Signal Bleed & Ballsy Blues

“When I record, the first thing I think about is, ‘How does the band sound live,’” says Nick Moss, a guitarist/producer who recently completed a bodacious double CD of retro-modern Chicago blues, Play It ‘Til Tomorrow with his band The Flip Tops. “I want the band to sound as if you were in a club listening to us playing live. Some records are way too separated. I don’t want that on my recordings, so I don’t close mic anything. The closest I’ll get a microphone to an amp is about six to eight inches away. Does that mean I’ll get some signal bleed? Sure. But who cares?”
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The concept of allowing disparate signals to bleed into a bunch of different mics is probably considered daring in the age of multiple takes, swipe comping, and sonic isolation, but it makes plain sense when you are tracking the blues. After all, the blues has never been about exploiting technology, and, back in the days of live-in-the-studio tracking, bleed was inevitable. But artists and engineers found a way to make coagulating sounds work for them, and, in the process, turned out some of the greatest blues recordings ever. Here are two examples of how signal bleed can produce ferocious blues-guitar tracks.

Buddy Guy’s Multiple Amp Attack

Producer Tom Hambridge (Susan Tedeschi, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Johnny Winter) speaks fondly of his experience recording legendary Chicago blues guitarist Buddy Guy for the 72-year-old’s Skin Deep.

“We would start playing, and, by minute four of the song, I’d signal the engineer to start rolling,” Hambridge says. “That way, the band would already be in the groove before the first note was recorded. Buddy’s amps were louder than hell. We just dimed ’em [turned the volume on the amps all the way up to 10]. My philosophy for those sessions was, ‘Go ahead and let Buddy’s guitar bleed into the overheads.’”

To capture Guy’s signature ringing-and-stinging attack, a total of six amplifiers were run simultaneously. Starting with two Chicago Blues Box amps, engineer Vance Powell employed a dual-mic approach, positioning a Neumann U67 and a Shure SM57 side-by-side and up close to each grille.

“Those are Buddy’s first-choice amps,” says Powell, “but I wanted to give Hambridge some other sonic choices, so we added a Marshall Super Lead 100 and a matching 4x12 cabinet that was miked with an SM57. Then, there was a ’59 Fender Bassman miked with an AEA R92 ribbon. That’s a versatile mic that clearly picks up high-end stuff, but it’s also great for documenting lower registers. An early ’60s Fender Vibroverb was matched with a Royer R-121 ribbon to get a natural and balanced tone, and a 100-watt Mesa/Boogie 1x12 combo was miked with a Royer R-122 ribbon—which is a little more focused when capturing low-end frequencies than the R-121. The mics were each positioned about an inch from the grille cloths. This approach picked up the sound of the amps, but not the room, so I placed a Neumann M50 about ten feet from the wall of amps, and about seven feet in the air. When Buddy played through all six amps—wide open in the room—it created this great, huge sound that bled into everything. But with that kind of massive, organic sound to work with, who cares about separation?”

The Tinsley Ellis Meat Wall

 Guy isn’t the only blues guitarist to crank up and use bleed to his advantage. Georgia-born Tinsley Ellis is known by recording engineers for what they affectionately call his “meat wall” of sound.

“[Producer] Eddie Offord was the first guy who allowed us to have all the amps, drums, and vocals in the same room with no separation,” says Ellis. “I still try to set up that way as much as possible. I love the sound of a screaming guitar bleeding into those expensive drum mics [laughs].”

“I only have one large recording room in my studio,” says Jim “Jimmy Z” Zumpano, Ellis’ longtime engineer. “I’ve built ‘guitar lockers’ into one wall for isolation purposes, but you have to close mic them when the isolation boxes are closed up, and that gives you a sound that can be too tight for blues.”

So for Ellis’ newest release, Moment of Truth, Zumpano’s “lockers” went unused. Placing a Shure SM57 a half-inch off of the bottom right speaker on Ellis’ Fender Super Reverb, and a Royer R-121 approximately six inches behind the back of the cabinet resulted in a decent sound, but didn’t produce the type of live sound the guitarist wanted.

“We ended up adding in a Neumann TLM 170 as a room mic,” Zumpano says. “The 170 has a very open and wide pickup pattern, and it’s a warm-sounding mic. I put the mic approximately three paces away from the amp, shoulder-high, and pointed it a bit off-axis to the cabinet. I adhere to the Jimmy Page theorem of ‘distance equals depth.’ You have to move away from the amp to catch the vibe of the room. More often than not, away from the amp is where the magic happens.”