Recording Today's Country Guitar Sounds
By Dan Daley
Chris Leuzinger comes with baggage. Lots of it. One of the handful of session guitarists who play on most of the major‑label country music recordings that Nashville methodically churns out, when Leuzinger walks into one of Nashville's numerous recording studios, he'll confront the engineer with a Vox AC30, a vintage Fender Bassman and a Deluxe Reverb, as well as several cabinets with various speaker configurations and two huge pedalboards, not to mention his own Royer 121 ribbon microphone. What there isn't a lot of is time. Although a session now lasts most of the day, rather than the three hours that were de rigueur in the '60s and '70s, the aim is still to finish three basic tracks per session, and guitars are still the foundational instrument on those records.
"We have to work pretty fast and still not make every guitar sound the same as it did on the last record, so the engineers and the guitarists collaborate pretty closely,” says Leuzinger. "But the important thing — and what sets Nashville apart — is that the sounds are real. The [live] drums often just get used to trigger samples, the keyboard parts are often MIDI'd and the sounds are replaced, but it's not that way with the guitars here. The engineers don't do a bunch of Pro Tools re‑amping. It's just the guitar being real.”
The engineers agree. "I guess what defines what we do down here is that the guitar players and the recording engineers are pretty much on the same page — we go for the real sounds,” says Bob Bullock, who has engineered most of Nashville's fabled pickers on sessions for George Strait, Shania Twain and others. "We live in a virtual age and we use that technology, but you just don't see it used on guitars in country music. Digidesign make their Eleven — their virtual guitar rack — it sounds good, and stuff like that and Pods have their place. But we're still going for organic guitar sounds. Guitarists still have lots of choices like they do with sampled sounds, but the choices really revolve instead around real guitars and amplifiers, and how they approach the music.”
While much of what is coming out of Nashville's country labels sounds a lot like rock music (more on that later), there are a few distinctly Nashville approaches to capturing guitar sounds. Close‑in microphone placement is one of them. A Shure SM57 placed within a couple of inches of a speaker cone, generally straight on or slightly off‑axis, is the common starting point for most engineers. "There's not a lot of distance miking going on country records. We're usually not going for the over‑the‑top stadium‑guitar types of sounds, so you don't usually hear a lot of room ambience,” says Bullock. "Country tends to look for the organic sounds and get close up on them.”
Steve Marcantonio has recorded plenty of country guitar stars, including the 'triple threat' Vince Gill — so‑called because he plays, sings and writes, all amazingly well.
"Most of the sound comes from the musician and they're listening to the front of their amplifier very close by,” says the New Yorker, who moved to Nashville 23 years ago and has worked regularly with producers including Tony Brown, Dann Huff, Mark Wright and Josh Leo, and who calls putting a U87 up for the guitar on the other side of the room "a luxury”. With the microphone close in, the amount of presence and brightness can be controlled surprisingly precisely with very slight adjustments in proximity (anything from two or three inches to as much as a foot away) and angle (never more than 45 degree off the centre axis of the speaker); the closer and more straight‑on the position, the brighter the sound.
Picking the best speaker in a 2x10, 2x12 or 4x12 cabinet is another subtle but important choice. "Some of the guitarists will mark their favourite speaker with a piece of tape on the grille cloth,” says Marcantonio. "When you're miking it close‑in, the sound of the studio isn't going to affect the sound of the amplifier, and you can recreate the tone consistently from studio to studio.”
If the guitarist is using an open‑backed cabinet, a Sennheiser MD421 is generally trotted out and placed on the rear, several inches back and with the polarity button in the console input channel reversed, if necessary.
While the SM57 remains the stalwart of amplifier miking in Nashville, the Royer 121 has achieved near‑parity in the last few years. It's usually placed next to the 57 and used to add more low‑end capture compared to the bright mid‑range of the 57. Sometimes it can be placed up against another speaker in the cabinet but on the same axis. "That ribbon can take a lot of sound pressure, so you can put it right up against the grille,” says Marcantonio.
What brought the close‑in culture about, though, is the fact that Nashville remains an oasis of ensemble recording. A typical tracking session will see five or more musicians in the same room; guitar amps are either gobo‑ed or placed in isolation booths, though it's not unusual to see their doors open a bit. Country also remains a mix‑as‑you‑go type of proposition, so engineers expect to record any effects or processing that guitarists plug in. "There are times when you come back to a song a few weeks later and put up a mix and wish you could pull the delay or something back a bit, but the effects are part of [the guitarists'] sound,” Marcantonio laments. "Fortunately, what you don't encounter on country guitar parts is a lot of processing. Sometimes it's as simple as spring reverb and nothing else.”
Stomp boxes tend to be noisier than pro audio gear, so Marcantonio has honed his chops on Waves' X‑Noise and X‑Hum plug‑ins. With the single‑coil‑pickups of Fender's Telecaster and Stratocaster used on so many sessions, positioning the player is important to minimise hum and buzz.
Nashville is a songwriter's town, and composers put a lot of effort into demos. It's not unusual for the musicians who play on those demos (and they are a caste unto themselves, waiting years for a chair to open on Nashville's 'A-Team' of session stars) to hear guitar motifs they came up with played a few months later when the record version comes on the radio — an event that engenders a combination of pride and annoyance. "It helps for the engineer to listen to the demo, too, because the guitar sounds might have been a big part of what made the song attractive to the artist or producer in the first place,” says Marcantonio. "They may want to use a guitar part and the guitar sound.”
Jeff Balding, who has recorded records for dozens of country artists including Sara Evans, Brooks & Dunn and Little Big Town, is also a fan of the Royer 121/Shure SM57 combo used close up (between one and three inches from the grille) on guitar amps, which give guitars what he calls a "nice and furry” timbre that helps keep them present in the mix without increasing their actual level. He'll run the microphones individually through Neve 1073 or 1064 preamps, although on rare occasions he combines them together via a 'Y' cord into a single preamp. However, in a nod to how close country records are getting to mainstream rock, he adds a Sennheiser MD409 or AKG C414 to the close‑mic mix, as well as adding room mics. One setup used on a recent session was an AEA R88 ribbon microphone on a stand four to five feet back from the front of the amplifier, to catch a combination of room ambience and direct sound. "It definitely helps the guitar sound fit in with a roomier drum vibe,” he says.
Balding reminds us that on a country music recording, the vocal carries the song and the song carries the record; all else — including guitars — is subordinate to that. "The vocal is going to be full bandwidth, so everything else has to be set around that,” he says, "and to ensure that the guitars don't compete with the vocal, it's important to keep the guitars away from key vocal frequencies.”
Like Vince Gill, Brad Paisley is the rare 'triple threat' in country music: the artist who shines as a vocalist, songwriter and musician. Paisley's Telecaster work has made him the new face of Nashville guitar sounds and has earned him accolades in the form of Grammy and CMA awards, and engineer Brian David Willis has been behind the board for Paisley since the beginning. Willis takes a relatively conventional approach but with a different set of microphones.
"Brad was playing through a vintage Vox AC30 — loud! He had used a Sennheiser 421 on his demos, and when I began working with him on his first album, I added an AKG 460 to get more thickness in the mids, and I stayed with that setup for the first few albums,” he explains. "Brad never really liked the 57 as much as other people do on guitar amps.”
On the earlier albums, Willis positioned the 421 halfway between the speaker cone and the outer ring, at about a 30‑degree angle off centre axis. The 460 was placed at less of an angle but about as close in as the 421, and he always recorded with the EQ flat on both channels. "A quarter of an inch movement with these microphones this close is all you need to dramatically change the sound,” he says. "The setup gets all the beef out of a Telecaster but doesn't lose the twang.” Willis ran each mic through a Neve 1073 mic preamp, and augmented the close mics with a pair of Rode NT1s in an X‑Y pattern, set back about five feet from the front of the amp and pointing downward at the concrete‑surfaced floor of the 3x6‑metre recording room.
On subsequent albums, Willis switched first to a pair of Neumann/Gefell M582s for room mics, then to a pair of Neumann U48s — which, in turn, have been superseded by an AEA R88 stereo ribbon. The room microphones add depth, but can also affect the articulation of the 16th‑notes that make up blazing Nashville solos. "If we lost a little articulation in a passage I might be tempted to move the microphone inwards towards the cone, but that would lose some of the roundness of the sound. Before doing that I'd ask Brad to play it again, which he's always up for,” says Willis. "Moving the mic inward is like dialling in a high‑pass filter to lose murkiness that's getting in the way of every note being clean and sharp. Sometimes that murkiness is the enemy, but often you need it to give some weight to the notes in higher registers. It's something you need to keep in mind with Telecasters. If you can get the guitarist to play it again, I'd prefer to do that first rather than take a chance on changing a great tone.”
Other techniques for keeping it clean include using only custom‑made guitar cables fashioned from Mogami #2792 wire, and keeping the signal path as clear as possible, minimising the number of stomp boxes used.
One thing about Nashville engineers is that they are obsessive note‑takers, and Willis is no exception. "If you have to come back days or months later and punch into a part, the only way you're going to be able to do that seamlessly is if you know exactly where you placed exactly which microphones on which amps and which guitars were playing through them,” he says, noting that Paisley's setup has become more complex, with a second cabinet close‑miked with either a U67, AEA R84, Royer 121 or even a 57 (depending on the song) through a Universal Audio 2-610 preamp. On one stretch of days in the studio, Paisley flew in bespoke amplifier builder Tony Bruno, who was hand‑wiring circuit boards on the fly as the sessions went along, with Willis tracking each nuanced change.
Every Nashville engineer has his guitar tricks, but they'll also agree that a great guitar sound starts with a great guitarist. "Without that,” says Bob Bullock, "all the microphones in the world won't do you much good.” .
The Grand Ole Opry didn't allow drum kits on stage until the late '50s, and even then they often had to play from behind the curtain. As a result, acoustic guitars were what kept the time for country music, even in the studio, a tradition that continues today. A specialised instrument configuration was developed for it: the Nashville high‑strung guitar, on which the lowest three strings are replaced with higher‑gauge strings that are tuned up an octave. You can restring a guitar or use the processing techniques pioneered by long‑time Nashville engineer/producer and Grammy winner Bil VornDick. He applies a high‑pass filter at 160Hz and filters out the sound below that. "That essentially removes the first octave of the guitar; the lowest three strings range from 82Hz to 164Hz,” he explains. The usual technique is to to layer two acoustic guitars — one full range, the other high‑strung — both in mono. "The classic mono approach is to place a [Neumann] KM84 or 54 aimed at the 12th fret [perpendicular] to the guitar and set back about six to eight inches, then stack a high‑strung on the second pass.”
For stereo acoustics, VornDick often uses a pair of KM54s. "The one on the left is angled down from the 12th fret and angled in towards the soundhole, and the right microphone is angled from in front of the player's right shoulder and towards the soundhole, keeping the 3:1 distance ratio in mind at all times. It really adds a third dimension to the sound,” says VornDick, who has used this technique often with guitarists such as Tony Rice, Bela Fleck and Doc Watson. Alternatively, for acoustic guitars that aren't necessarily going to be doubling the hi‑hat eighth notes but will still be strummed, VornDick likes to aim a Shure SM57 at the sound hole from slightly above it and eight inches away, coupled with a Neumann U67 or a Microtech Gefell UMT70, both condensers, in figure‑of‑eight mode to create an M/S pickup. "This setup gives you a lot of bite to the sound, lots of mid‑range, and is great when you need the acoustic guitar to be able to hold its own with the cymbals and the hi‑hat,” he says.