Prospecting In California
Blog/July 28, 2014
Human performances are what make compelling recordings, regardless of whether it’s a singer with an acoustic guitar or a guy in a giant rabbit suit spinning discs. Does anyone really think a $15,000 microphone placed in front of a shit guitar or vocalist will really make things great? Have advertisers of pro audio equipment really been that persuasive?
What makes a great recording?
Well, there’s no accounting for taste of course. I watched a bit of Miley Cyrus in concert on TV the other day and couldn’t have been less appalled by it than if the promoters had replaced her with Tina Arena and asked the gal from East Keilor to sing AC/DC covers – it was bloody atrocious.
Everyone has their own opinion about what makes a great piece of music, and to prove my point I’d wager someone out there already finds my portrayal of the two singers mentioned thus far insulting. One listener’s pure gold is another’s yellow snow after all, and in the long history of art, this has always held true. Will it ever change? I doubt it.
To answer my own question – and this is always what’s foremost in my mind when I’m working in the studio – great recordings are primarily about musicians, their songs and their instruments. I’ve never, for instance, been struck by how good a bad singer sounds through a U47 long-body (despite that microphone’s well deserved reputation), or by how amazing a terrible drummer sounds mic’d up in the perfect room. It just doesn’t work that way. But I’m constantly bowled over when a great musician brings these same inanimate ingredients magically to life.
Human emotion is what this recording caper is all about. Without it, the best microphone on earth placed in the perfect spot in a room might as well be a corncob on a stick, for all the good it will do.
But as we all know, it’s often harder to find a great musician with a great song than it is to find an esoteric microphone. This is why so many engineers in particular tend to focus on their recording equipment – hey, it’s their job after all – to the point where they occasionally mistake the microphone for the star of the show, and the singer its ‘noise generator’.
If you suspect this in your own personality but can’t quite tell whether or not it’s affecting your work (i.e., boring your clients witless), try this simple test. The next time you get into a conversation with a band about microphone placement or phase coherence, check to see if people glaze over half way through your dissertation. If that’s happening you can be sure you’ve spent too many hours on the forums. Time to recalibrate your thinking a little.
While I’m over here in the US (I’m currently in San Francisco on holiday with family) one of the things I like to do to improve things in my studio is buy instruments – guitars primarily. And the reason for this is pretty simple really: they’re relatively light – unlike a piano or a Wurlitzer – they’re used most weeks in the studio, and they’re often crucial to productions I’m working on. They’re also fun to be around. Even though, from the outside, it may seem like a form of insanity for an average guitar player such as myself to own so many great guitars, it makes more sense to me than buying more microphones.
It’s a bankrupting hobby in the main, vintage guitar collecting. Scary price tags adorn the necks of seemingly clapped out, beaten up old instruments, but like fallen ANZACs, age mostly doesn’t weary them. In fact, age is precisely what seems to make them great, and there appear to be more ancient six-stringed nuggets in Californian goldfields than just about anywhere on earth.
In the last month I’ve found myself prospecting for guitars all over northern California, and after a few underwhelming visits to places like the Guitar Center in San Francisco and other notable mainstream shops, last week I hit pay dirt in sleepy Tiburon. At the far end of a gauntlet of overpriced, mundane clothing stores, where people say things to you like: “Oh actually this dress only came in from Paris this morning” – I kid you not… and no, I wasn’t trying on dresses, my partner Sierra was – lies a hidden seam of wooden gold as rich as any I’ve struck before: Schoenberg Guitars. Inside this little shop there are more desirable acoustic guitars per square inch than I’ve ever laid eyes on before. It’s a magical place.
So overwhelmed was I by the sheer magnitude of the Schoenberg strike that I hardly knew which guitar to take down off the wall first. There were literally dozens of Martins and Gibsons begging to be played, all of them old, some of them dating as far back as the late 19th and early 20th Century. I was in 7th Heaven.
I played a lot of truly inspiring instruments that day, but ultimately walked out of the shop empty handed – paralysed by choice and the (in some cases five-figure) price-tags.
I’m due to go back to Tiburon in the coming days and who knows what may transpire then, but what the visit to Schoenberg Guitars has clarified in my mind (or is it simply my guitar addiction talking?) is that a fantastic recording of an acoustic guitar – and this principle of course applies to any instrument – is all about the quality of that instrument and the person playing it; an obvious observation sure, but one that’s often lost on people. Frankly, you could have stuck an SM57 in front of many of the acoustic guitars in this little shop and they’d still sound fabulous.
There was one guitar in particular I really loved that day – actually, there were a dozen, but who’s counting? It was a Martin 000-18 from 1938, which sounded truly incredible; a well-worn beauty with a tone that made my modest strumming come alive like never before. The guitar had called my name the moment I walked through the door, but the reality was I just couldn’t afford it. Then Eric Schoenberg – the legendary owner/proprietor of the shop – nonchalantly let it slip that the guitar in my hand used to be owned by Gerry Garcia from the Grateful Dead! It was at that point that I started planning my first bank robbery… it will be a one-off you understand; I won’t be making a habit of it.
Whether I go back to Tiburon to buy Gerry’s old Martin I’m not too sure, but it seems like destiny has me in its grip once again… and who am I to resist fate?
GO TO THE SOURCE
The last time I was struck by the extraordinary sound of an instrument like this was when I worked with Paul Kelly on his recent Spring and Fall album. Coincidentally, Paul has an old Martin that dates from the same year I think – 1938 – that sounds astounding clear: dry, sensitive and almost unbelievably articulate. By a country mile, the sound of that album is the sound of that guitar, along with Paul’s iconic voice. It has very little to do with the mics used to record it or the treatments we applied later during mixdown. Recording superb instruments makes you appreciate where truly great sounds come from – instruments and musicians…
Far away from my studio and with a Californian perspective, I’m struck anew by the realisation that old acoustic guitars are arguably more beneficial to my recording studio’s arsenal than expensive mics or fancy compressors. It’s a contentious theory I’ll admit, especially amongst engineers, but in many respects it’s true.
Now, where’s my wallet? I have a date with