Hum Guitar Sounds?
On the album I produced with HUM titled “You’d Prefer an Astronaut”, their guitar sounds were inexorably linked to amazing guitar playing, drop-tuned guitars, and super lush chords. I think of my addition of some saturated tracks, a few carefully-chosen mics, and a couple big speakers was only that; an addition to what were already great guitar sounds. HUM wanted to get the fattest guitar sounds they’d ever heard on a record, so our mission was clear from the beginning.
Since they originally came to my (newly-opened) studio to simply re-mix an album that they had already completed, this turned out to be an extremely tall order. The money left from their recording budget from RCA was $35,000.00 (out of $100,000.00), and they didn’t think they could do anything other than pay for some mixing sessions, but after listening to the tracks they had recorded elsewhere, there was only one option:
Since this would be only my second full-length record I had ever produced on my own (with The Flaming Lips and ‘Transmissions from the Satellite Heart’ being my first), and since anyone paying me at all to make a record with HUM was a novel concept, I told the label that I would record an entirely new record for that kind of money. I had just opened my studio; The Playground, and was excited to have my first recording at the studio be with a band I adored. By the way; The Flaming Lips paid me $5,000.00 an no points to engineer and produce ‘Transmissions from the Satellite’ heart over the course of an 8-week period. (They said to take it or leave it because I “didn’t have a leg to stand on” when we started discussing engineering and production fees.)
So, I took the entire budget and bought an MCI JH-24 (the same machine we used for ‘Transmissions from the Satellite Heart’), and financed an Amek ‘Big’ mixing console with the rest. Knowing what little I did about HUM, I knew that there would be no way that I could make this record without automation, and the Amek ‘big’ actually has Total Recall automation…something that, in hindsight, was one of the best investments I ever made.
Whenever recording with the Flaming Lips, we used human hands and lots of tape, charts, and notes for each song. See the ‘Flaming Lips and Automation’ article for that story.
Anyway, HUM quickly got to setting up more gear than I’d ever seen a band use. The drummer (Brian St. Pere) had a double kick drum and a drum cage, shrouded in cymbal, after cymbal, after cymbal. The guitars both required Ã‚½ of a recording wall each, while the bass player set up his dual Ampeg SVG rig in what I thought was a large vocal booth.
Both guitarists in HUM (Matt Talbott and Tim Lash) loved Hiwatt and Orange amps and Gibson Les Paul guitars. Matt also had a Mesa Boogie head he’d plug into his Orange cabinet. I also had an 2 old Ampeg Bass Cabinets with a single 12′ speaker in each, as well as two unlikely, but amazing guitar mics. One was a mic I discovered out on the road; a Sennheiser 409 (now a 609), and the other; a studio accident; an Audio Technica 4033, as well as the occasional Shure SM58.
Each guitar rig got 2 mics each (for 5 microphones total per guitar rig…see below), with no external compressors whatsoever other than that wondrously smooth compression-y crunch from the JH-24. The Sennheiser 409 has a similar sound to the Shure SM57, but fuller, with much less midrange harshness, as well as a much fatter bottom and a far smoother top. Not only did these mics sound good, but they are one of the sturdiest mics I’ve ever used. And, for some reason, when they’re properly phase-aligned and mixed together with the Audio Technica 4033, the sound is massive, with little EQ and, as I just mentioned; no external compression.
The 4033 has almost a 180 degree pickup pattern with an overly bright sound, so I always found little use for it for anything other than a room mic or as an occasional vocal mic. But when it’s partnered with a 409, an amazing thing happens: All of the midranges that the 409 captures so smoothly, fit perfectly into the low and high scoop of the 4033. Everywhere that the 4033 is brittle, the 409 smooths out the sound, and what you get is a basis of the HUM guitar sound.
Also, I used the single 12′ Ampeg speaker for both Tim and Matt as a nice fat bottom that would also sit hard left and right, far out of the way of the bass guitar and kick drum, but providing necessary support for sounds that had a LOT to compete with. The mic on those were also single AKG 414’s. (The D112 sound was too fat and we wanted the kick drum to have its own unique mic and sounds anyway.)
But, that’s only part of the story: What HUM did on almost every track on the record is triple-track their guitar tracks. One of the most amazing things about Tim Lash was his ability to exactly duplicate his performance, no matter how complex. Matt Talbott was able to do the same thing, but never with the fluidity and grace that Tim was able to do it with.
As soon as they got a performance that they were happy with, they immediately recorded a 2nd and a 3rd track of guitars. I would then take two sets of those guitar tracks and pan the 4033 mics hard left and hard right, and then pan the 409 tracks at about 8:00 and 4:00. When there was a 3rd track (which wasn’t always), I would pan both mics together, with one at 9:00 and the other at 3:00.
Now we were getting somewhere!
And this method only provided the ‘bed’ tracks for many many many more guitar tracks to come. Almost every guitar part that wasn’t arranged in advance was multi-tracked, utilizing all 3 mics each time, adding to the lushness and the wash of ultra-thick guitar sounds that HUM is famous for.
People often ask if the 2′ 24-track machine or the 2′ 16-track machine we were using made a noticeable difference on the guitar sounds as well. After doing test after test after test, we all unanimously decided that the saturated sound of the MCI JH-24 was actually smoother and more desirable than the sound of the 3M M-79. Part of the reason for this may be because we had so many guitar tracks, but we tried every combination we could think of, spending an entire days on guitar sounds and possibilities alone, and what we ended up with was no EQ, no external compressors, and the crunchy sound of highly saturated 2′ tape.