Steve Evetts gets ready to cut tracks in Brazil with ex-Sepultura drummer Jean Dolabella, who now plays guitar in RockFellas. Tone, Evetts observes, has “got to be up to the player.”
You’ve got the heaviest band on the scene, yet—when it comes time to record—it seems like that magic isn’t translating to the hard drive. Instead, you’re getting an anemic sound that’s a paltry representation of the carnage your band is destined to deliver. If this reads like a familiar scenario, you’re not alone.
To guide you along the path of capturing crushing tones on a recording, Premier Guitar has enlisted the aide of Steve Evetts and Chris “Zeuss” Harris, two of the most sought-after producers in modern metal. Evetts is the madman behind recordings by the Dillinger Escape Plan, Sepultura, and the Wonder Years, to name just a few. He also runs an online course called Studio Pass through creativelive.com. Meanwhile, Zeuss’ magic touch has graced the output of Hatebreed, Shadows Fall, Rob Zombie, and Queensrÿche, among many others. Both of these legends will take us through the various ingredients needed to first get a killer sound—offering their own personal gear preferences—then they’ll give us insider tips on properly recording these sounds and turning out a big-boned sonic masterpiece.
Whether you’re a longtime recordist with a studio full of amps or a beginner looking to make your first big purchase, a good starting point is to check out what gear the pros use. This will give you an idea of some typical setups that always deliver. “It all depends on the sound you’re looking for,” said Evetts. “Generally Mesa/Boogie Mark Vs sound great, and so do original Peavey 5150s. Ibanez Tube Screamers are always a staple distortion pedal. But, the idea is to make up your own mind. If everyone used all the same gear, it would get incredibly boring!”
Zeuss also opts for some proven classics. “A go-to that always works is a Marshall and 4x12 cabs—most of the time with Celestions. It could be Vintage 30s or 75s,” says Zeuss. “I really love the JCM800s from 1986 and earlier, as well as the JMPs. But that’s not to say I don’t believe in the modern high-gain amps, too. I really love the new EVH head. I just had an Engl Ritchie Blackmore head in here, and I thought that was outstanding. I like the old VHTs … those are really cool.”
If you’re more an iPad-generation type, digital tools like Fractal Audio’s Axe-Fx and the Kemper Profiler, in addition to countless plug-ins, offer a practical way to capture gigantic sounds easily. It took guitarists a while to warm up to modeling amps, but now they are everywhere. They’re an essential tool and a first choice for many of today’s producers, including Periphery’s Misha Mansoor, a big proponent of the Axe-Fx who has captained albums for Animals as Leaders and Born of Osiris.
For every new convert, however, there are many that still stand by the classic analog approach that’s worked for decades. “I’m not a fan of modeling amps,” says Evetts. “But I have mixed albums made with them and they sounded decent enough.”
Zeuss also defaults to a more traditional approach. “For me, it’s essential to mike an actual cab with an actual amp, and the guitar player’s pedals or whatnot,” he explains. “There are units like the Kemper and the Axe-Fx, and some guys prefer that—you can just plug into a box, and there’s your sound. But I’m definitely a microphone-on-a-guitar-cabinet guy—it could be a Crate or a Marshall or a Diezel. Sometimes the tone is awful and I don’t like it, but I’m, like, ‘This is that guy’s sound.’ I’m all about capturing the artist’s identity, regardless of what amp it is.” He adds, “If you can’t afford microphones, there are plug-ins, like AmpliTube, which I own and use here and there, and which can get you by.”
In addition to replicating the sounds of amps, today’s modelers offer excellent cabinet simulation and impulse responses, which model speaker profiles. But if you need to actually feel air moving from speakers, a good compromise some artists have used is to blast a modeler through a cab. Still, Zeuss isn’t totally convinced that that’s the best way: “I’ve tried those units through cabinets. If you’re emulating an amp and putting it through a power amp and a cabinet, something’s just not there, to me. It will get by and it works, but the point of the boxes is to not have to mike a cab.”
Low Gain, No Pain
It’s easy to assume that if you want the biggest tone you get the biggest amps. After all, there must be a reason for all those humongous stacks you associate with the heaviest bands on the planet. But that’s not always the best approach. Sometimes you’ll get better results with a lower-powered setup. “There are times when you want to push an amp and the cabinet will break up in a certain way and give you a certain push that you can’t get when the amp is quiet,” says Zeuss. “I’ve also found that amps break up differently with different wattages. For example, if I had a 25-watt amp, it’s going to break up faster before you turn it up. You start to turn it up and it’s already saturating, whereas with a 100-watt amp, it’s going to take a little bit more—although the higher-gain amps now, even at a quiet volume, sound pretty damn good. It really all comes down to how much of a breakup or push the cabinet might be adding to the sound, and it changes the tone as well. I just use my ear.”
Sometimes the best amp tones are driven by stompboxes like the Ibanez Tube Screamer and the MXR Wylde Overdrive—two of Zeuss’ favorite pedals.
These considerations particularly come into play when dealing with the extended range sounds of newer metal bands. “For some of the lower tuning stuff—7- and 8-string—having it at a lower volume with maybe a lower wattage amp sounds better,” says Zeuss. “When you have a guitar tuned really low, the frequencies are falling in a spot where the speakers can’t physically take it as well as a higher-up-tuned guitar. When the amp is at a lower volume you get the full spectrum of the tone. Turn it up, and the speaker can barely take it because there’s so much low frequency. It’s making the actual cabinet work harder, yet you’re not really hearing that extra extension of low end.”
And when you’re going that low, some precautions are needed to balance the bass against these guitars that are invading its sonic territory. Evetts says, “It all depends on the tuning and if the player plays with his pick or his fingers. Generally, in the metal world I tend to add a bit of distortion to the bass to give it a bit of bite and to help cut through super-low tunings.”
Okay, so we’ve deduced that you don’t need to always have the loudest amp in the studio to generate bitchin’ tones. But even if the amp isn’t an over-powered, beast, do you need to crank the gain to get that massive wall of sound? “If I work with a band that plays a lot of notes,” relates Zeuss, “I feel that a little bit lower gain would be beneficial because all the notes will pop out better in a mix and won’t be so mushy. With a band like Revocation or one of the more melodic, shreddy guitar players, a little bit less gain works better. But then there are other guitar players or other styles of music, like [sludge-metal band] Crowbar, where you want tons of overloaded gain that will glue together the whole riff.”