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Heavy fretting (Part 3)

Recording guitar

Article from The Mix, March 1995

Fade away and radiate with Primal Scream's engineer Brian O'Shaughnessy

In part three of his series on recording guitar, Brian O'Shaughnessy gets round to the clever stuff, including gating, echo and modulation effects

In my previous pieces I've explained my general approach to recording guitars, and shown you how to get a good basic guitar sound. We briefly mentioned the use of effects, so this month I want to go into more detail and cover specific applications.

Most guitar amps and effects pedals generate some noise; this may be of a sufficiently low level to ignore, or the guitar part may be continuous through the song, so that the noise will never be exposed. It is also good recording practice to only put on tape stuff you want. What do I mean by this?

Say the guitarist is about to do some distorted power chords, to lift the chorus of a song. If you don't know when the chorus is coming up, get a member of the band to count you in and drop into record on the down beat, then at the end of the chorus, gently fade the tape send and drop out of record, play on to the next chorus with the channel muted, unmute and proceed as above, and you've got a clean track. If, however, this is not practicable (say it's a very intermittent guitar part, or nobody knows when the guitarist is going to play), then it's time to reach for your trusty noise gate.

Respect due

I should, at this stage, recommend the tutorial on noise gates by Bob Dormon in THE MIX, issue 2. This gives a good idea of how to use gates, but you may have missed it, so here's what you do:

(1) Patch the gate across the channel the guitar is coming in on.

(2) Set the gate RANGE to maximum (so you can hear exactly what it's doing).

(3) Adjust the THRESHOLD so the gate opens when the guitar is played, but stays closed when presented with unwanted noise.

(4) Adjust the ATTACK, so the gate opens quickly enough so as not to cut off any of the wanted signal, but not too fast (or you may get a 'clicky' attack to the note).

(5) Adjust the HOLD and DECAY, so as to get a smooth decay to the note: You don't want to cut off any of the natural sustain of the note, but you want the gate to close before unwanted noise becomes apparent.

(6) Re-adjust the RANGE so the gate isn't working any harder than necessary.

In his tutorial on noise gates, Bob Dormon showed you how to use an external signal to trigger a gate, and thereby convert a keyboard pad sound to a pulsing rhythm part. The same technique can usefully be applied to guitar, to give you a convincing old-fashioned amp-style tremelo effect, without spending ages fiddling around trying to get the tremelo even vaguely in time with the track.

This is how to do it:

(1) Proceed as in steps (1) & (2) above.

(2) Programme a sequencer or drum machine to play 8 or 16 to the bar. This will be the KEY signal. Use a short sound: e.g. a rim, closed hat, or clave; this will make it easier to set the HOLD & DECAY on the gate. Bob used an accented hi-hat pattern to trigger the gate in his example, but we'll need an unaccented part to get the tremelo effect.

(3) Patch the KEY signal to the EXTERNAL input on your gate, sync up your sequencer to the track, set the gate to EXTERNAL, run the track and get the guitarist to play along.

(4) Adjust the THRESHOLD, ATTACK, HOLD, & DECAY so the gate opens and closes for each beat of the KEY signal.

(5) The guitar should now be pulsing in time to the track. Adjusting the RANGE to less than maximum (try about 50%) should give a tremelo effect. If it still sounds too abrupt, back off the ATTACK & HOLD, and increase the DECAY.

Unlike some effects, which you wouldn't normally record to tape, I would suggest you record this effect, as it changes the way the guitarist approaches the part, and is thus an integral part of the sound.

Delay applications

A digital delay line (DDL, Delay) can be a very useful tool for modifying and improving guitar sounds. I think of delay effects as falling into two general types. Delays of less than about 80 milliseconds (ms): flanging, chorus, etc, where the delay effect is not heard as a distinct repeat, and delays of more than about 80 ms where separate repeats are heard. Any decent unit will have something like the following controls:

(1) Input Level: Set this as high as possible without overloading (usually indicated by red LEDs) so as to optimise Signal/Noise ratio (cleaner recordings!).

(2) Delay Time: Generally continuously variable in steps of either 1/10th of a millisecond or 1ms, from 0ms to 1.000ms (1 second) or more. There should be an LED display to indicate the delay time.

(3) Feedback or Regeneration (Regen): Variable from no feedback, (only one repeat is heard), through several repeats and multiple repeats, to the point where the unit feeds back on itself, and howling distortion occurs.

(4) Modulation (Mod): This modulates the pitch (frequency) of the repeat, and is useful in creating chorus effects. The Modulation will have adjustable Depth and Frequency controls.

(5) Mix or Level Balance: Adjusts the mix between the original signal and the delay signal. I normally set this to full effect and no direct signal, return the effect signal to a different channel on the mixer, and set the balance between the direct and the effect on the desk. But if you're short of desk channels, you can use this.

(6) Output Level: Again, set this as high as possible without overloading, so as to optimise the S/N Ratio.

But that's cheating... The Ultrafoot system from ART — Delay, flange, reverb and more

Now, we'll look at specific delay effects — first the shorter delay times.

Phasing can be created by using a delay time of 1ms or less, little or no Regen. Use the Frequency control on the Modulation section to adjust the sweep rate of the phasing.

Flanging: Use a delay time of 5ms-15ms, set the Regen to about 50%, and again use Frequency to adjust the sweep rate.

Chorus: Set the delay time to between 20ms & 30ms. Regen to about 20%, Modulation Depth about 30%, and Frequency to about 1hz

Automatic Double Tracking (ADT): Set the delay time to between 40ms & 80ms; don't use much Regen or Modulation — adjust these by ear to suit the particular application.

When using longer delays, the relationship between the timing of the repeat and the tempo of the track is important. If you know the tempo of the track, the following formula will give you 'in-time' repeats: 60,000 divided by the BPM - Repeat Time in milliseconds. If you don't know the Beats Per Minute, then you should feed the snare drum (say) from the relevant song into the DDL, and adjust the Delay Time till the repeats fall in time with the track. Use a multiple (2x, 3x etc), or a fraction (1/2, 1/4, 1/3 or 3/4) of the calculated repeat time, and no modulation, in the following applications.

Rock'n'Roll: about 90ms - 150ms; adjust Regen to taste.

Tape Echo: (As used by Hank Marvin. Jimi Hendrix etc). To simulate WEM Copicat or Roland Space Echo, set repeats in time (100 - 400ms); roll off some top and bottom EQ, and boost the low-mid on the channel you're returning the delay to. Now control the Regen, by sending some of this channel's output to the input of the delay: This mimics the degradation of tape echo. You can even try a tiny amount of Modulation, to simulate the wow and flutter of tape units.

The spacey, Pink Floyd type of repeats are generally more than 250ms, with a fair amount of Regen — these, too will sound better if they are in time to the track. A quite effective trick is to pan the direct signal hard left, and the delay hard right in the mix.

I've covered some delay applications here, there are others, e.g. that nice skankin' reggae rhythm guitar (single 8th note repeat); what is known as 'Ping-Pong' (a delay of Xms panned left, some of its output sent to a delay of 2Xms panned right, and some of that sent back to the first delay). Again, we could probably do a whole series of pieces on delay effects alone, but that might be straying rather from the guitar theme of these articles. What you should do is find a patient guitarist friend, and spend an afternoon experimenting, using some of the above suggestions as starting points.

I haven't looked at reverb effects here, mainly because I seldom record guitar with reverb on, unless the musician uses the amp reverb for a specific effect. I do use reverb on guitar, but not till the mixing stage, and I'll cover that in more detail later.

Anyway, there's some stuff for you to try out in the comfort of your own studio — Have fun, but don't upset the neighbours. Next month we'll be dealing with acoustic guitars and the like, so dust off your old 12-string, get some new strings on it, and then remember just how hard it is to play!

Series - "Heavy fretting"

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Publisher: The Mix - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

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The Mix - Mar 1995

Donated by: Colin Potter

Coverdisc: Simon Dell

Sound Advice


Effects Processing



Heavy fretting

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 (Viewing) | Part 4 | Part 5

Re:Mix #9 Tracklisting:

14 Brian O'Shaughnessy - Recording guitar

This disk has been archived in full and disk images and further downloads are available at - Re:Mix #9.

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