode.
If I’m playing a session where a more straightforward mono sound is required, I take a seriously different approach. I use the same steel (it’s the only one I own), but almost everything else is different. From the steel’s output I plug into a Goodrich model 120 mono pot volume pedal, then into my Evans FET-500 combo amp in my control room. I send the amplified signal to one of the JBL 15" open back cabinets described above.
Recently my favorite miking technique has been to use a Coles 4038 ribbon in combination, coincidentally placed with either a Shure SM57, an Electro-Voice RE20, a Neumann KM 184 or an Oktava MC012 (fitted with its omni capsule). I choose the secondary mic (the mic other than the Coles) based on whether I want brute strength (the SM57 or the RE20) or focused improved high-frequency response (the KM 184), or more air (the Oktava).
I choose preamps to accentuate or de-accentuate the qualities of each mic, according to taste. Generally the Coles in combination with a Neve 1272 preamp delivers an unbelievable amount of substantive body. For a more interesting overall color I’ll use an API 312 for the secondary mic. I also have a Summit TPA200B tube preamp and an Avalon 737, both of which color the sound in useful ways.
If I think there would be a compelling advantage to keep the signals discrete for mixing, I’ll plug the preamp outputs into the UREI 1178, and set it much the same as I described above. If I know I ultimately want the steel to be mono, since I prefer the sound of a UREI 1176 to an 1178, I’ll insert the Brent Averill Line Mixer after the preamps, then run its output into the 1176, again setting it similarly to how I had set the 1178.
Nashville and beyond
If you’ve heard much recorded steel you know that there’s a great diversity of playing styles and timbres. I’ve never made many inroads into the capital of the steel world, Nashville, Tennessee. In fact the only time I’ve ever played in Nashville was when I was on tour with David Byrne of the Talking Heads—not exactly a country artist! The small niche I’ve been carving for myself is fairly well outside the mainstream of pedal steel. This is not to say that I wouldn’t love to have the opportunity to do some serious country recording—Leann Rimes, are you listening? But at least for the moment, I’m a Nashville outsider.
For this reason, I thought this article would be grossly incomplete without at least attempting to present a voice from inside that hallowed environment.
Bruce Bouton has been a mainstay of the Nashville scene for more than two decades. He’s worked with too many well-known artists for me to list here. For a more complete discography, check him out at www.allmusic.com, and insert his name into your favorite search engine to find the many outlets that sell his instructional videos. I contacted Bruce; this is what he had to say:
Most of my favorite Recordings were cut with amplifiers. When I cut Highway Forty Blues [Ricky Skaggs] in 1980, I used an Emmons Steel Guitar into a solid-state Echoplex into a Peavey Amp miked with a Shure SM 57. I believe we cut to a Trident board to Analog Tape. The first Brooks and Dunn record in 1990 was recorded through a Lee Jackson tube preamp into a Lexicon PCM 41 into two Peavey Nashvilles miked with 57s through an MCI board to analog tape. All the Garth [Brooks] records were cut through an amp to a Quad 8 console to a Studer Analog deck.
Nowadays I rarely cut to tape. It’s generally Pro Tools or RADAR hard disk through a good mic pre. I like APIs, Neves or the new Universal Audio tube pre. Throughout my career I’ve generally been miked with either a 57 or a Sennheiser 421. Occasionally I’ll use one of the newer ribbon mics. Most Nashville engineers use little or no compression on me. Nowadays I’m still pretty basic except I use Line Six stompboxes instead of the Echoplex. I mainly use a ’65 Blackface Twin Reverb with a 15" Black Widow extension cabinet built by Duane Marrs. I find the simpler the chain the better it gets on tape. Microphone placement is close, slightly off center.
Read online reports
In my efforts to learn more about how steel is recorded, I availed myself of “the Forum” at www.b0b.com. This is a place where steel players and fans can congregate to post opinions about various topics related to pedal steel.
I posted a request for players to express themselves on the topic of how best to record steel, and got some really interesting responses from a variety of players. Check it out: http://steelguitarforum.com/Forum11/HTML/005291.html.
One post in particular caught my attention; it was from John Macy, most notably of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band fame. Again, you can check out www.allmusic.com to see what John has done. Following are excerpts from his post (with John’s permission):
"Neve preamps [usually 1073] 100% [of] the time. Favorite mics, not necessarily in order: Sony C37A tube, Royer ribbon, Sennheiser 421, AKG 414 TLII (C37 my fave), though I have tried and used about everything. Mic placement varies, but usually a foot off the amp for starters, going closer or farther away depending on the mood of the track. Generally no compression to tape, unless looking for something specific, and then usually a TubeTech or an 1176. Don’t usually need much eq when the chain is right, though you can’t beat the Neves if you need it.
Not afraid of effects from the player with the exception of reverb, though then again, whatever the track calls for. If we go direct, it’s also through the Neves—they always put the magic on the tone. Most of my bigger tracking sessions are on [Neve] 8068 or 8078 consoles. Can’t go wrong with these, though there are several great options—Daking, Telefunken, Avalon etc."
Thanks and kudos
I’d especially like to thank Bruce Bouton for taking the time to contribute to this article. I’d also like to thank John Macy and all of the other folks who posted at www.b0b.com. I’m truly sorry I didn’t have the space to list all of your posts. I’d also like to thank Buddy Emmons who graciously returned a volley of emails but due to the sudden illness of his wife and the constraints of my deadline, bowed out before he had a chance to contribute.
Buddy Emmons is perhaps the single most influential pedal steel player of all time. He is partially credited with the invention of the instrument itself and is deeply associated with both its technological evolution and the evolution of music with which it is associated. Since the inception of the instrument his playing has been a guiding light to almost every steel player ever to take up the instrument. You can check out his website at www.buddyemmons.com.
Thanks also to Ricky Davis and Stephen “Red-Eye” O’Brien of www.mightyfinemusic.com for allowing us to use photos from Ricky’s website, to the folks at GFI Musical Products and to the folks at Evans Custom Amplifiers for allowing us to use their photos.
Bruce Kaphan is a pedal steel guitarist, recording engineer, and producer in California. His pedal steel guitar playing is showcased in his solo album Slider.