Session Sages: Nick Raskulinecz, Dave Cobb, and Buddy Miller on Recording Guitars
Three acclaimed guitarist-producers on the tools, techniques, and philosophies that guide their work with heavy-hitters like Rush, Mastodon, Jason Isbell, and Robert Plant.
Playwright and polemicist George Bernard Shaw is the chap who coined the phrase, “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.” But in the world of recording, guitarists who are also producers and engineers get some of the coolest 6-string sounds being put to actual or virtual tape—both doing and leading the way by example.
Three sterling exemplars are Nick Raskulinecz, Buddy Miller, and Dave Cobb, whose work—which embraces rich-sounding recordings of some of the finest guitar players around, including Dave Grohl, Alex Lifeson, Richard Thompson, Marc Ribot, Jason Isbell, and Scott Holiday—is abundantly audible across the spectrum of rock, metal, Americana, country, bluegrass, and pop.
We recently talked to them about how they record guitars—including, for Miller and Cobb, their own instruments—and gleaned tips on tone, microphone selection and placement, amps and guitars, how to inspire sterling performances, and how to capture good vibrations along the way.
Nick Raskulinecz: Hyperrealism
“I’m a guitar nut,” says Nick Raskulinecz, whose studio resume makes the confession seem like a drastic understatement. The list of 6-string kingpins he’s captured explosively big sounds for includes Rush’s Alex Lifeson, Mastodon’s Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher, Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, Guns N’ Roses’ Slash, and Alice in Chains’ Jerry Cantrell. “It’s always interesting for me to work with different people and see what the level of their real playing is,” he says. “Sometimes the guys you’re not expecting much from can rise up and blow your mind.”
The point for guitarists, Raskulinecz declares, should not be mastering recording, but mastering their instruments and songwriting and arranging skills. Photo by Rich Tarbell
When we spoke, Raskulinecz—who has been nominated for 16 Grammys and won three—had just completed Korn’s new The Serenity of Suffering. “The challenge was recording an album that sounds fresh with a band that’s already made 11 albums,” he says. “That involved finding new approaches for each guy’s guitar sound, writing great riffs, and working hard on the sounds. Brian [“Head” Welch] and Munky [James “Munky” Shaffer] are both guitar heroes, and we spent a fucking year making the record. We spent a lot of time finding the right amps, cabs, and guitars. For the first time ever, I had them both in the control room with their pedals on the floor, facing each other. We cut every guitar track on every song that way. The three of us went on a guitar journey together.”
For Raskulinecz, whose Rock Falcon Studio is located in Franklin, Tennessee, “every parameter of recording is different for every player. But one thing that’s consistent is about players’ picking hands. A player’s right hand”—for righties, at least—“determines the dynamics, their rhythmic precision, and how chunky or open their sound is. When somebody is really heavy-handed, that affects the front of the amp—how the preamp reacts. It also comes down to tuning, which can go way out if you play hard. The first thing I do before a single take is get heavy-handed players to increase their string gauge. If you play .009s, I take the gauge to .010s. With .010s, it’s up to .011s.”
His go-to microphones are classics: the Shure SM57 and the Neumann U 47. “That’s my combo,” he explains. “These are good, dependable microphones to invest in. My first batch of mics was five SM57s and a Shure condenser mic, and I’ve been using them for 25 years. Sometimes I use a Neumann KM 84 condenser and sometimes a ribbon mic. It’s important to me that I don’t repeat myself session to session, so I mix it up. I even make sure I place amp cabinets in different spots.”
Asked where he typically places his favorite mic combo, Raskulinecz says, “I put both of them on a different speaker, on a different part of the cabinet, and combine the sound. For most of the hard rock and metal stuff I do, it’s pretty close—1 1/2" to 2" off the grille cloth. I often put it right where the dust cover meets the speaker.”
DI recording is a key part of Raskulinecz’s strategy, too, although he says it’s primarily for editing purposes. “I want to see the attack in the waveform—where the pick hits the string—instead of having a waveform that looks like a hot dog bun from beginning to end. And I split the signal so there are no effects—just the natural sound of the guitar. With a lot of effects on, it’s sometimes impossible to hear exactly what’s going on clear enough to edit efficiently. When I’m done editing, the DI recording gets erased, because I don’t want that track to be able to be reamped.”
That said, he’s got at least 200 pedals on hand at Rock Falcon (an Electro-Harmonix Memory Man, MXR Carbon Copy, various wahs, and Fractal Audio’s Axe-Fx are staples), and he is a fan of printing effects as a performance goes down. “If you’re playing a part and you’ve got the sound—and it has an effect on it—that makes you play differently,” Raskulinecz says. “It makes you create around that vibe and sound.” However, he reserves the right to keep tremolo and vibrato out of original performances, often opting to add them in later using plug-ins. “The timing on both of those can affect the mix, and once you put them on with an amp, you’re stuck with it.”
Asked how the famous “staple” modeler factors into his lineup, he explains, “I use the Axe-Fx for overdubs—never the main guitar sound. I love big, powerful amps that you have to turn up about halfway to get them to speak and feel the power and the bottom end, with a big cab,. It’s all about the low end for me. To me, none of the profiling amps have the same low end a real amp does. To get the right bottom, I love old Orange amps, old Marshall plexis, old Hiwatts … They’re undeniable. I’ve heard certain Vox AC30s that sound so beautiful you want to cry because the tone is so pure. That’s the sound I’m looking for.”
The production maven captures the sound from said amps to Pro Tools. “I came from the analog world, but I’m all about moving forward,” he says. “There’s not one thing I miss about tape.”
At work in his “full-on rock ’n’ roll clubhouse,” Rock Falcon Studio in Franklin, Tennessee, Nick Raskulinecz conducts the Hold Steady’s Steve Selvidge in a soaring, melodic lead (at the 1:50 mark).
If he’s got a band of killer players, Raskulinecz likes to record them performing together live to capture that energy—unless he doesn’t. “It’s 50/50,” he says. “Sometimes the right thing to do is lay down a scratch guitar track, let the drummer play to that, and work from there. Some guitarists don’t want to play the song the 10 to 20 times it’ll take to get the drum take. They want to lay it down once and split, or come into the control room with me to listen. It’s whatever works for the band—nothing written in stone.” Bleed, however, is a no-no, live or not.
“I don’t find anything positive in bleed,” he says. “People talk about how it can be part of the vibe, but it’s just a pain in the ass at the end of the day. When you add EQ to the guitar and it makes the cymbals brighter because they’re in that track, or when you add more bottom to the drums and it brings the guitar up, that’s not good.”
For acoustic guitars, it’s about environment. “It starts with finding a great place in the room,” he relates. “That’s usually a spot that’s not too reflective or too dead—usually a wood floor with a reflective wall. But sometimes the best place to record an acoustic guitar isn’t in the studio. A lot of them sound great in the control room—and then it’s just mic technique. It’s got to be an SM57 or a Neumann M 49, or both. I like to put one where the soundhole meets the fretboard, and the other right above the player’s head, pointing down.”
Asked what his biggest piece of advice is for guitarists wanting to record, Raskulinecz chuckles a little and replies, “Don’t. Find somebody you enjoy recording with and just worry about playing your guitar and what’s coming out of the speakers. Being able to record doesn’t make a musician a better player or songwriter. Once technology takes over your life, you’re cooked. You forget why you’re really doing this, which is the music and the songs.”
Although Buddy Miller’s been working outside of his house in recent years, on the TV show Nashville, his formidable home studio has been the site of acclaimed recordings by Richard Thompson, Solomon Burke, and many others.
Photo by CJ Hicks
Buddy Miller: Audio Vérité“Give me two amps in the morning with a stereo pedal, and I need less psychedelics in my life, because I can get it all right there,” says Buddy Miller. Add in some tremolo—Miller’s favorite effect—and he’s even deeper into the sonic headspace that’s made him one of the most respected instrumentalists and producers in Americana.
Miller’s own signature slash-and-smolder playing can be heard on recordings by Robert Plant, Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson, Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, Solomon Burke, Shawn Colvin, Ralph Stanley, his trio with Marc Ribot and Bill Frisell, Levon Helm, Patty Griffin, Steve Earle, Willie Nelson, his solo albums, and his duet recordings with his wife, Julie. He’s also produced many of those albums, in addition to touring as lead guitarist in Plant’s Band of Joy and with Plant and Alison Krauss, as well as Harris and Williams.
Until recently, Miller’s house—his longtime recording space—was wired for sound, with contact mics and Shure SM57s attached to walls and peeking from ceilings. “That way we could record at any time, so we’d never lose the moment,” he explains. But in recent year’s he’s been spending a lot of days in formal studios, serving as executive music producer for the TV series Nashville.
“In general, I love bleed,” he says. “It’s a big part of getting real band dynamics onto an album. When you listen to a live performance, everything doesn’t sound pristine and isolated. But for television, I had to adapt. We record three to five songs per episode, with up to three iterations of each song—so that’s roughly 15 full-song recordings per episode, with 22 episodes a season. That’s an enormous amount of music and we need to have absolute separation, because we have no idea how the song is going to be used. It could turn out that, ‘Oh, we’re not gonna have drums in this scene after all.’ So I had to learn to be prepared. I’ve tried to find my own way to make it all sound realistic and live. I really want things to sound 3-D. Always.”
When it comes to guitars, that means no DI recording—even for acoustics—and, ideally, tracking guitars in stereo with microphones placed at least a few feet from the amps in order to capture how those amps move air. For his own sound, that requires mating his dual-amp setup with his collection of aluminum-necked Wandre hollowbodies—an Italian brand made in the late ’50s and 1960s that he’s nearly single-handedly turned into collector’s items, thanks to his high-profile onstage performances, including the annual Americana Music Association Honors & Awards show. Miller’s longstanding tenure as bandleader for the Honors & Awards has shortened the amount of steps he’s needed to take to collect over a dozen of those trophies himself. He has won the Instrumentalist of the Year title eight times.
“Years ago, I realized the room plays a big part in the sound,” says Miller. “We don’t listen to music with our heads against the speaker. When I first started playing in studios, I wondered why my guitar never sounded right, and it was because the engineer was putting an SM57 right on the speaker. For a time, I went for distance miking, and now I realize I was longing for a stereophonic sound. Today, I always try to get some room sound with a mic placed in a good-sounding spot, and then I have two mics on the amps, off-axis. With smaller combos, I find it’s easier to capture that stereo spread.”
Miller’s own studio amps are a pair of Swarts: Atomic Space Tones and Atomic Space Tone Pros. (Onstage, it’s the Atomic Space Tones.) Each has a pair of 6V6 tubes. From there, he sculpts their sonic profile with reverb and tremolo. “I really like the sound of two reverbs, because each reverb tank will react differently if you split the signal, so they sound bigger,” he notes.
One of his signatures is the distinctive way he employs tremolo when recording his own guitars or playing live. “I haven’t turned tremolo off in years,” he relates. “One of my favorite sounds is when you have two tremolos working against each other. Onstage, it’s easier to have a dual tremolo pedal, instead of trying to do the math with the dials on the backs of the amps to get a cool sound. When I was touring with Robert Plant, I had two of those amps set up for the stereo spread, and then the tremolos working against each other. And when they spread the amps apart through the big PAs, it made the guitar sound huge. Fulltone makes a great stereo tremolo [the Supa-Trem2] that I default to a lot live. With that, you can get lost in the music forever.”
Miller’s collection of gizmos also includes a Line 6 Helix multi-effector and the company’s DL4 delay modeler, a Strymon El Capistan, a Boss VB-2 Vibrato, an Analog Man King of Tone, and an Xotic RC Booster, all of which help him quickly conjure the variety of tones needed for TV and stage. “I print effects as I go and regret it later,” he jokes. “I commit. If it sounds good, it sounds good—but I don’t pour on the effects. I’ve screwed up enough times to learn that less is more.
“With acoustic guitars, I put on a pair of reference headphones and use a couple of mics and hope for the best,” he continues, chuckling. “I’ll typically put a large-diaphragm mic or a ribbon mic at a short distance from the soundhole, and a small-diaphragm at the 12th or 14th fret.”
Buddy Miller’s signature use of tremolo, panned in stereo at conflicting settings, blasts through in this performance of “Gone Gone Gone” from The Today Show in 2007, when Miller was touring with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant behind the duo’s Grammy-winning Raising Sand. Of course, he’s playing one of his distinctive Wandre guitars. Marc Ribot and the album’s producer T-Bone Burnett complete the 6-string line-up.
Miller’s microphone selection for amplified tones depends on the sound he’s going for. “I used to favor ribbon mics—Royer to Cascade—and I have a collection of old RCA mics, but if we’re doing something as a small group, and I need it quick and dirty, I put up Sennheiser MD409s or the reissue e609s. I put the 409 close to the cabinet and use a diaphragm or a condenser, like a Telefunken U47, further off to pick up everything. Lately, I’ve also been using Miktek Audio’s stuff. It’s affordable, great sounding, and it’s made right here in Nashville.” Miller explains that he fell for using high-end condenser mics on amps after listening to the results engineer Ed Thacker got on Lucinda Williams’ 1998 classic, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, where he, Steve Earle, Ray Kennedy, Greg Leisz, Gurf Morlix, Bo Ramsey, Johnny Lee Schell, and Charlie Sexton all contributed guitar. The key microphone was the Neumann U 87, a classic that Miktek has emulated with its CV4.
“Honestly, I prefer the new iterations of these mics,” he says. “I have an array of old microphones, but you often run into the problem with cool old mics that, when you put them up, they start crackling or spitting, and it takes the wind out of your sails as you take time to try to figure out the problem. I’d rather put up stuff that works and keep moving.”
The urge to cover ground likely explains his preference for having a band set up and play live in the studio, if possible—a gambit he used when recording Richard Thompson’s 2013 album, Electric, which he cut with the British guitar legend’s trio. “I set up the drums in the control room at my home studio, which is the biggest room, and everybody could see each other through the glass. Richard also sang while he played. He is a bird watcher, and I loved watching him in the middle of an insane guitar solo while he was looking at a bird out the window. I knew that was doing something to his solo and his mind—taking him somewhere else.
“On the other hand, if I’m working on something small, like a new song of mine, I tend to start by myself to get the essentials down and build it up later.”
Although he mostly records on Pro Tools, Miller still owns an MCI 16-track, 2"-tape machine. “It just sounds a little bit more smoothed out and creamier, and there’s something I love about the smell of tape,” he says. But, as Miller found out when cutting tracks for The Majestic Silver Strings, his 2011 collaboration with Marc Ribot and Bill Frisell, there can sometimes be ghosts in analog machines. “We were having a problem with the servo motor card, and it added what sounded like the tiniest bit of vibraphone to the entire record. In retrospect, it was really cool. Now, I wish I could get that servo card unfixed!”
Dave Cobb behind the board at Nashville’s RCA Studio A: “Somebody told me a long time ago that the sound doesn’t happen in the control room.” Photo by Ted Drozdowski
Dave Cobb: Let It Bleed“Somebody told me a long time ago that the sound doesn’t happen in the control room,” says Dave Cobb. “There’s an era of recording … A Sinatra record sounds so full, lush, and beautiful. Obviously they had the best players, the best studio, and the best microphones of the time. And then the late ’60s happened and everything got really multi-tracked, and then in the ’70s and ’80s albums started sounding smaller because they put everybody and everything in a booth, tracking one piece at a time. You didn’t get interplay, the dynamics of band playing, and that room sound.
“I’m super dorky about gear,” he continues. “I need to find out exactly what a musician I admire used to get that sound. But ultimately I know the most important thing is the player’s hands, the guitar, and the amplifier—and the gear in the control room is just there to document that.”
And so the producer-guitarist with a pair of Grammys and two Americana Music Association Awards under his belt—the latter for producing breakthrough albums by Jason Isbell (2013’s Southeastern) and Sturgill Simpson (2014’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music), the former for Chris Stapleton’s 2015 Traveller and Isbell’s Something More Than Free, from the same year—believes in tracking guitars live on the floor in full-band performances. “I even encourage singers to go for final performances with the band,” he says. “If the guitarist and vocalist are playing together, the guitarist reacts to the dynamics and character of the vocal performance, and their tracks naturally fit together. That way, the album practically mixes itself.”
That’s an unconventional approach for the modern studio, but it’s hard to argue with the results. “We recorded Metamodern in four days,” Cobb relates. “There’s a lot of sonic depth when everyone’s in the room playing together. The guitar is bleeding into the vocal and the drums are bleeding into the guitar. It sounds full only because everyone is together—it is full—you can hear that interplay and interaction.
“I don’t want to make records that don’t have bleed,” he continues. “It sounds more three-dimensional. If it doesn’t have bleed, you have to use artificial reverb and things that make it sound like its goes together. I use Universal Audio’s Ocean Way plug-in—which sounds like you’ve literally recorded in the A or B rooms at Ocean Way—if I’m recording tracks separately, and put them in that plug-in, so they sound recorded together, like a band.
“I also think that if you’ve got to make some compromises, it’s okay. The Beatles are my favorite band, and they had to do a lot of reduction mixes to fit all the tracks they recorded. So maybe by the time they’re close to done you can barely hear the snare drum. I’ve read where they’d sometimes have a roadie just play along later on a snare. Sometimes it’s hip when things like that happen.” Along those lines, Cobb confesses that he was primarily recording on a vintage Studer 8-track machine until recently acquiring a 24-track tape machine, which he runs alongside Pro Tools so each can work as a backup for the other in case of failure.
Cobb’s studio experience began with his band the Tender Idols, in the ’90s, as he watched and took notes on the producers the group worked with. He then got hands-on experience at Tree Sound Studios in Atlanta.
“When I was starting out, I would look at photos of Elvis in the studio, or sessions by the Beatles, or Glyn Johns, who is another one of my heroes, to see where they were placing the mics, what kind of mics they were using … anything that would be useful. We all learn by stealing a bit.”
As a fan of room sounds, Cobb has made his current home base Nashville’s historic RCA Studio A, a big room where Dolly Parton recorded “Jolene” and, on the day we spoke, he was producing guitar-fueled rockers Rival Sons. “I like to have enough space to have two or three different full-band setups at the same time, so if we’re going to switch up the sound of the album, we don’t have to break down and set up gear—just move to the other part of the room where we have another setup,” he explains.
Those setups often include a spot for the producer himself. Taking a cue from Jimmy Miller, another hero who captured Cobb’s heart with his production work on the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street and Sticky Fingers (among others), Cobb likes to play with the artists he’s tracking. “I play mostly acoustic guitar to be a kind of human metronome,” he explains. “That doesn’t mean I have great timing, but if I want a performance to speed up or slow down, I’ll do that. It’s way to influence what’s happening.”
As for how to capture what’s happening, Cobb says, “I live between the RCA 77—I love ribbon mics on guitars—and the Neumann U 67 condenser mic if I want a more direct kind of sound,” he says. The guitars on Metamodern Sounds in Country Music were captured primarily by off-axis RCA 77s in front of small combos. “Those ribbon mics sound like the guitars on old records to me. And I’ve seen pictures where Glyn Johns has the mics three feet away from the amps, so I do that quite often, but I also put mics close on tiny amps to make them sound bigger. I think little amps in general record better, because they’re more controllable and easier to balance out in the overall sound.”
Want to see Dave Cobb at work? Here he is recording Sturgill Simpson and his band performing “Long White Line” from Metamodern Sounds in Country Music at Nashville’s RCA Studio A. That’s Cobb behind the board, and the band’s set up exactly as Cobb prefers for recording: in a circle, within eyesight of each other, with sounds blending.
On acoustic guitars, Cobb likes Royer R-122s, for newer mics, but favors Beyerdynamic M 160s. “I like those for rejection, mostly,” he says. “It’s a really hypercardioid mic, so you don’t pick up a lot of bleed from what’s behind or beside you. I use them on acoustics in a band all the time.” Positioning depends on the axe. “If a guitar is woolly and boomy, I move the mic toward the 12th fret, and for guitars that have a thinner sound, I aim it at the butt of the guitar, behind the bridge, which makes the sound bigger.”
Although he’s a fan of printing guitar effects as he records bands, Cobb tends to use stompboxes more often on vocals or to conjure sonic surprises from behind the board. “I like reamping vocals back through a guitar amp, and then adding a delay or a distortion pedal on the vocals,” he says. Then he’ll typically use the results to underlay and thicken the vocal performance.
“I understand guitar pedals better than I do rack effects,” he says. “I’d rather use a two-knob pedal and move along than take the time to master a serious piece of outboard gear. There’s an advantage to not thinking. The more you take the technical aspects out of the process, the better.”
While Cobb favors a vintage Tone Bender, a Dunlop Echoplex pedal, and a Caroline Guitar Company Kilobyte Lo-Fi Delay for those adventures, he also just recently assembled his first pedalboard in the nearly two decades since he stopped regular touring in order to play in the house band of the Americana Music Association Honors & Awards program in September. It’s a simple affair: a TC Electronic PolyTune 2, a J. Rockett Archer overdrive, an MXR Phase 90, and the Echoplex stompbox.
Meanwhile, Cobb is a Fender amp fan, with a few particularly treasured examples, including the Alexander Dumble-modified ’60s blackface Deluxe that was used on Southeastern and Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. “It does everything from AC/DC to Nancy Wilson ‘Bang Bang,’” he says. There’s also a Milkman Creamer ready to rip atop a cabinet just past the guitar racks in the studio for the Rival Sons sessions, and Cobb’s own amp du jour is a ’50s tweed Champ with one of his ribbon mics on its front.
His recent 6-string acquisitions include a 1954 Les Paul and a white 1953 Fender Esquire he recently added to his arsenal after pursuing the guitar for eight years. For acoustic guitars, he’s a Martin fan and has a 1940s vintage model along with an old Gibson J-200 for sessions where he wants a bigger sound.
The bottom line on cutting guitars, Cobb says, is that “if you don’t have a good guitar tone, there’s nothing anybody can do about it. Gear won’t matter. Mic placement won’t matter. You can use some effects to cover it up, but you can have the best rig in the world and it’s still going to sound like sea turtles unless you practice your ass off and learn your instrument—and get your core tone in your hands. You could plug Freddie King into an iPhone, and I’ll bet he’d still sound like Freddie King.”