The Process: Tone in the Digital Realm / by Marcell Marias

So.  We got songs.  We got arrangements.  We got lyrics and melodies.  Ooo-rah.  There’s just one little thing more.

It needs to sound good.  Because regardless of what you might have heard, you can NOT fix it in the mix.  You can alter the tone a fair spell, add effects, and generally make a good track sound better.  But it won’t help bad source material.  As one of my friends is fond of saying, “You can polish a turd all you want, but it’s still a turd”.  The better the tone you track, the less time you have to spend wrestling with your mixes later. 

If I was in a traditional studio setting, I’d achieve this by setting up drums, amps, microphones, and firing up at least a 32 channel board.  I’d also spend at least a day just dialing in basic tones for all the instruments. 

Shai Azul is all digital.  Which has significant advantages.  I can record at 3am without bugging the neighbors.  I can lay down over 100 tracks on a single song if I want to (that’s usually a bad idea).  And best of all, I can do it by myself.  There’s some limitations, though. I can’t just tweak a knob on an amp to get the tone I want – it all needs to be preprogrammed.  The deck I am using has about 30 virtual amps.  None of them are even close to the actual amplifier I use live.  So there’s a lot of fiddling around.  And straight digital recording is *VERY* dependent on the quality of your gear. In a pro studio, a crappy guitar through a good amp can be made to sound passable with enough boosting and knob tweaking.  A crappy guitar recorded direct will just sound bad no matter what you do. 

Keys and drums are pretty easy.  By the time I’m at this stage, there’s been a fair amount of time spent on finding the right keyboard patches, snare sounds, high hats, etc.  We can fine-tune the EQ later; at this point, I just want the tracks to be loud, clear, and out of each others’ way.  I like to try to record the tracks as hot as I can without clipping.  You can always turn the volume down; it’s a bit harder to turn it up. 

Getting good bass tone is a bit more involved.  I knew I wanted a metallic, slightly distorted, defined quality a la King’s X/Overkill/Tool.  Unfortunately, none of the bass amp presets came close.  I struggled with this for several weeks, trying every combination of virtual bass amps, EQ, and outboard pedals I could find in increasing frustration.  This was one of those moments where the hands-off nature digital realm works against you. Because, were I in the studio, what would I have done to get this tone?  I would have grabbed a guitar amplifier, sat it on top of the bass rig, split the signal, recorded both tones, and blended them.  Durr.   Virtual guitar cabinet, check.  Massive bass boost, check.  Tame the midrange, check.  The sound I wanted, check. 

And, of course, guitar tone takes the longest to dial in.  We do some clean guitar, but most of the time we’re looking for big chunks of sharply defined distortion.  That’s a bit easier to come by; I think I chose the preset that said something like “Wall of Marshalls” and went from there.  But just because it sounds good in the phones doesn’t mean that the settings are right.  The initial Mirror Darkly guitar tones had a really unpleasant overtone.  Ever listen to Metallica’s “And Justice For All”?  Does it ever make your speakers make a “whoom-whoom-whoom” sound?  That’s what I had.  That means there’s too much bass on something.  Chris says he can fix that later, and I believe him, but I also didn’t want to be the cautionary tale.  So you turn down the bass.  But then it’s too trebly.  So you dial that back.  Then it sounds right… but doesn’t have that crunch you’re looking for.  So you up the volume… and back comes the “whoom”.  So yeah, lots of fine-tuning and getting the levels set just so.  Just like in a traditional studio. 

There’s about 4 different distortion settings on the Mirror Darkly compilation.  And unless I played them back to back you’d probably not notice any difference.  One for parts played with palm muting (louder, more bass and midrange), one for chord and riff-heavy songs (less bass and volume so that “whoom” doesn’t appear), and two more ‘general’ sounds that I use for blending.  I also tend, on the more metal/industrial songs, to double the guitar parts.  Makes for a very big sound, as long as I play them identically. 

That’s a lot of instruments, and one of the main challenges is making them all distinct and cohesive.  You want clarity, not sonic mush.  You can avoid a lot of this in the songwriting and arranging – drop out a guitar line, boost the keys an octave, simplify the riff, whatever.  But you also need to shape the EQ of individual tracks.  Sometimes that means adding or subtracting way more of something than your instincts would tell you.  But the goal is for the instrument to be audible in the mix.  If it’s not, then drop it.  It’s just clutter.   

Oh, vocals?  

I don’t even try.  I bounce all this down to .wav files and take it to a full studio for that.