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Tips for Tracking Lap Steel

February 1, 2011

It’s now somewhat common for all manner of “Americana” instruments to show up at your studio, as more and more people wash out in the traditional rock-and-roll milieu, often turning to less-conventional instruments in an attempt to remain relevant. This month, we’ll to consider lap steel recording strategies.

Electric Laps
You can’t get much simpler than the electric lap steel. Basically a 2x4 with six to ten strings and a pickup, it’s a manufacturer’s dream. Before you record, check out the instrument. Vintage lap steels are often rife with hideous pops, crackles, buzzes and hums—usually a shot or two of good contact cleaner in the right spots can exorcise these sonic demons. Contemporary lap steels have more predictable electronics and shouldn’t cause much problem.

When miking an amp, you’ll almost always get great results by combining a small-diameter condenser with a Shure SM57. Put the mics as close as possible to each other without touching. (The farther apart they are, the greater the chance of phase cancellation.) Place the mic combo seven to nine inches from the speaker cone, with the capsules at an approximately 15-degree angle. Keep in mind that more directly you place the mic capsules over the speaker center, the more high-end there will be in the tone. You can downplay this unpleasantness by angling the mic capsule toward the edge of the speaker. If you have access to a ribbon mic like a Royer R-121, its natural tendency to roll off high-end is a good alternative to turning the guitar and amp’s tone controls all the way down.

If you are using amp-modeling software, choose a Blackface Fender Twin model for that real down-home, country sound, and if your modeler has it, choose a 15- inch speaker with an open-back cabinet. While the SM 57/small-diameter condenser combo can prove to be the best miking setup in the analog universe, a largediameter condenser model often provides the most slide-a-licious sound in the realm of ones and zeros.

In both hardware and virtual scenarios, a limiter set to a 4:1 ratio smooths out the track’s dynamics nicely. In my recording, setting the attack of a UREI 1176 plug-in at 5, or halfway, produced the most body for me. (Settings on your particular limiter may vary.) When it came to setting my release time, I set it to complement the tempo of the track so that the limiting effect on each note is finished as the attack of the next note is starting. It took some time for me to tweak it properly, but the results were well worth it, as it pumped out a huge sound.

There really isn’t a great tradition of using effects on lap steel, so experiment. After tracking with a Fulltone OCD for some crispy overdrive, I used a tape echo plug-in with a delay time of around 450 ms, as well as liberal amounts of digital plate reverb to dial in an “Instant David Gilmour, just add talent”—type sound.

Back in the olden days before amplification, Hermann Weissenborn conceived and built the first guitars specifically designed for lap playing. Made of koa wood and featuring square, hollow necks, the Weissenborns had a sweet tone, long sustain, and were louder than a regular acoustic guitar when played on one’s lap.

After much trial and error, I found that the best mic setup for these instruments is a toss-up between a large-diaphragm condenser with a cardioid pattern, and a Shure SM57. The condenser was great, because it produced a more clarity from top to bottom, and was easier to position over the Weissenborn’s teeny soundhole since it could be placed up to ten inches away. The SM57 gave a grittier sound that I preferred, but it had to be positioned three to four inches from the soundhole for the best tone, which caused many a ruined take because the player’s hand kept hitting it.

For my recording, I used a Universal Audio LA-2 plug-in with a 4:1 ratio and a release timed to the tempo to even out the harsher dynamics. However, this made my track too “squished” or overcompressed sounding. A ratio of 2:1 was too small, and made for some distorted transients. For me, using two compressors with a ratio of 2:1 in series seems to have all the benefits of a single compressor/limiter set to 4:1, without the nasty, over-compressed feel. When I tried this in the hardware realm, this technique sounded even better, delivering a super-smooth and rich sound with tons of body.

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