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The Guitar Tone Of The 90's

The 90’s saw the migration of guitar playing from high intensity shreading and grown men in spandex to a much more slower and mellow style with a tone to match. Drawing inspiration from Black Sabbath, punk and garage, the rock scene of the 90’s was (for most) a peak in music, and the guitar production of this period is one of power and massive walls of noise. I want to take a moment to briefly explore the methods to capturing and creating a generalised 90’s rock guitar sound.

Step 1: The source

Lets start with the most important aspect of any signal chain – the sound source. We want to get an incredible amp tone first before worrying about whats coming through our monitors at the end of the chain.

For the 90’s, the tried and true Marshall JCM 800 is an amp that will immediately give you a massive tone. The British distorted cruch tone is a staple even today as the go-to for a heavy rhythm sound. If you can’t get your hands on a Marshall JCM800, or Plexi of any discription, amps like Blackstar and Laney will get you in the ballpark.

I would not resort to using pedals in this stage to get the sound that you are after. If your amp can’t get the tone, you’ll be swimming against the tide. Amp simulators do a fantastic job at capturing a desired amp sound, but you’re missing at least 20% of the sound by not playing out of an actual amp. The simulations are incredibally close, but you can’t emulate the random events that occur within an electrical circuit, nor can you emulate the player reacting to the immense sound being pushed around in the room out of a 2×12″ or quadbox.

For getting a good amp tone, you’ll want to locate the amps sweet spot. This is usually in the area of 6-7 on a non-master volume Marshall, it is the area where the amp has broken into a nice saturated overdrive, where you can dig into the guitar and get a distorted sound. For master volume amps, max out the master to allow for maximum headroom, and dial in the volume to find the sweet spot; this should be again around 6-7.

Next, the equalisation really depends on the context of the song you are working with, and the guitar that you are using; or the pedals that you will be using that shape the sound to some degree. Generally for a Marshall, I like to keep the bass at 4-5, middle to 7, treble at 4-5, and presence at 4.

 

Guitar is also an important factor, but it is dependant on the specifc guitar sound you are after. For this ’90’s tone’, any well made, setup and looked after guitar should fit the bill, so long as it has pickups that have at least a medium output. For drop tuning, remember to intonate the guitar again if tuning down from E standard – if you do not do this then your efforts will be for nothing as you’ll be recording an out of tune guitar.

Step 2: The microphone's

Microphone choice for rock guitar in the 90’s was quite simple – meet you’re new 3 best friends (at least for me as I rarely leave the studio):

Shure Sm57
Sennheiser MD421
AKG C414

Fear not, as if you somehow can’t get access to the MD421 or AKGC414, but have the rarest microphone in the world – the Sm57 – you will be more the capable of capturing a great tone. If you have none of the 3 above mentioned microphones, I cannot stress enough the benefits to owning an Sm57, it is a workhorse much moreso than the MD421 and C414 which are workhorses in their own right, an Sm57 can do wonders on a multitude of instruments, and if you’re serious about recording guitar – get one – you won’t regret it.

Firstly, a little bit about each microphone:

The Sm57 is a dynamic microphone that excels at capturing the bite and grit of a distorted electric guitar amplifier (the frequency  range of 3-5khz). This microphone does not however have an extended low end or top end response, with the microphones frequency response rolling off at 12khz (this works beautifully for a Marshall amplifier, as they have an undesirable ‘fizz’ at 12khz.

The MD421 is similar to the Sm57 in terms of it being a dynamic microphone and its ability to capture 3-5khz well, however, the MD421 is a tom drum microphone, and thus is designed to have a better low end response. The MD421 does not have an extended top end response – and rolls of around 12khz like an Sm57.

The C414 is a condenser microphone, it has an extended low end and top end response due to condenser microphones have a superior frequency response spectrum. The C414 is great on guitar amplifiers as it also exhibits a certain aggressive characteristic at 3-5khz, but lesser than the dynamic microphones.

Now a bit about speakers:

The most common speaker cabinet of the 90’s (and still today) is the Marshall 1960a – which contains Celestian Vintage 30 speakers. The speaker has a few parts that you should be aware of; the speaker cone and the dust cover.

The center of the speaker cone is the part that produces the high mid to top end frequencies – and thus producers the presence/bite that an Sm57 or MD421 captures well.

The edge of the dust cover is the part that producers lower frequencies, and is suited towards the C414 or the Md421.

 

The parts of a speaker

Step 3: The miking technique

Now that we have a better understanding of our tools, lets use them. This is a general guide and I emplore you to be creative and try new things once you understand the basics.

The Sm57 practically lives on the center of the speaker cone (where the dust cap goes). The Sm57 should be placed dead center directly pointed towards the middle of the speaker about 1″ back from the grill cloth. You can alternate the Sm57 with the MD421 if you please.

The MD421 or C414 works well on the edge of the dust cap – capturing good low end frequencies. Now importantly, make sure the second microphone – whatever it may be – has its diaphragm placed exactly the same distance from the source as the first microphone. In this case, make sure the two microphones are 1″ away from the grill cloth of the cabinet.

This is to ensure perfect phase allignment, where the sound waves captured by each microphone are perfectly in line with each other and are not causing distructive interferance. The way I make sure my microphones are in phase is by turning the amplifier on without a guitar plugged in – miking the cabinet and sending the noise through to my headphones – then moving around the mic’s until the noise is centered in my headphones and not to the left or right. Then I flip the phase on one of the mic’s. When you flip the phase you should hear very little (hopefully nothing) – this means that your microphones are in phase. If you still hear a lot going on once you’ve flipped the phase, keep moving the mic’s until they are alligned.

This technique is the most simple on paper, but its difficulty comes through achieving perfect phase.

 

 

The technique in action - using an Sm57 and an MD421

Step 4: The processing

The processing used for recording guitars can either be incredibally simple – or very complex. For a 90’s guitar tone, the processing was quite limited, most guitars just went straight into the recording consoles mic preamps. To get close to the processing of this time, having a quality preamp of some kind is very beneficial – especially one that is designed to sound like a vintage mic pre. You can get away with using a Neve 1073 style preamp (the most common), an SSL preamp, or my favorite for guitars, an API 512 preamp. The Neve 1073 will have a characteristic ‘warmth’ or large low end which works well for a Marshall amp. The SSL is a quite aggresive preamp and can sound decently clear and present. The API preamp is a combination of the two to my ear. To get the sound of these preamps, you need to drive them considerably – they’re shy and only bring out their character when you spank them a bit.

A cost effective solution opposed to buying a vintage preamp or preamp clone is to simply not crank cheap preamps very hard. Even Behringer preamps can sound decent if they’re not turned up to the point of overdrive (funny enough

Heavily distorted guitars tend to not need any compression – as the amplifier is already applying large amounts of compression to the sound through distortion. Sometimes applying at most 3dB of compression can add to the sound. 

In terms of equalisation, you can tinker with the sound on an equaliser in the recording process – but I would attempt to change the captured sound through messing around with the microphones, amplifier, or the guitar.

Step 5: In the mix

Now that we’ve captured the sound that we want, its time to get it right in the mix. As we have used 2 microphones and captured two signals, you may think that they are seperate, when in fact we need to combine those signals in to one, that becomes 1 of our tracks. We then need to record another take that should aim to be extremely similar to the first. This is called double tracking. We then take our 2 combined signals using 4 different tracks, and pan them all the way to the right, and all the way to the left. What we have done here should be more then adequate for most, but we can now get a bit stupid (but in a contained and calculated way), lets make a wall of sound.

To make this wall of sound (think of Alice in Chains’ guitar tone, Smashing Pumpkins, Metallica etc), we need to record another set of double tracks that differ in tonal characteristics from the original double track. This was done in the 90’s usually by combining different amplifiers like a Marshall and a Mesa Boogie (but I don’t have a spare $6000AUD laying around to buy a Mesa). What we can do is use different guitar pedals for our double tracks. I like to do one double track of my Marshall with a Diezel VH4 pedal in the effects loop to get it to sound more like an American high gain amplifier, and then another with a Tube screamer in front of the guitar amp.

Combining these two sets of double tracks can lead to absolute mayhem if we don’t contain it. Thats why we need to make use of filtering. Find which track has the best low end, and low pass filter it at around 8-10khz, then take the track with the best top end and low pass filter it at 12-14khz whilst high pass filtering at around 150hz to allow the low end of the other track to peak through.

Then we can make track based equalising decisions, we might want to vocal to peak out more from the guitars – so we can cut around 1.5khz, or we might want the guitar to have more presence – so we boost 3khz. Another very important detail is to add some sort of tape emulator to the mix, as all 90’s guitars practically were printed to tape.

Final notes:

These steps should get you well on your way to exploring guitar tones, the recording process and the mixing process. Take this guide as it is – a guide, and explore a bit with this information to get a sound that works for you. The only things I suggest you abide by is proper instrument setup, and good phase allignment between microphones, the rest should be chopped and changed moving foward, but it is what was generally done in the 90’s to get the tones that we know and love. So have some fun, and if this helped you at all or If you would like to dicuss anything further, please send me an email.