Taking Over the Asylum

You’ve been there. I’ve been there. We’ve all been there. You stand in the studio, fingers burning across your guitar strings, hoping the tiny little mic pointing at your amp (or acoustic guitar) captures every nuance of your tone, technique, and passion. When the result is disappointing, you can rage against the machines, but you’re already screwed. Here, then, are some tips from renowned guitarists — all with cagey studio chops — detailing how they ensure their 6-string glory gets documented in the studio.


“I do a lot of layering of guitars, so when I record acoustic guitars, I don’t want to capture too much low end, as that will muddy up the textures,” says Lynne, the Electric Light Orchestra frontman and producer of Tom Petty, George Harrison, the Traveling Wilburys, and others. “In fact, one of my favorite acoustics is my very first guitar — a no-name model my dad bought me in 1964. It’s real bright, and there’s no bass to it — which is a great thing for an acoustic guitar. I just put a Neumann U84 about a foot back, and angled away from the soundhole. Sometimes, I’ve overdub an Ovation acoustic 12-string to get a little more sparkle. But the main thing is avoiding too much bass. The low end might sound okay on a solo-acoustic track, but it will usually wreak havoc in a layered rock track.”


“There’s a lot to be learned from producers who produce modern music,” counsels Gallagher, Oasis guitarist and co-producer. “I learned more from working ten minutes with Spike [Mark “Spike” Stent, producer/mixer for Bjork, Erasure, Linkin Park, and others] than I’ve learned from any producer in the last six years. For example, he turned up with a box of pedals that I would never plug a guitar into, such as old Moog modules and really cheap and nasty distortion boxes. I’d be going. ‘What the hell does that do?’ And Spike would say, ‘Oh, it’s meant for something else, but if you use it on guitar it sounds fantastic.’ It took some convincing, but I soon found myself in a situation where the sonic possibilities were endless. It taught me to keep my ears open. Sadly, rock musicians aren’t very patient. Sitting in front of a computer screen is fundamentally wrong for anyone who wears a black leather jacket and shades, but the rewards can be huge.”


“All the wacky miking stuff I’ve tried in the past just doesn’t add enough variation to make it worth the time to do it,” says Alexakis, guitarist for Everclear. “Usually, I’ll place a Shure SM57 right in front of the speaker cabinet, and then position an AKG C414 further back to capture some room sound. Nothing records guitars better then a 57 — it just makes everything sound so rock. I also record most guitars with vintage compressors, such as the Urei 1176. I’m not an engineer, so I just work on things until they sound right to my ear. You can try a million techniques, but, ultimately, the best sound is the one you like.”


“People want to hear the song, and they want to hear the singer,” says Giraldo, Pat Benatar’s long-time partner, guitarist, and producer. “So you can’t be selfish as a guitarist or producer. It’s not about, ‘Hey, look what I can do.’ Your job is to make sure the entire track rips someone’s heart out. Typically, I start with the guitar and drum tracks — I feel those two elements should be the foundation of the recording. Once those performances are down, I add parts that a listener might subconsciously like, but I’ll never do anything that competes with the vocal.”


“There are things you simply can’t do with digital,” says the Boston guitarist, producer, and tech head. “The instant you digitize a signal, you destroy the phase-angle relationship between the high frequencies and the lows, and you cannot recombine them. That’s why you can’t make a decent chorus with a digital delay unit. Unless you process your main signal through the exact same A-to-D converters, and then back again, you can no longer achieve those kind of magic phase-cancellation patterns you could get with analog echoes, choruses, and analog flanging units. So as much as possible, I stick with strictly analog effects.


“I have all the technology I need, but so does everyone else,” says the former BeBop Deluxe guitarist and home-recording pioneer. “The result is that there’s a uniform quality coming from a lot of musicians that makes guitar sounds — and audio productions in general — less individual. I’ve found that by going back to some roots things — vintage guitars, old analog effects and processors, and so on — and then mixing those in with the technology, that I can cover a wider range of expression and atmosphere, and hopefully come up with something that’s slightly unique. It helps if you’re comfortable enough to move — within one piece of music — through lots of different styles, and use different guitar playing and recording techniques. Then, there isn’t that compartmentalization between one part and another, and your creativity can flow naturally from one thing into another.”