Recording Studio Tip: Discovering Your Unique Guitar Tone with Chandler Limited Pedals

Sometimes the best way to be heard is to whisper instead of scream. Similarly, many of the most compelling recorded guitar tones in history are all about subtlety instead of bombast.

Over the years I’ve learned that lowering the gain of guitar amps in the recording studio (relative to the extreme high gain settings preferred by live shredders) will make heavy tones more articulate, and therefore more expressive. Diming the gain provides sustain, but destroys dynamics.

The trick to unlocking your unique tone is to find the amp’s sweet spot that allows you to clean up your tone when lowering the guitar’s volume knob and/or playing with a soft touch, and, with the same amp settings, enabling the amp to growl, sing and bark as you turn up or play harder. When that happens, listeners will be able to identify you by your unique dynamic touch, stylistic nuances and technique, regardless of your choice of amplifier or guitar. Chances are good that you will immediately sound like a more expressive player if you’re typically a high gain junkie.

Today’s tone tip is about how I use Chandler Limited’s two hand-wired boutique guitar pedals, the Little Devil Colored Boost and the Germainium Drive, to enhance my tone. Both are capable of screaming, but I prefer to use them more subtly. Because I already have, in my opinion, great tone that balances the fine line of crystalline chime vs ballsy growl, I don’t want to radically alter my tone. Sometimes I want just a little bit more of what I already have. A little bit more sustain, girth, drive… with a small bit of coloration to make the sound bloom with more character when I step on the pedal.

Although the Chandler pedals are designed to respond differently to each player, guitar and amp combination, I seem to always end up in the vicinity of my personal default settings, regardless of my amp and guitar choices. If you already love the sound of your rig, try my settings and let me know what you think.

From left to right, here they are.

Germanium Drive:

Highs – very bright

Germ Drive – 4.5

Feedback – 4

Boost Range – full

You’ll notice that my settings of Highs vs Boost Range meet in the middle ground, complementing each other to provide a nicely balanced tone.

Little Devil Colored Boost:

Boost Range – mids

Color Boost – 4

Feedback & Bias – 6 (or 5 for more bite)

Highs – very bright

As a subtle alternative, I sometimes switch the Boost Range to full and lower the Color Boost to 2.

I find that these settings tend to work on both my clean and crunch tones. Although similar in aesthetics, the Germanium Drive configured in this manner is a bit more dynamic and clear, while the Little Devil sounds relatively thicker and more macho. If the former is the equivalent of adding a tasteful rhinoplasty to your tone, the latter would be like adding a butt lift to it. Pardon the metaphor—it gets the point across.

I do in fact use other pedals with more extreme settings to create contrast in my palette of tones. Needless to say, you can, too – you don’t need to throw away all your other beloved pedals in pursuit of an idealistic, boutique, hi-fi tone. That said, it really is worth the effort to go down this road and find a pedal that allows you to retain your unique sound, while tastefully enhancing it. You can be even more of what you already are!

If I find some extra time this week, I may bang out a quick home-brewed video to let you hear what I’m describing. If so, I’ll update this post.

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Fly Your Freak Flag! (Thoughts on Nirvana, Adele, Innovation and Emulation)

Rosie goofing off, having a blast!

Sometimes you just have to let go of whatever “the grownup you” thinks you should do, and instead do what “the happy you” wants to do.  Kids, just like Rosie The Studio Cat, are full of awe and wonder; adults, including most recording artists and technicians, are shackled by heavy responsibilities and the need to fit in. 

Uniqueness is much more interesting than conformity. When we march (or dance) to the beat of our own drummer, we show the world our true selves, unique individuals who are probably a lot like the children we once were. Those kids knew how to have fun. 

When we have fun—even if we’re digging ditches—we attract other likeminded people. If we show the world who we are, we’re likely to attract others who have the same taste we do. Some folks will love us, and others won’t. Focus on those who already do. 
This is especially true in the record business and the arts in general. Innovators, not emulators, are the ones with longevity. Remember Nirvana? Of course you do. But what about Candlebox? 

Nirvana didn’t predict the next trend and tailor their sound to it—they were a unique badass band with great songs and a fresh sound that would inspire the birth of Modern Rock. A great artist doesn’t follow the trends, it sets them. Kurt Cobain spoke for a generation of folks who were going through the same shit as he was. He connected with his fans, the folks who loved him. Damn those who didn’t. Life is too short. 

Believe it or not, Nirvana was not universally adored at the time. Seattle’s scene was hot, with Soundgarden and SubPop, but Grunge music was for bands who weren’t real musicians. (Not my opinion, but the prevailing one in the early ’90s.) Nonetheless, Cobain’s songs were indeed radio friendly unit shifters, so countless emulators emerged. 

Beyond the obligatory flannel shirts, the signature formula included massive dynamic shifts. Quiet verses exploded into bombastic fuzzed out choruses. In contrast to the harmonic devices and voice leading of great songwriters of the time, like Neil Finn of Crowded House, the emulator bands often created tension and release without any change to the chord progression such as going to the relative minor or major chord. They simply stepped on the Big Muff fuzz pedal as the drummer bashed quarter notes on the crash cymbals. Perhaps primitive, but it worked. Especially for Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins, who had similar sounds, but were very different bands. (Check out the Pumpkins’ chord progression of “1979”—it uses harmonic resolution to create the sense of release into the chorus.)

Formulaic trend following, however, is not the path to a long career. Go ahead and pay tribute to your influences, but distill their essences through your own filter, and incorporate them into your art in unique novel ways. Dozens of major label bands in Nirvana’s wake learned this lesson the hard way. Trust me: I was head of A&R at Warner/Discovery, and I passed on literally hundreds of competent bands because they all sounded the same! They were good, but Nirvana was better. And Nirvana came first. 

Anything unique was a breath of fresh air, so that’s what stood out from the blur. When I say unique, I don’t imply batshit craziness that doesn’t fit into a pre-existing genre. I’m talking about something that’s 90% familiar and 10% unique or fresh. Adele’s new single, “Hello”, is a current example of this 90/10 concept. To folks my age, the sound is nothing new, but the conviction with which Adele sings is brilliant, and it makes the song believable. It feels honest, not formulaic, so it will be a big hit. It stands out from the blur and it resonates with listeners, so they will actually pay real money for it. 

As a parting thought, you don’t have to try to make friends if you just be yourself. Those who are meant to love you will organically find you. You can’t please all the people all the time, so be an innovator, not an emulator. Live your own life and make your own art, not someone else’s. You’re welcome. 

Rosie completely relaxed, with her goofball human guardian and his freakishly sexy giraffe print yoga pants.

Peak Limiting, Loudness Wars and Remote Mixing

Using the fine adjustment tool to crush the mix.

You probably heard of loudness wars by now. Back in the ’90s, somebody thought it would be a good idea to make a mastered mix as loud as possible so that it would sound explosive on the radio. The irony is that, on radio, quieter classic records from the 70s often sound bigger than today’s aggressively limited joints.

Wait a minute—that makes no sense! But it’s true. If during your next radio listen you happen to hear a finger-picked James Taylor tune like “Mexico” bookended by virtually any two heavy modern rock songs, you’ll be amazed at how rich, punchy and detailed it sounds relative to the others. Same thing goes for Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good” or later Led Zeppelin records. If you really want to be blown away, hope that you get to hear Bob Clearmountain’s mixes of “Weather With You” or “It’s Only Natural” from the 1991 Crowded House album, Woodface, or his Beatle-esque tour de force, “Sowing The Seeds Of Love” by Tears for Fears. Those FM radio staples virtually jumped right out of the speakers when they were freshly minted, and they still shine today.

So, why would a quieter record sound better than a loud one, on the radio? Answer: dynamic range.

Radio compressors and limiters are designed to be a one size fits all answer to the problem of over modulation, or “overs” that you’ve seen when digital peak meters go into the red, indicating clipping. If you were a radio station, you would not want overs because they would cause the FCC to fine you. If you were a record company or a vinyl pressing plant, you would not want them because they might literally cause the needle to jump right out of the groove, especially on a bass-heavy song!

Anyway, radio compressors and limiters sound more musical when they can react to a decent amount of dynamic range, of which modern rock records tend to have very little. Super loud, overly crushed records drive the compressor into gain reduction, where it frequently remains until the quiet breakdown or the end of the song. One of the symptoms this is a strident, distorted sound that fatigues the listener.

Okay, but what does this have to do with remote mixing?

The exact same mix, played twice with a 1 dB (or less) volume difference, will always cause the listener to believe that the louder one is better. What this implies is that my colleagues and I need to make our final mixes at least as loud as the reference mixes we receive from the artist. If we don’t do this, we lose. Nobody wants to pay thousands of dollars for a professional mix that does not sound as “good” as the band’s rough mix.

Of course, the pro mix will always sound better if the listening environment is accurate and the two mixes are level matched. These factors are easily controlled when the artist attends the mix session. Plus we discuss artistic goals, decisions are made together, and the process is transparent. The artist becomes an invested partner in the mix. When we compare the rough or reference mix to the new one, we are always doing so with matched volume levels. It’s super easy to demonstrate the difference in audible distortion, so the artist buys into the idea of clarity and punchiness instead of sheer loudness.

When mixing remotely, however, it’s difficult to guide the artist towards an optimal listening environment. The first thing the artist tends to do is to load the new mix into the original Pro Tools session to toggle an A/B comparison of the new versus the old. This can lead to two potentially huge problems. First, artists and bands typically do not know how to tastefully peak limit a mix, so, on a quest for maximum loudness, they squash the life out of their rough mixes to the point that static instrument levels begin to change over the course of the song, depending on how much gain reduction is being applied. If I don’t want to lose the battle of first impressions, I must compete with this loudness. Second, the artist may in fact be listening to my mix through their overcooked compression and limiting chain because they may forget to deactivate it from the mix buss.

Fortunately, experienced artists and repeat customers have already been down this road, so they tend to leave the peak limiter off their rough mixes. They trust me, because we’ve been successful together in the past, or they want to attain the sound of my records that they already know and love. New artists, however, are looking for any excuse to go the DIY, do it yourself, route. They do not want to spend money on crafting their records because they do not believe that they will ever make any money from sales of those records. They expect to hear maximum loudness on the first listen so they can compete on loudness instead of artistry. For those guys, I add a peak limiter to the first MP3 that I email them. I make the file the same loudness as their rough mix to dazzle them and earn their trust, then I ask them if I can take it off and do my thing. After I assure them that the final master will be at least as loud as the reference MP3, they’re cool with turning up the volume knob to listen loud.

It’s funny to me that as a guy with audiophile tastes, I sometimes prefer the energy and sound of limited masters to the (relatively) pristine clarity of the mixes. In order to tell with certainty, however, the two audio files must be level matched. Creative use of peak limiting can add a sonic crunch to rock songs that creates a sense of urgency. Limiting is almost required if you want to ensure that your record will be audible over the engine and road noise on your car’s stereo system. The unmastered mix will sound terrific in a neutral acoustic space, but mastering will ensure transportable translatability and competitive loudness. Peak limiting is a necessary evil that isn’t necessarily evil if done with prudence and good taste.

With that said, I wish all my artists and clients could be present for their mix sessions so that they could hear the dynamic beauty of their song in its pristine unlimited glory at least once. The experience might give them the confidence and courage to avoid getting sucked into the loudness wars. It’s ironic that they go to such great lengths to ensure that every detail is audible in the mix, but then they allow and encourage everything to be steamrolled during the mastering process— especially ironic considering that a reasonably dynamic mix will sound bigger on the radio than a squashed one!

Kathleen Wirt (right) and I are happy because Marek Stycos fed us Thai food after evangelizing about audio quality. Kathleen and her crew at 4th Street Recording in Santa Monica do things right. Great vibe there!