Engineer Mick Conley offers guitar recording tricks that anyone can use
Interview by Lorenz Rychner
Marty Stuart won a Grammy® in 2011, his fourth, this one for Best Country Instrumental Performance, for his song “Hummingbyrd” from the CD Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions. We contacted the man who is responsible for Stuart’s sound, Nashville-based producer/engineer Mick Conley, to find out how he goes about getting these award-winning tones.
We heard that you’re using the 3 Zigma mics (from ADK)—they come as a “toolkit” with a variety of components—which ones do we hear on Ghost Train?
Mick Conley: On Ghost Train and the newest album, Nashville Vol 1: Tear The Woodpile Down, I used the 3 Zigma mic kit extensively, primarily on acoustic instruments. The HA-TL bodies were used with several different capsules. On Marty’s famous Martin D-45, the capsule that we use the most is the GK12. I’ll switch that to a GK67 or the hypercardioid to make the acoustic guitar “sit in the mix” in various ways.
How do you choose?
Choosing to record the guitars in mono or stereo will vary according to how the guitars need to fit in with the rest of the tracks on any particular song. If there’s a lot going on in a song, I’ll record in mono, especially if we’re going to add a second acoustic guitar. If the song features the acoustic guitar as the main backing instrument, then I’ll record it in stereo. When recording in stereo it’s important to keep phase problems to a minimum. The “3-to-1 Rule” is a good place to start.[For readers just starting with recording, the “3-to-1 Rule” states that two micro-phones in the same recording session, whether recording the same source or different sources, should be at least three times as far away from one another as either mic is to its recorded source. This lessens the likelihood of tone-altering phase cancellation between the two mics.—Ed.]
A nice-sounding technique is to use a “Nashville High-String” guitar along with the main acoustic. The hypercardioid seems well suited to recording the high-string. That combination makes for a nice shimmering acoustic guitar combination. I also used the hypercardioid on upright bass and was very pleased with the sound.
Any special positioning?
Many times I will place the microphone above the guitar, pointing down at the floor, from the same perspective that the player hears the guitar. It looks kind of odd, but it’s worth experimenting with. You can see it clearly in the photos I provided of Marty in the studio with his guitar and mandolin.
How far from the guitar?
The distance will vary according to how close you want it to sound or how how much “air” or “room” you want for the song. There again, it takes some experimentation. I’m fortunate that Marty, Kenny Vaughan (guitar), Paul Martin (bass), and Harry Stinson (drums) allow me the time to move microphones or make any small adjustments to get the sound right.
Tell us about Marty’s signature electric sound?
I usually mike electric guitars with a single Shure SM7, or in combination with an AEA R92 ribbon. Blending the two micro-phones in different proportions can give you a lot of tones. Occasionally we will want a more distant sound, so I’ll put a microphone out in the room to capture more ambience. Marty has an electric guitar we call “Clarence”. It is the ’54 Fender Telecaster that belonged to Clarence White of the Byrds. That guitar has the first “B-Bender” on it, and the sound of that guitar is totally unique. [The Parsons/White B-Bender, originally called the PullString, is a device that lets the guitarist bend the B string up by as much as a full step for steel-guitar licks simply by pulling down on the guitar neck.—Ed.] The “Clarence” guitar can scream or be smooth with just a twist of the volume knob. The two mics give me the control for the wide range of tones that Marty gets.
What goes into making better guitar recordings?
Having a well tuned instrument in good repair is essential to making better recordings. Bad strings, with buzzes and rattles, or just bad technique can ruin a recording. It’s often taken for granted, but the old say-ing “crap in, crap out” applies here. The engineer can almost work miracles, but a bad-sounding instrument will still sound bad, even with all the tricks in the book.
How should beginners figure it out?
Experimentation is essential to finding what sounds good to you. There are a multitude of ways to gather information about recording these days: the internet, classes, recording clubs, magazines like yours, etc. Sharing information between engineers and musicians is a great way to learn and for all of us to make better recordings. The quest for knowledge is never-ending for me. I feel like I’m just beginning every-time I sit down to mix or to record.
Stepping away from guitar recordings for just a moment, how did you capture Marty’s voice on the last album?
The vocal mic that I used for Marty is the ADK Berlin 47 Au (reviewed September 2010) with the custom shop mod. The mic has good bottom end and a nice lift in the upper frequencies without being harsh. There’s not much to tell about getting these mics to sound good, I just try to choose the mic that I think is appropriate and move the position of the mic so that I can get the sound I want without using eq. I also have the original ADK Area 51, which I use quite often. of UAD plug-ins and the SSL Duende Native channel strip. The parallel drum bus is a UAD Neve 33609 or SSL bus compressor. When I mix “in the box” I’ll use the SSL bus compressor on the output bus.
Is the Universal Audio UAD also your go-to for effects?
Effects are usually the UAD Plate 140, UAD EP-34 tape delay, the Reverence convolution reverb that is included with Steinberg Cubase, and the SSL X-Verb. On Ghost Train I ran the vocals into the RCA Studio B plate reverbs and printed them to their own tracks. Later on, I tweaked the Plate 140 slightly and it was hard to tell the difference in the track. When I need to add “drama” on a track, or what Marty refers to as being “cinematic”
What do you do to the tracks for the mix?
High-pass or lowpass filtering on individual tracks can clear up a mix tremendously. A bit of eq is usually necessary to clear out space for all of the tracks, typically involving lower-mid frequencies that tend to load up. Are there particular plug-ins in your mix setup that see more use than others? My plug-ins are primarily from the Universal Audio UAD-2 DSP card, plus the Solid State Logic Duende Native bundle. The plug-ins from SSL and UA have incredible clarity and depth. A typical channel in the mixer starts with the UAD Studer 800, with different combinations I’ll use the SSL X-Verb. You can get an incredibly long decay time and the width and depth of the SSL X-Verb is incredible.
Finally, can we have a peek at your personal studio toolbox?
I’ve been a long-time user of Steinberg Nuendo, Cubase, and Wavelab, because I’ve always liked the sound of their products. I am using a PC Audio Labs Rok Box 64 computer running Windows 7 with converters from RME, and I’ll soon try the new SSL MX series converters. The JBL LSR4326 monitors are my main reference, with various small speakers to check my mixes on, for television and small home stereo systems.
Mick Conley is a Nashville-based producer/engineer whose credits include Marty Stuart studio recording projects, he is the audio producer on “The Marty Stuart Show”, and he works F.O.H. He also has extensive credits with artists like Connie Smith, Kathy Mattea, Suzy Bogguss, Danny O’Keefe, and Patti Page, to name a few. Photos by Anthony Scarlati.
Excerpted from the July edition of RECORDING Magazine 2013 ©2013 Music Maker Publications, Inc. Reprinted with permission. 5408 Idylwild Trail, Boulder, CO 80301 Tel: (303) 516-9118 Fax: (303) 516-9119 For Subscription Information, call: 1-800-582-8326 or www.recordingmag.com