No question about it: Amps are awesome, and guitarists will be plugging into them for a long time to come. But as threatened in this post from last week, I’ve been experimenting with direct- recorded guitar sounds. I’m not talking amp simulators, but the sound of electric guitar recorded straight into a mixing board with no attempt to replicate the tone of an amp. After all, some of the most iconic guitar riffs of all time — including Zep’s “Black Dog,” the Byrds “Mister Tambourine Man,” Chic’s “Le Freak,” and most ’60s Motown hits — were tracked not through amps, but through great old analog preamps, compressors, and mixing boards.
Not that I own any great old ’60s and ’70s analog recording gear. But I wanted to see how close I could get using modern preamps and compressors, plus plug-ins that simulate vintage gear.
And how close did I get? Um…kinda close, and I could have gotten closer if I had
an attention span longer than five minutes dedicated sufficient time to the pursuit.
Wanna hear what I came up with?
First I revisited “Black Dog.” Here’s what Pagey said about the track in a Guitar World interview:
We put my Les Paul through a direct box, and from there into a mic channel. We used the mic amp of the mixing board to get distortion. Then we ran it through two Urei 1176 Universal compressors in series. Then each line was triple-tracked. Curiously, I was listening to that track when we were reviewing the tapes and the guitars almost sound like an analog synthesizer.
I tried that approach, using a Les Paul with vintage-correct Seth Lover pickups, a hardware preamp (a Millenia TD-1), and Universal Audio plug-ins mimicking a pair of 1176s and an EQ modeled from a Helios board owned by my pal Jason Carmer, which Zep supposedly recorded through at some point.
If you’re like me (god forbid), your reactions may be something like this:
- Yuck. That nasty, pseudo-solid-state distortion sounds nothing like the original.
- Oh — when the bass comes in, it doesn’t sound quite so bad.
- Imagine it with boomy Bonham drums, and it’s closer.
- Go back and listen to the original, and notice that, while I haven’t matched it, you can absolutely hear all that harsh, solid-state distortion. You could totally duplicate this tone digitally if you spent long enough tweaking the EQ and massaging the gain stages.
Okay, now a similar technique using a clean tone: I tried to mimic the sound of the Chic “Le Freak” riff, which, according to guitarist Nile Rodgers, features a vintage Strat into a Neve desk. This was a lot harder than I thought it would be, even though I have a nice old Strat to work with. The tone is super-bright, but fat too — the straight bridge pickup sound doesn’t even come close, nor do any of the other pickup-selector settings. Finally I figured out that the sound is neck pick with a ton of brightening mixing-board EQ.
Sadly, I’ve never been able to duplicate Rodger’s precise feel. And believe me, I’ve tried! I’ve spent decades trying to cop of groove of his stunning rhythm riff on Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out.” (Once thing I’ve noticed is that, as syncopated as Nile’s parts are, he comes down real strong on the downbeats.) But at least I’ve discovered a cool tone recipe: clean Strat neck pickup with enough of a high-end EQ boost to trick you into thinking you’re hearing the bridge pickup.
Tones like this have a much broader frequency range that a guitar tracks through an amp, where the speaker filters out many highs and lows. These tones tend to work best in relatively sparse contexts, and when you apply EQ or other filtering techniques to add bite and sparkle, either by jacking up the highs or gutting the lower mids. Without an amp or aggressive EQ, the tones tend to sound paradoxically harsh and flat, combining ear-stabbing highs with thick, boring mids.
Clearly, amp-free tones aren’t suitable for all occasions, but they can be a great way to “think outside the speaker cabinet.” Sometimes, I like taking it to extremes, recording straight to the mixer through a harsh fuzz box and no amp. Just for fun, I’m posting examples from a couple of memorable sessions I played years ago. The first is an excerpt from Lisa Germano’s Slide, produced by my friend/hero Tchad Blake. Despite the willfully amateurish sound, the players were stunning. That’s Jerry Marotta (Steely Dan, Peter Gabriel, etc.) on drums and Jerry Scheff (the man who played with both Elvi) on bass. And Lisa can milk magic out of pretty much any instrument with strings or keys on it. That’s her playing the strummy Fender Bass VI part, and me on the unspeakably ugly fuzz guitar:
Here’s another take on the same sick idea. This one is from the sadly out-of print Amorama, by bad-ass Argentinian rocker chick Erica Garcia. The rhythm section is fearsome: It’s Justin Meldal-Johnsen on bass and Victor Indrizzo on drums, two session monsters known for their work with Beck. Erica plays the rhythm guitar. I play the dying tyrannosaur shrieks. The producer is producer/guitarist/multi-Oscar-winning composer/all-around genius Gustavo Santaolalla.
This is probably the ugliest guitar tone I’ve ever recorded (though Mental 99’s version of “Rhiannon” comes close). Hey — I’d don’t necessarily want to make the world an uglier place, but someone has to do it!