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May 2014
more... ArtistsHow-TosRecording TipsStudio Legend

Studio Legends: Keith Olsen

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Studio Legends: Keith Olsen


Keith Olsen at Sammy Hagar’s house on the first day of rehearsal for Standing Hampton. Photo courtesy Keith Olsen

Recording electric guitar is really easy, because you don’t want to use EQ if you don’t have to—you can just use the tone controls on the amp. Once you get the sound you want, just get it from the speaker into the console. The mic that I use all the time is the [Shure] SM57. You can’t really record a snare drum or an electric guitar without a ’57. You can use other mics along with it, mic’ing distant and this, that, and the other thing. But make sure you have one real close where the speaker is, where you’re right at the face of the piston instead of off that voice coil—because there you’re getting all that cone distortion, because the cone bends in different ways at different frequencies. Sometimes it’s pretty ugly distortion, sometimes it’s good distortion. It’s not even, so you want to be in a place where the distortion is all from the motor—a speaker is a motor, so you want to record it at the header instead of after the muffler. [Laughs.]

You mentioned using additional mics and distant mics. Do you ever do that kind of thing, or do you rely on just the SM57 up close?
Remember “Still of the Night” or “Here I Go Again” [from Whitesnake’s self-titled 1987 album]? That guitar sound is two mics: It’s a ’57 on one EVM 12L [speaker], and then an AKG C 451 with a 10 dB pad on it on the next one over—also an EVM 12L—in a 2x12 Marshall combo with an open back.

If you want to get room ambience, then you put an AKG C 12 or a C 414 up at probably four or five feet off the ground, facing directly at the amp about six feet away—because remember, six feet away is about six milliseconds. As soon as you get past 10 feet away, then you start getting slap delay. You want ambience, not delay. The other thing I always do [for ambience] is decouple the speakers from the floor. I always get it off the floor and then tip it back a little bit so it’s aiming off to some wall. The angle of incidence—the angle of reflection—will send it around the room so you can start generating all of that room ambience. That’s how we did most of those parts.

Olsen's "Shavering" Cab-Mic'ing Technique
Keith Olsen has perfected a technique for placing microphones on guitar cabinets that he calls “shavering,” because as he moves the mic into place, the sound resembles what you hear from an electric razor. Here’s how you shaver.

1. With your amp still on (and not on standby), unplug the 1/4" instrument cable from your guitar but not the amp.
2. Turn the amp’s gain and/or volume up until there is audible hiss.
3. While wearing headphones to monitor the sound from the microphone, position the mic near the grille in front of the approximate point at which the edge of the speaker’s voice coil or dust cover meets the speaker cone.
4. Move the microphone around the edge of the dust cover, listening to the change in the hiss as you do so.
5. Stop when you find the spot where the hiss has the highest pitch or brightest sound. Leave the mic pointing at this spot.
6. Additional mics can be placed in the room or on the speaker as desired for enhancement, but this microphone should provide the majority of the tone.

Do you prefer doing that in a large room or a small room?
At Goodnight L.A. [Olsen’s own studio], the guitar room was probably 10 feet by 14 feet— it was fairly dead. And when I say “fairly dead,” I mean if I’d stuffed any more fiberglass in there, it would have become an anechoic chamber. [Laughs.] It was fairly dead. But when I was doing leads and stuff like that, I would bring the amps out of the guitar room and put them in a fairly live, open room.

Any other thoughts on capturing great electric tones?
Yeah. You can get a great guitar, a great amp, great mics, a great speaker, and have really cool stuff everywhere, but if the guitar player isn’t happy, you’re not going to get it. If the guitar player needs to hear it screaming loud, put him out there in the room and that’ll do it. A lead guitar player has to have enough volume so that there is that feedback to the strings. That only happens at a certain volume level, so you just gotta deal with it.

What about your approach to acoustic guitar?
First, get a really good acoustic guitar. Then, all I can say is you’ve got to use your ears. It’s an acoustic instrument. You’ve got to hear what the mic hears. The mic doesn’t differentiate between wanted and unwanted sounds. So you’ve got to really use your ears and just mess with it.

I don’t particularly like putting mics up on the fretboard—I don’t think it’s necessary and it never really comes off. If it’s a really good-sounding guitar, the amount of squeaking and natural movement of the hand will be amplified all the way down the strings [to the mic near the soundhole and soundboard] and it will be part of the overall sound.

Occasionally, I record acoustic guitars in stereo, but then what do you do with it? As you’re starting things, you’ve got to look at the big picture. Because if you have a kit of drums, you’re going to have snare drum and kick drum in the middle. If you’ve got a lead singer, he’s going to be in the middle. Then there’s that guy who plays bass—he’s got to be in the middle. And then, if you’ve got an acoustic guitar player, well gee, you recorded him in stereo— it’s just going to sound like it’s in the middle. There’s all this stuff that ends up being in the middle. Certain things sound great in stereo, other things you don’t get as much phase shift and you get a better image in the end [with one mic] and just pan it.

Is there a particular mic you rely on for that?
I’ve used Neumanns. I like using smallcapsule condensers if the guitar has a lot of boominess in it—you don’t want to use a large- or a medium-sized capsule. There is an Audio-Technica mic that is stunning on acoustic guitars—the AT4033. It uses a different alloy on the capsule—I think it’s silver instead of gold. It’s really great. I just found that by accident.

That’s not an expensive mic, either.
That’s not an expensive mic, no. I’m drawing a blank on artists right now, but there are a couple of singers that won’t sing a lead vocal without that mic. It has that edge to it.

What’s your approach to recording electric bass?
Get a really good transformer DI [direct box], get a good-sounding amp, and this time don’t “shaver” the mic—because you want to just get the poof of air from the speaker. Just mix that in and make sure you get it in phase.

What mic would you put on the bass amp to do that?
I’ve used Electro-Voice RE20s, I’ve used RCA [Type] 77-DXs, I’ve used a Royer ribbon, and I’ve used a Neumann U 47 FET. Because it’s such a small part of the sound that gets to the mix, just about anything works. You’re really just looking to move air—you’re using maybe 25 percent of it and 75 or 85 percent of the DI [signal]. The only other thing to do is to make sure that when you want to compress, be sure you link the compressors [on the DI and the mic] so that when you compress the DI, you’re compressing the same amount on the speakers and it stays balanced and stays the same color.

Olsen's Go-To Mics
Throughout his career, Keith Olsen has relied on a wide range of microphones to capture his world-class recordings. Here we list his favorites for a variety of applications.

Electric Guitar
To mic electric-guitar cabs, Olsen always uses a Shure SM57 up close. He’ll also use an AKG C 451 condenser as a secondary close mic and/or a condenser such as an AKG C 414 as a more distant ambience mic.

Acoustic Guitar
Olsen considers an Audio-Technica AT4033 an invaluable acoustic mic, but he’ll also sometimes use a small-diaphragm Neumann condenser.

Bass Guitar
To capture thumping bass tones that also breathe, Olsen prefers a direct box with a Neve transformer in it for 75–80 percent of the signal. For the remaining 20–25 percent of the signal, he usually uses an Electro-Voice RE20 dynamic, a Royer ribbon mic (such as an R-121), an RCA Type 77-DX, or a Neumann U 47 FET as a secondary mic to add some “air.”

Vocals
Olsen’s go-to mic for capturing some of the biggest, most recognizable voices in modern music is an AKG C 414.

A lot of Premier Guitar readers record at home. How much of a difference do you think the gear really makes in the results they can get?
Oh boy, that’s a loaded question. [Laughs.] If you have a great song and a great performance of that song, it doesn’t matter where it’s recorded or how it’s recorded. You could record it in your bathroom on a wire recorder that you got from your grandfather—it’s still a great song. Gear, equipment, it makes some difference. Really high-end gear makes a difference. Is the stuff that you can buy at Sweetwater or Guitar Center good enough? Sure it is! You can get that piece of software that PreSonus makes, and their I/O box, and you can record really great-sounding stuff. It’s really good. But, you have to buy the gear, own the gear, learn how to use the gear really well. And then you have to learn how to play again—because you haven’t been practicing because you’ve been learning how to use all this gear!

How many bands are on MySpace and have a page on Facebook? You’ve got to do everything you can to get a leg up. One of the things that gives you a leg up is if you have a great song. And if you’re capable of a great performance, then don’t let technology get in the way: Pay a guy and go into a real studio where you can be an artist and you can work on getting a great performance of that great song instead of saying, “Huh, I wonder what this equalizer plug-in does?”

Yes, you can get good stuff at home. Most of the time, the issue at home is acoustics—what you’re hearing [in the room]—not the quality of the gear. The A-to-D [analog-to-digital] converters in that PreSonus box that sells for $299 are really good. Are they good enough? Well yeah, probably. But there again, what is more important, a great sound on the kick drum or a great song?

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