Tag Archives: Dave Jerden

Whatever happened to the distorted guitar?

I never hear really layered distorted guitar sounds on modern indie records – it’s completely out of style. If you want to hear that kind of thing, you’d have to go back to older records, or to bands that began in that era and haven’t shed all vestiges of that sound, and few of them are nowadays operating at an artistic peak.

Like a good recorded drum sound, the pleasures of a well engineered distorted guitar sound lie in the physical response it creates through texture.

Distorted guitar is an incredibly textural sound source. Distorted chord-based rhythm parts occupy an enormous amount of sonic real estate across a huge frequency range, partly due to the fact that their heavily compressed nature make them essentially a steady-state presence within a mix.

The combination of extreme sustain, low transient quality and huge frequency range makes distorted guitar extremely malleable within a mix. You can essentially manipulate a heavy guitar signal with downstream EQ the way a Hammond organ player can manipulate her sound with the drawbars.* The best practitioners of the fine art of layering distorted guitars (for me, that’s people like Kevin Shields, Jerry Cantrell, Billy Corgan and J Mascis – I was never a fan of the scooped, no-mid-range sound of ’80s and ’90s metal), along with engineers and producers like Dave Jerden and Butch Vig, used this knowledge to create an almost orchestral richness to their guitar sounds.

They could craft sounds to be hard or soft, aggressive or comforting, sharp or ambient, through the combination of different guitars, amps and processing when layering duplicate or complementary voicings over several tracks. Those who took it furthest would split one guitar performance over two or three amps (selected for their characteristics in different frequency ranges), then switch guitars and repeat, then play a complementary part and repeat again. All in the analogue realm, too, meaning that bouncing of tracks would be required in order to keep going once real estate on the 2-inch tape was used up.

Outside of metal (which if I’m totally honest I don’t listen to all that much), this is kind of a lost art now, which makes me a little sad. The tools have changed, too: digital modelling amps, reamp boxes and amp simulation plug-ins are as common if not more common among the musicians who are still grappling with the beast that is distorted guitar as valve amps and analogue effects pedals. Modern mix topologies aren’t hugely kind to bands that deal a lot in distorted guitars, either. It’s enough to make me a bit wistful, thinking back to the days when a rock band wasn’t a rock band unless their guitars were just blasting out a sea of white noise. Ah me. The years go by so fast.

 

*Much of what I know about the science and art of recording distorted guitars, I owe to a recording engineer and producer called Tim Gilles, who was known online as Slipperman. Slipperman’s guide to recording distorted guitars, which consisted of a series of forum posts and podcasts, was a hugely informative, frequently digressive and entertainingly foul-mouthed bible for me 10 years ago when I was trying to learn the basics of recording and devouring every source of knowledge that was cheap or free. Wherever Slippy is now, I wish him well.

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Would? – Opeth

Jerry Cantrell knew more about the layering of guitars than any of his contemporaries, maybe with the exceptions of Billy Corgan from the Smashing Pumpkins and Kevin Shields from My Bloody Valentine. But whereas Shields (and often Corgan) made heavy use of overdubbing to create a wall of sound that was soft and dreamy – an aural comfort blanket – Cantrell wanted his guitars to smash your face in. They were huge and aggressive. They dominated the mix, crowding everything else out, leaving Layne Staley and Sean Kinney having to fight to be heard. The reunion album that AiC put out in 2009 attempted to give the vocals and drums a little bit of extra focus while making the guitars even bigger – the results proved the old audio engineer’s saying: If everything is big, nothing is big.

Opeth are a Swedish group who started out playing death metal, but have got more multi-dimensional (and to my ears more interesting) as time has gone on. Most of their recent music foreswears death grunts, double kick-drum rolls and blastbeats in favour of acoustic guitars, twisty time signatures and a haunting, more pastoral vibe. Opeth’s main man Mikael Åkerfeldt is in the tradition of guitar layerers that runs through Cantrell, Shields and Corgan, back through Bob Mould, Tom Scholz and Lindsey Buckingham and all the way back to Les Paul, so it’s no surprise he’d be an AiC fan. Opeth’s version of Would? (a B-side from 2008) is mighty fine and extremely well played, particularly by drummer Martin Axenrot, who can drum rings around Sean Kinney, or anyone else. But it’s great in a different way to the original, in a way that leads you to appreciate the original more.

Opeth’s version is precise and clean, and sounds like it was probably played to a click track. As much as a record like this can, it grooves. Alice in Chains’s version is a barely restrained race to the finish, with an ear-grabbing tempo increase over the course of the first verse and chorus. This is not necessarily a negative thing at all; listen closely to some Led Zeppelin if you think rigid adherence to a fixed tempo is necessary for good-feeling rock music. Åkerfeldt sings the song calmly; he sounds like a man taking a detached, almost scientific, interest in his physical and emotional disintegration. Layne Staley sang it like he sang everything else: like a man in agony, someone in way too much pain to be able to get any kind of distance from or perspective on himself. Similary, Åkerfeldt’s guitar sound is heavily distorted but clinical and cleaner than Cantrell’s, which has more midrange content and is a little “messier” and less controlled tonally.

While it’s likely that Dave Jerden (the producer and engineer on Facelift, Dirt, Sap and Jar of Flies) had input into the structure of the songs, Cantrell is nevertheless recognisably a master of song structure (try to think of any similar rock song as tightly wound and economical as Them Bones). Åkerfeldt inadvertently proves as much by removing the last repetition of the chorus in order to double the length of his solo; without that last vocal chorus, the sense of unstoppable momentum that we carry into the killer last section (‘Am I wrong?’ with its huge, disorienting plunge from C to F#) is reduced, and with it goes a little of the song’s emotional wallop. And that’s what I dig about AiC – for all the distortion and dissonance, they were a rock band with great, tightly written songs, not riffs for riffs’ sake. If you’ve never given them a go (and for years I didn’t – they seemed “too metal” to teenage me), you may be surprised.

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Alice in Chains (left), Opeth (right)

New song (that is, a song that I wrote in 2012 re-recorded)

Electric guitar sounds and the recording of them, part 2

Thinking about it, the tones I admire tend to fall into two categories. There are those arrived by tracking lots of parts with distinct but complementary tones, in order to build up a sound that couldn’t be arrived at with any one guitar/amp combination. Others happen when a player simply has a great tone and the arrangements they’re working with give them the space to let it shine: Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmour, Curtis Mayfield, Andy Summers, Jimmy Page, Roger McGuinn would all fall into this category for me. None of these players functioned in particularly dense musical settings, and certainly none of them (not even Page) made their trademark the kind of persistent, steady-state energy that happens when you put together a wall of a dozen or so distorted guitars.

However, the latter practice is ubiquitous in most forms of modern rock music. At some point – and I guess it happened in the seventies, as 16- and 24-track recording became pretty much standard in professional studios – someone realised that just because the band had, say, two guitarists, that didn’t mean they had to stop putting down rhythm-guitar tracks once they’d done one each. They could do two each. Four each, even. In fact, if they were needed you could bounce tracks together and just keep going.

I don’t know who it was who made this breakthrough, but the practice grew more and more widespread so that for getting on for thirty years now this is how the majority of guitar-based rock music has been produced: drums, bass, then big old wall of guitar, then vocals and solos and any extra bits. An awful lot of real estate, then, both in terms of tracks and in terms of space within a rock mix is given over to creating a bed of distorted guitars.

As mentioned above, a standard way of doing this is to blend together different but complementary tones: a classic example is doubling a powerful midrangey guitar, like a Les Paul, with something brighter and cutting, such as a Strat or Tele. This way you can get a tone on record that you can’t in real life. If there’s a guitar that gives you the sustain and creamy midrange of an LP with the clarity and cut of a Tele, I’ve yet to hear it.

I love this approach to recording guitars. I grew up with it. I do it myself. The first rock band I really listened to as a teenager was Nirvana and I loved the guitar sounds on Nevermind, so hearing Butch Vig take the rhythm-guitar bed on Drain You apart for the Classic Albums DVD was really cool. But Cobain was just the tip of the iceberg: I later came across the playing of Bob Mould, Jerry Cantrell, Kevin Shields and Billy Corgan, all of whom were great at creating a huge wall of guitar by various means. Of course, credit also has to go to the producers and engineers these players were working with: Dave Jerden, for example, who produced AiC’s Facelift and Dirt albums, had a technique whereby he split the guitar signal to three different amps, picked for their qualities in certain frequency ranges, so he’d have one amp to give him his low end, one for the midrange and one for the top. And anyone who appreciates a wall of blazing guitar will tell you that Cantrell’s sound on Dirt absolutely rules.

Other guitar sounds I really love? Angus and Malcolm Young on Back in Black. Bowie on Rebel, Rebel. Nile Rogers on anything. Various Beatles sounds, too: Lennon on Ticket to Ride (the first Beatles record where the guitar is pushed to the point where it’s starting to really saturate and come alive), Harrison’s distorted tone on Strawberry Fields Forever (about 2.55 in), the lead guitar on Fixing a Hole, McCartney’s solo on Taxman. Great stuff, all of it.

I’ll be back later with one little practical tip then I’ll give the guitars a rest for a while.

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Dave Jerden knows how to record guitars and he’s not taking any guff from the likes of you. ©Gonzo Sandoval.