Adventures in Direct Recording

Hey man — what happened to your amps?

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:

  1. Yuck. That nasty, pseudo-solid-state distortion sounds nothing like the original.
  2. Oh — when the bass comes in, it doesn’t sound quite so bad.
  3. Imagine it with boomy Bonham drums, and it’s closer.
  4. 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!

19 comments to Adventures in Direct Recording

  • Wow, I didn’t know that about Black Dog! The guitars on No Quarter are really cool too! I think they ran them through the input stage and filters on a Mini Moog. You could drank the volume on the line in and get a great fuzzy tone.

    I love those fuzz tones you are getting! That’s cooler than the usual guitar tones everyone and their mother uses.

    That Erica Garcia sounds great!  She sounds like Andrea Echeverri of the band Aterciopelados there. I love that band. 

  • J_J

    Wow, I hadn’t thought about Lisa Germano in years.  That was definitely one of those songs were an “ugly” guitar sound was EXACTLY what fits the song, especially as a counter to some of the sweeter reverb and tremolo tones on that song. Damn, I didn’t know you played guitar on that, that’s AWESOME!
    For those who haven’t heard it yet, the name of the song is Tomorrowing.  I found it on You Tube here:
    Those with excessively happy childhoods shouldn’t listen to it without adequate xanax.

    • joe

      Oh, thanks for posting that link. I wanted to upload the whole track, but I got busted by Soundcloud for copyright infringement. 

      Yeah, it’s dark for sure! 🙂

      I think the fuzz I used was a Z. Vex Fuzz Factory. I know the one on Ericas Garcia was a old-version Z. Vex Octane. I love both those pedals, but the truth is, you’ll get suitably hideous sounds recording direct with pretty much any high-gain fuzz.

  • Ooh, I found the Erica García CD Amorama on Amazon! I’m excited! Thanks Joe, cool new/old music! I also just got Lisa Germano from iTunes. I don’t know why I never heard of her before…  I must have been under a rock for a while… 

  • Bear

    Frickin’ love Lisa Germano.  One of those artists with a real sense of herself and where every album is a sui generis rabbit-hole experience.  I’ll have to add that one to those I already own.

  • Jon

    I thought the hyper-fuzzed out guitar on “Revolution” from the Beatles was straight into the desk as well. 
    I gotta say, I love these sounds. It’s some serious lateral thinking from big bands, and though it sometimes (many times) fails miserably, it at least alters the tonal palate in a huge way, especially for a band that’s 5 or 6 albums in and needs a change of pace. That’s why I applauded Metallica for St. Anger, though it was a horrible mess. 
    I’ve been following DeviEver FX on Facebook recently, and it’s gotten me wanting to get a hold of some fuzz pedals again. All sorts of colors of sonic abuse on her build list….

    • joe

      Well, that’s how “they” say the Beatles did it, and it certainly sounds like it! 

      Funny — everyone loves the Beatles, but not many players would be caught dead actually mimicking some of their sounds, from the “Revolution” distortion to the brutally blistering amp settings and EQ on those Vox amps. It’s a great example of how some people (i.e., classic recording artists and their technicians) were great at viewing sounds in context, whereas other people (i.e., the rest of us) get to obsessed with the individual parts and lose sight of the big picture.

      • Jerry Dunaway

        Joe — I REALLY like this comment, especially the part about people missing out on the big picture. These particular sounds were perfect in the context in which they exist, but aren’t really quite right for many other applications. Honestly, I have quit looking to “match” any particular player’s tone, and am happily settling in to my own territory. And you know what? Even when I cover someone else’s songs, it still sounds okay! And besides — as I saw on a couple of other forums recently, someone would ask “how can I get my guitar to sound like ____ (take your pick — Clapton, Gilmour, Page, Knopfler, Hendrix, etc)? And often the response was “get him to play your guitar!”

  • JH

    Yea I can def see how you can get the black dog sound with a bit more tweaking. You also mentioned the frequency response when you were talking about freakout. Never thought of this! By the way in the black dog recording, were you blending in clean signal?
    I think Jimmpy Page is a great guitarist and a pioneer in the studio. However, and people here are going to tear me apart for this, the final relases of the led zep albums sounded pretty damn bad.
    Im not talking about the guitar. Im talking overall. Too much distortion in the low mids. Almost as if the levels were too high when being recorded. Its missing clarity the sound. Idk maybe just me.
    Even when some of the recordings were digitally remasterd in the early 90s, same thing.

  • JH

    when the bass came in on black dog I thought at first you were using a blue box!
    O  heres one for you Joe!
    Ought to give you a good laugh!

    • joe

      Hehe — now everyone knows what to get me for Christmas!

      I’m going to have to actually buy one of those guitars. Can’t just Photoshop it in forever, can I? 🙂

      LOL — yeah it does kind of sound like a Black Box! I only hope my bass line tracks the guitar line more accurately than a Black Box tracks what you play into it! 😉


  • Doctor Bonkersane

    I used to pull the same trick with an old SG Special (P-90’s, baby!). I first started doing it simply because my neighbors despised waking up at two in the morning to a big marshall stack. It sucked at first, until I got the gain staging right. Then–nothing but blackened sugar!

  • zyon
    Holocaust by Sonvolt. Jay Farrar get a super nasty guitar tone. Check out the solo. It might melt your speaker cones. I’ve often wondered is this was a seriously juiced up acoustic. The hallow tone seems to suggest so but I’ve never been able to duplicate it with my Line 6 Bognar or with my Fender Mustang III. 

  • PS

    Inspired me to go listen to Revolver again. Which in turn made me realise that it’s a great record DESPITE the truly shitty guitar tones. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn the reason The Beatles were using such terrible sounds was some kind of sponsorship arrangement with Vox. Certainly made me realise why I’ve never used this period Beatles as an inspiration to my playing.

    • joe

      Well, I agree that the album is full of weird guitar sounds, and I always enjoy sitting down guitarists and forcing them to listen really carefully to them and realize how insanely, blisteringly bright they are, with really nasty, crunchy distortion. But I happen to love them! Especially the Paul solo on “Taxman” and George’s double-tracked breaks on “Bird.” Actually, they tend to inspire me more than the drier, hi-fi sounds on, say Abbey Road.

      So we may disagree — but I love it anytime someone challenges orthodox thinking about the Beatles! 🙂

  • hi guys, i always thought the beatles were aiming at those little pieces of poop that was the majority of record players. they had treble and that’s about it. that’s why there is headroom in the upper reges and nothing really in any other register. but i could be way wrong. good theory though.

    • joe

      Oh, that’s probably 100% true. I’ve read that they didn’t even have stereo monitoring in the Abbey Road control rooms, even after the Beatles were releasing stereo albums. That was just an after-the-fact adjustment for the tiny percentage of listeners who’d be consuming the music via two speakers. A LOT of the way the Beatles sound has to do with technical limitations, or their attempts to grapple with said limitations. Another example: after the band started multi-tracking, Paul insisted on recording the basses last, so they’d occupy their own unbounced track and be more present in the mix.

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