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.