Using pedals when recording

Here we are on the fourth consecutive month of this topic. For those of you just tuning in for the first time (perhaps like those who recently watched the series finale of Lost), I’ll do a tiny recap. This series has been about recording in today’s studio world, which has become a completely individualized place. With most professional studios going out of business, we are left with a few pro operations and any number of concoctions that people call studios (today, that means anyone with a laptop and a recording program). When doing any session work, you never know what you are walking into, so I have been giving my two cents on what I think are some safe guidelines and smart ways to look at these situations. We covered guitars, accessories, and amps. Now, we can dig into what has become another massive industry with too many options: pedals.

Where do we start? All I see these days are ads for pedals in magazines, 50 pedal companies on sites like Pedalgeek.com, and racks and racks of boutique pedals at places like Guitar Center. So, what to bring to sessions? Again, one of my former points in this series is that we must first know what type of session we are going to do. However, considering that pedals are smaller and more transportable than amps and guitars, we have a lot of options.

When I go to a session I try to cover a few areas as my baseline, then work past that. If you have favorite pedals and a board already wired up, you should bring all of that. Personally, I have a few PedalTrain pedalboards because I love the ease of use and that I can swap out pedals on them very easily. However, I am a bit of a tone snob and when recording, I like to use as few pedals in line as possible. This means pre-wired pedalboards are fantastic, but aren’t so fantastic if you can’t unplug and make plug switches. No matter what power supply you are using or how true you think your bypass is, anything in line— to my ear, at least—changes the sound. We could spend hours on this topic but my point is, if you can be flexible with routing and pedal chains, this is your best bet for the purest tone. Nothing sounds better than a guitar straight into an amp, and with that in mind, try to use only the pedals necessary for the part instead of going through your heavy-duty pedalboard.

When I show up to a session, I make sure that I bring a delay, overdrive, fuzz, booster, and some “fun” pedals (whammy, tremolo, etc.). For me, these are the essentials. I also always bring more than one option for over- drive, fuzz, and booster. When recording, the idea is to find the right sound for the right moment. All pedals are not created equal and have their own sound, even booster pedals. For example, I have tested the Z. Vex Super Hard-On, the Keeley Katana, HomeBrew Electronics’ Uno Mos, and Xotic’s RC Booster, and they all bring a different sonic imprint to your sound. So depending on what amp, guitar, song, and part is being played, you should listen and choose what sounds best.

I like to bring a vintage Electro-Harmonix Memory Man and a Keeley-modded Ibanez Analog Delay for delay-type effects—I also like the T-Rex Replica as well (it’s on my SNL pedalboard). For overdrive, I bring an Xotic BB preamp and AC plus, a Keeley-modded Ibanez TS9 and a HomeBrew Electronics Power Screamer. This really covers a lot of terrain. For fuzz, I bring an Analog Man Sun Face and Peppermint Fuzz, a HomeBrew Electronics UFO, and a Cusack Screamer Fuzz. I used to love bringing my SweetSound Pro Bender, but I lent it to my friends in Maroon 5 and they lost it. Dang.

For boosters, I bring the Xotic RC Booster and a Keeley Katana. I also love HomeBrew Electronics’ Uno Mos but that lives on my SNL pedalboard. Then, as far as pedals for flavor and more interesting effects, I bring the HomeBrew Electronics Germania, a DigiTech Whammy, a RMC Wah (I just got a custom- made one that rips), a SweetSound Ultra Vibe, any tremolo, and a volume pedal.

I know this sounds like there’s a lot of the same thing, but these are some of the best effects I have found out there. There are simply too many companies, like Z. Vex and Death by Audio, making great stuff to go through them all. For recording, I have found the above-mentioned pedals to be the most practical, and when you have a good assortment of basic and “fun” pedals, the combinations can be pretty endless. Better yet, when you find yourself getting bored, bring in a new pedal. I just brought this old EH Micro Synthesizer into the studio and have been using it like crazy because it’s the new guy in town. (It also sounds rad).

It’s good to change it up and keep it fresh for yourself, but find some of those pedals you love and work with your ideal sound. The idea is eventually you’ll get hired for that sound. What would the Edge be without his delay? When you think of Jimi, how do you not think of wah, fuzz and Octavia sounds? Certain people have styles and go-to pedals. If you find yours, and also have a versatile arsenal where you can make the producer and artist really happy by being diverse, they will love you.

Good luck out there!

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Be prepared for your next session by getting your arsenal of amps down

This month’s installment of Tone Tips continues my focus on a phrase I like to use (and which sounds an awful lot like the Boy Scouts of America motto): “Always be prepared.” When it comes to session work, being prepared is tricky because of the fact that no studio is the same—and that you can record anywhere these days. So, your guitar essentials have to cover a wider range of situations. You never truly know what you’re getting yourself into until you show up.

I’m sure all of you have read some session ace’s article in one of the many guitar magazines out there (including the best one, right here). They always talk about some gig where the guy brings three amp heads, two combos, a couple of pedalboards, multiple guitars (acoustic, electric, and other doodads), etc. If you’re anything like me, you’re thinking, “How would I ever be able to afford all that gear, let alone have it wired up perfectly?” It seems like a daunting task.

If you can afford that much gear, that’s great. What producer and artist wouldn’t want you to come in with incredible gear that let’s you get a variety of sounds instantaneously. But that luxury isn’t an option for most guitarists trying to get into session work. I live in New York City and fly to Los Angeles all the time. I don’t have anywhere to put that stuff, and to be honest there really isn’t a crazy session scene in New York. So today I’m going to talk about how I overcome these setbacks, as well as some of the things I like to show up with or do to help out in this scenario. Let’s talk amps, baby!

Find Your Go-To Amp
Amplifiers are one of the most important parts of the recording process. Have you ever tried out a few amps, and no matter which knobs you turn, you just can’t get them to sound the way you want? But then there’s that amp that, no matter what you do to it, it just seems to be perfect. That’s the one you need to find. Find that one amp you really love playing and that gives you your sound. Having one solid, reliable amp is key. This will be the basis for everything you record. There are a few variables involved when picking out this amp. Do you want it to be versatile, a one-trick pony, one that might work well with pedals, etc? All of these scenarios will work. The most important thing is to evaluate your style and needs. If you find that you’re suited best to rock sessions that need amazing distortion tones, find an amp that satisfies that need.

Due to the nature of sessions I like (ranging from singer/songwriter to rock and pop), I have had the best result with amps that live in Fender or Vox AC30 territory. I prefer a good, clean sound at the heart of every session I do. From there, you have a great foundation to build other tones on using pedals and perhaps by pushing the amp harder. I have used this style of amp even in full-on rock sessions. Some of my best successes have involved 65 Amps’ Monterey and London models, as well as a Matchless DC30. These are great examples of amps that handle variety well, sound phenomenal, and take to guitar pedals incredibly well. They start off with full, rich clean tones and break up superbly when pushed. So you really are getting two amps out of these. They don’t produce high-gain tones, of course, but if you need more crunch there are some incredible pedals you can pair with them to yield amazing results. If these amps are out of your price range, take a look at amps like the Fender Hot Rod Deluxe. I’ve done a ton of recordings with that, and it takes to pedals really well.

Then Broaden Your Palette

So this is a good base to start. Once you get your clean and overdrive things going and feel like investing some more money, then go for something different. If you already have a 6L6- or 6V6-powered tube amp (like most Fenders and the 65 Monterey), look into something powered by EL34s or EL84s (like Vox, Marshall, and the 65 London)—and vice versa. Another option is amps with even more gain than your standard Vox or Marshall. Just be sure to thoroughly research them—online and in person—so you end up with something that sounds incredible and makes you feel incredible when you play it. You have to be inspired by the sounds you bring. And don’t get trapped into what fancy features the amp has, what brand it is, or what some guitar hero is using. I’ve been in this business professionally for a while now, and I’ve seen the marketing and money come into play in pretty serious ways. For instance, some of your favorite players are using dummy cabs onstage and plugging into other amps behind the stage for their sound. Trust me, it happens all the time. But in the studio, the only thing people care about is if it sounds good.

Tune in next month and we’ll talk about which pedals you should arm yourself with. After all, some people have made their careers off of them.

Good luck out there!

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Basic but crucial tools for the studio

Last month, we began talking about the recording industry. It’s seen some major changes through the years, but one thing always remains: producers and artists will always need musicians with talent. Here’s the fine print: skill on your instrument does not mean that you’re an ace session musician or that you know how to achieve goals in a studio environment. Just as you spend time learning to play your instrument, you must spend time and hone your craft working in a studio. Last month, we got into the most important things a guitar player can do when entering a studio situation. Arm yourself with the best weapons you have to do your work; in this case, your guitars are your main weapons. But just like any battle, the weapon isn’t the only tool that has a huge impact. This month, lets talk about the accessories needed in any studio environment.

Here’s what I bring to each and every session: tuners, multiple full sets of strings (single-string extras as well), multiple capos (different brands), a string winder and cutter, picks of many different types, quality recording cables, small cables for pedal connections, power pedal supplies, and batteries. All of this probably seems pretty obvious, but I’ll go into detail about what it all means.

I started working with D’Addario when I started at SNL. I always loved their strings and thought they sounded amazing. Most importantly, they rarely break. At SNL, I have multiple guitars on hand, and I don’t have time to change full sets of strings on all the guitars. It just takes too much time. The guitars live at the show, so I don’t ever take them home and change all the strings. I’m sure you’re thinking, “You use the same strings for a whole season?” Kind of. Since we only play about six hours a show, one show a week, it’s not too much useage (certainly enough for strings to go bad quickly, though). But since I started using the D’Addario strings on all my guitars, the strings last, continue to sound fantastic, and most importantly, rarely break. Now, I beat the living hell out of my guitars and strings. I use the .011 gauge XL nickel round wounds. They’re rock solid and sound amazing. I probably break a string once every four to seven shows.

For recording, I don’t like the sound of brand-new strings. I found the perfect solution in using the D’Addario Pure Nickel Round Wound strings. They come out of the gate with a much mellower sound, sort of like two-day-old strings. I bring multiple sets of strings to these recording sessions because sometimes I’ll want to use one of studio’s guitars on a track. Most likely, those strings haven’t been changed in months; they’ll feel like telephone poles and sound like mud. And of course, I also bring a bunch of single-string backups for the occasional string break, so I don’t have to dip into a fresh set.

Guitar tuners. Why more than one? Sure, that pedal tuner is doing a great job with your electric. But it’s time to record the acoustic— oh, it doesn’t have an input jack! This is why I also bring a tuner with a mic. I use Planet Waves Metronome Tuner. It’s tiny, lasts forever and has a built-in mic. Another crucial tool to have in your arsenal is high-quality recording cable. Spend some money on great recording cables and keep them separate from your live applications. I can’t tell you how many hours of my life have been spent figuring out why a signal sounds terrible in a studio when nine times out of ten it’s been the cable. If you bring freshies you’re always good to go. I use Planet Waves Custom Pro Series cables. They’re extremely sturdy and sound very clear. I also bring a bunch of tiny cables for connecting pedals throughout the session. Those seem to break more than other cables, so it’s good to have a ton of them.

I also like to bring a few different brands of capos. I find that they all do different things to the guitar. It may be slightly obsessive, but I have certain tuning issues on guitars with capos, so I can swap out the capo and voilà. Problem solved. I typically bring a Planet Waves Dual Action Capo as well as a Shubb. Last but not least, the small things. Nine-volt batteries are a must. If your pedalboard power goes down, you’re going to need something to power those pedals! The show must go on, right? String winders and string cutters are necessary if you break a string.

As for picks, I like to use .72mm for electric, but I prefer the old-school Tortex style for recording acoustics. Every pick sounds different against a string, and in recording situations all those differences are highlighted. With acoustics, I think Tortex picks have less attack on the string, are easier on the ear, and let the notes shine more. The Edge uses a nylon pick with bumps on the thumb part. He turns it around in his hand so it’s the bumps that hit the strings when he does songs like “Where the Streets Have No Name.” That’s how he gets that sound! His guitar tech showed me that trick with an un-amplified guitar, and it was mesmerizing.

There ya’ go. Those are the accessories you’ll need to get you through the battle of recording guitars. Tune in next month, and we’ll get into stuff like amps and pedals!

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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.

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