Nothing stirs a debate like the subject of capturing distorted rock guitar on disk. A few choice topics guaranteed to produce a heated argument include: amps vs. pedals, tubes versus solid-state, miking vs. direct recording, Brit vs. Yank, master volume vs. non-master volume, and 6L6 vs. EL-84.
Yet when the topic turns to creating a clean country sound, there’s surprisingly little controversy. Take, for example, the classic clean lead tone, á la Albert Lee, Vince Gill, or Brad Paisley. They may use different guitars and amps, but their approach to signal processing and EQ all falls within a given range. One of my own recording endeavors required getting that classic country sound by recording direct—no mics, no amps—and I’d like to share my results.
Getting’ Down that Country Sound
Recently I had the opportunity to produce an educational CD and book project that featured my own arrangements and performances of country lead licks in various styles: chicken pickin’, swing, pedal steel bends, fiddle-tune lines, and rapid fire bluegrass runs. I decided to go with a consistent classic clean lead sound for the entire project.
Since I was recording in my home studio, I settled on the direct approach so I could woodshed late into the night without disturbing others in the house. Miking an amp would have been ideal, of course, but I figured I could live with the tradeoff of convenience or sonic purity, seeing as how this was an educational product and not Brad Paisley’s next platinum-bound Grammy-winner. I came up with excellent results going direct, but to get there I first had to find a sound that resembled my Fender amps.
Take Your Pick of Some Country Licks
Check out the clips below. I made no adjustments to the controls when playing these four excerpts. The only thing I did was mix the overall level of the guitar relative to the rhythm tracks. Following are descriptions of the audio files:
is a long up-the-neck solo incorporating chicken pickin’, steely bends, and some standard country licks.
captures some of that slappy, Commander Cody riffing using the guitar’s low notes.
uses swing voicings in a chordal riff that descends on a V chord, again played in a pedal-steel style.
is a series of slippery bends the way a pedal steel might play a single-note line.
Using Overdrive to Just Drive
Ironically, the box that gave me the best clean sound for my particular situation was an Ibanez Tube Screamer. Though not necessarily used for going direct or known for country, I nevertheless got greats results running it fairly clean (more of a boost, really) and directly into my mixer.
To do this, I backed the Drive control way down to where it was almost imperceptible. I left the Level control a little shy of 12:00, so that I wouldn’t be driving the Tube Screamer that hard. This low level compromised the highs in the signal somewhat, so I boosted the Tone to about 2:00. After I got my “amp” sound, everything else was pretty much the same as if I’d been playing live or miking an amp. I recommend trying the overdrive and distortion pedals in your stable as simple boosters, because they can also put back a little “hair” that would normally be provided by a hard-working amp. You don’t have to use what I used, and you might have to go through a few tests, but you may find a pedal previously used to just loosen peoples’ fillings can provide a warm boost if used judiciously.
Breaking It Down
Following is the breakdown of my essential sound—derived from stompboxes—and I’ll bet 95% of the country players out there use roughly the same gear or at least the same settings (within a range) on similar gear. (Now is that inviting a flood of hostile e-mail, or what?)
First up, I went from my G&L ASAT Classic into a Boss CS-2 Compressor/Sustainor. (Excellent results can also be obtained using the middle and neck pickups of Strat, provided the middle pickup is reversed wound.) I don’t like using compressors for fingerpicking as they smear out the nice dynamics of a sharply picked string and its rapid decay, but for country leads, a compressor is essential. The sustain control was almost maxed out to produce a warm, singing tone; it keeps the dynamics under control too, especially for hybrid picked string snapping. This attenuated the highs somewhat, so I pushed the Tone knob to about 3:00. I like the slightly furry sound the compressor produces when the level is cranked, so that was at about 4:00 as well. The attack knob I adjusted depending on the tempo. I wanted a little transient to sneak through for that “plank spank” sound, but I didn’t want the attack time too slow so that the average level was affected.
A Little Slap Never Hurt
From the compressor, I went into the Tube Screamer and then into my trusty Boss DD-2 Delay. My “staple” delay sound for country stuff is obtained by running the Feedback and Level controls at about 12:00 and the delay time at about 125-150 ms, depending on the tempo and desired intensity of the slap. This time range is somewhere between doubling and slapback, and creates a nice thickening sound. Once out of the delay I went into the board, where I brought in a little spring reverb (a modified reverb tank from a Fender Vibrolux) via an aux send.
Getting a classic country lead sound is fairly straightforward, and requires just a few standard stompboxes using the above settings.
Equal Parts High and Low
I was fairly happy with the basic sound, but the tone controls on stompboxes don’t exactly offer you precise control. I still needed something, and though I could have added a pedal-based EQ, I like my board’s tone-shaping controls much better. I think there’s also a psychological factor in using the board, as I feel like I’m shaping the overall sound. So it was on the mixer where I chose to perform a little EQ magic. (If you’re using a DAW, you can do the same with a channel-insert plug-in.)
I found that by boosting the midrange at 2 kHz, by about 8–10 dB, I got that steely, Dobro-type sound—a little shimmer that was still lacking coming out of the pedals. I left the high shelving (10 kHz) alone, but boosted the low (80 Hz on my board). The ASAT Classic has less of a low-end thump than some modern Tele’s, so the sound really punched through with a little bottom-end push.
Everything sounded pretty good when I played the guitar solo, isolated from the rhythm tracks, and put through a variety of monitoring systems: headphones, near-field monitors, and the CD player in my car. The sound was sparkly, spanky, and it actually inspired me to play more dynamically (probably as a result of the compression). In any case, it seemed to be a fairly versatile sound for a bunch of different licks and styles in the country lead vein.
About half-way through the project, I realized that I should make this sound “portable,” which is not possible in the current configuration because I employ outboard EQ (from the mixer) and outboard spring reverb (from the Vibrolux reverb tank). So my next project is to find suitable substitutes for the mixer and tank so that I can take my sound on the road!