You. Guitarist. You might have that sound you proudly call ‘My Sound’, and like all of us you want the recording engineer put the perfect mic on it and capture it the way you hear it. But there is something you should realize before you go shilling out some money for a studio and expecting your majik to appear on tape. Microphones are only your friend if you respect them.
All microphones are going to change your sound. They may pick up something unwanted, or instead remove that special something you liked, or they are just going to color your sound. Very much in the same way that expensive pre-amp you love adds almost nothing – but it really is there, so it is also with microphones.
You. Guitarist who gets pissy when an engineer starts trying to fuss with your ‘My Sound’. No matter how many or what mics are used, or where you want to stick ’em, your ‘My Sound’ is only going to be translated to tape (or 1s and 0s) through a small membrane and some electricity. No mic is like the human ear and should not be considered as such.
Instead, consider that they are part of the musical chain, an instrument no different from your choice of germanium in that stomp box you stuck in your signal. The engineer making suggestions (if she or he knows enough) is playing the mic very much the same way a musician plays an instrument.
Just as you might respect a proficient cello player, and you would never suggest how a cellist should play one, you should treat your engineer with the same level respect. Don’t tell them where you like to have the mic. Chances are she (or he) has been involved with a lot more musicians trying to capture their sounds and knows all about the options for recording. So ease back and enjoy the experience of being in a studio. Don’t try and fight the engineer. You might learn something new and find even better mic placement.
All that said, I am not a great engineer. A great engineer can dial in the perfect side chains on the fly. And they can tell which mic (and have lots of them) is perfect for your voice or rig. And as I said, they record a lot of people playing with other people. I pretty much only record me playing with myself… Wait. That sounds weird.
Mostly, I’m not a great engineer because I am a basicalist, meaning I stick with the basics. Clean signal, the best mics and prees I can afford, and quality playback.
I never compress during recording any more, which means I have to pay close attention to dynamics as I play, which means I have to pay attention to how things sound after each take, and that means that I am able create my sound using the playback as reference – making adjustments to the guitar sound after each take so that ‘My Sound’ gets on the actual recording and not what it sounds like to my ears when I play it in that space. Often the guitar amp in the room sounds kind of sucky while I’m making the take, but I capture the sound I want to tape because I understand that getting the right sound is a union between the microphone and the speaker (or any other instrument).
And, I am changing gears now – hold tight.
My recording experience brought me on an interesting journey which brings us to the actual subject of this now rambling essay.
I needed a new speaker because speakers reveal or hide so much of the sounds I try to capture. I wanted a 12 inch and had given away my 150 watt 2 channel Carvin because the damn thing was made in China and it buzzed often. My tube guy rebuilt the thing and couldn’t find the buzz. But man, that amp sounded good when it worked. Oh. I go side tracked. So I needed a new speaker and a cabinet.
I ordered a Jenson 35 special and still needed something to put the thing in. So I went to the local Go-‘Round and got a $20 cab with two blown speakers in it. Tossed those out and cut the 2 by 12 cab in half to make a 1 by 12 open back. But The sound bugged me.
Oh, I loved breaking in the Jenson, but, the speaker being inside the cab really bothered me. It sat behind the wood, where all speakers tend to sit, which is the stupidest thing! Why hide a speaker?
Why hide a speaker? Oh, probably for some logical reason. Probably. All cabs and combos have the speaker inside the dang things. Not only are they screwed to the back of a plank of wood with a hole cut in it, they cover the speaker with some sort of material like cloth or metal. And then, as if that destruction of tonal quality wasn’t enough, they almost always go and build an inch tall edge around the opening, just to be sure the sound waves get tripped all over itself.
So I did this thing where I took out the speaker, cut some particle board with a nice cherry veneer and then cut a hole in it, and pushed that over the cabinet face to fill in that space inside the rim of the edge I talked about earlier. THEN, I put the speaker on the outside of that, so it sat on a flat wall of veneer and no edge.
Yes, it made a big difference. And not only did it sound better playing it in the room, during recording I found so many more options to how to find new and better sound tones. Also, I found that when I tipped it back it sounded even better, more true, I could control the sound better by mic placement.
The more we play with our tools, the better we become at using them, and then one day we realized our tools are holding us back. The speaker was still limited.
I like the sound of an open back speaker cabinet, and it makes it easy to place a mic on the back of a speaker. But any attempt at that always failed for me. I never like the way that sounded (even mixed in with a front mic).
Instead, I made a design for a prototype pine wood speaker that closes the back of the speaker but opens the sides to force all the speaker energy out and forward. Not only where the sides ported open, external baffles were created to direct the sound forward (I was sure to keep these walls behind the face of the cabinet to allow room for the sound waves). Again I placed the speaker on the front, but this time I recessed the speaker so that the sound waves roll out of the cone and onto the face of the cabinet even better. Lastly I built the cabinet so that it looks like it has been pushed backward and seems about to fall (but it is stable).
I was stunned by the difference. This sounded very bright yet solid in the core. The thing just sizzles. Mic placement makes a huge difference in sound, but there were some things that still bothered me about it. One, it looks kind of junky.Also, the side baffles are just so wide and angled. It is a prototype so it did what it is supposed to do.
I wanted to know what would happen if I gave the entire box a tapered shape. So I made number two… I mean a second one:
Unfortunately, due to some learning curve about dealing with a piece cut with three different angles, I had to sacrifice height to keep from starting over. The lines are much smoother and it sounds fantastic but it is still different. It is still pine so it has some great life to it, I don’t use EQ but I would be interested in seeing how and eq pedal would work with this.
Still, the second speaker cabinet doesn’t have that same vibrant raw energy of the sloppy-cut prototype. The second has a more polished and refined sound that mimics its design and craft while still allowing it to brim with tone. It is my preferred cabinet right now, easily beating out the speaker cab of my combo and the other two cabinets I have now laying around and taking up valuable space.
I am realizing how much is ‘almost’ possible with a great speaker and cabinet situation. I do have model three in mind, but more importantly I am realizing what amazing things 150 tube watts can deliver that 5 or 18 just can’t get close to. That is the power of a great speaker situation; it shows you where your sound is lacking. It reveals your true weaknesses, kind of the way an amazing lover does. She doesn’t have to state it directly, but you can tell when something is missing, even if she’s really good at acting.
That’s where I am now, and how I got from point B of cabinet building to point H about how guitarists need to work with their engineers without any real obvious connection between the two.
But all things are interconnected.
The trick is to find all the connections and put them to use.
Maybe after model three… well, we’ll get there first.