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Classic Metal Guitar Production

Discussion in 'F.O.H.' started by Son of Caladan, Jan 15, 2020.

  1. Son of Caladan

    Son of Caladan Metal Lover

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    I am hoping the great Andy Sneap, who I know is a fan of that classic British metal sound, will reply, but anyone who has any insight is free to chime in.

    Basically, I am a home recordist and have been obsessively working on cracking the secret to the guitar tone on the Piece of Mind album by Iron Maiden, and on the Powerslave album, to a lesser extent. Below is an example from an isolated guitar track from the Piece of Mind album.



    I am not looking to recreate the exact tone, but to get something like it. What I like about that kind of tone is that it is very tight in the bass, mid focused, and clear. Unfortunately, Martin Birch was a very private man and left us no documented information on how he produced the guitars on those albums. After an exhaustive search, the only information I have been able to locate is this article, in which Adrian Smith is quoted saying, "The room is the most important thing about recording. We kept the guitars separate and put the amps up in a big wooden room and just put mikes everywhere." We also have this grainy video from a later period, from which it can be gleaned that Martin relied on close-miking (at that time), placing the mic roughly on-axis and somewhere near the cap edge. The video does not provide any reliable clues as to what role, if any, room-miking may have played.

    It seems to me that the guitar tone on Piece of Mind is quite distinct from today's modern metal tone and cannot be obtained with modern engineering techniques by simply placing an SM57 on the cap edge, 1 inch off the grille. I have experimented with different amp settings and single-mic placements, but have not been able to get close enough to crack the formula.

    If anyone has any general insights into what the ingredients are for that kind of tone, it would help point me in the right direction and thus be a huge help to me. It seems that this type of metal production is on its way to becoming a lost art. I hope this thread can serve as a reference for anyone looking to learn how to produce that classic British heavy metal sound on guitars.
     
    #1 Son of Caladan, Jan 15, 2020
    Last edited: Jan 18, 2020
  2. Pharaoh's Curse

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    A huge parts of Iron Maidens tone is Iron Maiden.

    This might help a bit:

     
  3. Son of Caladan

    Son of Caladan Metal Lover

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    I respectfully disagree. Even Maiden sound different from album to album, depending on the gear used, gear settings, production technique, and mixing and mastering personnel. For example, Piece of Mind sounds nothing like The Number of the Beast, even though they are about a year apart. Among the more recent albums, Book of Souls sounds very different than its predecessor Final Frontier. And the guitars on Live After Death are rather fizzy and thin, but have just enough midrange to give the guitars focus and bite.

    If tone were in the fingers, our amps wouldn't have an EQ section and other sound shaping facilities, such as Mid Shift switches and Deep switches, etc., and we would all sound like ourselves, regardless of whether we play through a distortion pedal or through a modulation effect.

    I am pretty sure that gear is not my issue. Below is a partial list of my main gear, with the gear I usually use for home recording marked with an asterisk.
    Fender Dave Murray Signature Strat USA*
    Marshall 6100LM
    Marshall 1960A
    Marshall DSL15C (V30)*
    Marshall MX112R (V30)*
    Marshall DSL20CR (G12T-75)*
    Marshall MX112R (G12T-75)*
    2 PreSonus FireStudio Mobile*
    PreSonus FireStudio Project
    JBL LSR305*
    2 SM57 (I use only one)*
    1 SM58
    GarageBand*

    My issues with getting decent recorded tone are general and go beyond achieving something similar to Iron Maiden and the Piece of Mind album. Although I am sure that recording in an apartment is less than ideal, I cannot say how much of a contributing factor the room is when close-miking the amp. However, I am sure that my technique is not the issue here; I have been playing guitar and studying Maiden's songs for over 25 years and am proficient at playing Maiden's entire catalog almost exactly as on the records.

    When I record something, say, a simple melody like the intro to "The Trooper," individual notes lack definition. Chords and notes sound like there's either too much bass and treble, or not enough mids, which ends up sounding thin and fizzy. It almost sounds like the mic is overwhelmed with too much bass and going into distortion. In the room, the amp sounds great. I can easily dial in a very nice, classic metal tone by just setting all EQ at noon, but in recording, the only way I can get some decent midrange is by maxing out the mids on the amp, and almost turning off treble and presence completely, with bass being difficult to dial in no matter where I set it, and even then, the lack of definition and single-note clarity is still there, with the bottom end still sounding undefined and slightly flabby.

    Below is a partial list of remedies I have tried, but without success.
    • Different gain settings
    • Different EQ settings (Adrian's rhythm EQ on his JVM410H is Bass 4, Middle 5, Treble 6, Presence 5, Resonance 5; pretty simple)
    • Different cab placements in the room
    • Different volumes
    • Different mic placements
    Below is an example of my raw recorded tone.


    I hope someone with more experience and a discerning ear can help, as I have done everything I could think of.
     
    #3 Son of Caladan, Jan 29, 2020
    Last edited: Jan 31, 2020
  4. Pharaoh's Curse

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    Still sounds a bit thick to me, granted I'm on computer speakers. Here is something cool, lot's of them on You Tube.

     
  5. Jurld

    Jurld New Metal Member

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    The tone you posted on Sound Cloud seems fairly close, as a basic early 80s metal tone. I'm on really cruddy laptop speaker, so I have no sense of the level of bass aside from having heard the original recording at least 1000 times. There's probably not much bass on the original recording. The clip you posted at points actually reminds me very much of their first couple of albums. So I think you are close.

    I suspect the main difference between your clip is that in the isolated track is there is some fairly rich reverb or room sound and maybe also some amount of chorus, something like a Roland Dimension D. Even the tiniest amount of that will go a long long way towards giving the rich overtones that seem to be missing from your clip. Another way to get this kind of effect is trying to add in some distant mics and pay careful attention to phase aligning them in a pleasant way with your close-mic signal.

    Other things that could be going on: the mixing deck in the studio may have had "colorful" mic pre-amps or maybe some kind of bus compressor. They are recording to tape, and probably saturating the hell out of the signal that way too.

    Good luck! I love all these old classic metal tones and spend a lot of time fooling around trying to match them!
     
  6. Pharaoh's Curse

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    Should add that I have spent years chasing guitar sounds only to realize that most of the sound is in a players hands, the room, the engineer, the board, the preamp, the EQ, etc...Etc....Etc... No matter how great you think you are at copying, there will always be differences.

    Tone is in the fingers. This is why guys like Paul Gilbert can grab a $2 guitar and make it sound better than I ever ever could with a $2,000 guitar.

    As the above poster said, you have a decent sound already.
     
  7. Jurld

    Jurld New Metal Member

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    I chase tones because it's fun and also as a educational exercise for my studio recording hobby. Sometimes you stumble on cool things by accident.

    Anyway, I was just listening to Piece of Mind in the car on the way to an appointment. Didn't get to The Trooper, but everything up to that point definitely had a good amount of chorus and probably some gated reverb too. So start there, the soundcloud clip sounded very dry in comparison.
     
  8. Son of Caladan

    Son of Caladan Metal Lover

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    I personally don't hear chorus on the rhythm guitars on Piece of Mind, but since you are the second person who has mentioned chorus, there might be something to it. However, if there is chorus on the rhythm guitars, it is subtle and unlikely to be the main reason behind why those guitars sound the way they sound.

    A more likely explanation is the room, which you also mentioned as a possible explanation.

    According to the only bit of info available pertaining to the recording of the guitars on Piece of Mind, there is this Guitar World article, in which Adrian is quoted saying, "The room is the most important thing about recording. We kept the guitars separate and put the amps up in a big wooden room and just put mikes everywhere." I find it hard to believe, but going by what Adrian said, it is conceivable that Martin Birch used room mics on the guitars, which might explain why the guitars sound so tight and why there's zero proximity effect that I detect in the lower register of the guitars, even when the low E power chord is palm muted. The room might also explain the midrange-heavy sound of the guitars, as wooden rooms tend to focus everything in the midrange in my experience.

    In that context, Adrian's comment about how "the room is the most important thing about recording," and how they "put the amps up in a big wooden room and just put mikes everywhere," most likely means that they used room mics. If yes, the question would be, Did they use dynamics, ribbons, or condensers? I don't have any experience with ribbons and condensers, but based on what I know about them, my guess would be that they used condensers. And the second question would be, Did they combine the room mic(s) with a close mic, or just use the room mic(s)? What do you guys think?
     
    #8 Son of Caladan, Feb 4, 2020
    Last edited: Feb 5, 2020
  9. Son of Caladan

    Son of Caladan Metal Lover

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    Same here. I always thought the Piece of Mind tone was the best in its class, but a class nonetheless, as there is a whole family of that kind of tone, so I use it as a reference point for figuring out how to achieve something like that. I've also heard that kind of tone on other '80 metal albums, including albums by Accept, Ozzy Osbourne (Blizzard of Ozz), and Angel Witch, to name a few.
     
  10. Jurld

    Jurld New Metal Member

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    Personally, PoM sounds pretty wet to me. Not so obvious, like it was on Somewhere in Time or Seventh Son, but still fairly wet.
    My main thought is that mixing a bunch of room mics scattered about a big room full of hard surfaces is going to give you a somewhat chorus-like effect, with all sorts of phasing and delay and reverb and tonality options to work with. If you're getting paid by the hour and have a bunch of mics and preamps and a big wooden room, I guess you can go to town.
    I don't know what kind of DAW or recording setup you have, but maybe you could simulate the big wooden room by sending the dry signal to multiple room/reverb plugins all tweaked to different settings? I'd guess the close mic is absolutely going to be the bulk of your sound and then you'd blend the "room" sounds up underneath to taste.

    Or, I think you could just slap some kind of chorus on the FX loop or on a mixing bus and blend to taste. Like I said, a little bit goes a long way. Start with all settings on the chorus unit as low as they can go and experiment from there. You need a way to control the ratio of wet to dry signal so that you can keep the amount of wet down around "barely any." Much more than that and it starts sounding pretty obvious. So, for this album, I think you'd probably stop a notch or maybe two after barely any.

    FWIW, I also tend to use a little gated reverb, either before or after the chorus, to further enrichen the sound. You can set up the gate to be controlled by the dry guitar signal to cut off any unwanted reverb tails.

    I'd be interested to hear whatever you might be able to come up with.
     
  11. Son of Caladan

    Son of Caladan Metal Lover

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    Thank you for the feedback. You and the guys here on this forum have helped me piece the evidence together and come to a few practical conclusions.

    First, I want to start with this video.

    Johan's video does a great job highlighting the differences between room sound and close-miked sound. That seems pretty obvious, of course, as we all know that our amps sound different in the room than they do with our ear right up against the speaker, but what the video does really well is, it connects the room sound with the isolated tracks above from Piece of Mind in a way that leaves little doubt as to the connection. At this point, I am inclined to believe that the guitars on Piece of Mind are more, if not exclusively, the product of room-miking than close-miking, if any close-miking was used at all. If it was, my guess is that the close mic was brought in very low underneath the room mics in the mix, rather than the other way around. Obviously, this is still speculative at this point and would have to be verified in a real-world test, but I think the hypothesis that the bulk of the guitar sound on Piece of Mind comes from some form of non-close-miking appears to have significant support so far.

    Below are three additional important live recordings of Maiden to serve as evidence.



    If you analyze the guitar sound in these live recordings, you will notice that they all sound significantly thinner and fizzier than the original studio tracks of "The Trooper." The relative thinness and fizz in this case are simply the nature of the close-miked amp sound, as that is how Maiden mic up their amps live.

    Considering how familiar Maiden sound in the live recordings, as the sound we all know from close-miking a cab with an SM57, it must be that the studio sound on Piece of Mind was largely achieved through distant-miking.

    I wish I had a large wooden room, no neighbors, the kind of gear they had at the Compass Point Studio, and Martin Birch's expertise, but since I don't, I did the best I could to approximate Maiden's live tone as best I can. I was able to do this through close-miking by driving my DSL15C real hard. As I've come to find out, the amp does not start compressing and rounding off the top end until volume is at least on 7. The compression and high-end roll-off resulting from the tubes working harder and greater speaker excursion are really essential to getting a good close-miked tone. It's a different, much more scooped kind of tone than what I am normally used to, but also warmer and more modern due to more sizzle on top. The compression from driving the amp real hard was very important, as it alleviated the perception of a huge proximity effect from close-miking by squeezing and tightening the bottom end and giving the sound a nice pumping quality. A prime example of that kind of effect, tweaked to perfection, can be heard on the Raising Hell version of "The Trooper" (second live video above). It's not the kind of tone I was initially going for, but I'd rather close-mic and do it right, than do a half-baked job by trying to approximate their studio tones with inadequate tools and skill.

    On the topic of chorus and reverb that you mentioned, I think you were probably right. However, I still think those are a small piece of a puzzle. Key to the Piece of Mind sound is getting those lower mids, which are just not present within 1–2 inches of the speaker cloth. The slight chorusing and wetness of the sound that might occur with multiple- and distant-miking are just a bonus.

    I know that to many of you who are more advanced, my conclusions may seem banal. The close-miked guitar sound that Maiden have on their live recordings is the standard guitar sound on almost every metal production since the late '90s. It's the guitar production style I hear when I listen to Metalhead (1999) or Thunderbolt (2018) by Saxon, and Firepower (2018) by Judas Priest, just to name a few. What is, however, not so obvious is, that the guitars on Piece of Mind are likely the result of room recording. I have previously consulted some seasoned experts on rock guitar production, and they all just automatically assumed that the sound is achievable with close-miking. In fact, it did not even occur to them that that might not be the case, even when I presented the evidence in the form of the quote by Adrian Smith that I posted above. But thanks to the great attention to detail by the guys on this forum, I think I have been able to somewhat demystify the mic techniques that are required for achieving the brilliant guitar sound from Piece of Mind.

    Should anyone in the future wish to chase that sound, I hope this thread will serve to speed up their learning process by making them aware that it won't be as simple as putting an SM57 on the grille cloth near the dust cap edge. Other mic techniques will be required.
     
    #11 Son of Caladan, Feb 13, 2020 at 10:58 PM
    Last edited: Feb 15, 2020 at 9:50 AM

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