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.


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.