Distortion of the Truth
Recording Heavy Guitars
Back when defiance was the primary sponsor for monster guitar tone, outcast rockers earned every second of that sustain with an attitude that would go on to change the world. Turning against the very technology that was originally built for clean amplification, an overdriven guitar offered a cutting-edge brand of rebellion—one capable of simultaneously offending your parents and getting you laid.
Now all it takes is a brief, albeit harrowing, trip to Guitar Center to get the latest box that claims to faithfully clone decades of classic amps. That’s hardly defiant, certainly not earth-shattering, and your chances of scoring from merely plugging into your newly acquired ‘annihilation pedal’ are about as good as you making the cover of Guitar Player next month.
These days, more drastic measures than ever before are required to draw attention to your riffs. Among other things, superhuman guitar tone is essential in turning the heads of the Metallica moms and dads out there who’ve built up a tolerance to even the heaviest guitar sounds of the hour. How does your tone stack up against the god-like gain prerequisite of today’s hard rock recorded guitar sounds? How do you ‘one-up’ these maxed-out Marshalls, trump this pre-supersaturated assault on the senses? Well, here come the answers one by one. All this can be accomplished by shifting some of that rock n’ roll attitude to the other side of the glass, and into some truly bad-ass guitar recording techniques.
We’re talking about the ultimate singular high-gain rhythm guitar here, meant to be heard as one big, larger-than-life guitar tone. The kind of sound that spawns other engineering problems, like reducing an otherwise huge-sounding acoustic drum kit into a domestically beaten, five-piece Tupperware set. (Let’s worry about that later.)
Right now, I’d like to dispute some commonly held ideas on recording heavy guitars and propose a few of my awkwardly named theories that help illustrate this process. While my guitar gently retreats from today’s amp modeling, I gravitate toward real classic tube technology to gather the building blocks that will be stacked and layered to arrive at the ultimate wall of guitar. So let’s run under the assumption that you have a few different valve-head and cabinet combinations available, with a couple of well-intonated guitars—and let’s not forget a capable player. Okay, for those about to rock, let’s tune up, plug in, and do some damage.
Throttled at the Source
First of all, a great guitar tone is created at the source, not through your microphone, mic preamp, outboard gear or recording platform. All this stuff is a distant second to a decent pickup, guitar, amp and speaker combination. If you get these elements to sound amazing in the room, then your recording signal path becomes mostly defensive. This means that your recording chain doesn't need to add much, but primarily doesn’t make things worse by introducing line distortion, out-of-phase signals, overcompression or any eq indiscretions.
Although it’s not a deal-breaker, I like to cut guitars through a Neve 1073 or 1081. Guitarwise, it’s good to have at least one Les Paul or equivalent on hand with a humbucker or P-90 pickup in the bridge position. I find that the most usable and stackable guitar tone comes from tube amp gain and generally not from distortion pedals. A 4 x 12 cabinet loaded with good-sounding 25 or 30 watt speakers, isolated in an acoustically dead space, generally yields the best results when building an in-your-face guitar tone like this.
Worth the Weight
While dialing in the tone at the console, I subscribe to the Ten Minute Theory. This is the window of opportunity during which your ears and your brain can typically endure loud distorted guitar before you start to lose objectivity. I find it difficult to tweak heavy guitars outside of their natural habitat: they need to be monitored loud at the board in order to determine if they “rock” or not. Generally, if you don’t get a basic sound in ten minutes, it tends only to get worse from there.
During this time, mic choice and placement can be made within the frame of reference of what it sounds like in the room versus in your monitors. You usually can’t go wrong with a single SM57, close and just off-center of the most full-sounding speaker in the cabinet. Again, if you’ve spent the time making your source sounds slam, then you can just concentrate on not wrecking the sound at the board. Any eq I’ll add here usually just compensates for what’s not translating through the recording signal path. A little compression, and possibly a wide-bandwidth upper midrange boost, can keep the perceived loudness high and the overall sound energetic.
Less Gain, More Pain
The Less Gain, More Pain theory can be a difficult concept for guitar players and engineers alike. Most players are accustomed to the ‘live show’ mentality of pulling out all the stops in one pass, whereas in the studio we have the luxury of constructing something considerably more superhuman, piece by piece. Knowing this, a slightly cleaner tone will layer better than one that is already eating up most of the audible frequency range on its own. Distortion, by definition, is a clipping of the waveform. So, too much saturation actually makes for a smaller, less aggressive sound. It’s important to have a well-defined tonal center that doesn’t get fuzzed-out or over-distorted to the point where the harmonic content of the chords becomes convoluted.
This is especially true if your riffs venture away from the power chord realm (root and fifth) to more complex voicings. On additional tracks you may want to go even cleaner for more subliminal layering options later. By themselves, these tracks can sound completely uninspiring, but if you can suspend your disbelief long enough to get them placed in context, you’ll soon understand their invaluable function.
Also, depending on the key and chord structure of the song, it may be possible to dramatically add size to your tone by layering in lower inversions of the chords or a lower octave with a baritone or 7-string guitar. I’ve had better luck blending in this register with an even less saturated sound, allowing more clarity in the bottom end. For the most part, the lower the note range, the more simple the harmonic structure should be, or your great guitar wall may just not be built to code.
Splitting Up the Twins
Despite what its name may imply, the Splitting Up the Twins theory isn’t about cruel sibling separation. It basically states that identical sounds are redundant and do not actually offer any significant sonic advantage when you’re going for this full-stack assault. In fact, they may work against you, as in the case of a multiple-miking mishap where a semi-out-of-phase signal cancels out a portion of the core sound.
Similarly, when you double a guitar part it’s good to substitute one of the elements in the chain (pickup, guitar, amp or speaker), to create a similar but not identical tone. This enhances your stereo imaging, and it will generally blend better with your other orphan tracks.
So after some trial and error, and four to six successful guitar passes later, you’ll be able to balance out these recorded components in a stereo configuration to create a more homogeneous, super-aggressive guitar entity with unsurpassed clarity than any one individual pass could never achieve on its own. At this point, you can experiment with more radical eq carving on individual sounds to make a more cohesive blend. With more practice, you’ll acquire the ear for what makes an ideally combinable guitar sound, and you’ll be able to bypass much of the guesswork that is initially involved in recording this way.
Weight of the World
You can feel some satisfaction that you’ve done your part to keep rock off its deathbed for another day. While I agree with Ozzy that you can’t kill rock and roll, that doesn’t mean it can’t die of old age. Every generation of guitar rockers copies the heavy guitar tones of earlier guitar rockers, and guitar tone has gotten progressively heavier and heavier; as a result, a lot of people are numb to the effect of a heavy guitar tone, to the point that the power or even shock value is no longer felt.
So it seems we need a little more than ‘just one guitar, slung way down low’ to continue to get the job done. We should all be looking for ways to rebel against our current technology. Fifty years into guitar distortion, what is the next big vehicle for sonic rebellion? Until one of us stumbles onto it, we’re all relegated to making our weapons-grade guitar tone just a little bit bigger, louder and heavier, one track at a time.