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Sound Advice

Recording The Acoustic Guitar As Lead Instrument by Don Ross

After too many frustrating experiences in my formative recording and performing years trying to be heard, I’ve learned a few tricks on how to deal with the lost-in-the-mix’ problem.

Every song on my new album for Columbia/Sony, This Dragon Won’t Sleep, was recorded on 2″ analog tape on a Sony 24-track machine – even the solo guitar tunes. I decided to record the guitar. My live setup involves running my Lowden through a piezo transducer (made by John Larocque at Ring Music in Toronto, ON) in combination with a Sunrise magnetic soundhole pickup. I run the piezo through a T.C. Electronics pre-amp and straight to the board, whereas the Sunrise runs through a T.C. dual parametric EQ (where I cut out all the highs – the magnetic simply acts as a bass booster).

In the studio, I used these sounds minimally in combination with good quality mics (usually Neumanns) in front of the instrument. I always had the option of using some (or none) of the electronic signals from the guitar, which came in handy during some of the beefier arrangements.

Overall, our philosophy was to keep the record sounding as natural’ as possible by avoiding the easy trap of oversoing it with outboard effects. Despite the fact that Gary (Furniss, Sony’s chief studio engineer) sometimes had all but the proverbial kitchen sink patched into the mix, the sound is still very live’ – none of your Kenny G million-miles-of-reverb here! The other nice thing about not killing a recording with effects is that the music is listenable at every volume level, without any loss of detail. Effects have a tendency to date’ a recording. In five or ten years, when all technology changes, reliance on what seems like a groovy effect at the time can really render the album quaint’ down the road (sort of like listening to old records in fake stereo, or with reverb springs overloaded and pinging’ with the singer’s P’s and T’s). Of course, the flipside is that twenty years down the road, the old technology that sounded so crummy becomes all the rage again. I promise, though, that I’ll never put a phase-shifted Rhodes on any of my records! I prefer albums that are timesless, ones that sound as if they could have been recorded last week, no matter how old they are.

Don Ross, composer/producer, Columbia/Sony recording artist and U.S. national Fingerstyle Guitar Champion (1988). Has performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland and composed music for numerous television, radio and theatrical scores.

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