How did you get involved in the Martin project?
I got a call from Larry [Fishman], who said that Martin wanted to put out a series of the old famous Martins: the D-18, the D-28, the D-45, and the OM. He said, “They’re going to bring down the guitars from the [Martin] museum and we’re going to image them and try to get the new guitars—when someone plugs in with the Aura—to sound like the old guitars.”

We really didn’t know what was going to happen until Larry processed some of the signal into an Aura and actually plugged it in, to see if it would work. We were both amazed.

That’s a fun project!
It took a couple of days. They came to the studio here at the house and unloaded a million dollars worth of Martins. [Laughs.] Then I went out and got a slew of microphones—an Electro-Voice 639, I got that from RCA Studio B. It was one of [legendary Nashville producer] Owen Bradley’s microphones. I got a Telefunken ELA M251 from there, and Wes Dooley let me use some of his ribbon mics.

So you didn’t just use the original vintage guitars, you also used original vintage microphones.
Yes, because there are a lot of traditional players that want—but can’t afford—an old vintage Martin, but they want it to sound like it would have sounded in the ’30s, ’40s, or ’50s. That’s how we were able to accomplish it.

How much does the rest of the gear that you use—the preamps, EQs, compressors—factor into the sounds that you get?
Quite a bit. On [the Retro series], I was shooting four microphones at one time and I went through APIs [mic preamps]. I needed a defined and uncolored sound on them, so that’s what we used.

What about when you’re recording someone like Jerry Douglas or Béla Fleck?
The Great River [MEQ-1NV preamp] and a pair of [Neumann] U 67s are normally what I use on Jerry. On Béla it would vary depending on the banjo. I use Neve preamps a lot or APIs.

How much equalization did you end up doing once you capture those sounds?
Mainly just high passing. It would be very good for the people who are reading this to know that they need to know the frequency range and the lowest note on the instrument that they are recording. Once you put that high-pass filter in, the instrument will feel like it is lifting itself out of the speakers.

Other than that, there’s no EQ?
No, not much, if any.

What about when you’re making a record?
Sometimes there are different hot spots in some guitars. The older guitars usually have a boom between 160 and 240 Hz that you have to taper a little bit. But usually that’s about it. It depends on what key they’re in.

It can vary from song to song?
Right. The key of the song is very important. It’s like tuning a vocal. If you don’t know what key the vocal is in, you could be searching all day for the right notes.

What advice do you have for someone who’s trying to record acoustic instruments at home, who doesn’t have an ideal acoustic environment?
Base it all on performance.

Don’t stress about the sound quality?
Well, sound quality is good, but the people that are driving down the road, I think they’re more interested in the performance than they are in, “Whoa, what microphone did you use on that?” I don’t know of anybody driving down the road listening to the radio calling anybody and asking them, “What mic are you using?” Well, I do get those calls, I guess. [Laughs.]

It’s all about the song.
It is about the song. The main thing is, if it’s not happening, walk away. Get something to eat, make sure your blood sugar’s right, and go in and try again. The hardest thing for most artists is knowing when to stop and walk away. In all the decades I’ve been doing this, usually when I have an artist who’s getting frustrated because they can’t play exactly what they’re hearing in their head and their fingers aren’t working with their mind, if you get them away for 10 or 15 minutes, they’ll go right back in and knock it right out.

That’s the psychologist part of being a producer … knowing when to have the artist step back.

What’s the hardest instrument to record?
Probably the hardest instrument to mic is the hammered dulcimer because of the overtone series it generates. The mics have to be perfectly in phase. I normally use KM 84s. I’m getting ready to do my 88th album on Craig Duncan soon.

Wow, 88 albums?
He does instrumental albums for the gift markets and tourist places that sell a lot of product. You’d be amazed how many people want to listen to the melody, but they don’t want somebody screaming at them. And pretty much in music today, it’s how loud can you make it and how compressed is the vocal? A lot of people say, “Why are they screaming at me?” So listening to instrumental music is pleasing and relaxing.

It’s an industry perception, rather than a listener perception, that a recording has to be made that loud.
I learned that a long time ago. My daughter had a birthday party and the girls found my collection of vinyl. They had never seen vinyl records before, so I showed them how to set the needle down. What I noticed was that when they put the needle down, they turned it up and listened to it. Then later, I came down, you know, delivering the pizzas and the Cokes and stuff, and they had the CD player out and they were playing a CD, pushing play and then turning it down. That told me a whole lot.