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Rich shares first-hand experience for optimizing your home recordings
When you record, do you find yourself asking time and again, “Why does my tone sound so thin on playback when it sounded perfectly good out of the amp?” It’s an ongoing challenge for guitarists to try and track their tone. A few months back, I talked a little about some of the techniques I used to mic and record my guitars on my Cottage City Firehouse CD. This month we’ll reach deeper into the fire as I share some bits that will help you capture better guitar tones in the studio.
These days we’re able to make wonderful-sounding recordings for less money than ever. My gadget of choice is Pro Tools, but there are many other recording applications and devices out there that are affordable and easy to use. You don’t have to be a graduate of a recording institute to capture good sounds. With a few proper microphones and a couple of tricks of the trade you can get your guitars to sound as big as Texas. One thing a lot of folks overlook is the fact that much of the sound of the amp is affected by the room it’s in while tracking. You can turn this to your advantage by using multiple mic’ing techniques to capture the room for an even bigger sound.
A really good example of this can be found on my song “The Hudson Strut.” On that song, I stuck a Shure KSM27 mic right up to the speaker cone, and I placed another about six feet back and off to the side to capture more of what was going on in the room. I recorded it in my home bonus room studio. The room is the size of a two-car garage and not totally dead or baffled. It has some life to it, and you can hear the room on the track. Without the second mic, the guitar would have sounded lifeless and plain. I have also used bathrooms and hallways to mic guitars, and I’ve even gone to the extreme opposite end and enclosed the speaker cabinets with couch cushions to make it sound dead. The possibilities are endless, even without leaving your house. Often, you can use small 5- or 10-watt amps that, when recorded in a lively room like a bathroom or kitchen, can sound gigantic, particularly when you mic from a distance where you can hear the room.
Another interesting technique I used was on “Bldg. 55,” where I tracked the entire song using only a PRS Swamp Ash Special plugged into different amps with different mic’ing techniques—and I changed the pickup selection along the way. I was fascinated with the way the guitar responded so differently through the various rigs. On some of the tracks, I played it through a Kustom Coupe half-stack mic’d close with the Shure KSM27 then put another KSM27 in the corner of the room. There are no rules; it’s all about experimentation. I would then plug the same guitar into my old Music Man HD-130 and mic it with only one mic direct on the cone, moving the mic till I found the “sweet spot.” It made the guitar sound completely different. If you like what you’re hearing, record it. If you don’t like it, move the mic and try again.
Another way to go these days is by recording direct and creating the room sound you want digitally. On “Seisenheimer Strasse 9,” I used my big fat Gibson 165 Herb Ellis Signature Series guitar. I have it strung with flatwounds and ran it through a Pod Pro II. With it I was able to simulate not only the type and angle of the mic but what amp I was running through. Since this is a jazzier song, I chose a small 1x12 combo amp. I was still able to create how much of the room was being heard on the track. The replication on some of these units is remarkable. I could truly hear the rooms vary as I scrolled through the settings.
You can do so much experimentation with your mics that the possibilities are endless. You can try simultaneously mic’ing your cabinet with three or four different mics, maybe a Shure SM57, a Senheiser MD 421 and an AKG C 412, and solo each one on playback to determine which is getting the job done for you. Using them at the same time will save you from having to re-track a part numerous times in order to try out various mics. You can also mic straight-on or at an angle, and of course mic’ing at a distance to capture the room is an essential part of a well-recorded guitar.
Well, there’s a closer look behind the scenes of Cottage City Firehouse. With some savvy experimentation you can pull off some astonishing results and really impress yourself and amaze your listening audience with a top-quality home recording.
Rich is one of the most sought-after guitarists in Nashville. His ability to cover multiple styles has put him on stage with singers ranging from Steven Tyler of Aerosmith to Shania Twain. Rich is currently playing lead guitar with Toby Keith. You can pick up a copy of his new CD, Cottage City Firehouse online at: richeckhardt.com
How to be prepared for any recording situation, good or bad.
The music industry has changed radically from the days of cassette tapes. We now download music from the internet, share music for free, and with the help of any computer, we can have a full-on recording setup for a few hundred dollars. Everyone and their mother is making music, playing music, and downloading music. Because of all this, the recording industry has changed drastically as well. Gone are the days when you needed a major-label recording budget to work in a world-famous studio. Those studios have been dying off for the past ten years. What’s left these days are a few major studios that can barely afford to stay open and thousands of personal recording studios: small one-room workstation studios for rent in business buildings, bedroom studios and laptop studios. My friends, it’s a free for all out there; recording is a battlefield.
Personally, I’ve recorded in every environment from the largest and most expensive rooms money can buy to just a guitar plugged straight into a laptop. I started out recording with a 4-track machine as a kid, worked my way up to way too many singer/songwriters sessions (in every studio setting imaginable), spent almost two months recording a major-label album (I was the guitarist in the band) that cost around $500,000. I’ve worked with other major-label artists as a session guitarist, and done tons of recording at home with my personal setup. Whether it’s recording demos in the best studios in the world or using a Line 6 POD straight into Pro Tools for Saturday Night Live’s recorded segments, the place and method don’t matter anymore. What matters is the product. In order to get the best product, I’ve found that the keys to success are: being prepared, having the right tools for any recording situation, and knowing how to work in any of these environments.
Through the years, I’ve had to figure out what’s important to bring to any type of session. I learned as I went, and each session taught me more about what was important. Obviously, there are too many musical styles and playing styles—not to mention reasons for being hired—to go into all of these tools. For example, I wouldn’t be hired to do a lap steel session for a country artist. That’s just not something I do. What I would like to focus on is general session work, ranging from pop music and singer/songwriters to commercials and rock. These are the sorts of things I’ve been called in to do.
Arm Your Weapons
First and foremost, choose your main weapon carefully. When you bring a guitar, it needs to be one you’re completely comfortable with and one that’s in top recording shape. I’ve had to do sessions where only one of my guitars was with me, and the producer didn’t have any other guitars available. At that point, it’s clutch to know how to coax different sounds out of your instrument, how it will sound best, and how to make it sound like you have different guitars in the session if need be. In any session, you must make sure your guitar is properly setup and well intonated. If it’s poorly intonated, you have half a guitar—anything above the 9th fret is most likely unusable, and you’ll spend half the session tuning to the notes you’re trying to play up on the fretboard. This will not only aggravate and frustrate the producer and the artist, but you as well, and the vibe (and your headspace) will be broken.
Second, bring two guitars or more whenever possible. For your second guitar, it’s best to bring something with a completely different sound, so you have a variety to choose from. One thing that has always worked well for me is to talk to the producer beforehand about what they’re looking for. If they only want rock ‘n’ roll à la AC/DC, then its more likely you should bring a Gibson Les Paul or an SG and leave the Telecaster home. Once you know the style and sound they’re going for, you can choose the appropriate instruments. Personally, I always bring a Stratocaster. That’s what I’m most comfortable playing and what I know how to use best. I like to bring one Stratocaster (typically my Nash Strat) and something that has a humbucker pickup for more rock type stuff. A general rule of thumb: one guitar with single-coil pickups and one with humbuckers. That should cover most needs.
If you have a certain style and a certain rig that you use get your sound, then that may be all you need. If you were someone like the Edge, where your schtick is delay pedals, chimey guitars, etc., then you should just bring the guitars you need to achieve your personal style. If your thing is chicken-pickin’ country licks, and you’re getting hired for just that, then there’s no need to bring that Les Paul. I usually need to be a one-man guitar arsenal, so variety is a necessity. When I can, I’ll bring one Strat, a Tele and a something with humbuckers. If you do that, they’ll think you came prepared and that you have the tools to give them any style they need. It goes a long way.
That is just the tip of the iceberg. The guitars you bring to your session are your weapons. Choose them wisely, for you will be doing battle with them. This is a huge part of recording. Next month, I’ll be addressing some of the key accessories you need to have with you at all times to survive in the recording battlefield, so stay tuned. It’s a jungle out there.
Jared Scharff has been the house guitarist for the legendary Saturday Night Live band for the last two years. A Native New Yorker, Jared is also a recording artist, producer, songwriter and highly sought-after session player, and has shared the stage with Justin Timberlake, Beyonce, Kid Rock, Rihanna, Mary J. Blige, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Roger McGuinn and Debbie Harry. For more information on Jared, go to myspace.com/jaredscharffmusic.