In the wake of the unfortunate Media Sound dissolution, Hatfield teamed up with Steve Earle alumni and current Yayhoos guitarist Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, as well as engineers Greg Duffin, Dan Pifer, and Martins Folly, to found Cowboy Technical Services, a world-class facility that has hosted everyone from Ryan Adams to Robert Randolph. And it’s here that Hatfield has honed his craft as a truly great producer.
Known for his knack at capturing great guitar tones from great guitarists, he explains that it’s less about sculpting the track, and more about pulling a great performance out of the artist. “Getting a performance out of somebody, and not being in their way, is one of the most important things as an engineer. I just run the mic down, get the right level, and just make sure I’m ready if they start playing.”
CUTTING WITH KEITH
It doesn’t get any more rock ’n’ roll than recording Keith Richards, whom Hatfield had the pleasure of helping record main tracks and overdubs for on the guitarist’s second solo album, Main Offender.
“I learned so much on that record,” he recalls. “Not only was the band so incredible, but I was working with three of the best engineer/producers around — Joe Blaney, Nico Bolas, and Don Smith. [Guitarist] Waddy Wachtel used a Marshall a lot, and on the first day, I put the mic on the ‘wrong’ speaker of Waddy’s cabinet. It was during this session that I learned how to find the right speaker in a cabinet, and the right spot on the right speaker. I had put the mic on the top left speaker, pulled it up, and he really hated the sound. So I moved the mic to the right, went into the live room, listened, and thought, ‘This sounds great out here.’ Going back into the live room and listening is a wise move. I had noticed that the right speaker sounded better than the left, and when I moved it to the other speaker, Waddy got very excited by the results.”
“On any given amp, one speaker might sound better than another; and on any speaker, one spot might sound better than another. Older speakers tend to have more tonal differences among them than some of the newer ones. So, to find the best mic position, I’ll typically put on headphones that aren’t plugged in, to drown out the excess noise, and then sit in front of the cabinet while the player plays a few staccato chords, moving the mic (in this case, an SM57) around the cone until I find the spot I like.”
“On some amps, like Fender Twins, it seems to sound best with the mic dead center of the speaker. But on others, it gets a little trickier. It might be that that speaker sounds best with the mic placed dead center. But it also might be best to put it in the ‘seven o’clock’ position on the outside of the cone.”
“My favorite mic pres for electric guitar have always been Neves — the older ones, like the 1070 series; I also like the Telefunken V72. For Keith, I used an SM57 right dead center of the speaker, and then ran through a Neve 1073, into a Fairchild 670 limiter. I prefer ‘one guitar, one mic.’ I don’t like to make things too complicated — but for some bigger sounds I might use two. With Keith, sometimes I’d end up using two 57s: one directly on the amp and one just a little further back, so I’d get a little distance and fatten up the sound.”
“A second mic on an amplifier can be incredibly useful while recording hard rock and metal,” Hatfield says. “The trick is that you need to find the perfect spot so there are no issues with phasing. Here’s how I do it: Wherever the first mic is, triple the distance for the placement of the second mic. I read that somewhere years ago, and it really works.”
The aforementioned technique has come in handy when recording bands like the Misfits, Pure 13, and Savatage, all bands that Hatfield has worked with in recent years. “Those guys tend to play big Marshalls, where one speaker is probably going to sound much better than the others. So as I said, I’ll move from one speaker to the next with the headphones on and see which sounds better. Once I’ve found the speaker I like, I’ll move the microphone from ‘12 o’clock’ to ‘one o’clock’ to ‘two o’clock,’ and so on. You can go around and figure out, ‘that’s a really nice, bright space,’ and ‘on this other speaker, at five o’clock just outside of the center, it’s kind of dark.’ Then I’ll put a 57 on the dark spot and an AKG 414, which is really bright, on the bright spot, and balance them. But, for these metal guitar sounds, I can tell you one thing — I’m putting that 57 almost on the grille.
“That music is so up-front, in your face, and the guitars are really layered — and the guitarist might be using a bunch of different guitars. I’ve found that an odd number of tracks is the best way to go; sometimes doubling doesn’t really make it bigger. I usually stick with the same mics when layering. I’ll have the player change guitars, but I keep consistent miking. I might bring in a darker sound for one pass and change that balance a little, but not much.”
The Misfits’ Project 1950 is a prime example of this approach. “The record was a bunch of ’50s songs, done in the Misfits way,” Hatfield recalls. “I recorded all the basic tracks using a 57 for the brighter spot and an Electro-Voice RE20 for the darker spot of the cabinet. I took plenty of time playing with their equipment before they got here, so I knew right where I was going to put the mics.”
ROCKING THE RIBBONS
“For the Jerusalem session at CTS, Steve Earle was playing his Gibson ES-330, which is a hollow body guitar, and doing vocals at the same time. So we captured the natural sound of the guitar with just the vocal mic, a Royer ribbon that I also put in front of his VOX AC30, about a foot off the front of the grille,” Hatfield says while on the topic of mic choice/placement for the singer/guitarist. Elaborating further on his oftentimes non-traditional choice of mics for guitar tracking, Hatfield adds, “At that point, Roscoe was playing through Fender Pro Jrs., so I used an Audio-Technica ATM 23 HE, which is really a drum mic, but great for recording guitars live. It’s very ‘directional,’ so you get very little leakage.”
Put the Hammer Down, the new album by the Yayhoos, features another interesting ribbon miking technique regularly employed by Hatfield. “Roscoe and Dan [Baird] used two Pro Juniors, and also had two Dr. Z MAZ 18 amps going into one stereo cabinet that had two 12" and two 10" speakers,” says Hatfield. “We miked left and right, but with two ribbon mics, a Royer, and an RCA. Of course, each bled into the other’s mic a bit, but it gave a really big, fat sound.”
A hard-core analog fan who has nonetheless incorporated DAWs (and even some plug-ins) into his arsenal, Hatfield offers an important thought about contemporary recording with ribbon mics. “Going directly into the computer, I’m more likely to use a ribbon mic and put more space between the sound source and the microphone, to get more air. Digital seems not to register the air quite as much, losing some of the three-dimensional quality to the sound. So, in that case, you just need to mic with a little more space.”
FUNKEN IT UP
A recent addition to Cowboy Technical Services’ mic locker, a Telefunken RFT M16, has been invaluable in recording acoustic guitars, Hatfield reports — an ideal tool for recording folk artists and the like. “I just recorded Roscoe [Ambel] on two different acoustic guitars with the Telefunken, and knew I had to own one. Though I still use my Audio-Technica 4051 a lot, as well as the 4050, which gives a nice, smooth top end on acoustic guitars — especially when run into an old Neve, a Crane Song Flamingo, or a UREI 1176.
“I’m going to use the RFT M16 if I’m just recording a very pretty acoustic guitar part, but for a more aggressive sound, perhaps with a full band accompaniment, an SM57 is still a great choice. Take for example the Damnwells song ‘Death After Life.’ Alex [Dezen] was playing an old Gibson J 45, and the 57 just sounded great on it. If it was just going to be a solo guitar performance, maybe I would have used the Telefunken or an Audio-Technica to get that huge sound, but I needed that midrange to really pop through the track, and with the 57 it just naturally sat perfectly in the mix. If you solo it, it might not be the greatest acoustic guitar sound in the world, but it drives in the track; the midrange peeks through. Plus, as it doesn’t have all the bottom that can muddy things up, the bass and the other guitars can shine right through.”
As for placement, Hatfield starts with the mic at the 12th fret, approximately nine inches from the guitar, pointed at the sound hole. “I’ve found that, when I am going for a lush guitar sound, the mic will end up pretty much in front of it, and I get the whole sound, which comes closer to the hole and gets more body. Sometimes it ends up right in front of the hole. If you’re listening to it and it’s boomy, move the mic back a little bit, or up towards the 12th fret. It’s the proximity effect: If there’s too much bottom, it’s because you are miking too close.”
Christopher Walsh is a musician, producer, recording engineer, and music journalist based in New York City. He’s written extensively for Billboard magazine, and has covered music and professional audio for various other magazines, newspapers, and websites throughout the years.