Archive for April, 2008

Getting a good guitar sound on a recording can be a real challenge when recording at home. It’s not that it’s difficult mechanically, it’s difficult because of the environment. Working around the limitations of the environment is really the challenge. For instance:

  • Most of us don’t have a dedicated sound-proof room; thus, we get a lot of sound leakage that translates to neighbors (and family) screaming to turn down the volume.
  • Furthermore, most home recording areas aren’t optimized for a “flat” acoustic response. You can do some dampening to reduce room reverb, but you can’t eliminate it entirely.
  • Finally, most of us don’t have expensive recording gear.

But despite all that, it’s still possible to record great, high-quality guitar tracks. I’ve done a lot of recording at home in the past year and thought I might share some of the things I’ve learned in capturing good guitar sounds. Mind you, I’m no audio expert. Everything I’ve learned comes from pure trial and error.

  1. First of all, invest in a decent tube pre-amp. PreSonus makes a great one called the TUBEPre. You can read my review on it here. Even if you use a dynamic mic that will draw power from your line, a pre-amp will boost your mic signal, and at low-volume levels, this is absolutely essential. Also, a pre-amp will add a lot of warmth to your mic signal. In my mind, it’s an essential piece of gear.
  2. Ribbon mics are great for adding depth to your sound, or for recording two amps at once. Unlike unidirectional or cardioid mics that have a reception field that’s in one direction, ribbon mics record in a figure eight pattern in two directions. What this means is that it’ll pick up the ambient sound behind the mic as well. I typically place my ribbon mic about a foot away from my amp cab, then place a 3/4″ thick piece of plywood about a foot behind the mic. This helps reflect the sound back to the rear of the mic. And as long as you keep the volume low on your amp, you won’t get feedback.I also have used my ribbon mic to record two amps at once. For instance, in this song, in the overdriven guitar part, I ran a dry signal out to one amp, then used the other signal to run through my board into the other amp. The net result was it sound like I was employing a lot more output than I actually was. In fact, you could speak (with just a tiny bit of effort 🙂 ) over the combined volume of the amps.
  3. Use two mics to record an acoustic guitar. I read somewhere that using an “X” pattern aimed at the sound hole is really effective. Personally, I use my ribbon mic pointed at about a 30″ angle at the center of my guitar’s body, then use a dynamic mic pointed straight at it. The ribbon mic is about 6-8″ away from my strings, and the dynamic is placed about 10″ inches. The result is a very deep, very natural sound that captures the natural tones from your acoustic guitar.
  4. Because we’re talking low-volume here, there are pedals that you should have that will help quite a bit in getting a good sound:
    a. First, get a decent compressor pedal. I’ve got the Maxon CP-9 Pro+, and just love it. This will help fatten your signal, and give the impression that you have a bit more amp than you actually have.
    b. Invest in a couple of decent overdrive pedals. Personally, I use three: a DigiTech Bad Monkey, an Ibanez TS-808 and a Fulltone OCD. I will either use these individually, or “stack” them in a signal to produce varying levels of overdrive. I know, many purists want to get that power tube saturation sound, but at low volume levels, that’s not practical. Besides combined with a compressor, you can get pretty close.
  5. As far as reverb is concerned, I tend to use very light spring reverb, then layer reverb on top of that in my recording program. It makes it much easier to control on the recording. Some folks use dedicated pedals, which is fine, but I prefer to capture as much of the raw signal as possible, then layer reverb or other effects on top of that raw, dry signal. However, this doesn’t necessarily apply to time-based effects like chorus, flange, vibe, delay or phase. I’ve never been satisfied with the sound quality of software based time-based effects.
  6. There’s nothing like the sound of a tube amp. Unfortunately, with larger tube amps, they just don’t sound good unless they’re cranked. But there are a number of low wattage “practice” amps that actually produce incredibly good sound if you close-mic them. The one I use in particular is the Fender Champion 600. Epiphone also makes the Valve Junior, which has gotten some great reviews. Another low-wattage amp that I’ve been considering is the Blackheart Little Giant BH5-112, which is a switchable 3W/5W amp with a 12″ Eminence speaker. Very cool. Blackheart also makes a 7W/15W version called the “Handsome Devil,” that is also worth a look.

As I mentioned above, I’m not a professional sound guy, and I certainly wouldn’t call myself a recording engineer. But I recorded my first album over the past year entirely at home, under less than ideal recording conditions. It’s entirely possible to do. You just have to find ways to work out, work around and work with the limitations of your environment.

Got any other tips? I’d love to hear ’em!

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Customer Service Cartoon

If you’re like me, you dread calling up any company’s customer service center. Nowadays you never know if the person on the other end of the line is even in the same country as you. But when customer service is good; that is, the rep listens attentively to your problem, and can offer a solution, or short of that, does his or her best to solve your problem, you come away feeling good. Perhaps more importantly, the “feel-good” image you get about the company will most likely make you a repeat customer.

About a week ago, I called up the Jim Dunlop company in search of some parts. I stupidly misplaced the extra wires that came with my Dunlop DC-Brick, and needed to get replacements (and some extras just in case). I got routed to a tech support guy who helped me get the right part numbers, and he transferred me to a sales rep who promptly took my order – all in the space of about 3 minutes. Very quick, very efficient. I was impressed.

A couple of days ago, the wires arrived. I excitedly opened the box, and my heart sank as I realized that they were the wrong wires! I didn’t get mad mainly because I thought that I might have not provided a good enough description for the tech to get the right part. But I resolved to call the company and make a new order for the right wires.

I called them up yesterday, and mentioned to the tech that I probably ordered the wrong wires, and said, “What I need are the wires with the 1/8″ male on one end, and the center-negative female on the other. The part number for the ones I ordered were […].” The tech replied, “Hmmm…. that’s actually part number for those wires, but you got 1/8″ males on both ends. Our mistake. In that case, I’m going to take your information down right now and we’ll ship you 4 of the correct parts free of charge.”

Wow! I was so impressed with that level of customer service that I offered to pay the shipping, but he insisted that since it was Dunlop’s mistake, they needed to rectify the situation. Now that’s great customer service, and even though I hadn’t been a Dunlop customer prior to this, they’ve moved to the top of my list for companies that I know will provide great customer service should I have a problem.

Customer care is important, folks. Since I’ve become a real gear addict, it is one of the things that I consider before purchasing anything. Especially if I’m going to buy something that’s expensive, I call up a company’s customer service to ask questions and see how they respond. If I don’t feel comfortable with their customer care, I don’t feel as comfortable with buying the gear. Take, for instance, this review about the PRS DGT. A reader, Jimi Ray Clapton, had been waiting 9 months for his new DGT, and it still hadn’t come. He even spoke to PRS himself at a show with no results. Every time he called, there were further delays with very little action or follow-up. Consider that if you spend a few thousand dollars on a piece of gear, you want some attentive customer service! I would at least…

I know it’s a bit of a pain, but do yourself a favor and include customer service as part of your buying decision. You’ll want to know that the company you’re dealing with is going to be responsive to your needs.

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5 Tone Bones - Gear has stellar performance, value, and quality. This is definitely top of the class, best of breed, and it’s a no-brainer to add this to your gear lineup! Voodoo Lab Micro Vibe

Summary: Looking for that vibey sound? Look no further. The Micro Vibe serves up a range of vibe tone from chimey chorus to thick, soupy psychedelic in nice compact stomp box.

Pros: Incredibly versatile vibe that has multiple personalities depending upon where you set the knobs.

Cons: A little tricky to set up in your chain, and can be finicky with overdrive pedals, and can make your low-end really boomy (not hard to overcome, though).

Price: $149 Street

I wrote a comparison review between the Micro Vibe and the Fulltone Mini Deja Vibe, two excellent ‘vibe pedals out on the market, but since I recently purchased the Micro Vibe, I thought I’d do a full review because my original evaluation was done in a more controlled environment A/B’ing the two pedals.

First off, this pedal is extremely easy to use. Two knobs control intensity and speed, and toggle switch turns the unit on and off. This pedal is true-bypass as well, so when it’s off, it’s really off – very nice to find in a relatively affordable pedal. To get that psychedelic sound, you set intensity about 4 or 5 o’clock, and the speed anywhere between 11 and 2 o’clock. For a more chorus-like effect, I set both Intensity at 12 o’clock and speed at about 1 o’clock. I’m still playing with it, but so far, so good!

Like the Fulltone, the Micro Vibe boasts a faithful reproduction of the original UniVibe’s circuitry. I’m not much of an electrical guy, so I’ll take their word for it. However, in the previous comparison review, I mentioned that the Micro Vibe has a slightly darker tone than the Mini Deja. To me, it has a rich tone that really brings out the lows – though I found through my latest experimentation that you really have to be careful about your EQ. Too much low-end, and you’ll get a really muddy sound. I found that with both the Mini Deja and the Micro Vibe, but a bit more so with the Micro Vibe. It wasn’t too hard to overcome with a little EQ adjustment, though, so that was just a minor problem. All in all though, the two pedals sounded very similar, giving off that ‘vibe sound that I just love.

What the Fulltone has over the Micro Vibe is a Vibrato mode, that gives you the pulse from the photoresistor without the phase effect. It also costs almost twice as much. For me, I wanted a dedicated ‘vibe pedal with no other accoutrements, and the Micro Vibe serves that up just fine!

One thing that I found really nice with the Micro Vibe was how the pedal’s intensity responded to the input gain from my guitar. Higher gain produced higher levels of intensity. That’s very cool because it’s possible to dial back the intensity of the effect from your guitar.

In any case, here are a couple of sound clips I recorded to demonstrate a bit of the Micro Vibe’s capabilities:

TS-808 plus Micro Vibe:

Micro Vibe with a bit of reverb:

Both clips were played with my Strat and output through a Fender Champion 600.

I did find it a bit challenging placing the Micro Vibe in my signal chain. Placed before my overdrive pedals, it was pretty tough to control, and the resultant pulsing drive wasn’t too pleasing to the ear – though it was correctable with some minor tweaks to the OD pedals. I found that it worked the best (at least so far) at the end of my chain, right before my BBE Sonic Maximizer. It’ll stay there for awhile, then I’ll switch its position to see how it compares.

Here’s an interesting thing that I found that I forgot to mention: The Micro Vibe sounds absolutely horrid with a Fulltone OCD. I really wasn’t expecting that. It probably could be the chip that’s used in the OCD. Whether I put the Micro Vibe in front of the OCD, or after it didn’t matter. The combination was UGLY! But it sounds awesome with Tube Screamer-type pedals like my TS-808 and Bad Monkey.

In conclusion, if you’re looking for that vibey sound, the Voodoo Lab Micro Vibe delivers that in spades, and at a very affordable price!

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About a month ago, a friend of mine asked me to update his web site with some minor text changes, and to help him drive more traffic to it. As I’ve been doing web development professionally for the last ten years, it was natural for him to ask me, and since he’s like an older brother to me, how could I refuse to do it? I finished the task in an evening, and didn’t think once about getting paid for the job. But his wife insisted that they pay me because my work helped produce income from their site.

But in lieu of them writing me a check for my services, I suggested that they order some gear for me and have it shipped to my house. So, I pointed them to the Voodoo Lab Micro Vibe pedal that I’ve been wanting, and it should arrive within the week!

So if you don’t have the clams to buy gear, see if you can trade services with people to get some gear that you’d like!

Is it realistic? Sure it is. I bartered building a web site for my architect for a lower architectural fee when we were rebuilding our house. I also built a web site for our contractor in exchange for his labor in laying our hardwood floors. Bartering works.

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My son Owen As a guitar player and singer/songwriter, nothing brings me more joy than to see my kids enjoying my music. But what really makes it all worth the effort is a conversation I just had with my son Owen a few minutes ago. I was in my home studio, mixing a song, and my son (he’ll be 3 at the end of July) walked in, had me pick him up, and said (in his slightly slurred two-year-old voice), “Daddy, I wanna play guitar?”

I replied, “Really? You want to play guitar?”

“Yeah, Daddy, just like you.”

Okay, I admit, I got real teary-eyed when he said that, and just held him and hugged and kissed him for his sweetness, and I thought to myself that even though I experience lots of joy recording and performing, and make a decent amount of money doing it, none of that comes close to bringing me the joy I just experienced with those simple words.

I knew he liked my music, because he sings my songs to himself all the time. More often than not, he’s sitting down in my studio while I record songs – he loves the process – and loves to be around music! But to hear him say something like that was really overwhelming for me; not only as a parent, but as a musician.

Just thought I’d share that. Any of you axe-slingers have similar experiences? I’d love to hear ’em!

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5 Tone Bones - Gear has stellar performance, value, and quality. This is definitely top of the class, best of breed, and it’s a no-brainer to add this to your gear lineup! Sennheiser e835 Dynamic Microphone

Summary: A fantastic and versatile, and super-affordable mic with a wide field that is equally at home with vocals, and instrument/amp sound reinforcement.

Pros: Nice, flat response, with built-in presence boost produces very clear sound.

Cons: None

Price: $99 Street

Sennheiser e835

One of the underlying themes in the reviews I write here at GuitarGear.org is that cheap doesn’t necessarily equate to low quality, and as a gear freak, saving money where I can means I have more money to get more gear. I totally dig on finding excellent gear that doesn’t break the bank, and the Sennheiser e835 falls squarely into that camp.

I discovered this mic a few years ago when my trusty, but tired SM-58 stopped working. By chance, Guitar Center was having one of its blowout sales, and the e835 happened to be on sale for $79.00. So I decided to try it out, and am kicking myself for not buy 4 or 5 of these at the sale price. Oh well…

One thing that I couldn’t stand about the SM-58 was its boomy lows. I’m the type of singer that has the mic close to or touching my lips so that I’m right in the capsule. But with the SM-58, I couldn’t do that because the over-abundance of lows would muddy my vocal tone – and forget about using it to mic a cab!

On the other hand, I found that the e835 has a much flatter tonal response, and close-mic’ing anything is pretty easy, with very little EQ tweaking. It has a built-in presence boost that flattens out the EQ compared to the more scooped EQ of the SM-58. With that kind of flat response, the e835 becomes a very versatile tool that’s usable on-stage, in the studio, and can even be great for mic’ing guitar cabs! At $99 street price, you just can’t go wrong with this mic!

To prove how nice the e835 sounds, let me point you to a song I just recorded using e835. In this song, I used the e835 for both guitars and vocals. With the guitars, I wanted to add a little spacial depth to the guitar tone (I was using a Fender Champ 600 amp with only a 6″ speaker, so I needed a bit of depth), so I close-mic’d the amp with the e835, and used a Nady RM-200 ribbon mic placed off-axis about 10″ away. The Nady only adds a bit of depth, as the e835 does the bulk of the tonal work. But regardless of guitar or vocal, from the song, you can tell that the e835 really shines as a super-versatile mic.

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I actually wrote this song quite awhile ago – I think Christmas Day, 2006. I did an early recording of it – very bad quality, and as I’ve been working on my demo, realized that I hadn’t re-recorded it. This was a must-have song on my demo.

Anyway, here’s the song: http://www.icompositions.com/music/song.php?sid=85823

Note that I have instrumentation details on the iCompositions site, but I will say that my Fender Champion 600 is a really great amp for home studio use. For this recording, I didn’t even bother running the amp through my Hot Rod’s speaker cab. I close mic’d the amp using a combination of a Nady RM200 ribbon mic, plus my trusty Sennheiser e835, which really brings out the low-end without being muddy. In my opinion, the 835 and 935 series mics just blow the Shure SM58 and 58Beta away. I’ll be writing a review on the Sennheiser in a bit… In any case, enjoy the song!

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I wrote this song based upon a passage in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus talks about being called into justice and mercy. The passage inspired me to write “We Are Called.” Note that the only amp I used was a Fender Champ 600. Using two different mics, spaced at different distances to provide a little depth. I placed a dynamic mic right in front of the grille cloth, and a ribbon mic off-axis about 10″ away. The result was a very nice tone. The dynamic mic picked up the lows really well, while the ribbon caught the ambient – all this from a 5Watt amp with a 6″ speaker! Ha! You gotta love it.

For the opening lead part, I did “cheat” a bit and used my Hot Rod’s speaker cab for a bit more tonal depth, but still powered with the Champ. I love that little amp! Here’s the song:


Guitars: ES-333, Strat; Piano, Bass

Drum loops were standard GarageBand loops, and everything was mastered in GarageBand. Not bad for demo-quality work.

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healsun-rays.jpgI was conversing with a friend of mine who just received his conditional black belt in Tae Kwon Do this past weekend – very great accomplishment. During the course of our conversation, he said the one missing ingredient in his study of martial arts is developing his “chi.” He believes in chi, but is having a hard time grasping what it is all about. Chi is a Chinese word that describes the natural energy of the universe. For sci-fi folks, it’s the equivalent of the Force in Star Wars. Without going into detail, the development of chi is at the heart of martial arts, though it is downplayed in the US because we live in such an empirical society where everything needs to be explained. In any case, my friend wanted to know more about developing his chi. We’ve had previous conversations about this subject, and I’ve related how I developed my chi over the years, so I showed him some techniques. But that’s really not what this blog entry is about…

During our conversation, I said something that compelled me to think about my guitar playing [actually, I’m surprised I even said it]. It was simply this: “Sometimes, in order to even start a journey, you have to give yourself permission.” For quite a while now, I’ve experienced a bit of a block in regards to improvising, admitting that I can’t do it, or saying that I’m purely a rhythm guitarist. Even the solos in the songs that I’ve recorded are the result of countless takes, where I’ve memorized the lead. That’s not so bad, Brian May talked about doing this on some Queen records back in the day. But for me, I realize now that it was fear that was blocking me; my fear of people thinking I sounded bad.

But something changed in me this past weekend. I wrote a new song for Church and I only had an hour or so to lay down tracks so my band had an idea of how I wanted it to sound when we performed it. So I open GarageBand, picked out a click track, laid down the keyboard and bass parts, then laid down the two rhythm guitar parts, then finally added the vocal parts. Realizing that I wanted a bit of solo at the beginning of the song, I quickly recorded a solo in the first 16 bars of the song. I did a quick mix and master, output the song, and wrote it to a CD.

On the way to Church, I listened to what I recorded, then realized I did every single part in one take each – even the solo. I know it’s not a very sophisticated solo, but it was the first time I just put something down without thinking about it. That really inspired me for the service where we were going to do a couple of songs that would require some instrumental interlude.  To make a long story short, when it was my time to solo, I just – did it. I told myself, “Don’t think about what you’re going to do, you know the fretboard well enough now. Just feel the music.” After Mass, someone came up to me and said they really enjoyed the music, and the way I expressed myself on the guitar. How’s that for affirmation? Admittedly, I was somewhat nervous because all my solos had been fairly calculated in the past – I had a pretty good idea of what I was going to do, and how I was going to do it. This time, I was on a bit of shaky ground because the only thing I started out with was the key of the song.

The point to all this is that in giving myself permission to solo, I was able to just do it. Did I make mistakes? Sure I did, but nothing glaring. For the very first time in my life, I was able to just let loose and express a message using my guitar. After Mass, I realized that I could probably have done this for a long time, but my fear of soloing kept me from doing it.

So give yourself permission to pursue your dreams and goals.  Like me, you will be pleasantly surprised by what you can accomplish.

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