Premier Guitar

5 Producers You Should Listen To

July 22, 2009
The guitar riff: it identifies and defines virtually every classic song: “Johnny B. Goode,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” “Purple Haze,” “Wicked Game,” “All Right Now,” “Walk This Way”… anything by Van Halen, AC/DC or the Rolling Stones. The minute that intro kicks in, listeners recognize it, and if you really strike it rich, just one chord and the whole world knows that it’s been a hard day’s night. Writing the next “Layla” will serve you no purpose if it’s fingernails on a chalkboard to your audience. This month, we turn to five producers and engineers for advice, legends who have worked with almost every artist, in every genre, and collectively amassed enough platinum albums and industry awards to fill a warehouse or two.

Michael Wagener’s name is synonymous with 1980s heavy metal: Dokken, Mötley Crüe, Poison, Metallica, White Lion, Ozzy Osbourne, King’s X—his credits are endless. Wagener relocated to Nashville several years ago, where he continues producing a variety of artists, as well as holding recording workshops at his studio. Read the interview...

The Midi Mafia—producer/engineer/DJ Dirty Swift and producer/songwriter Bruce Waynne—came to national attention through their work on 50 Cent’s breakthrough hit, “21 Questions.” The duo opened Ravenite Studio in Los Angeles and now work with a broad range of artists, including Brandy, David Archuleta, Elliott Yamin, Fantasia and John Legend. Read the interview...

Dann Huff is the quintessential guitarist’s guitarist. Following his tenure in the rock band Giant, he became one of the music industry’s most in-demand session players. He eventually moved to Nashville, where he became one of Music Row’s most in-demand producers. Lonestar, Faith Hill, Martina McBride, Rascal Flatts and Keith Urban have all recorded with Huff, and somewhere in between, so did Megadeth. Read the interview...

Chicago native Johnny K built his Groovemaster Studio from the ground up, beginning in a house and eventually growing into his new multi-level complex. Disturbed’s debut album put him on the production map. Since then, Drowning Pool, Staind, 3 Doors Down, Black Tide, Plain White T’s, Adelitas Way and numerous others have turned to his expertise. Read the interview...

Chuck Ainlay’s BackStage Studio has hosted most of Nashville’s elite and the recording world at large. His name appears on over 200 albums; Lyle Lovett, Vince Gill, Peter Frampton, Steve Earle, Willie Nelson and Dire Straits are just a few. When Mark Knopfler makes a record, Ainlay is the man he relies on in the studio. Enough said. Read the interview...

These five producers now share some strategies that can take you from simply playing guitar to becoming a guitarist—hopefully one that people will want to listen to.




Michael Wagener started out as a guitarist with German rock band Accept. He put the instrument down in 1970 and has since produced practically every band who ever wore spandex or turned their amp “up to 11.” He holds four- and nine-day workshops and also offers project consulting and personal workshops. Details and contact information are available online.

Website: michaelwagener.com
Michael Wagener
WireWorld Studio

Nashville, TN

What are some key pieces of gear you use for recording guitars?

The Royer 121 ribbon mic is my absolute favorite, and for mic pres the Chandler Limited TG2, which is a remake of the old EMI mic pre used on Abbey Road, and the CraneSong HEDD, is my guitar chain. It adds to the tone, gives me the tone I’m looking for, adds to the harmonic distortion without messing it up, and takes away the super, super high-end distortion. I used to work just in other studios, but lately I work at my place because of budgetary concerns. I’m throwing my studio into the production deal. If I don’t have a piece of equipment that the musician wants, it gets rented or we try something else. I never really face that because when you’ve sold a few platinum albums people believe what you say, so I’ve never had that situation where someone says, “No, we have to use this!” One did, actually. They insisted on using V-Drums. It was the worst record I ever made; it never came out, and the band broke up.

For the guitarist’s home studio on a budget, where should he invest his (or his girlfriend’s) money?

What are you trying to do? Are you trying to get demos and later go to a bigger studio or production facility? At that point you can get decent gear, cheap gear, and get the songs on tape—I still say tape; isn’t that weird?—and not care, if it’s not the final version. If you are recording for keeps, the most important thing is speakers, because if you can’t hear it, you can’t fix it. First, spend your money on good speakers, because money keeps going into the studio. We know that. Get good speakers and get the room treated in a way that you’ll actually know what’s going on.

What has been the most valuable technological advancement for guitarists and producers?

The MW1 Studio Tool! I developed the guitar box with Creation Audio Labs and it has turned out wonderful. It’s a very important piece of gear for recording guitars. The other development is digital recording and affordable recording, which are both a curse and a blessing. You can sit for five days and punch in your solo, and the good thing is that it works the kinks out of the music, but you also might kill it in that time. To be able to do it by yourself over a long period of time is a good and bad thing. I think about what we played in the 1970s, and what these guys can play today is unbelievable. It’s the same with athletes: they’ve got to jump higher every time they go to the Olympics. With guitarists and musicians, the performance requirement is upped every time.

The effects are easier to achieve, but at what price to creativity?

Can you really do it with plug-ins? I don’t believe there is a plug-in yet that replaces the guitar amp. We’re not there yet. Plug-ins are fine for composing, but for recording I don’t use them to base tone on. That’s why I have 27 guitar amps. For tools, they are helpful, but a tone is a tone. Have you seen Angus Young use a plug-in? I don’t think so.

What are the biggest or most common mistakes guitarists make in the studio?

Not being themselves. If you tailor yourself after somebody else, you’re not dealing with your own tone. Kids come in and say, “Where do I plug in?” George Lynch was here for three days figuring out his tone before he even began recording. Would Eddie Van Halen or Jimi Hendrix ever have existed if they’d not had their own tone? Now, with Amp Farm, kids just “go in and do.” Because of that, there is no identity in their playing and sound.

Let’s talk about tracking a two-guitar band.

It’s all about what’s good for the song. If they write and play together, and hear each other during practice, they will have figured out how it works. I had a situation with two guitarists, each in a practice room with their amps, the bassist and drummer together, and one guitarist was playing stuff that didn’t fit, in different keys. They’d go into the bridge and I’d say, “What are you doing there?” You have two guitarists, two styles, two personalities. I like to bring that out and not have them playing the same thing. I like them to play complementary things and build each other up. It adds to the overall song.

If there’s only one guitar player, it’s a matter of sound. In Van Halen, you had one guitar, bass, drums and vocals and everybody had their own role. Even in the mixes, I like to put the guitar and bass on different sides so that it’s separated, and for sound reasons it’s better to double a rhythm track or a guitar and just have the guy play it twice. Live is a different story. If you layer 50,000 guitar parts, it’s going to get complicated! A big part of the producer’s role is to say, “Those 50,000 parts are going to be very expensive when you have to hire all these people to go on tour.” Certain things you can do to embellish might not be front-row kind of stuff. Harmony to a lead live—it’s okay if it’s not there onstage, as long as the lead line is the main thing. You can figure out a way to play the important parts. When I track, the one guitar line is played all the way through. There’s a solo, a rhythm track under the solo, and if there’s one guitar player it’s going to be hard, but is that rhythm track important when the guy is wailing away on a solo? The people in the audience aren’t going to notice.

Are guitarists as willing to stick to their guns today in terms of originality?

No. With the invention of affordable home studio recording equipment, everybody is able to record something. I see it on the engineering side: they all buy a Pro Tools rig. No, you still don’t know about sound waves, room reflection, on and on. I have been doing this for 35 years, and I learn something new every day. Maybe it’s easier to play guitar. There are better guitars, amps and gear, but again, we’re back to our favorite word: practice. It takes a lot of work to be an outstanding player. It’s not like you buy a Les Paul and you sound like Zakk Wylde. Zakk worked hard and in detail to get to the point of being recognizable. People take it too easy. They double the guitar 15 times and all the individuality is gone. It’s better to stay individual and original. Work on that.

Is there one really good guitar session horror story you would like to share?

To be honest, there are none that I would classify as horror stories. There’s not really one where it was awful. There was one episode, though, and I probably don’t want to mention any names. We were done with the tracks and the guitar player pulled his cord out of the guitar. It made a buzzing noise and I said, “That’s cool; we should keep it for the end of the record.” He looked at me and said, “I can do it better.” I told the assistant, “Don’t erase this. I’ll see you tomorrow.” When I came back the next day, the assistant hated me because he’d been there until 4 a.m. with the guitarist pulling the cord out over and over! We ended up using the first one.




Michael Wagener started out as a guitarist with German rock band Accept. He put the instrument down in 1970 and has since produced practically every band who ever wore spandex or turned their amp “up to 11.” He holds four- and nine-day workshops and also offers project consulting and personal workshops. Details and contact information are available online.

Website: michaelwagener.com
Michael Wagener
WireWorld Studio

Nashville, TN

What are some key pieces of gear you use for recording guitars?

The Royer 121 ribbon mic is my absolute favorite, and for mic pres the Chandler Limited TG2, which is a remake of the old EMI mic pre used on Abbey Road, and the CraneSong HEDD, is my guitar chain. It adds to the tone, gives me the tone I’m looking for, adds to the harmonic distortion without messing it up, and takes away the super, super high-end distortion. I used to work just in other studios, but lately I work at my place because of budgetary concerns. I’m throwing my studio into the production deal. If I don’t have a piece of equipment that the musician wants, it gets rented or we try something else. I never really face that because when you’ve sold a few platinum albums people believe what you say, so I’ve never had that situation where someone says, “No, we have to use this!” One did, actually. They insisted on using V-Drums. It was the worst record I ever made; it never came out, and the band broke up.

For the guitarist’s home studio on a budget, where should he invest his (or his girlfriend’s) money?

What are you trying to do? Are you trying to get demos and later go to a bigger studio or production facility? At that point you can get decent gear, cheap gear, and get the songs on tape—I still say tape; isn’t that weird?—and not care, if it’s not the final version. If you are recording for keeps, the most important thing is speakers, because if you can’t hear it, you can’t fix it. First, spend your money on good speakers, because money keeps going into the studio. We know that. Get good speakers and get the room treated in a way that you’ll actually know what’s going on.

What has been the most valuable technological advancement for guitarists and producers?

The MW1 Studio Tool! I developed the guitar box with Creation Audio Labs and it has turned out wonderful. It’s a very important piece of gear for recording guitars. The other development is digital recording and affordable recording, which are both a curse and a blessing. You can sit for five days and punch in your solo, and the good thing is that it works the kinks out of the music, but you also might kill it in that time. To be able to do it by yourself over a long period of time is a good and bad thing. I think about what we played in the 1970s, and what these guys can play today is unbelievable. It’s the same with athletes: they’ve got to jump higher every time they go to the Olympics. With guitarists and musicians, the performance requirement is upped every time.

The effects are easier to achieve, but at what price to creativity?

Can you really do it with plug-ins? I don’t believe there is a plug-in yet that replaces the guitar amp. We’re not there yet. Plug-ins are fine for composing, but for recording I don’t use them to base tone on. That’s why I have 27 guitar amps. For tools, they are helpful, but a tone is a tone. Have you seen Angus Young use a plug-in? I don’t think so.

What are the biggest or most common mistakes guitarists make in the studio?

Not being themselves. If you tailor yourself after somebody else, you’re not dealing with your own tone. Kids come in and say, “Where do I plug in?” George Lynch was here for three days figuring out his tone before he even began recording. Would Eddie Van Halen or Jimi Hendrix ever have existed if they’d not had their own tone? Now, with Amp Farm, kids just “go in and do.” Because of that, there is no identity in their playing and sound.

Let’s talk about tracking a two-guitar band.

It’s all about what’s good for the song. If they write and play together, and hear each other during practice, they will have figured out how it works. I had a situation with two guitarists, each in a practice room with their amps, the bassist and drummer together, and one guitarist was playing stuff that didn’t fit, in different keys. They’d go into the bridge and I’d say, “What are you doing there?” You have two guitarists, two styles, two personalities. I like to bring that out and not have them playing the same thing. I like them to play complementary things and build each other up. It adds to the overall song.

If there’s only one guitar player, it’s a matter of sound. In Van Halen, you had one guitar, bass, drums and vocals and everybody had their own role. Even in the mixes, I like to put the guitar and bass on different sides so that it’s separated, and for sound reasons it’s better to double a rhythm track or a guitar and just have the guy play it twice. Live is a different story. If you layer 50,000 guitar parts, it’s going to get complicated! A big part of the producer’s role is to say, “Those 50,000 parts are going to be very expensive when you have to hire all these people to go on tour.” Certain things you can do to embellish might not be front-row kind of stuff. Harmony to a lead live—it’s okay if it’s not there onstage, as long as the lead line is the main thing. You can figure out a way to play the important parts. When I track, the one guitar line is played all the way through. There’s a solo, a rhythm track under the solo, and if there’s one guitar player it’s going to be hard, but is that rhythm track important when the guy is wailing away on a solo? The people in the audience aren’t going to notice.

Are guitarists as willing to stick to their guns today in terms of originality?

No. With the invention of affordable home studio recording equipment, everybody is able to record something. I see it on the engineering side: they all buy a Pro Tools rig. No, you still don’t know about sound waves, room reflection, on and on. I have been doing this for 35 years, and I learn something new every day. Maybe it’s easier to play guitar. There are better guitars, amps and gear, but again, we’re back to our favorite word: practice. It takes a lot of work to be an outstanding player. It’s not like you buy a Les Paul and you sound like Zakk Wylde. Zakk worked hard and in detail to get to the point of being recognizable. People take it too easy. They double the guitar 15 times and all the individuality is gone. It’s better to stay individual and original. Work on that.

Is there one really good guitar session horror story you would like to share?

To be honest, there are none that I would classify as horror stories. There’s not really one where it was awful. There was one episode, though, and I probably don’t want to mention any names. We were done with the tracks and the guitar player pulled his cord out of the guitar. It made a buzzing noise and I said, “That’s cool; we should keep it for the end of the record.” He looked at me and said, “I can do it better.” I told the assistant, “Don’t erase this. I’ll see you tomorrow.” When I came back the next day, the assistant hated me because he’d been there until 4 a.m. with the guitarist pulling the cord out over and over! We ended up using the first one.



Brooklyn-born Bruce Waynne and Canadian DJ Dirty Swift met while cutting tracks for rapper Bad Seed. They spent two years working for Sony Studios and became Midi Mafia in 2003.

Websites:
themidimafia.comthemidimafia.com
myspace.com/midimafia

Midi Mafia

DJ Dirty Swift and Bruce Waynne
Ravenite Studio

Los Angeles, CA

What are some key pieces of gear you use for recording guitars?

Swift: It depends. We use a few different preamps. The API 512c’s are really good because they’re fast, to capture transience well. They’re clean in and give more natural amping. I prefer a clean signal. Our guitarists use different things. For example, one of them uses the Line 6 Pod for amp simulation. We also use the Avalon M5 preamp. For mics, we use the Neumann U47 or AKG C414 [condensers], which have a warmer sound. I like a nice preamp and then go to Pro Toolsand amp simulators. If we want to do something interesting, we can use a fuzz pedal as a layer, and distortion to mess up the sound and add extra flavor.

When was the last time you recorded in analog?

Swift:
We used tape probably four years ago. We would mix on Pro Tools through the SSL and go to half-inch for mastering, but now we go back to Pro Tools. Most studios don’t have half-inch anymore. Strictly to tape… I can’t remember the last time we did that. In 2001 we dumped beats from Pro Tools to tape to Pro Tools for saturation and it didn’t make a difference after a whole day’s process. Memories of tape are better than the reality. Pulling out the machine, cleaning the heads—no!

What is your definition of a producer?

Waynne: Someone who does whatever it takes to make it happen. Whatever the project, you take the lead, whether it’s assembling tracks, assembling the team, budget, schedules, using the musicians the record calls for, keeping everything inside the box. It’s not limited to being a track guy. Quincy Jones only plays horns and he produced Thriller, one of the biggest-selling albums ever. He’s about direction and keeping things on point.

Swift: If you consider yourself a producer because you work with rock bands, can you go into a hip-hop session and know what to do? You’re the captain of the ship, you’re steering. Rick Rubin did Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, Johnny Cash and Jay-Z—that’s a producer!

Is there a track that you feel you truly captured the essence of the guitar and what the guitarist was trying to say with the instrument?

Waynne: That’s a hard question because when you take a track like 50 Cent’s “21 Questions,” which really opened the doors for us, the guitars were sampled, and yet they drove the record and launched everything we do now. We go through phases. Last year we experimented with a lot of guitars on David Archuleta’s record and on Brandy’s “Torn Down” [Human]. We captured the guitar with hip-hop mixed in. This year what we’re doing is very different. A couple of years ago, with Talib Kweli’s “We Got The Beat” [Beautiful Struggle, 2004] we did rock guitars. To dig through our discography is to see the evolution of our thought processes. Also, as music evolves, we’re evolving and moving to a space where we’re starting to lead, whereas before, we were following.

Swift: Talib Kweli is a good example of a heavy guitar track. Remember when Afrika Bambaataa did the electro beat on “Planet Rock” and had the guy come in? With Kweli I played the guitar on the original track. I had an acoustic guitar with a pickup through an amp simulator and pieced it together into Pro Tools. Then, the guitarist from Fishbone came in and laid down the tracks during the mix. He took what I did and used real amps, and then Axel Niehaus mixed it to get the guitars to sit right. It was done through a real amp to get it warm. On Brandy’s song we did a lot of acoustic stuff with pickups with the API and Pro Tools, and after coming up with two or three ideas, we added hip-hop drums. It was all very straightforward with no tricks. With acoustic guitar you want to capture as natural a sound as possible.

What are the biggest or most common mistakes guitarists make in the studio?

Swift: Being out of tune. Always tune your guitar and have fresh strings. There is nothing worse than an out-of-tune guitar. It messes up everything. Everything needs to be bright. Even if you have to stop between takes to change your strings, you can do that, but you can’t fix what’s out of tune later. Be professional, quick, do what you’ve got to do and be in tune, man, please! You can fix everything else, but not that, plus it makes you sound like an amateur.

What has been the most valuable technological advancement for guitarists and producers?

Swift: Hands down, the DAW. All the editing and stuff you can do makes your life so easy. You have the ability to record raw guitar signals and mix them later, and to put things in the computer and move them around. Before, we were married to a sound. There are almost too many options, because you can play around too much.

Are guitarists as willing to stick to their guns today in terms of originality?

Waynne: It depends. We use a lot of different session musicians, and their job is to do what they’re told. They’re chameleons. If a guitarist has a bag of tricks, and if he can also make suggestions, he’s more valuable to me. If you come up with things I never would have thought of, you’re golden. As a session player you have to complement and understand the whole picture so that what you’re playing makes sense.

Bassists and drummers always talk about being “in the pocket.” Where does the guitarist fit into that equation?

Swift: It depends on the style. In rock, the bass and drums hold down the low end, the guitar is mid-range and drives it, and the vocal has to fit. In hip-hop, the guitarist has to groove around what the bass and drums are doing. Sometimes you need picking, sometimes you need chords; sometimes you need it all weaving in and out. If you’re doing an acoustic arrangement, like Brandy, it’s a lot of rhythmic strumming. “21 Questions” was solo guitar, admittedly sampled, but appropriate for that style. It was very sparse. In hip-hop everything needs room to breathe. It’s about drums and vocals, and everything else need not take up space. In rock, you can fill the space with strumming and distorted guitar.



Brooklyn-born Bruce Waynne and Canadian DJ Dirty Swift met while cutting tracks for rapper Bad Seed. They spent two years working for Sony Studios and became Midi Mafia in 2003.

Websites:
themidimafia.comthemidimafia.com
myspace.com/midimafia


Midi Mafia

DJ Dirty Swift and Bruce Waynne
Ravenite Studio

Los Angeles, CA

What are some key pieces of gear you use for recording guitars?

Swift: It depends. We use a few different preamps. The API 512c’s are really good because they’re fast, to capture transience well. They’re clean in and give more natural amping. I prefer a clean signal. Our guitarists use different things. For example, one of them uses the Line 6 Pod for amp simulation. We also use the Avalon M5 preamp. For mics, we use the Neumann U47 or AKG C414 [condensers], which have a warmer sound. I like a nice preamp and then go to Pro Toolsand amp simulators. If we want to do something interesting, we can use a fuzz pedal as a layer, and distortion to mess up the sound and add extra flavor.

When was the last time you recorded in analog?

Swift:
We used tape probably four years ago. We would mix on Pro Tools through the SSL and go to half-inch for mastering, but now we go back to Pro Tools. Most studios don’t have half-inch anymore. Strictly to tape… I can’t remember the last time we did that. In 2001 we dumped beats from Pro Tools to tape to Pro Tools for saturation and it didn’t make a difference after a whole day’s process. Memories of tape are better than the reality. Pulling out the machine, cleaning the heads—no!

What is your definition of a producer?

Waynne: Someone who does whatever it takes to make it happen. Whatever the project, you take the lead, whether it’s assembling tracks, assembling the team, budget, schedules, using the musicians the record calls for, keeping everything inside the box. It’s not limited to being a track guy. Quincy Jones only plays horns and he produced Thriller, one of the biggest-selling albums ever. He’s about direction and keeping things on point.

Swift: If you consider yourself a producer because you work with rock bands, can you go into a hip-hop session and know what to do? You’re the captain of the ship, you’re steering. Rick Rubin did Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, Johnny Cash and Jay-Z—that’s a producer!

Is there a track that you feel you truly captured the essence of the guitar and what the guitarist was trying to say with the instrument?

Waynne: That’s a hard question because when you take a track like 50 Cent’s “21 Questions,” which really opened the doors for us, the guitars were sampled, and yet they drove the record and launched everything we do now. We go through phases. Last year we experimented with a lot of guitars on David Archuleta’s record and on Brandy’s “Torn Down” [Human]. We captured the guitar with hip-hop mixed in. This year what we’re doing is very different. A couple of years ago, with Talib Kweli’s “We Got The Beat” [Beautiful Struggle, 2004] we did rock guitars. To dig through our discography is to see the evolution of our thought processes. Also, as music evolves, we’re evolving and moving to a space where we’re starting to lead, whereas before, we were following.

Swift: Talib Kweli is a good example of a heavy guitar track. Remember when Afrika Bambaataa did the electro beat on “Planet Rock” and had the guy come in? With Kweli I played the guitar on the original track. I had an acoustic guitar with a pickup through an amp simulator and pieced it together into Pro Tools. Then, the guitarist from Fishbone came in and laid down the tracks during the mix. He took what I did and used real amps, and then Axel Niehaus mixed it to get the guitars to sit right. It was done through a real amp to get it warm. On Brandy’s song we did a lot of acoustic stuff with pickups with the API and Pro Tools, and after coming up with two or three ideas, we added hip-hop drums. It was all very straightforward with no tricks. With acoustic guitar you want to capture as natural a sound as possible.

What are the biggest or most common mistakes guitarists make in the studio?

Swift: Being out of tune. Always tune your guitar and have fresh strings. There is nothing worse than an out-of-tune guitar. It messes up everything. Everything needs to be bright. Even if you have to stop between takes to change your strings, you can do that, but you can’t fix what’s out of tune later. Be professional, quick, do what you’ve got to do and be in tune, man, please! You can fix everything else, but not that, plus it makes you sound like an amateur.

What has been the most valuable technological advancement for guitarists and producers?

Swift: Hands down, the DAW. All the editing and stuff you can do makes your life so easy. You have the ability to record raw guitar signals and mix them later, and to put things in the computer and move them around. Before, we were married to a sound. There are almost too many options, because you can play around too much.

Are guitarists as willing to stick to their guns today in terms of originality?

Waynne: It depends. We use a lot of different session musicians, and their job is to do what they’re told. They’re chameleons. If a guitarist has a bag of tricks, and if he can also make suggestions, he’s more valuable to me. If you come up with things I never would have thought of, you’re golden. As a session player you have to complement and understand the whole picture so that what you’re playing makes sense.

Bassists and drummers always talk about being “in the pocket.” Where does the guitarist fit into that equation?

Swift: It depends on the style. In rock, the bass and drums hold down the low end, the guitar is mid-range and drives it, and the vocal has to fit. In hip-hop, the guitarist has to groove around what the bass and drums are doing. Sometimes you need picking, sometimes you need chords; sometimes you need it all weaving in and out. If you’re doing an acoustic arrangement, like Brandy, it’s a lot of rhythmic strumming. “21 Questions” was solo guitar, admittedly sampled, but appropriate for that style. It was very sparse. In hip-hop everything needs room to breathe. It’s about drums and vocals, and everything else need not take up space. In rock, you can fill the space with strumming and distorted guitar.



Huff’s first production project was Chris Ward’s One Step Beyond with James Stroud in 1996. His latest feat: producing three new albums—Keith Urban’s Defying Gravity, Rascal Flatts’ Unstoppable and Martina McBride’s Shine—in nine months, for releases one week apart. His dream session: U2.

Website: None (three albums in nine months... who has time for a website?)
Dann Huff
Blackbird Studio
Nashville, TN


What is your studio setup? What are some key pieces of gear you use for recording guitars?

I have a glorified closet in my house that I call my studio, but people love coming here. It’s good because my family is here and people enjoy that. I have a vocal booth, we can do some guitar work, and I do a lot of editing here. I’m usually at Blackbird, John McBride’s studio. My signal chain… we have a haphazard approach to doing guitars: whatever is there at the moment. There’s a Royer involved, a Shure 57—that’s easy to remember. Those two seem to be the two food groups I can’t get away from. They encompass the body of all sound in any combination. Each one seems to get what the other doesn’t. Preamps: Neves tend to be my choice. An API situation is fine, too. Distressors, any assortment of dbx160s to whatever is in the room. Fairchilds, if they’re in the room. We do a ton of acoustic guitars, and I never remember the names of the mics.

Our acoustic sounds are really good; they usually involve three mics that I know as the skinny and wide mics. With any engineer I work with, I always emphasize: If you ever default to anything, it’s a moment rather than the technical side. I stress being sensitive to the flow. I would rather take a less-defined sound than the other way around. I’ve seen those moments go because of an engineer or producer having to adhere to some technical credo. The truth is that someone in Kansas can’t tell the difference between mics. Sound is obviously a big part of the deal, but when it comes down between the two and Keith [Urban] does a vocal and a part is mic’d for an acoustic instrument, nine out of ten times I just lower the vocal mic to the guitar. Content is king with us.

For the guitarist’s home studio on a budget, where should he invest his (or his girlfriend’s) money?

For the home studio, I’ll go the sacrilegious route. There are companies making virtual guitar stuff that’s stunning. We use it all the time. The Line 6 POD Farm. I’ve used Amp Farm since it came out. POD Farm is sensational. I’ve heard great things about [Digidesign’s] Eleven. It’s certainly a viable way of recording guitars, and in the right hands, in the context of a band with bass, vocals and drums, lots of times you can’t tell the difference if you tweak the sound up right. The tough part of the equation is in between sound. [Vox] AC30 sounds are matchless, the crystalline tube breakup, but depending on the setting, I’ve come close on a virtual amp and it works.

On a budget home record, and also if you want to stay in your relationship, you can do that through Amp Farm. It’s staggering what these guys have done. And past that, it comes down to music. A humbucker guitar and a single-coil guitar—to me, P-90s are almost the most usable sound in recording— it’s between a humbucker and a single coil. I tend to live in that world, but again, it depends on your music. Do you need a Vox? A Marshall? A Fender? That’s big coin. That’s why I suggest virtual stuff.

How do you keep from overstepping your boundaries while tracking?

The important thing is that you want people to feel ownership in something. Based on my own experiences, if people cut into quality, I felt handcuffed. If you listen long enough, you find something useful in everyone’s interpretations. I try to be as noninvasive, creatively, as I can. With artists it goes back to partnership. I don’t dictate. I do a lot of suggesting, and I find it helpful to sit in close proximity and hand the guitar back and forth to each other. Guitarists have their own language that involves nods and grunts. You throw ideas back and forth and find the spot where it becomes effective.

What are the biggest or most common mistakes guitarists make in the studio?

Turning themselves up too loud and not listening to anybody else. You have to listen in context. That’s the biggest mistake any musician makes. Most studios now have listening capabilities with mixers, and it’s like every musician has a board mix for themselves. It’s helpful in certain situations, but back in the day there was only the studio cue mix. Everybody had to listen to the same mix and it was all in context. No one had the ability to turn down the vocal, keyboards or the other guitar player, and it led to more ensemble-type playing, which ultimately is what you’re doing. Music is about relationships. Great single parts are just that, but if the whole is not moving in the same direction, you tend to not listen to that music again.

How do guitarists get themselves into technical trouble in the studio?

Usually the problems start in the EQ, not knowing sometimes that certain frequencies you would think are bad frequencies, like midrange, are very important to have and not lose. A lot of the presets on gear and newfangled stuff we talked about is the smiley- face curve. They take the ugly mid-range frequency out and it sounds lush and hi-fi, but in a drums/bass/vocals setting the sound disappears. In ensemble playing, somebody’s got to take up the midrange frequency, and they end up being the defining part of the sound. Midrange is a wild and wacky world in itself. The core of guitar sound truly is in midrange—it’s a battlefield, but in the context of a band it sounds great. Part B to that is over-effecting things, learning how to play to the palate and realizing that a sound that you got on your own at one place… that doesn’t mean it’s applicable in another setting. It has to be flexible.

Within the context of the music, what should the guitar solo do, and how many guitarists really understand this when they’re making records?

Boy, that’s beauty in the eye of the beholder. I tend to like any kind of guitar solo as long as it serves a higher purpose in the song. A big part of the equation is finding out if the solo is necessary. In a band, part of the musical identity is the guitar solo, but I find that solos come at a point when you need a break from the lyric. It all comes down to composition. I don’t like a solo to sound notated. I like it to be musically independent, stand alone, like a thought-out piece but played like it was improvised, like it just happened. People put preeminence on “Was it improvised? Was it one take?” I don’t put importance on that. Whether it’s one take or one week, the question is, “Was it effective? Do you want to hear it? Can you sing it or hear it in your head as a melody you don’t zone out on?” If non-musicians like it, that’s my definition of a good solo. Play less for impressing of other guitar players. If you play a solo for other guitarists, you’re probably missing the boat.



Huff’s first production project was Chris Ward’s One Step Beyond with James Stroud in 1996. His latest feat: producing three new albums—Keith Urban’s Defying Gravity, Rascal Flatts’ Unstoppable and Martina McBride’s Shine—in nine months, for releases one week apart. His dream session: U2.

Website: None (three albums in nine months... who has time for a website?)
Dann Huff
Blackbird Studio
Nashville, TN


What is your studio setup? What are some key pieces of gear you use for recording guitars?

I have a glorified closet in my house that I call my studio, but people love coming here. It’s good because my family is here and people enjoy that. I have a vocal booth, we can do some guitar work, and I do a lot of editing here. I’m usually at Blackbird, John McBride’s studio. My signal chain… we have a haphazard approach to doing guitars: whatever is there at the moment. There’s a Royer involved, a Shure 57—that’s easy to remember. Those two seem to be the two food groups I can’t get away from. They encompass the body of all sound in any combination. Each one seems to get what the other doesn’t. Preamps: Neves tend to be my choice. An API situation is fine, too. Distressors, any assortment of dbx160s to whatever is in the room. Fairchilds, if they’re in the room. We do a ton of acoustic guitars, and I never remember the names of the mics.

Our acoustic sounds are really good; they usually involve three mics that I know as the skinny and wide mics. With any engineer I work with, I always emphasize: If you ever default to anything, it’s a moment rather than the technical side. I stress being sensitive to the flow. I would rather take a less-defined sound than the other way around. I’ve seen those moments go because of an engineer or producer having to adhere to some technical credo. The truth is that someone in Kansas can’t tell the difference between mics. Sound is obviously a big part of the deal, but when it comes down between the two and Keith [Urban] does a vocal and a part is mic’d for an acoustic instrument, nine out of ten times I just lower the vocal mic to the guitar. Content is king with us.

For the guitarist’s home studio on a budget, where should he invest his (or his girlfriend’s) money?

For the home studio, I’ll go the sacrilegious route. There are companies making virtual guitar stuff that’s stunning. We use it all the time. The Line 6 POD Farm. I’ve used Amp Farm since it came out. POD Farm is sensational. I’ve heard great things about [Digidesign’s] Eleven. It’s certainly a viable way of recording guitars, and in the right hands, in the context of a band with bass, vocals and drums, lots of times you can’t tell the difference if you tweak the sound up right. The tough part of the equation is in between sound. [Vox] AC30 sounds are matchless, the crystalline tube breakup, but depending on the setting, I’ve come close on a virtual amp and it works.

On a budget home record, and also if you want to stay in your relationship, you can do that through Amp Farm. It’s staggering what these guys have done. And past that, it comes down to music. A humbucker guitar and a single-coil guitar—to me, P-90s are almost the most usable sound in recording— it’s between a humbucker and a single coil. I tend to live in that world, but again, it depends on your music. Do you need a Vox? A Marshall? A Fender? That’s big coin. That’s why I suggest virtual stuff.

How do you keep from overstepping your boundaries while tracking?

The important thing is that you want people to feel ownership in something. Based on my own experiences, if people cut into quality, I felt handcuffed. If you listen long enough, you find something useful in everyone’s interpretations. I try to be as noninvasive, creatively, as I can. With artists it goes back to partnership. I don’t dictate. I do a lot of suggesting, and I find it helpful to sit in close proximity and hand the guitar back and forth to each other. Guitarists have their own language that involves nods and grunts. You throw ideas back and forth and find the spot where it becomes effective.

What are the biggest or most common mistakes guitarists make in the studio?

Turning themselves up too loud and not listening to anybody else. You have to listen in context. That’s the biggest mistake any musician makes. Most studios now have listening capabilities with mixers, and it’s like every musician has a board mix for themselves. It’s helpful in certain situations, but back in the day there was only the studio cue mix. Everybody had to listen to the same mix and it was all in context. No one had the ability to turn down the vocal, keyboards or the other guitar player, and it led to more ensemble-type playing, which ultimately is what you’re doing. Music is about relationships. Great single parts are just that, but if the whole is not moving in the same direction, you tend to not listen to that music again.

How do guitarists get themselves into technical trouble in the studio?

Usually the problems start in the EQ, not knowing sometimes that certain frequencies you would think are bad frequencies, like midrange, are very important to have and not lose. A lot of the presets on gear and newfangled stuff we talked about is the smiley- face curve. They take the ugly mid-range frequency out and it sounds lush and hi-fi, but in a drums/bass/vocals setting the sound disappears. In ensemble playing, somebody’s got to take up the midrange frequency, and they end up being the defining part of the sound. Midrange is a wild and wacky world in itself. The core of guitar sound truly is in midrange—it’s a battlefield, but in the context of a band it sounds great. Part B to that is over-effecting things, learning how to play to the palate and realizing that a sound that you got on your own at one place… that doesn’t mean it’s applicable in another setting. It has to be flexible.

Within the context of the music, what should the guitar solo do, and how many guitarists really understand this when they’re making records?

Boy, that’s beauty in the eye of the beholder. I tend to like any kind of guitar solo as long as it serves a higher purpose in the song. A big part of the equation is finding out if the solo is necessary. In a band, part of the musical identity is the guitar solo, but I find that solos come at a point when you need a break from the lyric. It all comes down to composition. I don’t like a solo to sound notated. I like it to be musically independent, stand alone, like a thought-out piece but played like it was improvised, like it just happened. People put preeminence on “Was it improvised? Was it one take?” I don’t put importance on that. Whether it’s one take or one week, the question is, “Was it effective? Do you want to hear it? Can you sing it or hear it in your head as a melody you don’t zone out on?” If non-musicians like it, that’s my definition of a good solo. Play less for impressing of other guitar players. If you play a solo for other guitarists, you’re probably missing the boat.


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.

Websites:
groovemasterstudios.com
myspace.com/kjohnnyk

Johnny K

Groovemaster Studio
Chicago, IL
 

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.



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.

Websites:
groovemasterstudios.com
myspace.com/kjohnnyk

Johnny K

Groovemaster Studio
Chicago, IL
 

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.



At the time of our interview, chuck ainlay was in England finishing Mark knopfler’s new album and preparing to fly to key West with producer tony Brown to record their 16th album with George Strait.

Websites:
chuckainlay.com
soundstagestudios.com
myspace.com/soundstagestudio

Chuck Ainlay

BackStage/Sound Stage Studio
Nashville, TN

What are some key pieces of gear you use for recording guitars?

Making something sound clear and pristine isn’t always the best thing. Some things require old, dirty tube mics or tube preamps. Mark [Knopfler]’s studio, British Groves, has an EMI Redd 53, one of the consoles that The Beatles did their early recordings on, and the EMI TG1—the actual desk that "Band on the Run" was done on, and Neve 1073 mic pres and channels. The main console is a Neve 88R, a beautiful desk in its own right. There’s an API Legacy in the other room, a great desk for recording guitars. I also use Neve 1073’s an awful lot. I choose what needs to go on each song. For the electric guitar, my favorite mic is the Shure SM57, because you get so many sounds off the speaker cone just by where you put the mic. It’s a directional mic, a dynamic mic, it can take the levels and deals with transience up close. I blend it with a condenser mic; the Neumann U67 is my favorite. I like the Royer 121 ribbon mic and the Coles Ribbon mics as well. If it’s an open-back cab, I often put a mic out of phase, put it in the back and blend it with the front. Generally, I mic a room with a 67, AEA stereo mic for the room, a pair of Coles can be great, and a lot of times I compress the room mics a lot. That’s the tool kit for electric guitar.

For the guitarist’s home studio on a budget, where should he invest his (or his girlfriend’s) money?

The audio magazines tend to want to say that doing it at home as cheaply as you can is fine, because they sell a lot of ads that way. It’s great—the new technology allows people to express themselves where they wouldn’t have been able to at all because of money, but what happens is that the whole art of recording is disappearing because a songwriter or musician has taken it upon himself to do this in his bedroom, and the recordings suffer. Everybody thinks they’re an engineer these days, but if you must, a Shure 57 is the cheapest thing on the planet and it gets greats sounds, so I would make sure you had a good kit: a great guitar, an amp that speaks, a 57 in front and an API module that has a great preamp and equalizer, and you’re off and running.

What are the biggest or most common mistakes guitarists make in the studio?

Overplaying. One really meaningful lick is worth more than a lot of really fast playing. Narrow yourself down to what’s really important. Even Mark overplays, but we trim it back, and it’s nothing he doesn’t know. He really does listen to himself.

Effects are easier to achieve, but at what price to creativity?

That’s it. I mean, before we had digital anything, before digital delay, digital reverb, all we had were chambers and plates to create effects with, and we were more creative, because we had to come up with something. It’s so easy to open up a plug-in and pick a preset that’s your sound. So much of that is applied to recordings that it’s all a wash. It’s not about turning on every equalizer and compressor in the box. A lot of times it’s about not equalizing or compressing something, and the result will be larger and bigger. It just requires the effort to put your finger on the fader and ride the volume. I don’t use compression on Mark’s guitar, and it allows him to play with dynamics. If I refrain from using compression and play dynamically to the recording, I find that the recording has more depth to it.

How do guitarists get themselves into technical trouble in the studio?

I work with so many great guitarists; they’re all so experienced. Occasionally, I work with guys who have not done a lot of studio work. Their amp buzzes and rattles, their guitar doesn’t stay in tune very well, or the battery is going dead and they have active pickups. A bit of maintenance goes a long way. Check your gear. Make sure your tubes aren’t going harmonic. Change your strings the day before the session so they have a chance to set in. You don’t have to fill every space with music. The biggest recordings have less in them. More is usually less, and space is the most valuable thing in a recording if you want it to sound really good.

Bassists and drummers always talk about being “in the pocket.” Where does the guitarist fit into that equation?

Usually in front! They’re the ones always pushing ahead! And not in a negative way. Mark plays very much in front. In the past I was tempted, with hard disk recording, to put every note in time and it sounded horrible. The excitement and energy is someone pushing ahead with the bass and drums holding down the fort. A lot of excitement comes from guitar players. I think they are allowed to be on top a little bit. Obviously, it depends on their style. It is important to realize that with Pro Tools you can put everything perfectly in time. I see people go into a live session, record everything, then go back and put drums to the click, every beat, and you’ve lost the idea of the emotion of the tom fill going into the bridge, or the bass player getting a little riff in the chorus. You can always get in trouble if someone is not aware of where the pocket is. As a young musician, it’s a good idea to learn to play to a click, but when you’re making music, abandon it. Listen to each other and react to each other. It’s so lame and boring if you put in a click. Don’t do it!

Let’s talk about tracking a two-guitar band.

Recording in a group is the musical language between the participants. Everyone has to listen and provide information to each other. It’s not about working out every note. You should be able to know where the bass player is going if you’re the drummer, or where the guitar player is going if there’s another guitar player, because you’re listening to each other. Multi-channel headphone boxes, where everyone has their own fader, are wonderful for the engineer, because everyone asks for more of themselves and you can’t do it, so it eliminates that and allows all the musicians to listen to themselves. With Mark, everybody has the capacity to adjust the volume. We make everybody listen to the same mix, and add a little of this and that to what they’re doing. There are very few rides to do when mixing, because everyone has played to each other and the parts all fit. Be conscious. You have to listen to everybody else, not just yourself.

At the time of our interview, chuck ainlay was in England finishing Mark knopfler’s new album and preparing to fly to key West with producer tony Brown to record their 16th album with George Strait.

Websites:
chuckainlay.com
soundstagestudios.com
myspace.com/soundstagestudio

Chuck Ainlay

BackStage/Sound Stage Studio
Nashville, TN

What are some key pieces of gear you use for recording guitars?

Making something sound clear and pristine isn’t always the best thing. Some things require old, dirty tube mics or tube preamps. Mark [Knopfler]’s studio, British Groves, has an EMI Redd 53, one of the consoles that The Beatles did their early recordings on, and the EMI TG1—the actual desk that "Band on the Run" was done on, and Neve 1073 mic pres and channels. The main console is a Neve 88R, a beautiful desk in its own right. There’s an API Legacy in the other room, a great desk for recording guitars. I also use Neve 1073’s an awful lot. I choose what needs to go on each song. For the electric guitar, my favorite mic is the Shure SM57, because you get so many sounds off the speaker cone just by where you put the mic. It’s a directional mic, a dynamic mic, it can take the levels and deals with transience up close. I blend it with a condenser mic; the Neumann U67 is my favorite. I like the Royer 121 ribbon mic and the Coles Ribbon mics as well. If it’s an open-back cab, I often put a mic out of phase, put it in the back and blend it with the front. Generally, I mic a room with a 67, AEA stereo mic for the room, a pair of Coles can be great, and a lot of times I compress the room mics a lot. That’s the tool kit for electric guitar.

For the guitarist’s home studio on a budget, where should he invest his (or his girlfriend’s) money?

The audio magazines tend to want to say that doing it at home as cheaply as you can is fine, because they sell a lot of ads that way. It’s great—the new technology allows people to express themselves where they wouldn’t have been able to at all because of money, but what happens is that the whole art of recording is disappearing because a songwriter or musician has taken it upon himself to do this in his bedroom, and the recordings suffer. Everybody thinks they’re an engineer these days, but if you must, a Shure 57 is the cheapest thing on the planet and it gets greats sounds, so I would make sure you had a good kit: a great guitar, an amp that speaks, a 57 in front and an API module that has a great preamp and equalizer, and you’re off and running.

What are the biggest or most common mistakes guitarists make in the studio?

Overplaying. One really meaningful lick is worth more than a lot of really fast playing. Narrow yourself down to what’s really important. Even Mark overplays, but we trim it back, and it’s nothing he doesn’t know. He really does listen to himself.

Effects are easier to achieve, but at what price to creativity?

That’s it. I mean, before we had digital anything, before digital delay, digital reverb, all we had were chambers and plates to create effects with, and we were more creative, because we had to come up with something. It’s so easy to open up a plug-in and pick a preset that’s your sound. So much of that is applied to recordings that it’s all a wash. It’s not about turning on every equalizer and compressor in the box. A lot of times it’s about not equalizing or compressing something, and the result will be larger and bigger. It just requires the effort to put your finger on the fader and ride the volume. I don’t use compression on Mark’s guitar, and it allows him to play with dynamics. If I refrain from using compression and play dynamically to the recording, I find that the recording has more depth to it.

How do guitarists get themselves into technical trouble in the studio?

I work with so many great guitarists; they’re all so experienced. Occasionally, I work with guys who have not done a lot of studio work. Their amp buzzes and rattles, their guitar doesn’t stay in tune very well, or the battery is going dead and they have active pickups. A bit of maintenance goes a long way. Check your gear. Make sure your tubes aren’t going harmonic. Change your strings the day before the session so they have a chance to set in. You don’t have to fill every space with music. The biggest recordings have less in them. More is usually less, and space is the most valuable thing in a recording if you want it to sound really good.

Bassists and drummers always talk about being “in the pocket.” Where does the guitarist fit into that equation?

Usually in front! They’re the ones always pushing ahead! And not in a negative way. Mark plays very much in front. In the past I was tempted, with hard disk recording, to put every note in time and it sounded horrible. The excitement and energy is someone pushing ahead with the bass and drums holding down the fort. A lot of excitement comes from guitar players. I think they are allowed to be on top a little bit. Obviously, it depends on their style. It is important to realize that with Pro Tools you can put everything perfectly in time. I see people go into a live session, record everything, then go back and put drums to the click, every beat, and you’ve lost the idea of the emotion of the tom fill going into the bridge, or the bass player getting a little riff in the chorus. You can always get in trouble if someone is not aware of where the pocket is. As a young musician, it’s a good idea to learn to play to a click, but when you’re making music, abandon it. Listen to each other and react to each other. It’s so lame and boring if you put in a click. Don’t do it!

Let’s talk about tracking a two-guitar band.

Recording in a group is the musical language between the participants. Everyone has to listen and provide information to each other. It’s not about working out every note. You should be able to know where the bass player is going if you’re the drummer, or where the guitar player is going if there’s another guitar player, because you’re listening to each other. Multi-channel headphone boxes, where everyone has their own fader, are wonderful for the engineer, because everyone asks for more of themselves and you can’t do it, so it eliminates that and allows all the musicians to listen to themselves. With Mark, everybody has the capacity to adjust the volume. We make everybody listen to the same mix, and add a little of this and that to what they’re doing. There are very few rides to do when mixing, because everyone has played to each other and the parts all fit. Be conscious. You have to listen to everybody else, not just yourself.