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LIFT YOUR WALL OF SOUND OFF THE GROUND.

Australian Guitar - - Contents - WORDS BY PE­TER ZALUZNY.

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.

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