Inside the Producers' Studio. Recording guitars
Welcome to a new series for Noizr — Inside the Producers’ Studio. In this series, top producers from across extreme metal will share their knowledge and wisdom about recording and production. We’ve hand-picked some of the best and most interesting producers; some from large studios others from more niche circles, whatever their situation, you’ll be sure to pick up tips and get an insight into the minds that are shaping metal in the current era.
The first article was dedicated to studio set-up, the second one was about pre-recording, the third one – about recording drums, and the forth one about recording bass. This fifth article is focused on how different producers record and capture guitar performances, to get the best sound they possibly can.
Tom Kvålsvoll has worked with some of the biggest names in black metal, acts such as Dimmu Borgir, Emperor, 1349, DHG, Darkthrone, Zyklon and Virus to name just a few. He runs Kvalsonic Lab in Norway and also plays guitars for Sarkom. Contact: facebook.com/kvalsonic
V. Santura runs Woodshed studios in Germany, where he has helped produce records from bands such as Celtic Frost, Obscura, The Ruins of Beverast and Secrets of the Moon. Aside from producing and recording a large number of bands, he also plays with Dark Fortress and Triptykon. Contact: woodshedstudio.de
Tore 'Necromorbus' Stjerna has been one of the most prolific producers in black metal in recent years, the credits that he has on albums that have helped shaped modern black metal is comprehensive to say the least, having worked with bands like Watain, Blacklodge, Merrimack, Funeral Mist, and Malign to name just a few. Tore has also played with numerous bands like Chaos Omen, Corpus Christii, Funeral Mist, and Ofermod. Contacts: facebook.com/necromorbusstudio, necromorbusstudio.com
What are your go-to amps for recording heavy guitars?
Tom Kvålsvoll: Any Engl, if I am to choose just one. But it sounds better when blended with for example Mesa and Crate in addition. My main standpoint is to not use too much distortion. Less distortion equals more power when played well and dubbed. More distortion equals more noise. Which can be lovely, as well.
V. Santura: Always the amp that the guitar player I'm working with sounds best with! Or let's say it like that: If a guitarist comes to my studio and has a signature sound and/or brings an amp that simply sounds great I try to capture "his" sound. Or use his sound as a basis to start with. I might tweak his amp settings quite a bit to optimize them for the recording situation, but I want to avoid to give every band the same sound. Also some players sound good on particular amps and not so good on other amps. To mention two archetype amps: in my experience guys that played on Mesa Rectifiers for years often don't sound great on a Peavey 5150 or vice versa.
But apart from that I do have favourites: Right now I'm a bit in love with my ENGL Fireball, also other ENGL amps sound fantastic, the "Special Edition" is killer for example. And then, of course, the Peavey 6505/5150. They just sound great most of the time.
Tore Stjerna: I can narrow it down to three that tend to cover most bases for me: Marshall JCM800 (2203 model to avoid confusion), Peavey/EVH 5150 and Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier. For me personally, it’s pretty much in that order as well.
The JCM800 has a bite like nothing else, and it’s extremely versatile, a lot due to the fact that it takes pedals so well. You can make it sound in so many different ways. In fact, you pretty much have to put something in front of it to push the preamp a bit harder anyway if you are looking for a metal tone.
The 5150 really has a bread-and-butter kind of sound, it’s less versatile in my opinion but what it does, it does well. It’s so easy to dial in a great tone with it and it’s what I tend to favor in a live situation as well.
The Dual Recto is good for a kind of silky, elegant sound that blends right into a mix without taking too much space away from the other instruments. It actually used to be my dream amp for a number of years, I wanted to get one after working with it on a production I did over in the USA, but the prices in Europe then were just insane back then. Nowadays the one I have doesn’t get much use though, the JCM usually literally sits on top of it in the studio and I think that’s a pretty good metaphor in a way. But there are definitely situations when it’s the way to go. If nothing else, it blends beautifully with the 5150 too.
From Emperor's "Prometheus — The Discipline of Fire & Demise". Mastered by Tom Kvålsvoll
Technology has advanced massively in the past 10 years with things like Axe-Fx, Kemper and Bias, do you possess or use any of these simulation technologies?
Tom Kvålsvoll: Not those you mention, but I use a variety of good emulations when reamping DI guitars. Emulation software: For a long time I've preferred those offered by Brainworx, especially their Engl and Mesa emulations. They are good. I have all the others they made also. Even Waves have finally managed to make a good one, PRS "supermodels". Softube has a great bass amp. Their Metal Amp is not that good, in my opinion, but can be used in places. I will also probably get the new Softube Eden WT800. Ramping this way prevents me from using my own preferred three mikes technique, but I get very good results. Of course, it's not just the amps. There are additional chains of tubes, saturation, and eq.
V. Santura: I do have an Axe FX II and I had a phase a few years back where I used it all the time. But somehow I went back to record with "real" amps again most of the time (or always actually), especially for distorted rhythm guitars. I use it every once in a while for certain effect sounds or clean sounds (I love the Fender Twin Verb emulation of the Axe FX) and I use it live with Dark Fortress.
Kemper is a really cool concept, but if I can have the real amp and dial in my own tone and record over a high-end recording chain, which also includes the mic preamps and AD converters, I don't need to work with a profile from the same amp. The great plus is that you can just have so many amp profiles at hand instantly and they just make a lot of sense in a lot of live situations just for practical reasons.
Tore Stjerna: I have a Kemper and I used it a lot when I bought it. It’s very convenient to have and I bought it mainly for a production I worked on where we went to a few different studios. We set up the rig that we wanted to use and profiled it. For that it was perfect, we could do overdubs anywhere and at any time and keep a consistent tone. I was planning to reamp the guitars later, but I ended up actually using the Kemper tracks on the album. We then brought the whole concept on the road so we had the same sound live as in the studio. For that it was great!
I have noticed some discrepancies between the profiled sound and the direct signal though, primarily in the low range, you’ll really notice it when doing palm mutes. If you dig around a bit in the Kemper forum, you’ll find a quite extensive thread I made about it with a lot of test results and comparisons, so it’s not spot on, plus it doesn’t capture complex distortion all that well, in some scenarios it just won’t work. But for all intents and purposes, it does a really good job. I haven’t used it much for a while now though, I will usually find a suitable tone faster by just plugging in the amps that I have next to me when I’m working on something. But it has a bit to do with convenience too I guess.
Regarding other similar products, I haven’t tried anything else. You can get really good results with amp sims and impulses in your DAW though. So it feels like this sort of technology is really going places. And you can experiment a lot with it, even in ways you wouldn’t be able to do outside the box. My main philosophy either way is that as long as it sounds good and you get the result you want, the way there is sort of unimportant.
From Triptykon's "Shatter". Guitar, vocals by V. Santura
What’s your personal preference for recording thick and powerful guitars?
Tom Kvålsvoll: DI and amp combo. If only one is to be chosen, the DI is actually more versatile. When miking an amp, however, I prefer to use three microphones.
V. Santura: That's several factors:
And one very important aspect is the cabinet. In my beginnings, I simply used the gear I had which was a Marshall 1960 A and B cabinet with Celestial Greenbacks and I always struggled. Getting an ENGL cab with V30s was a game changer for me. It doesn't mean I always use this cabinet, but yeah, recording through V30 speakers is clearly one of my preferences.
The mic position (see below)
The preamps: Having a great recording chain helps a lot. I used to go through my RME Fireface preamps in my beginnings, but switching to better outboard mic pres also changed the game. I like to use Daking Mic Pres, but a while ago I was lucky to get a Tube Tech MP2A mic pre for a really good price and I use it all the time now. But there are so many good mic preamps out there, just look at gearslutz.com :)
Then you need tight and powerful playing... Goes without saying... and a good guitar…
And as obvious as it may be: record a thick and powerful sound and let it be thick and powerful in the mix: Some people are surprised when they look at my amp settings. First of all, I don't even care how the amp sounds in the recording room, I care how it sounds in the control room "off tape". So I always want to have the amp head in the control room, so I can tweak it there and hear instantly what I really get, while the cabinet is screaming in the recording room. I don't want my ears to be blown out by standing in front of the cabinet and listen to the amp cranked up because after 20 seconds of this my hearing judgment has already suffered for the next few hours. And I don't want to get fooled by insane loudness.
In fact very often the amps that I record are very loud, just because I am not scared to crank them up, because I don't need to face them in the recording room, and then I can just find the sweet spot on the Master pot where the amp sounds best, where I like the saturation of the power amp most.
I just recorded rhythm guitars over a Peavey 6505 and had the bass all the way up to 10, the Resonance at 9.5 and Presence also quite wide open (like three o'clockish). This may seem quite extreme, but hey, nobody is getting hurt and it simply sounded great and I got away without any EQ in the mix :)
And when I see people using low cuts at like 200 Hz I'm also a bit what the fuck?! How do you want to get a fat guitar sound if you cut the balls off? In a live situation, it may be necessary to roll off the low end with a mild low cut, but in the studio, I want to keep the fundamental notes. The low "E" on an electric guitar is at around 82 Hz and I want to let this through undamaged. And I rather control the low-end with a dedicated EQ or a frequency depending compressor which just works on some resonating "problem" frequency (if there is any) instead of cutting it all off.
And no, I don't get conflicts with the bass, I just make a bass sound which complements the guitars very well. If you cut off the low-end of the guitars and just use the bass for the low-end of your mix you will get two things: a thin guitar sound AND you won't hear the bass any more on small speakers. But what you want is a fat guitar sound and a bass which stays equally audible on big and on small playback systems.
Tore Stjerna: For something that stands on its own I’d say a 5150 into a Mesa cab – such a classic combination and always does the job. Two SM57s, Fredman style (look it up if you’re not familiar with it). I’ll point out though that it’s actually kind of rare that I go for that kind of tone, I tend to look for more brittle, raunchy tones and let the bass take a bigger spot in the mix.
From Watain's "The Wild Hunt". Recorded, mixed by Tore Stjerna
How many tracks do you usually require guitarists to lay down, double-track, quad tracking?
Tom Kvålsvoll: I let that decision generally be up to the band. The tighter the guitarist(s) are/is, the more tracks can be allowed. When I record myself (Sarkom, Paradigma), I often double absolutely everything. It's a lot easier to be tight with yourself than another guitarist. In many cases, though, one recording of each guitar is sufficient. I don't need to rely on double tracking to get a fat sound.
V. Santura: Sometimes I quad track, but honestly most of the time I just double-track. I think you can absolutely get a fat guitar wall with only two guitars, but I like the fact that you can still have some kind of "personality" in each guitar take. Which four guitars it is rather just a wall of sound. But it really depends on the band, the music, the player, sometimes quad tracking simply sounds better, sometimes double-tracking, I decide that rather intuitively.
Tore Stjerna: It depends a lot on the style and the goal. I’ll often work with quad tracking but double tracking works really well sometimes. You can also get quite interesting results by doing two takes each with vastly different sounds. Try combining a sort of "regular" sound with one that is absolutely filthy and just sounds messed up on its own. I’ve done that on a number of albums, it can give an edge that you couldn’t really get any other way.
When multi-tracking the same guitar parts do you use different combinations of amps, settings, guitars, etc. to introduce different qualities to the tracks or do you prefer a more consistent sound to the tracks?
Tom Kvålsvoll: Depends on the album. In Dødheimsgard we used different amps (Engl, Mesa, Crate) and nothing was reamped afterward. In Sarkom, I recorded everything apart from the leads as DI and reamped. There I also used various amps, not just one or two. Execration: everything reamped, several amps but consistent throughout the album. With Evighet I blended the reamped DI with their own amped recording through a Folkesson. In conclusion: I prefer to use different combinations of amps, sometimes consistent throughout the album, sometimes it changes from song to song.
V. Santura: When I double-track, 9 out of 10 times I just use the same setup for both guitars, because I like symmetry. When quad tracking the idea of having two different sounds which complement each other can work very well. So I see it like having one stereo layer consisting of two tracks of Sound A and one stereo layer consisting of two tracks of Sound B.
Tore Stjerna: It depends a lot. If I just want to beef things up a bit, I’ll use the same setup, same everything. The benefit is that the guitars will not take a bunch of extra space in the mix, which they already tend to do as it is. Working with different mic positions for example, or swapping cabs or whatever, can sometimes fill out the spectrum way too much and make it hard for other stuff to poke through. But it really depends. If you plan to have the guitars a bit further back in the soundscape, fattening things up with a few different settings might be the right way to go.
What is your preferred microphone setup for recording guitars?
Tom Kvålsvoll: One AKG414 slightly off center, combined with a different brand of condenser aimed at the right rim and another (maybe even a cardioid) aimed slightly differently at the other rim. Three mikes. That's my preferred method. The brand and specifics for each mike can vary, the way they interact (and the distance and angle relative to the membrane) is important and requires some testing to find the sweet spot. Always check for phase issues.
In addition to this, I really prefer to have a DI signal in addition to the amp signal. That way I can reamp the DI and get a ton of possibilities.
V. Santura: I prefer the so-called "Fredman" micing technique: simply two Shure SM57, one mic (the "On Axis") pointing straight at the center of the cone, the other mic (the "Off Axis") basically "touching" the other mic but in an angle of around 40 to 45 degrees forming and "arrow" with the On Axis mic. Usually, I find myself having the Off-Axis mic around 5 dBs higher in the mix then the On-Axis.
This mic technique basically always works for me and then I make the sound with the amp. Only if I won't get a result which satisfies me I would start considering other micing techniques like bringing a condenser or ribbon mic into the game.
Tore Stjerna: In the studio, 9 times out of 10 it’s a single SM57, usually up a single SM57, usually up against the grille or maximum a couple of centimeters away. A starting point is almost always the edge of the dust cap. I’ve gotten into using two 57s more frequently lately though, it doesn’t always work but if you look for a fat tone it’s definitely the way to go. I’ll throw something else up on occasion as well, like a TG201 or an i5, but there’s always something that bothers me about it for some reason. It doesn’t translate to what I’m envisioning in my head so it will often be swapped for a 57 in the end anyway, which seems to just give that instant gratification.
For live, I will always use two 57s, edge of the dust cap on two different speakers. A single mic in a live setting always gets some sort of tinny quality to it, I can never get it to where I want it. I also never combine with other mics, I’ve tried it and it always just brings me back to the dual 57 setups.
Interviewed by Dan Thaumitan