By: Tony Williamette
From the moment a musician starts playing an instrument in studio, I’ve got a pretty good idea of whether or not that sound is going to work. It may be on that day with that guitar, that pedal chain, and that amplifier, it just works. It’s rare, but sometimes we just get “that” sound right away.
I’ve had to train myself to listen for this. To not settle for mediocre or uninteresting sounds. I have to repeat to myself, “If we don’t love the sound of this in the room, we’re likely not going to love it on the record.”
Too often I’ve been brash, thinking I could make a sound work or that I could fix it in the mix. This mindset can be hard to maintain - you have a 4-5 piece band to setup, your ears get fatigued, and you have the bass player asking if you have an extra IEC cable for their Fender Rumble amp.
I find that taking frequent ear breaks – making some coffee, making some patches - can be extremely helpful in keeping me and my ears fresh while dialing tones. I’ve learned to trust my gut and go with my first instinct.
If I don’t love the sound of something in the room, I’ve eliminated a lot of unnecessary troubleshooting: the mic, the preamp, the compressor, the EQ all don’t matter if I don’t love the sound of my ear in front of this instrument. This can be freeing and allows me to focus on getting that instrument sounding right.
The next step depends on the artist, the instrument, and the song. A mixture of these 3 things will dictate how you spend the next 30 minutes to 1 hour getting sounds. I’ve detailed below how I might approach different instruments:
A nice piece of wood is a nice piece of wood. A beautiful Martin or vintage Gibson can go a long way. I can spot a nice acoustic on an iPhone voice memo.
· I like to put my ear right up to the guitar, near the sound hole/12th fret. My ear is
the omnidirectional microphone that I’ll use to decide if this is working.
· If it’s not working, check out the strumming – are they using their fingers? A pick? I
really like very light picks on acoustic guitars, but this is not a cure-all.
· There isn’t a lot to fix here if the guitar is harmonically pleasing. Swap it out if the
artist is open to it.
I’ve long held the belief that you can take a $100 guitar through a $1000 amplifier and yield a far better tone than a $1000 guitar through a $100 amplifier. This is mostly because the quality of low-cost guitars has gone up in recent years. Because of this, we’ve invested heavily in really nice tube amplifiers.
· Our principal sound is the piece of wood (the guitar) and the amplifier. If a guitar
tone isn’t working, I’m usually on the floor by the amp, EQing the amp.
· If a quick EQ of the amp doesn’t yield what we need, I’ll to swap it out. We keep a
few classic amps on hand that usually don’t disappoint. When they do, we usually
have other issues
· I’ll let the guitar player play (make sure they are playing one of their songs!) and
actively switch their pickup position for them as they play. We might find that the
bridge is far too bright or that the neck position is far too dark.
· Pedals can make or break a tone, but more often than not I don’t find them to be a
major hurdle in our tone as experienced guitar players are traditionally good at
squeezing out what they need from their pedal chains. Do check gain-staging. Are
you sending an overdrive into a fuzz into an overdriven amp? This may be desired,
but often times can result in an over-compressed, muddy mess.
· Swapping guitars generally has a huge impact and can sometimes be the solution.
I’ve gone from a nice Telecaster to a nice SG and heard all sorts of overtones that
that the Telecaster wasn’t giving me. Again, context: arrangement, song, and style
all play into this.
· Newer strings and a well-setup guitar go a long way as a baseline to achieving the
sounds you want. See my guide on preparing for the studio for more info on this.
You can tell most of what you need to know about a bass guitar from the DI signal. Often times it’s a bit dark and dull, but that’s what amplifiers are for.
· Bass pedals have come a long way. Do we like the DI pre or post pedals? I like to
make decisions like this before we start tracking - sometimes this discussion needs
to happen on a song-by-song basis.
· Is the bass player using a pick or playing with their fingers? This can radically
change our sound, but likely won’t be the deal breaker if the overall tone of the bass
· Some basses just aren’t nice and you may need to swap one out. I do know that a
simple, cheap, Squier P-Bass is capable of some great tones when it has relatively
fresh strings and is setup well. We keep a Fender American P-Bass on hand and
this solves a lot of problems when we can’t eke out a nice bass tone from an artist’s
There are a ton of conversations that can be had here, but I can usually break this up into a couple parts.
· Do we have new/relatively new heads on the drum kit? If not, it’s like playing an
out of tune guitar. We just won’t know what we really have to work with. New
heads give drums an opportunity to really sing.
· Drum Tuning. I can’t stress this enough. If you’re an engineer/producer, learn to
tune drums. So often I find myself behind a kit I’ve never seen before, tuning it for
the drummer. I’m happy to do this and find it cathartic.
· New heads and tuning are not a cure-all. Much like an acoustic guitar, what’s
important here is the wood. The shell of the drums that gives us the resonance.
Some drumkits are just cheaper or older and don’t sound pleasing. We have 3 great
drumkits on hand and offer our kits to anyone interested in using them.
Sometimes we’re only supplementing certain drums, but a high-quality drum shell
will go a long way.
· Snares. This is where I find myself making pretty clear judgement calls on do I love
what I’m hearing? If I don’t like the sound of a given snare, I’ll spend a few
minutes trying to get it there with tuning/dampening. If that’s not successful, I’ll
pull out one of our beautiful snare drums and that usually solves the problem
pretty quick. Have 1-2 extremely high-quality snare drums live in your studio can
be a life saver.
· Cymbals. Some cymbals that may sound fine in a live environment might not work
in a studio setting. I’ll often find artist’s cymbals too bright, brash, or thick. I
usually find that thinner, darker cymbals translate best in studio. We’ve got a great
collection of cymbals that we’ll often swap out if we’re having problems. So much
of the cymbal sound is the drummer’s striking velocity, but that’s not something
you’re going to change in a short weekend of recording, so it’s best to give them a
darker, quieter cymbal.
I mentioned a few of these above, but below are a few extremely important tools we keep on hand that have made my life and recording process easier:
Zildjian New Beat Hi Hats: Relatively cheap, probably the most recorded hi-hat ever. Not overly-brash, but still bright enough to cut through a mix well.
Ludwig Black Beauty Snare Drum: This is money well spent. Everyone wants to use it once they’ve heard it. It’s extremely versatile and I don’t need to sit there and tune it for 30 minutes. This is the sound of a snare drum on a record.
DW Maple Drum Kit: I’m not saying you need to go buy a $2000 drum kit, but a well-tuned, well taken care of kit that you know your way around will save you a ton of time and fuss in the studio.
Fender American P-Bass: Total problem solver, this thing gets picked up all the time.
Fender Twin Reverb or Deluxe Reverb: These things get used all the time and everyone wants to play through them. They are easy to use. You know what you’re getting and it’s always going to be pretty damn good.
I talked about this in my Consider the Source! blog post a few weeks ago, but in the studio we can only control so much. I can’t control how well an artist can play. The next best thing is the actual instrument and the sounds coming from it.