It’s not just how you play it—it’s where you put it.
Believe it or not, this is what a good time looks like.
Recently I was asked to give a lecture on tone. No small undertaking, to be sure. Thinking through all the bits and bobs that could be included in such a dialog (or monolog), a few key points came up that I thought might well be worth sharing here with you, dear reader.
Topping the list was the simple concept of placement. Chatting a few days ago with a sound engineer friend about guitar tone resulted in him revealing a passageway into a dark, barely managed portion of his mind. A thing that haunts him. A thing that torments him. A thing that, he feels, will never leave him in peace.
That thing is “placement.” What is this diabolical placement? Well, when done correctly, it’s a thing of beauty and balance. Placement simply refers to placement in the mix—the range of frequencies that a sound occupies in amongst other sounds. Think of a three-piece band plus vocals: bass, drums, guitar, and vox. A nice simple blend—until your guitar player opts for a mushy, mid-scooped overdrive sound with shrill highs and subsonic bass. With one gleeful motion in the region of his guitar amp’s tone controls, Bilbo (the sound terrorist) has ruined any chance of your band sounding tight and clear.
Don’t be Bilbo.
Think of a horizontal line. At the left of the line are the lower frequencies, gradually increasing as the line shifts to the right. Great live bands have wonderfully defined spots for each instrument. The same applies to great recordings. Being the shameless Zep fan that I am, I’ve spent a decent wodge of time analyzing their records. Such gorgeous placement. You can close your eyes and “see” where each instrument is sitting. Page had a brilliant knack for sitting things in the perfect place (frequency-wise) and then creating a wonderfully deep sound stage through the judicious use of natural and added reverb.
Your ear does not really enjoy multiple, conflicting sounds sources competing for the same frequency. So, in the words of my favorite Bob Newhart sketch, “Stop it.”
It’s not rocket science. Consider each instrument and where it should sit. Is it sitting there? Where does the guitar sit? Midrange and upper midrange. Some low frequencies, some high frequencies. But mainly around the middle realm.
Think of a bell curve. That’s you (the good you, who wants kick-ass tone). Now think of a flat line at 130 dB from the lowest frequencies to the highest. That’s the guitarist who’s going to end up in the trunk of the sound engineer’s car. Permanently.
This leads to the other factor that guitarists really ought to consider: gain. Great walls of saturated distortion might sound exceptional in your bedroom, and even better in headphones. But in a live context, the more saturated your sound, the more sonic space you fill. Which results in a muddier mix than the mix Muddy Mudskipper made on his Mudmixmaster mix machine. Or something like that.
Fortunately, there’s a very simple solution: Set your gain or overdrive to the least you can cope with, then turn it down a fraction more.
Obviously, the style of music you play determines the level of gain, but the concept holds true nevertheless. Diligently considering which frequencies we occupy and how much gain we use can result in a word that brings joy and wonder to the hearts of sound engineers the world over: clarity. Goodness me, what a great word. I guarantee it’s one of the key ingredients in your favorite guitarist’s sound. Even if they play doom stoner sludge rock, the greatest exponents still have a sound that sits in the mix so the entire band sounds huge.
So there we go—a couple of thoughts: Frequency consideration when placing yourself in the mix with other musicians. And gain. Till next time … don’t be Bilbo!