Friday, January 19, 2018


by Mark King for

I'm working on a song that has been in the development phase for over seven years. It's a very complicated piece that I've come to know very intimately. The dynamics of the various parts are extreme, from lilting finger-picked acoustic guitar to full out raging double lead guitars. It is all anchored together by a killer drum track recorded by an LA hired gun. It's a labor of love, a test of musicianship and a sonic tapestry that has evolved a lot since the journey together began. 
This article is not about the song or how we wrote it. This is about the tone of the lead guitar parts during the big final third of the song. The parts were played by a local musician friend of ours, we worked together on developing the parts over a week in the Fall of 2017. We initially recorded stereo tracks using the Kemper Rack loaded up with a terrific vintage Marshall amp profile by Michael Brit. I also made dry recordings of his electric guitar before it hit the Kemper so I could reamp later if I wanted to. The time had come, I wanted to. Not because the Kemper wasn't good enough but because I wondered if I could make it sound even better. There were those crispy reamp tracks waiting to melt the walls with a screaming 100 watt tube amp, I had to try. 

I have a dedicated speaker room so I can blast an amp back there, mic it and have that sound come up in the control room, this way we're hearing the exact sound that would be recorded. It works well but you're very separated from the actual sound. For this recording I used the 4x12 that is in the control room. This room has a sixteen foot high peak, two large sloping ceilings, lots of various shapes and walls and wall materials including wood, stone and plaster. I've added panels of 4" thick Roxul mineral fibre to dampen the low frequencies. The thick carpeted floor  kills a lot of high frequency flutter. The room is not dead but it's very uniform and it has a voice that can be heard on loud sounds. For these lead guitar recordings it was very LOUD, so loud I had to wear hearing protection. 

I put the Royer R121 ribbon microphone on a mic stand with the bright side towards the speaker cabinet, it was about 12" away from the speakers to start. Later I moved the mic back about two feet away from the speakers and liked this sound much better, it was less fizzy in the highs. 

For the room microphone I used the MXL Revelation. I've come to love this thing, it is extremely natural sounding and the continuous pattern adjustment is a thing of beauty. For this recording I set the microphone pattern to omni and placed it off to the side about 10 feet away from the 4x12 cabinet. This was distant enough to not have any phasing issues with the Royer which was in front of the speaker. The point of this microphone was to record the room sound so I had it pointed past the 4x12 towards the far end which is about 12 feet past the Marshall cabinet.

This song we're working on is a seriously rocking piece with double lead guitar parts coming and going all over the place. The sound has got to be ROCK, nothing less will work. I've already tried a lot of different things in this guitar section but nothing like this reamping adventure.

I borrowed our Vic Firth drummer headphones from the drum booth to protect my hearing during the recordings. These are basically industrial hearing protectors with sound transducers installed in them. I just put the cord in my pocket, it was not connected, I was only interested in the -25 dB sound level reduction.

The original guitar recordings were made direct from the Ibanez, Joe Satriani solid body electric guitar into the RNDI by Rupert Neve Designs and direct to the DAW. This is the most natural and musical sounding direct recording interface I've ever used. The original signal level was low enough so the signal never even got close to clipped. When you listen to the reamp guitar track the guitar sounds are super clean, you'd never know the power they can unleash.

I'm using the Radial Reamp box to connect the balanced line-out from my patchbay to the input of the various guitar amplifiers. This is how we get the reamp track out of the DAW and back into an amplifier for rerecording.

I've got the pot on the Reamp box wide open for maximum level.

I spent an entire day experimenting with all new amplifier setups (you never learn or improve if you keep doing the same thing over and over). First up was the Bugera 1960 Infinium driving the Marshall 4x12 loaded with Celestion Vintage 30's. 

My Bugera 1960 Infinium is modded, I removed a pair of output tubes and replaced the other two with JJ 6V6. This mod lowers the power a lot (possibly to 20-25 watt vicinity) but it's still LOUD through the Marshall 4x12 when it's cranked up, next time I'll get out the dB meter and take notes about the SPL in the room. From the unprotected ear pain level I'd say it was well over 110, it's a good thing our studio is out in the country. 

I made several recordings of the Bugera with the Royer ribbon moving back away from the speaker for a bit more of a natural sound. It still had plenty of angst, oink and grunt to it but was somehow less pushed or strained sounding with the microphone a little farther back. I found this to be the case no matter which amplifier head I was using. 

Overall I liked the sound of the Bugera, in retrospect I think it would have sounded a lot better if I had used an overdrive pedal in front of it. I was able to turn it up all the way but that was not my favorite tone. I used the dark channel at about 3 o'clock on the volume knob with all the tone control knobs wide open. The Bugera 1960 Infinium does not have all the preamp gain that the other two amps in this session provided, for this particular song we needed more overdrive than the inbuilt preamp could deliver by itself. 

For the next amplifier I went directly to my favorite Mesa Boogie head. This 100 watt all-tube amplifier is stock, it was built in 1999, this is one of three dual rectifier 100 watt heads by Mesa that I own. I completely retubed it last year with all new Mesa tubes. This is my go-to guitar amp for live gigs, I don't need any stomp boxes or gadgets with this head, I can do it all by working the volume control on the guitar. By a landslide this is my favorite tube head in the world. Not surprisingly this was the first amp I profiled when the Kemper landed in the studio. 

The Solo Dual Rectifier is known for a fizzy high frequency sound if you depend on the preamp for too much gain. You can minimize a lot of that fizz by running the Presence control at lower levels and/or you can crank the amp up so it's all distorted then reduce the input gain to get rid of the fizz. Getting a great rock sound out of Boogie amps is all a matter of adjustment, they're like finely tuned race car engines, they take time to learn all the ways they respond.

Since the volume handcuffs are off on this recording project I was determined to not have any fizz in the recorded sound. 

I recorded the first pass of the guitar leads and then took off my hearing protection and gave them a listen on the studio monitors. There it was, a little bit of fizz. It was a cool sounding tone but the fizz would annoy me in the future. 

Back on the Dual Rect control panel I reduced the input gain to about 12 o'clock and cranked up the master volume almost all the way. When I played the track through the Mesa the volume level was scary, even with hearing protection on I could tell it was unbelievably loud in the room. 

Overall the volume level in the room and the recorded track level were much higher than the Bugera. 

On playback I really liked the Boogie sound, it was very rock, lots of push to it. The room recording track had a nice bark to it too.

Getting the room sound right in the proworkshop control room only works with super loud guitar sounds. When the volume is right the room delivers an audible feel that seems much bigger than the physical space really is. At this point I was pretty happy with the recorded tracks I had to work with and I almost quit. But then I could almost hear Jim Marshall calling to me "Mark, use the TSL". 

My 100 watt Marshall head was the last amplifier design that Jim Marshall had anything to do with before he passed away. I met him at NAMM shows for many years starting in the late 70's, he was a gentle person and always happy to talk shop or whatever. He really had a lot of pride in the products his company had created and what an amazing success story he had to tell, always a treat. 

I connected the TSL 100 head to the 4x12 cabinet and warmed it up with a quick pass of the track. While the guitar part was playing from the DAW I reduced the input gain a bit and cranked the master volume to crazy loud. Even through my hearing protectors I could get a sense of the result of tweaking the presence and treble controls to add pick definition to the track. At this volume level the power amplifier section was beginning to strain and it was making a glorious tone. No compressors, no overdrive pedals, no EQ, all the sound came from channel two on the Marshall head and it sounded damn good on this track, even through the hearing protectors.

After I recorded the Marshall I was so glad I had not stopped earlier because upon playback I was immediately smiling from ear to ear. That was the sound; bright, edgy, ripp'n and tear'n, powerful, cut through like a knife, big, massive, killer, all the descriptors work, that was the lead guitar sound of rock. I've tried this head before and did not care for it too much on distorted sounds but this time it was a match made in heaven. I'll be tapping the Marshall for more reamp duties in the future.

Marshall by a landslide. This was the first time I've mic'd up the Marshall this way and used it in a reamp situation at extreme volume level. Normally I reamp through a couple of smaller Mesa combo amps that get a great sound together. I'm so glad I branched out and tried the ultra loud Marshall route. It's definitely a different sound. I like the sound of the Royer ribbon from farther out in front of the speaker cabinet and the additional room sound from the Revelation adds fantastic girth, resonance and dimension that is completely adjustable.

There's a lot of debate about modeling versus real amp and whether the listener can tell the difference. In this case I can say without a shadow of a doubt that it's very obvious the difference between the modeled amp tracks and the super loud reamped guitar tracks. 

The reamp tracks have cut and focus with completely variable dimension thanks to the room mic. 

Other amplifiers and recording methods can certainly deliver excellent guitar tones but when it comes to a seriously cranked up, rock lead-guitar tone the good old Marshall crunch tone is a classic that never fails to deliver.

Good music to you!