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|Johnny k’s recording career began in a house with egg crates on the wall. He now has 40,000 square feet in a six-story building. Disturbed’s The Sickness was his first major-label album; his latest is the self-titled debut from Adelitas Way.
What are some key pieces of gear you use for recording guitars?
I have three studios open at Groovemaster and guitars in every room. I have 80 guitars and the collection is put to good use because people always want to borrow this or that. I use a handful of different mic pres that I like, whether they’re my own or in the studio. I have the Neve, usually the 33114 module on a Melbourne console, or a rack of 1081’s I drag around with me. I used a Neotek on the Staind record, and I have to be careful how much volume I push through. It’s an old Series II, and I need to install a pad. I have guys who like “this guitar rather than that,” and of course if they’re comfortable with it, we use it. But we don’t usually record with just one guitar. We try several to have an idea, and I plug in whatever I know will be a good-sounding guitar. If the one they want to use is better, we do that.
When was the last time you recorded in analog?
I think not since my first major-label record with Disturbed [The Sickness] came out in 2000. That record was made on tape and mixed from tape. We used tape and Pro Tools after that and kept working that way. I did Machine Head’s Supercharger the following year all on tape. There were no computer screens at all making that record. The vocals and everything were tracked to tape.
You can make a record sound the way you want it to sound. Pro Tools is not to blame for the way records sound and feel. Some do sound sterile and over-edited; they sound a little too fake to me these days. There needs to be a better sense of reality to music, and you don’t have to take it to Pro Tools and five takes and tune it and you’re done. You can ask the singer to work for a better performance, and ultimately it will make you a better singer the more you try and the more you practice, so I try to approach things from the beginning as if we’re using tape now, even with Pro Tools. I used to comp vocals and punch in guitar parts that were brushed or dragging. I punch in Pro Tools the same as I would tape.
For the guitarist’s home studio on a budget, where should he invest his (or his girlfriend’s) money?
I recommend a Pro Tools rig. I would say, “What’s your guitar sound?” Get your sound worked out for starters. For demos, I can’t remember the last time I didn’t use a Shure SM57 to record guitars. I always have that. There’s no huge secret or magic. Have good gear for the sound you want and get a good recording. A lot of times the 57 just works. Sometimes I blend another one in for a clean recording, a Neumann U87 fade in for ambience. It depends. Royer 121s are great guitar mics. If I use two mics at once, maybe a Sennheiser 421 with it. I’ve used a host of different mics.
What are the biggest or most common mistakes guitarists make in the studio?
I see a lot of guys who play live come into the studio and they’re used to jamming, so they fret hard and pull strings out of tune. The left-hand technique gets polluted by playing live, or they have no studio experience, so when they fret that chord you have to make sure they fret it straight. A fair number of guys stretch their strings, and if they’re playing fast it becomes difficult to fret straight. If you make them aware of that, it helps. Tuning: there are little nuances in keeping your guitar in tune. Tune down. I’ll use heavier strings. It makes sense theoretically so as not to go out of tune, but if the nut is not adjusted to fit the gauge, the string sticks in the nut and goes out of tune. A nicely setup instrument is important for tuning.
A lot of guys, depending on the music, will turn the gain knob up all the way, regardless. Sometimes the amp feels better with a much nicer blend between the master knob and the gain and will give a warmer, crunchier sound that won’t get in the way. I record with less gain than bands are accustomed to using, and in some cases they question me until they hear the track. On some amps the gain knob adds fizz that I don’t want, and I have to move the mics a little more. Using your ears, listening and knowing how to adjust is the trick. Do I turn down the gain or move the mics? If gain gives a nice full bottom, I would move the mics around or bring two mics to the cab instead of one, to reduce the high end and give a nice midrange. If there’s too much fizz, it gets in the way, and then the mix sounds crowded and the guitar sounds aren’t clear.
Let’s talk about tracking a two-guitar band.
That’s a good question, because it’s always very different from one guitar to two guitars. It depends on how they relate. I look at a band and I like seeing them play before we record. I study the way they play together. Plain White T’s have been together a long time and complement each other, so tracking live they make a conscious effort not to step on each other’s parts. One guy plays lead and the other plays rhythm and they have it together. If it needs more, we do more. Big Bad World was a very simple production. One guy played his part, the other played his, and there was a lot of room. With Finger Eleven I set up in different iso rooms and run takes of them together face to face until that magic locks between them. In some bands, one guy is a better player and tracks first, and the other guy tracks over him. In Staind, Mike is a more technical player. It also depends on who wrote the song and the feel for it. I record the better guy first and add the other guy’s parts. With Staind, if Adam wrote the song, I got his rhythm parts first because he’s feeling it a certain way, and then I make sure Mike is locked in with that. It can get hairy with some bands because sometimes it’s, “You’re dealing with my part.” I try to figure out the relationship between the guys, work with it and decide whose part to track first.
What should the guitar solo do, and how many guitarists really understand this when they’re making records?
The solo should do whatever the song calls for and the artist wants to express. It’s your time, and let’s hope you do something cool with it, not regurgitate a scale you learned in music school. I love a fast, blazing, shredding solo, and a nice part, too. Play within your abilities. There’s no point in playing fast when it sounds like garbage. I stop and say, “Play so that I can hear the notes clearly, or simplify it. I need to hear the definition.” I don’t need fancy moments with the left hand and fluttering the pick. I need to hear the solo. I need to hear what you’re playing.