Big Is Better

I recently enjoyed a few tremendously fabulous “wow” moments talking to Police guitarist Andy Summers in his Southern California office/rehearsal space. As everything was being uprooted and packed for the band’s sellout arena tour, the cozy studio area was crammed with all kinds of gear, from Stewart Copeland’s drums and percussion toys to Summers’ guitars and custom Bradshaw effects-switching system. Hearing Summers perform solo bits of classic Police hits as he demonstrated his guitar rig was an intense thrill, but the real kick-in-the-head epiphany came as he shared the details of his craft.
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“For me, interesting music has a lot of counterpoint,” he said, “so I’ve always been very adamant that the other musicians don’t play what I’m playing. Particularly in a trio setting, having three different parts interlocking makes for a much bigger, and more interesting sound.”
Bingo! Duh! News flash!
Summers wasn’t necessarily discussing recording, but his comment definitely offers the promise of a solution for anyone disappointed in the, ahem, less-than-mammoth stature of their recorded works in general, and their guitar tracks in particular. Too often, we shrink the impact of our mixes by piling on overdubs, effects, and textures. The temptation of the “more is better” approach can be great, but if “more” means more things doing relatively the same things, or more elements enhancing similar frequency ranges, then all the layers you’re adding may just be creating something more worse.
In these instances, the guiding premise of Mr. Summers’ strategy is brilliantly simple: Do not record anything that apes, mimics, clones, or mirrors a part that already exists in your mix. By devising different, rather than similar and supportive elements, you just might churn out guitar tracks that sound as big as all Montana.
Obviously, this theorem doesn’t work for all styles — ’70s-style punk comes to mind — but, purely as an experiment that might lead you to new discoveries about arrangement, engineering, and production, let’s approach Andy’s mandate in three easy steps.

STEP ONE: SET THE STAGE

Do you ever ask yourself exactly what your track is trying to achieve? Is it sad, happy, full of bravado, aggressive, sensual, bombastic, or light? It’s good to know, because focusing on the end result can help lead you to decisions about appropriate tones, signal processing, and the placement of elements in the final mix. When I do recording seminars, I often find that musicians tend to develop a gaggle of cool tracks, and then try to fit everything together.
This is not a Summers-approved tactic. Summers and his Police mates work extremely hard to craft parts that enhance the meaning of the song. In this experiment, start by limiting yourself to the minimum number of parts required to effectively deliver your message. I recommend tipping your hat to the Police by using drums, bass, a couple of guitar parts, a lead vocal, and a few background vocals.

STEP TWO: FIND YOUR PLACE

Drums, bass, and guitar fill up a ton of sonic space, and the punch factor is going to be more intense if those instruments aren’t fighting each other for breathing room. Think about making space, rather than filling it. First, employ the Summers Mandate by ensuring your drum and bass parts — and tones — aren’t colliding with each other. Have the bass play off the drums, and don’t EQ the kick drum and bass to sit in the same frequency range.
Work with the guitar the same way. Look for a rhythm part that drops into the holes, and watch your tone. Don’t dial in low mids that obscure the toms, muddy lows that mess with the bass pattern, high mids that neuter the snare crack, or highs that veer too close to the hi-hat. Of course, you can decide to have the guitar be the chunky low boy — in which case, thin out the drums and bass a bit. Take care with effects. Don’t dilute the punch with too much delay or reverb, and monitor the timbre of your processors, as well. A spiky delay can screw with the hi-hat almost as much as a thin guitar tone and a rhythm part that’s locked to the hi-hat tempo.

STEP THREE: EMBRACE THE LOUD

One of the producers I worked with early in my career had a maddening rule about mixing solos. He believed a solo should only be as loud as absolutely necessary to ensure all the notes could be heard above the backing tracks. So he’d mix the guitar solos down until they weren’t so much climatic explosions as polite musical fills. You don’t want to be that guy. Use dynamics aggressively to accent critical moments. The manipulation of loud and soft parts — and really loud and soft parts — keeps the listener in a constant state of awe and surprise. It also helps your mix sound like a raging sonic bull.

YOU’RE HUGE!

This month’s column is more conceptual than practical, but as I constantly hear the Summers Mandate not being addressed by so many recording zealots who desire bigger-sounding mixes, a little theory seems appropriate. Experimenting with disparate, interlocking parts may not gain you a hit, but it should teach you volumes about dynamics, tone crafting, and impact. Of course, if you’re lucky enough to have a brilliant song on the board, you could end up with something as timeless as “Message in a Bottle.” Good luck!