I love the sound of guitars, especially the dirty electric sort. It's what drove me into this business in the first place, and to this day I consider finely recorded electric guitars to be pretty-well the pinnacle of recording excellence. Granted that the singer in a "with vocal" production is just about always the most important single element of the finished result - but c'mon - you stick a singer in front of a mic and record it right? It works or it doesn't. I'll bet that for every "how do I record a singer?" thread out there, there are ten or (many) more "how do I record a distorted electric guitar?". Here are some answers - simple ones.
I loved the idea of the Sound City movie, I pre-ordered it the moment I heard about it and then I waited. Impatiently. When it was released I downloaded it within minutes to both tablet and PC and then didn't get a chance to watch it for a couple of days. When eventually I see it I was so moved that I wrote and recorded a song within an hour of finishing it. Brilliant! Well done Dave G (OK, and a few other people too). The next day I watched it again and enjoyed it almost as much, so much so that I wrote a gushing review. But there's a "But", it was one of those times when intellect says "yes" but something doesn't feel quite right. I'm a little slow so it took me another watch to grasp what it was; this isn't really a film so much as a mini-series of individual episodes tacked together, and they're not quite parts of the same story.
Most of us are well aware of the "loudness Wars" that have plagued popular (and some not-so popular) music since the dawn of the digital age. In case you're a hermit or time traveller, the "Loudness Wars" is the sound-bite name given to the practice of making mixes louder. What's wrong with that? Well, in the digital domain there's a very clearly defined "as loud as it can go" level when all the bits are turned to "1"s, that's it - no more available. As any engineer of any discipline will tell you it isn't the peaks that matter, it's the area under the curve, and to make the area under the curve - in this case let's call it "the loudness" bigger you make more of it be closer to the top. In audio terms that means that you reduce the difference between the loudest bits and the less loud bits and then turn it all up again. If that's not enough, you do it again, or more, and then for more still you cut the tops off the loudest bits, and turn it all up again. The end result of extreme loudness processing is audio that has very little dynamic range along with distorted peaks. Oh - and it usually sounds horrible.
But wait, there's more. It's actually really, really easy to avoid the damage of extreme loudness processing - Just Don't Do It! There you go! All sorted? Nope, not quite because there's another factor waiting to bite you in the butt; The Fletcher-Munson Wars (I made that name up).
I've recently had the pleasure of spending a little less time behind a desk and a little more on my feet with a guitar in hand. My old faithful Fender Custom Shop Nocaster has emerged from it's case and I've been practicing and rehearsing with it quite happily. This week I set down to record a few basic guitar tracks and on playback noticed a sound. One of "those" sounds. It's a tiny twangy buzz that occurs when a guitar string is touching something that it shouldn't, and it's called "sitaring" because it sounds a bit like a sitar. What's causing it is immaterial here, the point is that I've heard it, and now I can't un-hear it. It leaps out at me, I'm voicing chords to avoid the troublesome string and my string skipping is coming-on a treat. And what's this got to do with making records? Really?
Fresh from nailing the guitar pedal board back together (without a buffer as it happens
) I found myself looking at enough guitar leads to crochet a small suspension bridge. I've got old ones, new ones, cheap ones, free ones and some rather expensive ones. Here's a quick test - no fancy nulling and phase alignment to be done- just simple, old fashioned noise.
Each lead was plugged into a Fulltone OCD set as I use it on stage and then DId with 18dB of gain added (you can check the mains hum on the unterminated leads for reference). The test involves simply shaking and scrunching the coil of lead and recording the handling noise. Take a listen and see if you can guess which is which - not that it really matters; the point is that the racket they make is such that any discussion about niceties of buffer and noise gate design is pretty mute (pun quite intentional)! in the face of t his fry-up.
The leads tested are
- Monster Rock lead
- Planet Waves
- 20 year old Whirlwind leader
- 10 year old Whirlwind leader
- Freebie Fender branded lead
I've edited the audio into a single file for simplicity, you can hear the spike of each lead being unplugged between noise samples.
Audio sample 1 - Lead handling noise +18dB
This blog is a bit of a departure for The Dustbowl because it's about guitar gear, but read-on because the thinking behind it applies to an awful lot of those "which ..... is best" or "do I need....." questions that litter the WWW.
I recently strapped-on the trusty 6-string and went-out to make some noise. I have a modest pedalboard with all true-bypass pedals (that means that when they are switched-off there is nothing but a switch and a bit of wire in the signal path - no electronics at all). Now TB pedals are held by many tone-facists to be the best way to preserve the thoroughbred sound of our beloved guitars, and for my sins I'm one of them. If it isn't true bypass it gets modified or it doesn't go on the board, and that is my position. Absolutely and without doubt! Except that...
Let me say up-front that I’m a big fan and long-term subscriber of Sound on Sound magazine and I work in pretty constant awe of the work done by the editorial team on the Mix Rescue articles. Mike Senior seems consistently to go a step-beyond in both his Mix Rescues and in his analysis of commercial hits and I frequently find myself in wonder at the amount of work done by Mike and by the A-List celebrity mixers interviewed in the magazine that blurs the line between mixing and arrangement. Heck, a lot of this stuff doesn’t blur anything; it goose-steps all over arrangement and kicks “writing” in the throat.
I’m fairly certain that over the years I’ve read that Multi Band Compression is both “a miraculous savour of” and “an evil plague upon”, audio. Less dramatic commentators often suggest that it is something along the lines of “a useful and powerful tool that can nevertheless cause great damage ....” and various fora state unequivocally that “all mastering engineers” use them, and that “no serious ME would ever allow one in the studio” This is all very well and good, but you’ve probably got one anyway so what can you do with it?
Like many people who work with audio I use a variety of monitors for mixing and mastering. Most frequently I’ll work on monitors, but check edits and details using the ‘phones and also do a sanity check on a more restricted monitor (a mono Avantone Mixcube or a pair of £20 Aletec Lansing computer speakers in my case).
My trusty Sennheiser HD250 Linears have been quite adequate for my needs for a long time, but recently I’ve been getting a little stale on my monitors and decided to buy myself a pair of better headphones.
Now I reckon that “which headphones should I buy?” must rank alongside “recommend me a microphone” and “what preamp do I need?” in terms of persistence. And it’s pretty well unanswerable, so here’s the answer. Ahem!