KEEPING IT SIMPLE IN THE STUDIO BY RICH TOZZOLI
“Insert quarter, avoid Klingons.”
That line—often repeated in the latest Steve
Jobs biography—is meant to indicate how
easy the instructions were to one of Jobs’
favorite Atari arcade games. The point is
powerful: Keeping things simple is often
the best way to get something done. This
philosophy can directly apply to guitar production—especially in the studio.
In the course of cutting a large number
of TV tracks, I often have to come up with
a lot of material in a short amount of time.
Too often, I’ve backed myself into a corner
trying to play a part that might be overly
difficult or complex for my own good. Sure,
I’ve sometimes pushed myself to get it right,
but more often I take a mental step backward and tell myself to keep it simple.
I have to continually remind myself of
this lesson. When reading that line in the
Jobs bio, I had to stop and think. It reinforced the notion that simple, well-designed
things—be they iPods or guitar parts in a
song—can be just what’s needed. Once I
realize I’m stuck on a part or that something
is not working, I’ll first clear my head. That
means I’ll either step away or just have the
engineer (or myself) roll the rhythm track.
I’ll listen intently to the groove behind the
song and focus on the kick, snare, and bass.
Then I’ll mentally separate the chords and
melodic structures from the actual rhythm.
Finally, I’ll make sure nothing is interfering with the song’s “center,” be it the vocal
melody or dialog (in the TV world). This
process allows me to then approach the task
again in a “simple is best” state of mind.
I’ll also ask myself, “What is the most
basic guitar part this song really needs?”
Once I’ve got an easy part flowing, I’ll
then take it to the next level if necessary.
Since I’m a big fan of double-tracking, I’ll
sometimes split the parts up as well, playing a bass-heavy pass on the left, followed
by a lighter, higher-position part on the
right. Taking it a step further, I’ll try to
simplify the guitar sound itself. That may
mean stripping down any production elements, such as delays, reverbs, or effects.
Remember, dry guitar parts will present
themselves as sounding “forward” in a mix.
Wetter parts will sit themselves “deeper.”
That’s why I rarely use room mics when
tracking guitar parts. I find that they often
don’t get used in the final mix. Of course,
there are times where a room mic can add
On “When the Levee Breaks” from Led Zeppelin IV, Jimmy Page’s guitar parts are panned left and
right, and mixed quite dry with some deep flange. Conversely, the drums have a lot of deep room
sound that’s exaggerated by heavy compression. This “dry/wet” combo gives the song a big,
deep, dimensional feel.
nice depth to a part, but it has to be the
right kind of track to fit the need. Usually,
placing a few mics directly on the speaker is
all that’s called for.
On this subject, I think of some mental
notes I made when talking with engineer
Tony Platt. Platt recorded (along with Mutt
Lange) Angus and Malcolm Young’s guitar
parts on the Back in Black album. He said
the band was adamant that little to no effects
be used during the mix process. Just pop that
record on, and listen closely to the guitar
production. Angus’ parts are right there in
your face, yet he used nothing but an SG
and some modified Marshall heads and cabs.
There are little to no effects on any tracks,
across the entire record. A classic indeed.
I often apply this “dry” technique when
mixing guitar-heavy projects. By keep-
ing the guitars up front, it lets me build a
dimensional soundstage behind them. A
great example of how effective that can be
is to listen to something like “When the
Levee Breaks” on Led Zeppelin IV. The
drums have a lot of deep room sound on
them that’s compressed quite hard. While
they sit themselves back in overall sound,
they also drive the whole song. Page’s guitar
parts are panned harder left and right, and
are quite dry verb-wise (with some deep
flange). That’s especially true for the slide
parts that permeate the song. This “dry/
wet” combo gives the song a big, deep,
dimensional feel. Another classic!
RICH TOZZOLI is a Grammy-nominated engineer and mixer who has worked with artists ranging from Al Di Meola to Ace Frehley. A life-long guitarist, he’s also the author of Pro Tools Surround Sound Mixing and The Ultimate Guitar Tone Handbook, as well as a composer
for shows such as Fox NFL, Pawn Stars, American
Restoration, and Gene Simmons Family Jewels.