Ou est le boeuf?

I added an image to the Papa Ghostface page in lieu of a proper picture of Gord and I doing musical things. It’s pretty silly.

Haven’t accomplished too much so far this week, mostly because I thought I would forsake the tiny acoustic songs in favour of some electric things, and subsequently I’ve had to reacquaint myself with the art and concept of recording a guitar amplifier. It’s not something I’ve really done since CHILDREN HAVE NO EYES.

EVERY PROFESSIONAL ENGINEER WHO HAS EVER LIVED: No! No! You can’t be serious!

ME: Well…yeah. In the beginning I had no amp, so I just used the amp simulator effects built into the Roland VS-880 I had at the time. Then I used the Digitech guitar effects box. I mic’d my little old tube amp for some tracks in mid-2000 — some solo stuff and a few Papa Ghostface tunes — but that was about it. Then I used a POD for a good long time.

EPEWHEL: Sacrilege! Also, notice how we are now an acronym that sounds funny when verbalized.

ME: So noted.

EPEWHEL: You’re telling us you had a newer Fender Twin Reverb and a cool gritty-sounding little old tube amp at your disposal, and instead of putting them to use you recorded your electric guitar tracks using…a POD?!

ME: Yes. Since around August of 2000 it’s been pretty much all POD, all the time.

EPEWHEL: You’re dead to us.

ME: I thought something like this might happen. But you know, before moving, when I picked up a real Fender Strat for the first time and plugged it into the Fender Twin, I realized what I’d been missing. A whole new world of tonal possibilities opened up before me. And from this day forward, I vow to rarely record electric guitars without the use of an actual amp, unless I’m going for a strange effect the POD nails on its own.

EPEWHEL: We still don’t forgive you.

ME: What if I get Guys with Dicks back together and revert to playing angry, distorted songs about sex and drugs?

EPEWHEL: Really? You mean it?

ME: Hell no.

EPEWHEL: You’re mean. Any subsequent conversation you wish to engage in should be relayed through our corrupt, incompetent lawyers.

ME: Sure. I’ll see you at the barbecue in July.

EPEWHEL: Yeah. Bring that blue cheese dip you make. One of our wives is a big fan. She’s dying to get her hands on the recipe.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I did use an amp for an electric guitar overdub on a still-unfinished new Papa Ghostface song back in January. But aside from that, I hadn’t done any serious recording with an amp for…I guess almost eight years. So yesterday I messed around with mic placement and recorded the guitars for a new song that unexpectedly wrote itself while I was in the process of experimenting.

I seemed to get the best sound with just one SM57 aimed around the middle of the amp grille, maybe an inch away. I tried adding an SM7B as a room mic, but it didn’t seem to contribute much, and it wasn’t because of phase issues. I’ll have to try experimenting with a large diaphragm condenser mic some distance away from the amp on another day and see what kind of sounds I can get. For this song at least, one mic on the amp seemed to be the right way to go. I double-tracked the guitar part and then added a few lead bits on top.

Listening back to what I’d done, I was struck by how much low end and low-mid information there was. It wasn’t mud or anything I needed to get rid of. It was “meat”, for lack of a better word. Something I never really got from the POD. I don’t even know if I want to add bass to this song, because the guitars sound really beefy on their own.

SM57s are funny microphones. They’ve been around forever, they’re cheap, they’re just about indestructible, and not everyone is a fan of them. But to paraphrase a sometimes-wise man named Fletcher, while the SM57 is rarely ever genius on any source, it almost never sounds bad. It does the job without getting fussy about what you put in front of it. And when it comes to snare drums and guitar amps, it’s a mic that’s been used on probably 70% of the albums in any given person’s music collection, unless all they own is jazz and classical music, or records recorded before the SM57 existed.

I bought my two SM57s back in 1999 when the only other mics I had were a cheap RadioShack mic and an SM58. It cost me maybe $200 for the pair, with a little extra for cables and mic stands. I should probably buy two more at some point. The ones I’ve got have seen use on just about everything at one time or another over the years — acoustic guitar, vocals, kick drum, snare, drum overheads, guitar amps, violin, harmonica, recorder, bamboo flute, acoustic bass, various percussion instruments, and probably a few other things I’m forgetting.

One of my favourite drum sounds I’ve ever achieved was with two SM57s and a few cheap mic pres. The first really good drum sound I ever got (and it still sounds good to me today) was with the SM57s, the RadioShack mic, and the SM58 — no mic pres, no compression, no EQ, and with the mics in odd places, with an SM57 leaning against the bottom rim of the kick drum because I didn’t have enough mic stands to go around.

I read a story about someone whose studio was destroyed during Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath they found one of their SM57s floating in the river of wreckage. It looked like it had been in a chemical plant explosion, with the body of the mic horribly damaged and corroded and all of the paint stripped away. And when they plugged it in, the thing still worked and sounded just as it always had.

For about a hundred bucks, that’s an impressive microphone. My SM57s haven’t endured anywhere near that level of abuse, but they’ve been smacked by drum sticks and guitars hundreds of times, and they never seem to mind.

SM57

The point is, some pineapple tastes pretty fine no matter how you slice it. The Shure SM57 is one such slice of pineapple. When you plug it into a high end mic preamp it really comes to life and shows you what it can do. I think it juggles drill bits when no one is looking. Such is the life of a modest utility microphone.

But I was talking about guitar amps, wasn’t I?

The Fender Twin is scary. Not only is it so heavy I can barely lift the thing on my own, but it would probably deafen me if I turned it up all the way. I had it turned up to three yesterday, and when I really played hard it was so loud the mic was clipping. This is the first time I’ve ever managed to overload an SM57 with anything. People could probably hear me outside.

Needless to say, this isn’t an amp I’m going to get to break up very easily. But that’s alright, because I like the clean sound. Even my cheap old Strat copy that’s been through more warped tunings than I could count sounds sexy through the Twin.

My other guitar amp is this little old tube amplifier called “Paul”. Really. That’s its name. To this day I’ve never been able to unearth a single piece of information about it. I don’t know when it was made or any of the specs. It came with the Strat copy, which was the first electric guitar I ever owned, included almost as an afterthought. It’s kind of insane to think I got that guitar (which has been used on hundreds of songs and still refuses to die), the amp, a guitar stand, and a soft shell case, all for something like $240.

I could pay ten times that amount and I don’t think i would find an amp that sounds this cool, unless it was something vintage and sexy. It doesn’t really do “clean”. It doesn’t get that loud either, which is perfect for recording. I can turn it up all the way without having to wear isolation headphones to save myself. This is an amp I need to start recording again with a vengeance, because it has this cool grunty sound to it that no amp simulator will ever come close to approximating.

Oh yeah…music. Here are a few of the tiny songs I’ve been recording over the last week or so. Just Like on Steve Allen’s Show follows one of the most hideously overused chord progressions of all time, but that was the way it sounded in my dream, so I went with it. Also, most of the lyrics rhyme in all of the songs, which is something I avoided for a long time. These days I don’t try so hard to force the songs anywhere they don’t want to go. We get along better that way.

As before, if you’re listening on good headphones you’ll probably hear some MP3 distortion. More full-bodied things will be along shortly.

My drums are sounding better and may be recording-ready now. I spent some time tuning them last night and things just kept sounding worse, so I got discouraged and walked away. Then I read something on the internet that gave me hope and decided to give the toms another shot, only to discover they now sounded pretty much the way I wanted them to. I guess they just needed a few minutes to settle in or something.

Praise Burt Reynolds, God among animated canines.

Milk Moustache Kid

Just Like on Steve Allen’s Show

My Favourite Daughter

2 comments

  1. Hi Johnny, nice songs. I didn’t find Steve Allen’s chord prgression too hideous – maybe you disguised it well? The guitar sounds great anyway, on all of the songs. I love the harmonies on the S. Allen chorus too – very cool and corny at the same time!

  2. Hey, thanks! Those harmonies sounded exactly like that in my dream. I think it’s pretty funny. Normally I wouldn’t sing like that, but I wanted to get as close to the way it sounded when I was asleep as possible. It’s pretty strange, the songs that happen when you’re dreaming. At least for me, they’re usually pretty simple and not things I would normally think to write, but I find myself liking them anyway when I can remember enough of them to play them when I’m awake.

    The most recent one involved Bruce Springsteen singing a song for Natasha Bedingfield. He was scoring some sort of reality show where she was looking for Mr. Right or something. The lyrics were pretty trite, but it was strangely catchy.

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