Tag Archives: gain scheduling

The joy of a new guitar; or, I love my Epiphone Casino

I’ve mentioned before that I love recording electric guitar, building up layers of stuff, blending complementary tones. A big part of what makes it so satisfying when you’re happy with your work is how complex a process it is.

Recording one electric guitar rig means assembling a complicated system. When you plug an guitar into a pedal or two and into an amplifier, then place a microphone in front of the rig and connect that up to a pre-amplifier and thence to some sort of recording device (analogue or digital), you’ll be working with preamp and master gain controls on the pedals and the front face of the amp, the tone controls on the amp, equalisers on the mic pre, trims, faders, pads — the variables are endless (and remember, gain is frequency-dependent, not merely amplitudinal). To get one good sound, with one guitar and one amp, is a substantial job of work. To get two or three… that’s a big endeavour.

And more and more, musicians will likely be trying to figure all of this stuff out for themselves. Demo studios exist in fewer and fewer numbers, and if you can’t find anyone local to you whom you trust to record you well, you may be better served by trying to record yourself. That’s why I started; the engineer my band had worked with for a couple of years went into post-production, and no one else in the area was as good as him.

Right now, I’m a pig in shit with this stuff. I recently bought a new guitar, an Epiphone Casino, as a present to myself after I completed the first year in my new job (I still call it my ‘new job’ despite have started nearly 13 months ago). That means I’m working out how it works with the two amps I have with me in my flat in London (a Vox AC15 and a big-ass Peavey half stack, a 120-watt single-channel all-valve behemoth, which I had intended to sell but find it difficult to part with), how it sits in a mix alongside my Strat, what it sounds like with pedals… This all takes time, and it’ll be some months before I’m really on top of it, but it’s a load of fun. So many new possibilities open up to you with a new instrument, and this is one I feel immediately at home with. I’d played Epiphone semis before (mainly Sheratons, possibly a Dot too), but fell quite hard for this Casino when I tried it in Macari’s. The decision to buy it was more or less instant. It has a more open, resonant acoustic-type tone played clean than I had been expecting (probably because it’s all hollow, while Sheratons have a solid centre block), but the thing can also kick like a mule; at higher gain structures, it gets into SG-like territory if you dial in the preamp right, and that’s a tone I can do business with.

Of course, like any guitar geek I’ve been on the net looking into who else has played Casinos. The Beatles — that is, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and most famously John Lennon – are the most obvious, but the list is long and distinguished, with a few favourite players and singer-songwriters among them. Which is nice; it’s cool having your gear choices validated and seeing what company you’re in. I’m looking forward to the day when the tone is so ingrained in me that I can identify a Casino in a dense mix merely from the sound (I’m a pretty reliable Strat spotter). Right now, though, I’m still exploring all the possibilities that this guitar offers, and it’s really inspiring.

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The Casino, in my flat

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.

Electric guitar sounds and the recording of them, part 1

When you plug an electric guitar into a pedal or two and thence into an amplifier, then place a microphone in front of the rig and connect that up to a pre-amplifier, you’re going to be working with a lot of knobs and buttons: gains, trims, tone controls, pads. Recording electric guitar, then, is an even more complicated endeavour than acoustic guitar. The variables are endless: all the elements I mentioned in the acoustic post still matter (yeah, all the way down to the thickness of the pick and the material its made from), but each element added to the system matters too.

Any young guitarist confronted for the first time by an amplifier with preamp and master volume controls will soon figure out that they can produce the same perceived output volume with wildly different tones by setting those two controls in different ways. Put the preamp knob at 3 and the master at 5 and nice clean tones are your reward; reverse them (that is, pre-amp at 5, master at 3) and perhaps you’re in Keith Richards territory. Go on, play the riff to Start Me Up. I’ll wait here.

OK, so that’s your introduction to gain scheduling. Now add in half a dozen pedals, each with level controls, blend controls, tone controls (yeah, gain scheduling is frequency-dependent, not merely amplitudinal), and you’re now establishing the complexity of the system you’re working with. Scared yet?

I won’t go on about this in detail. If you want a how-to guide, there’s plenty available by folks who’ve done this longer than me. But one final point to get over before we move on. Imagine this scenario: you set up your rig in a room, get your guitar to sound just the way you like it and a sample audience is brought in to hear the fruits of your labours. You play them some riffs. One member of the audience is wildly enthused by what he hears. Another seems to be quite impressed too. Most look blank. A couple have their arms folded and a look on their faces that says, ‘Dude, really?’ One leaves in disgust.

And there’s the rub. At the end of this system, there are a potentially infinite number of human ears that all like different things and that all have their own thoughts about what’s cool, what’s heavy and what’s appropriate to any given style of music, and their opinions are all equally valid (well, some more valid than others perhaps, but in as much as they can listen to your music or not, come to your show or not, buy your album or not, they all have equal commercial power over you). So you might come up with an absolutely killer tone that you love, your bandmates love and that your engineer captures beautifully. Doesn’t mean anyone else will like it.

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Guitar amplifier, with knobs. Weeping sound engineer not pictured. ©Dan Keeble, 2007