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LIFT YOUR WALL OF SOUND OFF THE GROUND.
Wall-of-sound production seems pretty straightforward from the outside, but it’s one of those things that’s easy to do, but difficult to do
well. An amateur will just throw a bunch of loud sounds at the wall, but professionals like James Russell from Heliport Studios spend day after day filling the frequencies with endless EQing, balancing reverb and placing harmonics in the perfect position.
The right mics, mixing board, amps and software are essential – along with an in-depth understanding of how to hide instruments in the background to subtly plug gaps. The wall-of-sound technique is a delicate, intricate work of art that takes a long time to master.
You’re quite enthusiastic about wall-of-sound production, particularly in rock music. Where do you start producing a track like that, and how do you carefully place it together?
Wall-of-sound guitar layering makes the most of the Haas Effect. Basically, if you get a guitarist playing exactly the same part twice and pan one left and one right, the small organic timing and playing discrepancies in each track will create a perception of stereo width. Then, you track the guitar numerous times, with varying tone settings, to build it up. This kind of layering gives productions greater texture and depth that can’t be achieved any other way, so I also employ a similar technique for tracking backing vocals. Palm muting, harmonies, octaves and counter melodies can help create depth and texture, too.
How do you plug the gaps?
A synth can be used to fill the frequency gaps or add body to the part and bind the guitars. Another big trick in rock production is using a piano part low in the guitar mix to create attack, because piano can have a fast attack and add transient value to a part. But there are so many tricks that a producer or mix engineer will do to beef up a mix and obtain body.
Do you have any rules when micing guitars for this sort of work?
When tracking guitars, my favoured setup is a Royer-121 and Shure sm57, through Neve 1073 preamps into Distressors adding second or third harmonics, EQ’d and analogue-summed into one mono channel through the SSL Duality. That way, I get all the bandwidth of both mics and a more manageable track count.
As far as tracking amps, Heliport has the holy trinity of studio amps: the Vox AC15, Fender Deluxe 15 and a rare Marshall Studio 15, all 15 watts as that’s the best for recording in a studio, as you can get more drive at lower volumes. A lot of the tracks you produce are characterised by lots of layers with perfect interplay between the instruments. How do you manage that in a mix?
Busses are something I use a lot, especially in a complicated mix, as it’s not uncommon for big projects to have 60-plus track counts. So I use busses to combine all guitars, backing vocals, keys and so on, and treat them as one in the space. The only thing I don’t bus is drums, to maintain definition, as bussing will spread an element in the stereo field. That’s something we don’t want in the kick snare, bass or lead vocals.
One interesting example of that is “Kings Of High” by Chris Flaskas. It has, among other things, a big, boomy low-end with drums and didgeridoo, but they don’t detract from the acoustic guitar’s clarity. How did you place it all in the mix?
There were some challenges in achieving that, because the kick drum is so dominant and exists in the same space as the didgeridoo and the bass. I always pay attention to masking, which is when two instruments exist in the same space, and one will quite often obscure the other.
We hard panned and layered the acoustics and electrics, making room for the vocals, kick and bass to sit in the middle. Then I had to squeeze every bit of definition and clarity I could out of it, while attenuating individual frequencies to keep clarity. For instance, the body of the vocals were around one-to-three kilohertz, so those frequencies need to be attenuated in the acoustics and guitars. I then had to boost the acoustics at eight kilohertz so they could still be heard.
That sounds so complex!
That’s just one example of a thousand moves that have to be made. Another technique is the use of compression and reverb to create dimension and space. Compression not only tames peaks and solidifies a track, but it moves elements forward in the mix if done right. That’s how the relationship between the guitar and kick worked – we compressed the kick and sat it forward in the centre of the mix, with dry reverb so it was right forward. The guitars, however, were less compressed, with high-pass filters and wetter reverb, sending them back in the mix to create dimension.
So dimension is just as important as balance?
A good mix is more than just EQ, reverb and compression. It’s about creating body, vibe and character using harmonics. More often than not, I will add body with second or third harmonics, the second being valve and the third being tape. Tape also creates a natural roll-off in the high end, adding a vintage feel. You have to think in 3D.