Go, Do, Be.


02/23/2009  — 

Song-A-Day Notes From The Studio

Seth and Derek (among others) asked for some details on how I recorded a few songs this year. I've been pretty happy with the guitar sounds overall. The big improvement from last year seems to be the mic. I'll tell you everything about what I do. Maybe it'll help you find that killer something.

This is my recipe for rock guitars:


  • Guitar: Fender Lead II (1980) with a really kooky humbucker pickup (I think it's a Bill Lawrence, but possibly a dimebucker?) in the bridge position. Someone really took a lot of time modding this guitar before I bought it. This pickup is special though, haven't found many that sound like it.
  • Amp: ZVex Nano Amp. A .5 (!) watt tube head which should get most of the credit for the sound. It's really an amazing piece of gear that produces controlled overdriven mayhem at a reasonable volume. Zack, my wife, children, and neighbors thank you.
  • Cabinet: Closed-back Mesa 4x12 (with celestions, I think) (yes, the cab for the dual rectifier)
  • Mic: Pacific Pro Audio LD2ube Large Capsule Condenser (multipattern)
  • A->D: Aardvark Q10 a really handy piece of gear. I'm using its built-in preamps. Aardvark went out of business a few years back unfortunately. This thing is still going strong for me.
  • Multitracking: I have an old version of Nuendo 1.53 (the latest is 4) as my main multi-tracking application.
  • Several effects: Waves RCL is the main compressor I'll use. I set up some really simple, standard reverb as a sendd effect too.
  • 1 Dirty Secret Ingredient: That Evil Multiband thing that comes with Nuendo. This may be the thing that takes a decent sound from the guitar/amp/speaker and makes it really sing on a recording (perverting it and possibly ruining it at the same time).

For the basic "loud" sound here's what I'll do:

The Performance

Set the guitar to use the humbucker pickup only. Volume and tone wide open (11). Believe it or not, someone fitted my guitar with an XLR output. I don't use it, just the regular 1/4" jack.

Set the ZVEX amp to brighness: middle, thickness: normal. Volume knob is about 3/4s+. There's only 1 knob on this amp I get it into the distortion space, but not all the way up. The amp is relatively quiet, the sound is a little mid-rangey, but it sounds good in the room.

Mic the guitars pretty close. About 4-6 inches away from the cabinet's grill. I'm using a large cap condenser for this. I've been leaving the mic in the omni position lately. The sound is a little more open. That proximity effect wasn't doing anything to help the sound IMO.

At this volume, I trim the Aardvark's preamp to "6.5" (not sure if this is a db level or something specific to the Q10) so there's a strong signal and still a fair amount of headroom.

Play with heart and desire -- and fat fingers. I'm not a great guitarrist, but I think pick technique plays a small part here. I'm working toward my ideal guitar sound which is distorted, but clear, with lots of bright overtones. Most of my favorite punk albums had some combination of this. I've learned to get some of those overtones by sticking my finger onto the vibrating strings as I pick. Do you really want to know about this? Just ask and I'll ramble on and on about it...

I'll usually double the main part of the song, then add one more color track, often with a different distortion and pickup setting.

The Mix

2 main (heavy) guitars panned hard right/left. Usually with no EQ.

1 guitar up the middle, usually cleaner (distortion-wise). Might use a little EQ to fill a gap in the wall of sound. Posssibly with a bit more of the send-verb too.

Group all the guitars. Use light compression with the RCL on the group. Might shelf the bass a little (I'm monitoring with NS-10s and I've found that if I can hear the bass at all there will likely be a problem on other systems.). I'll usually add a touch of room verb as a send effect.

Here are the compressor specifics:

  • RCL's 'electro' setting
  • attack: 20.0
  • release: 20.0
  • threshold -11.9
  • ratio: 2.57
  • gain: 4.0

The overall mix is important too of course. The drum sounds are reasonably loud, but offer some space. The bass has a few EQ notches (where? I'll check) to carve out space. I haven't been too happy about the vocal sounds on the full-band songs this year, so no help in this dept.

Here's the Dirty Little Secret: Bus compression is the evil Multiband thing. Yeah, there it is. It's out. What are the settings here? Hard to tell what all these mean. I'm basically choosing the "FM" preset and trying to dial it back just a bit.

Actually, now that I look closely to a randomly picked mix, it looks like I'm just using the default 'FM Radio' setting for 'Trouble Sleeping'.

That's about it. Here's a guitar-only mix for Trouble Sleeping: http://greacen.com/media/greacenzone/20090222_guitar_mix.mp3

You can hear slight variations on this on a bunch of this year's songs:

  • Up In The Attic
  • Drive North
  • Even in Winter (I used the less-distorted guitars in the panned position on this one, reversed the model)
  • Master of the Mall
  • Wafflepalooza
  • Put Down That Bag Of Rocks
  • Bring it Back
  • Trouble Sleeping
  • Istanbul
  • 2wo
Plus a few more that will likely come before we cross the finish line.

Go Listen!