Tips for Tracking Lap Steel
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.
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.