First off, this is not a “guide to metal guitar recording”. I cover the fundamentals of recording electric guitar in Killer Home Recording: Electric Guitar. This here is an article discussing those people who post guitar tones that are good and then say, “now what?”.
Red Flag #1: Just The Guitar Track
For those of you who EVER post a clip of just one solo’d instrument, you are in desperate need of the Killer Home Recording series. You are missing the boat in about 250 areas and concepts and you are gonna waste about four years of your life chasing your own tail when you could avoid the whole mess.
The short version. The solo’d track is irrelevant. It’s like posting a picture of your transmission and asking why your car won’t start. A car is a sum of all it’s parts…a system. A mix, too, is a sum of all its parts. To put it bluntly, the guitars by themselves don’t mean a damn thing.
Red Flag #2: The Awesome Kick Problem
I remember when I had ordered my recording gear for the first time. I was listening to Skid Row’s Slave To The Grind. I said to myself, “This kick needs more beater attack. When I record I’m ALWAYS gonna have an awesome kick drum sound!”.
When I hopped into audio mixing, I quickly realized that the kick drum was the least of my problems. In fact, no single element was important because the whole thing sounded like a dead man’s balls. The mix, as a whole, was infinitely flawed. So all the sudden the notion of me nitpicking about Slave To The Grind (which is an excellent sounding hard rock record for the era) is ridiculous because the mix (and SONGS) of that record, as a whole, are quite badass.
So this over emphasis on the “awesome” nature of a single instrument is a huge problem. You’ve lost the forest for a single tree and therefor you’ll never really achieve what you are after.
Red Flag #3: Crappy Music Problem
When people post their solo’d metal guitars rarely are these guitars doing anything interesting. (It’s not that people are posting bad metal. It’s more of an issue of people looking for “tone” help usually post musically deficient crap!) Just palm muting on a low E and then hitting an F power chord every once in a while isn’t going to excite anyone. It’s a sound we’ve heard a zillion times since the first guy did it in the 50s or whatever. (Maybe not the 1950s, but you get my point.)
I’m a HUGE believer in the idea that music and engineering are ENTIRELY interdependent. They are inseparable. The best engineering in the world won’t work in a vacuum. The goosebump factor is a combination of robo music and robo presentation/aesthetic (engineering).
So going back to our stereotypical metal riff. If we were to fire up some mega drum pounding behind it and add a sick ass bass under it with the band playing tight as hell, we may start to find some excitement in there. (The thing you are REALLY looking for!) We just may find that the original guitar track sounds pretty damn good after all! Now switch your all-star drum/bass lineup to the local kids sound. (We’ll say 14 year old kids just to make it obvious.) Just by taking the tight ass playing out of the equation, but keeping the sonics exactly the same, we’ve transformed our robo production into unlistenable garbage. (This concept is also well covered in Killer Home Recording.)
The Great Recording Compromise
There is something to not stopping until you find “the sound”. It’s not a bad idea to do the best you can on a recording. In fact, that is great! However, you’ve got to set a deadline. Let’s say you’ve got a month to get your guitars done because the band wanted this recording out last month. In that time, you probably aren’t going to be blowing away or even matching the robo metal guys with 30 years of experience recording the best bands and the best rooms on the planet. That’s a given. I doubt you will dispute this.
So do your absolute very best in the time you’ve got. Finish it. Move on. Because your skill is not what it will be in a decade, don’t get too wound up about it.
I’ve never met one good engineer who was ever satisfied with his work. I’m talking about guys with Grammy Awards and Platinum records on the wall. They hear their songs on the radio and they hide to contain their embarrassment over their production. Of course, the zillion people who love the song think it’s the best thing ever. So get used to being unhappy with this elusive side. Once you get past the Objective Flaw Barrier, it’s all a damn lie anyway.
Objective Flaw Barrier
When guys post a clip on Bash This Recording or whatever, they are looking for help to improve. Some of the mixes are a little rough and need help. The things that make one mix obviously suck are what I call “objective flaws” that we all more or less agree on. There aren’t many of these types of flaws because there is a HUGE window of acceptable production on any given recording.
So if a posted guitar track has an exceptional amount of fizz and mud I may say something. If the track is out of tune I’ll DEFINITELY say something. If the tone is boxy, boring, comb filtered, or just plain crappy I’ll say something. However, once we survive through all of these checks, if I’m to critique the guitars past this point, it’s more about serving my ego than serving the music.
If you’ve got a track that survives the Objective Flaw Barrier, you are on your own. You’ve got to use your own creativity and ingenuity to push your tracks to the “next level” (as all the rappers say…ha ha). We can give tricks to try, but YOU must come up with that magic little something if you think the song really needs it. Any advice past this point gets into this “every-recording-should-sound-identical” mess where a guy thinks your Master of Puppets guitars should instead be Killswitch guitars. That kind of thing is up to you and the band. I’d never tell a guy he shouldn’t be unique!
The Damn Lie
Do you know what happens when you get the band to play outstandingly tight on great songs in great rooms where the engineer passes the Objective Flaw Barrier on every track? It’s called a major label production. It’s called a bad ass recording, too.
As you are well aware of, you probably have 2,000 mp3s on your Ipod. Maybe 20-50 tunes stand out as having extreme production that just blows your minds. So what about the other 1,950 songs? Why are they are on your Ipod? Forget that. Do they sound bad? If your recording could match the engineering level of those 1,950 songs, would you be happy? I bet you would.
So The Damn Lie is this magic spell the recording world has placed (particularly on metal music) that there is some sort of PhD in engineering where everything you record is bad ass sounding. There isn’t. Once you get passed the “don’t suck” phase, the engineering aspect means NOTHING. The music entirely takes over.
Let me explain.
I believe that engineering NEVER adds to the music. Ever! It’s never happened! It never will happen. I believe that engineering can only apply a penalty. A recording never matches the real thing. You love the Lamb of God guitar tone? If you were stand in front of the real amp, your eyes would light up like you just saw a mushroom cloud. It would be jaw dropping. The recording is good, but there is nothing like the real thing. That’s like comparing your right hand and your girlfriend. A recording is an “emulation” of real life at best.
Note: I was called out on this on the forum because I was probably a little vague here. So just to clarify let me explain. I mean that if you have 100% decided that the amp can not be touched and is absolutely perfect, tossing a mic in front of that amp and playing it through your studio monitors, boom box, or Ipod is never going to have that huge 3D realism of the amp in the room. The same would apply if you had the London Symphony performing just for you. Taking a pair of super high end SDCs and placing them in X/Y stereo to capture that Symphony will never sound as bad ass and exciting as what you hear in the room.
I did not mean to imply that all records should be done live and natural. (I have way too many Nine Inch Nails and Def Leppard records for that.) I didn’t mean that the craft of producing can’t create ruckus that goes beyond what is possible in the live environment. (I always believe in “maxing out” the studio recording and dealing with the live stuff later.) My point is worshiping the sound in the room and hoping an SM57 or U47 is gonna get that pretty much always ends up in disappointment.
So, the only goal of engineering is to get out of the way. Maybe the best engineer in the world has found a way to let 99% of the music through. Maybe a beginning engineer assesses a great penalty to the noise. Maybe he only lets 40% of the music through. Your goal as an engineer should be to do the least damage possible to the music that’s buried in some kind of hidden dimension. When you can get out of the way enough, you are officially in major label big boy land.
The only problem is this suddenly puts a HUGE emphasis on the crap that really matters. (The musician, the song, the room, the instruments).