The biggest obstacle I face when recording guitars in my own studio is not being lazy! Actually getting my ass up to go try another amp, another guitar, another mic, another pedal. It’s so easy to just get a sound that’s "close enough.” I’m always so much happier when I do find the exact sound that I’m going for.
Delicate Steve | Photo Courtesy of ANTI RECORDS
It's hard to get guitars to come to life in 2017. I've been having luck with some plug-ins and tracking DI—it's all about misusing some of these amp simulator plug-ins in the same ways that guitarists were misusing their amps in the early days by turning them up to the point of overdrive. I like my guitars to sound a bit glitchy, almost like a cartoon caricature of what a distorted guitar sounds like.
I've also been having luck by plugging direct into my Great River mic preamp and clipping on all three gain stages (input, output, and Pro Tools). There's a sweet spot where the guitar starts to sound like other instruments, and that's what I'm after.
The biggest challenge for me is realizing that how I sound and I how I think I sound don't always match up. It can be difficult to accept my shortcomings and can lead me to feeling really insecure about my playing, my sound, part writing, etc.
Thinking in small chunks helps me. I try to get the one specific song or part or guitar sound where it needs to be and do my best to stay focused on the task at hand.
Photo via Mark Erelli’s website
My biggest challenge in the recording studio is not to think about the studio but instead focus on the music. Artists have all manners of incredibly useful and, frankly, magical tools at our disposal these days, and there is a tendency to think that there is some plug-in or tool that can fix a performance. Oftentimes, the thing I am tempted to “fix” might actually be the most charming and memorable part of what I played.
It’s very tempting to try and make things sound perfect, when what really resonates for listeners is when things sound human.
Photo courtesy of Nick Krill
My mind works best when thinking about things physically rather than electronically. Coming to this realization gave my guitar recording processes a jolt of experimentation and discovery.
Spatial recognition and playing with objects in a physical space gives me a thrill; I’m the guy on tour who loves to pack the trailer, the guy who enjoys making kinetic sculptures, and I love acoustics and studio architecture. My enjoyment of physical space and objects was evident in my visual artwork and studio setup. However, it took me years to make that connection with my recording work.
With guitars, it’s easy to get caught up in tweaking amps and pedals to find new sounds electronically. It was not until 2009, while working on a Spinto Band EP, that I put aside pedals and experimented with physical ways to alter a guitar’s sounds. I did this by attaching, cramming, and holding different items against the strings of the guitar. Next, I tried a variety of ways to play the guitar: with my fingers, picks, coins or any other objects within reach. In addition, I was surprised to find how different string gauges made the guitar feel, sound, and change the way I would play the guitar.
Once I framed the guitar in a way that my mind naturally understood, I was able to reach my sonic finish line more quickly during recording sessions. Amps and pedals are still a great way to get a guitar sound, but being aware of the possibility of direct physical changes to the guitar gave me a better perspective on sonic decisions.
The challenge for me now is applying this process while producing other musicians. When I begin work with a new musician, I look for the skill sets and artistic approaches that come most naturally to them. As a producer, I attempt to set up recording scenarios that highlight the unique ways of thinking and playing that each musician possesses. If a musician has reached a roadblock during recording, sometimes refocusing the problem in a way that fits their best natural artistic process can lead to a solution.
Next time you record a guitar, channel your inner Yoda and try to get inside the way your mind naturally works and can be the most powerful!