Last night I recorded electric guitars for a country/rock sort of song for a client in Louisiana. I considered doing the electric guitars myself even though I have no clue how to play country music. The project was turning out very well so I decided to go ahead and hire a buddy of mine who is an extremely smooth guitar player and just happens to be the biggest guitar tone junkie within 100 miles, maybe even 1,000 miles.
With all the talk from the Mytek AD Converter shootout and the Recording Gear Quiz lately, watching a REAL guitar player in action was something special. It put all of this recording gear junk into perspective. I now know exactly why pro engineers start playing with preamps. THEY HAVE NOTHING ELSE TO DO!!!! THEY ARE BORED!!
Let me explain. When I’m producing / engineering a project, a big part of that is motivating a player to come up with parts that are better than he would have came up on his own. From there we need to get the performance and tone up to snuff so that we can capture what people consider a “great” guitar sound. When you have a guy who is either a professional guitar player or at least in the league of professional guitar players, you may just find that Mr. Guitar Pro will come up with a part that is better than what you had in mind. This is what happened to me last night. A real player who really has command of his instrument should have no trouble blowing away the producer’s expectations simply by being themselves.
In this specific song, I’m trying to walk that fine line between country and rock music. I want this to be able to play on country music stations, but I’m not exactly going for old school country with lap steels and such. I want more of an “ass kicking” country vibe. If I would have played guitars myself, the song would have ended up sounding like a Dr. Seuss versions of Guns N Roses or Motley Crue. Some of the rough versions I tossed down while experimenting where very close to this.
Then Mr. Guitar Pro walked in the door. Here’s just a short list of improvements from calling up my guitar buddy.
- Guitars were perfectly setup with great intonation.
- Guitars were in perfect tune and held perfect tune both due to the gear used and his playing
The performance after one take was smoother than I would have done in a week.
- The added guitar hooks and such really made the song come alive. I would have never thought of those in a million years. My version was little more than power chords, really.
Years in years of research, trial and error, and searching were placed into his pickups, guitar, amps, speakers, cabinets, etc. His tone was exactly what we were looking for nearly instantaneously.
- The overall musical effectiveness of the song (the combination of everything from the fingers, notes, pick, preamps, and room) was a ZILLION times better than what I had.
Getting Back To Recording Gear
We’ve discussed this whole high end gear thing quite a bit lately with the Mytek AD96 shootout http://forum.recordingreview.com/f18/ad-converter-shootout-mytek-ad96-vs-presonus-firestudio-8907/ and the Recording Gear Quiz http://www.recordingreview.com/quiz/signal-chain.php
The big boys don’t deal with amateurs. In the big leagues, if you brought a guitar that wasn’t setup to a session, you wouldn’t be called back for another session. They don’t have time to intonate your guitar when they are renting a room for $3,000 per day or whatever. They don’t have time to deal with a player who can’t play in tune and they only deal with players who play smooth enough to sound pro. If a player can’t do all of this, they are replaced with a player who can.
The real musicians are obsessed with their instrument. They are totally nuts about the intricate details that make them sound great. (This is the one serious argument I have in favor of pro recording gear, actually). When a truly professional guitar player who talks about Mohogany grown in Honduras verse in America and the way that P.A.F pickups are wound not so tight and more randomly, you start to realized the minute details that make up a real musician verses someone who just makes noise. You get a feel for what differentiates the men from the boys.
Being that I’m not recording pro players much (not nearly as much as I would like) it became EXCRUCIATINGLY obvious to me just how silly it is for us home recording guys to get all wound up about preamps and converters if we aren’t recording pro caliber players. Remember, the difference between my crappy guitar playing and my buddies was ZILLIONS! We seem to debate in the various shootouts the objective difference in quality with the $1,000 preamps to the $8 preamps. Some say as high as 10%. Some say 0%. If we were to put that up on my scoreboard that ends up like this:
Mix With Cheap Pres and my guitar playing: 8.0
Mix With Expensive Pres and my guitar playing: 8.0 – 8.8
Mix With Cheap Pres and Mr. Guitar Pro: 1,000,000,000,000,008
Mix With Expensive Pres and Mr. Guitar Pro: 1,000,000,000,000,008.8
I Felt Like I Did Nothing
I was supposed to be producing this song. When Mr. Guitar Pro showed up he already had an idea what he wanted to do. (I sent him an mp3 the night before). He walked in, cranked up, I mic’d it, I hit record. What he did exceeded my expectations for the song! Done.
Engineers Don’t Want To Feel Worthless
I got to thinking what I would do all day if I was recording guys like Mr. Guitar Pro each and every day. I’m talking about drummers who know that “Popular Drum Company” only used Brazilian Beechwood for one year back in 1983 or who feel liberated when they use a click track (not the other way around which is typical for most drummers). I’m talking about musicians who have dedicated their life to a craft of making whatever noise comes out of their instrument the most pleasing thing possible and have serious talent to go with it (my fatal flaw!)
If I recorded these pro guys all day long, I know what I would do. I would start ambitiously looking for a way to dig deeper into my craft even to the point where the benefit was something that only I noticed. I would get really wound up about preamps and converters. I would go all out to make sure that I could do my part the best I possibly could. I would have the liberty of doing this because I already know the source is taken care of.
The only problem is all this high end gear crap is useless when the source isn’t just good, but MAGICAL! If the source isn’t magical, a converter is not going to get you there. Neither is a fancy preamp. I can hear it now “Listen to that extra little extra something in the snare drum that your girlfriend can’t hear anyway as the drummer ruins the groove and the entire song with his out of time playing”.
The take must be EXCITING before a preamp provides any benefit. A boring drum take in a killer studio will always sound boring. Too bad! You can’t separate the signal path from the performance, unfortunately.
Develop Pro Taste Across The Board
If you really want your tastes in audio gear to be in line with the big boys, you should make sure you develop that same taste for musicianship. Sure, there are definitely big boys who scoff at some of the low end preamps that sound pretty damn good to my ears. However, if these guys were to deal with the average local musician they would have no choice but to commit suicide. (Alright, that may be a bit over the top!) They would nicely explain to Mr. Average that he isn’t capable at this time of giving the producer what he really needs to do his job properly. A replacement will be hired the following day. A replacement who is a lot more similar to Mr. Guitar Pro I’ve describe above.
The Real Preamp Test
Are you ready for high end preamps and converters? This is a fairly easy test.
How many musicians have you fired? How many sessions have you stopped because the talent was inadequate? If you are willing to cram just about anything in that preamp of yours, maybe you should go to the doctor and get that preamp checked out. It may need a shot. You officially have a whore preamp (which is not exactly what they had in mind when they came up with “gear slut”) How many songs have been contaminated by some sick disease infested performance / tone?
Put some thought into that. If this were your daughter’s preamp, would you let just any guy cram his sound into it? When I bring up the “daughter” concept, we suddenly start to think about something special that means the world to us and we protect to the death (bla bla bla, I don’t have kids yet so this analogy sucks!). This is SUPPOSED to be how we treat our songs. Without the emotional attachment, if our goal is to really make killer recordings, wouldn’t we have similar standards about the kinds of musicians and performances we put into those sounds as we do the other things that are really important to us in life (like our daughters)? I’m not gonna let just any guy cram his sound into my daughter’s preamp. I’m gonna get the 12-gauge out and explain that Mr. Average can get the hell out of here and not to come back. The guy that really has it together is the only guy I’m going to consider. In fact, I’ll gladly allow Mr. Guitar Pro to cram his sound into my daughter’s preamp as much as possible. I want to be there so I can watch (listen)!
Recording gear certainly has its place, but in almost every case it’s a subtle one. If we expect too much out of our gear, we’ll be disappointed without a doubt. We should be expecting more out of our musicians. I’ve written on this topic extensively, but this time I had the unique perspective of working with a true badass and I came up with an offensive image to go with it.
When you aren’t running around with your head chopped off making up for a non-magical musician who doesn’t have a clue how to get a magical sound out of the instrument, you have time to twiddle your thumbs and think about preamps.
I guess I should point out that I frequently do cram not-so-magical sounds into my high end preamps. Because I haven’t moved up to the point where I only deal with magical players, I guess I do whore out my preamps so I can get paid. In these situations, the preamp I use is irrelevant.