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Secrets Of Tone - Getting those 90s Guitar Tones!
Contributor: TC Staff    Rating: 5/5    Views: 120993

Secrets Of Tone - Getting those 90s Guitar Tones!

I'm yet another person trying to attain that ultimate
guitar sound for personal recording. I've tried a lot of the
tricks and nothing seems to get me to where I want to be, and
that is with a sound comparable to what I hear on modern CDs.

Getting a sound that matches heavy metal in the 80's
is pretty easy for me. The trouble is that it's thick, muddy,
and fuzzy compared with anything recorded in the mid to late
90's. The modern sound is just as distorted, but incredibly
"clean" as well. By "clean" I mean clear, easy to hear in the
mix, and rich. It's hard to describe in words, but listening
to something like Black Sabbath's "Heaven and Hell" followed
by Paradise Lost's "Draconian Times" demonstrates the stark
difference. The modern distorted guitar sound is focused,
tight, and incredibly clean.

How's it created? No amp or effect that I've ever tried gets me close!

I've tried EQ'ing my sound ranging from mildly to
drastically but all that I can accomplish with that is to
get a sound that is cleaner but thin. I have to scoop out
most of the midrange to get rid of the mud and the very
high end to get rid of the fuzz. The result is a fairly
aggressive sound which is somewhat hard on the ears. I'm
convinced that EQ'ing isn't the answer.

I've read and tried out plenty of advice involving Mics,
placement, speakers, guitars, playing styles, etc., ad naseum.
Sure these can make the difference between a bad sound and a
good one, but in the 80's bands had access to the best of all
available equipment, engineers, and musicians. Still, the
best sound that they could get pales in comparison to what
is being put out today. The big change between then and now
is the digital revolution, but what part of that revolution
is responsible for such awesome sound?

I've also tried compression (single and multi-band) and
loudness maximization. Both of these effects get me closer to
the sound that I'm looking for but tend to either add unwanted
noise or make the sound feel over processed. Perhaps it's just
my unskilled hands, I know that both effects can do a pretty
good job of focusing a signal. Maybe I just need to use
different settings or different software. I'm currently
trying out the Waves VST plug-in demo (C4 multi-band compressor
and L1 loudness maximizer specifically). If there's a processor
that can do what I'm talking about out there, I'd like to know
what it is. Better if there is a demo version available for me
to try it out at home.

Of course, my focus it just on distorted guitars, but
I've heard this kind of radical improvement with every instrument
and vocals as well. They sound "better than live", and very robust
in regards to the speakers or headphones that you listen with.

You guys know how it's done?

- BM

Dear BM,

First of all, one of the most important things for a heavy (or otherwise) guitar sound,
before the EQ, mic, speaker, amp, or pickup, is the intonation of the guitar
and the string gauge. So many players like lighter strings, but heavier gauges
will drastically improve your tone. Just think about the physics of it: a wider
object vibrating over a magnet will have more power than a thinner object over
the same magnet. As for intonation, when you're generating so many harmonic
overtones with an overdriven, saturated amp, two notes even the slightest bit
out of tune with each other will seriously clash. Most people don't think of
this as the culprit of a bad guitar track, since to the average ear the notes
will seem very much in tune, but more often than not, the notes are just the
slightest but off

Since a guitar cannot physically be tuned absolutely perfect, I like to tune
for a particular chord or riff. I'll make sure the guitar is in perfect tune
for the series of notes to be played, punch that line till satisfactory, then
move on and tune the guitar for the next line. It may seem tedious, and it will
drive you and the guitarist nuts at first, but the result is brilliant, especially for
cleaner sounds, picked chords, etc.

I think I can tell you why there's much of a difference between the
guitarsound nowadays compared to the 80's.

1. Many 90's players use EMG81 active pick-up on the guitar. It has a very distinct and
controlled low-end, which is what we want! Put that into your guitar ;)

2. Most bands nowadays tune down. Maybe you already know that, but most
start at tuning down everything by 2 semi-tones to G (E-string to D) or F
(E-string to C) or even lower.

3. Use a good amp! That dosn't mean a entry level pratice amp! These amps sound good
and have been used on many recordings:

Marshall JCM-800, Valvestate, JMP-1 pre + a good slave, Peavey 5150 and my fave Mesa Dual Rectifier.

4. I use all of these amps like this: from my guitar I go into an EQ. Choose
whatever you like, but the less bands, the better. Don't choose a 31-band or
something like that. TC's 1140 or a cheap Boss-EQ will do (though it will
bring up the noiselevel quite a bit!). Turn down 250Hz with 6-10dB or even
more. This will give you the thunk you're looking for. Maybe give 1kHz and
2.5kHz +1-3dB. This will give you some roar from the strings. Using the EQ,
you can alos turn down the gain on the amp itself, since you can control the
output from the EQ and guitar. This will give you a clear overdriven tone,
yet it will have the feel of a very driven amp!

5. Use a 4x12" speaker cabinet. I use Marshall 1960, but actually I've heard
many better sounding cabinets. Mesa's sound a tad better, but cost up to
three times as much! You can try out different ones and listen to them
through the mics (I'll get to that later!), because what you hear in front
of the speaker is not what you're hearing through the mics. I've noticed
that I'll sometimes need the stupid sizzling hígh-end of a new Marshall cab.
Although in a live-situation, I'd prefer Hughes&Kettner, ENGL or Mesa.

6. Mic placement! Now we've got a really cool setup with the aforementioned
amps + speaker. Take 3 different mics. I use these Sennheiser 421, Shure
SM57 and a Sennheiser 509. I hate the SM57, but sometimes it's
cheapo-midranged sound will bring something good into the mix! Then I do
like this: place the 421 pointing 30-40 degrees towards the cone of the
speaker, as close as possible! The 509 in the exact middle between the cone
and the rim (I'm not sure that's the word, but I hope you get it!) of the
speaker, as close mic'ed as possible! Do the same with the 57.

7. Now you have these 3 mics into your console. Solo them, have the
guitarist play, and listen to the mic. Where does it need EQ (I always EQ to
tape - you'll later learn why!). I see myself taken 400Hz down with 6-10dB.
Quite a lot, but it depends on the sound itself. Maybe roll-off 50Hz. You're
not gonna need the very low-end! Maybe take down some high-end, too. It's
unneeded + it'll give the sense of a sizzling sound, which isn't heavy at
all (read: black metal sound!).

8. Now you've done that EQ'ing with all three mics. Maybe they're EQ'd
different - they should be since they sound different! Send the three
channels to a group, gate and compress slightly. The gate to make breaks and
chops sound tighter and a compressor that only starts reducing when you
really thrash the low-end! You can add more later if preferred, but actually
the amps compress quite a lot themselves! Bring up the first mic (421) to 0
and slowly blend in the next mic (57 or 509). Stop where you think the sound
gets fuller. Make a mark where you placed the first and second fader. Do the
same again, but with the third mic. Make a mark. This was your two first
guitarsounds. Do the same where you start with another mic, the one that
sounds good itself (not the 57, haha). Set the fader at 0 and bring up one
of the leftover mics - make marks, do the same with the last mic - make a
mark. There you have your guitartrack 3 and 4.

9. Now you record 1 track with your first setting. 1 track with the 2nd
setting, 1 track with your 3rd setting and 1 track with your 4th setting. It
will chorus a bit, and you'll maybe have to practice recording 4
guitartracks, but it sound just right!

10. In the mix you pan like this: 2 of the best sounding tracks are panned
hard left & hard right. Check levels by soloing and looking at your
levelemeters. The two other tracks are panned 90% hard left & hard right.
That's METAL!

I've been doing this for years and if you ask a lot of pro's, they'll answer: "57 is THE guitar mic!".
Well, it's not. You can use any dynamic mic you want. The sky is the limit, and you'll immediately hear
which ones sound right to you. I've used a AKG D112, C535 - whatever really!

Many studio engineers say the Sennheiser 421 is unbeatable for guitar work.

- TC Staff

Contributor: TC Staff    Rating: 5/5    Views: 120993

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