Choosing Your Weapon

Cool tools for hot tones

Like it or not, the recording industry has reached an era of sonic anarchy where the public’s definition of a “good” sound can include just about every kaboom, clatter, and snap imaginable. On every medium from radio to iTunes, you can hear massive hits adhering to supreme measures of old-school audio quality, as well as lo-fi platinum smashes that sound as if they were recorded through a Playskool “Record-A-Sound.” This aural free-for-all is very much in play during the quest for striking guitar tones, as Jack White’s punch-drunk squall can excite just as much awe and envy as Alex Lifeson’s exquisitely constructed textures. Furthermore, option anxiety is often exacerbated by, well, all the options available to those attempting to document guitar sounds: mics, modeling processors, direct boxes, and more.

So, given all this, how do you approach actually getting something on tape or disk without collapsing into spasms of self-doubt? As with most multi-layered challenges, breaking down the core activity into bite-size conceptual chunks can save you from blitzkrieging your neural network. Here’s how I typically deal with the tools and theory of documenting (hopefully) groovy guitar noises.

There are two basic steps for conceptualizing guitar sounds. First, don’t assume that you have to develop a guitar tone from scratch. Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick always advocates trusting the guitarist.

“Obviously, the guitarist’s input is there with his sound and the way he’s playing,” the studio legend (and author of Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles) told me a while back. “Not only do I accept that, but I feel it’s up to me to capture what the guitarist is doing. I don’t want to interfere with what he likes — that would be the infiltration of a producer trying to be the artist. I like to draw as much out of the artist as possible, and if it sounds quirky — good. Make the most of it.”

Second, ensure that the sonic path you take supports the song’s atmosphere. Study the groove, the lyrics and timbre of the vocalist (if applicable), the band’s energy, and the instrumentation to determine whether meaty, punchy, or shimmering guitar sounds (or any combination thereof) will fit evocatively into the mix.

The ease of digital modeling has made it a pain in the ass to set up, audition, and position microphones, but putting an amp and a good mic or two in an interesting acoustic environment remains, to my mind, the hippest way to document a guitarist’s sound with all its vibe and energy. This isn’t about pristine isolation, so experiment with mic positions that capture the optimum combinations of amp sound, signal reflections, groovy phasing anomalies (if you employ two or more mics), and room characteristics. (Just think about how many classic guitar tracks resulted from live-in-the-studio performances where every sound in the room bled through the guitar mics, and vice-versa.)

On “Rock Star” — a track I recorded for Deirdre Jones that made the soundtrack CD of Top Cow’s “Proximity Effect” comic — the über-snotty intro-lick tone is basically a Les Paul through a Vox wah and a Marshall JCM 900 combo. (Hear the song at But the spittle factor was intensified by positioning the amp in front of a picture window, and positioning an AKG C414 five feet from the glass at a 45-degree angle. I also crammed a Shure SM57 into the amp’s open-back cabinet, and miked the speakers from behind. My view: If you’re just gonna stick a mic in front of a speaker, you might as well use a digital amp model. The fun of miking is either nailing how the guitarist sounds “live,” or discovering how different rooms and mic positions produce distinctive and surprising tones.

Sometimes, the absence of ambience is a cool way to document the subtle phrasing of the player, as well as the guitar’s minute tonal details. For the verse lines on “The Rarest Thing” from Eva Jay Fortune’s “Suspiciously Blue” (also on my myspace page), I plugged a Guild X-160 hollowbody into a Danelectro echo (for a hint of slapback), a Jensen JD-1 direct box, and then directly into the board. The clean tone commands space, without interfering with the vocal.

Modelers are excellent tools for getting great guitar sounds very quickly, and, due to digital parameter controls, many of these devices allow precision tone sculpting that typically can’t be matched by futzing around with mics or going direct. Having said that, I love blending miked tones with modeled sounds to produce fat, punchy sonic layers. Jones’ rhythm guitars on “Rock Star,” for example, are a combination of a miked Les Paul/Marshall combo and a dry “Rectifier-style” model from a Line 6 PODxt. I also dialed in her flanged, third-verse counterpoint line using the PODxt’s equalization controls to “thin out” the tone enough to fit the effected snarl into a dense mix. For squeezing textures into tight spectral spaces, few options beat the sonic control of modeling.

Whatever tools you choose, experimentation is the killer app. You don’t have to invent a “new” guitar tone (although that would be cool), but you should aspire to track a sound that wakes up a listener, rather than document a sound they’ve heard a gazillion times before — even if you’re merely “polishing up” the guitarist’s natural tone. Any tools can get you there. The trick is making sure that what you’re doing actually means something.