My Obsession — Peter Frampton

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Every once in a while we receive a call or an email from Peter Frampton. Ever the cheerful soul who always leaves us feeling likewise, we usually discuss some type of gear or another, but one day last year Peter asked if he might write something for us— this from a man who talked for 90 minutes during his TQR interview without resorting to a single ‘uh,’ ‘you know,’ or other form of mental short circuit. Given our deep admiration for Peter’s Grammy-winning 2006 instrumental release “Fingerprints,” we suggested that he might describe how he gets such magnificent sounds on his recordings. In Part One, Peter describes his home studio and some of his favorite gear. You will enjoy and appreciate his comments all the more with “Fingerprints” playing in the background— one of the best ‘guitar’ recordings produced in decades. Please cue it up, and Enjoy…

In 1959, I was nine years old and I first heard the sound of a Fender Strat through a Vox AC 30. That was Hank Marvin of the Shadows playing his 1958 fiesta red Strat (supposedly the very first one to cross the Atlantic). It was a huge, “Eureka,” moment for me, and I have been obsessed with guitar sounds— well, all sound really, from that moment on.

My first real electric was a Hofner Club 60, and I just loved it (John, Paul and George all played Hofners at first, and of course, Paul still plays his in the studio as well as live). It wasn’t a Strat, but luckily much cheaper, and it sounded great. It would be a couple of years before I would get to play it through a Vox, though. The living room valve (tube) radio became my amp, an my dad had discovered that there was an input in the back. Actually, it was just two small holes. So we stripped one end of a guitar cord and stuffed the two wires in the holes, secured them with two match sticks and, voila! I had sound!

I have learned so much from the many incredible musicians, engineers and producers with whom I have worked over the years. Some whom I worked with very early on in my career were Glyn Johns,Andy Johns, Chris Kimsey and Eddie Kramer. What an incredibly lucky kid I was! Anyway, I watched every move these guys made. I learned about close and distant miking techniques, as well as the choice of microphones for different situations. The chain is simple:

  • Most importantly, good quality sound from the instrument or amp.
  • The right mic with good positioning.
  • A great sounding mic-pre-amp.
  • Once the sound is coming at you through monitors that you are used to listening on, there are many effects and sound modifying pieces of gear that can be used to enhance what you already have.
  • The capturing and storing of the music/ information/data is a whole lot of other stories, and every engineer has a different one.
  • There are basic audio rules for recording, but some of the most amazingly cool sounds have been found by accident by breaking those rules. Experimentation is what it’s all about for me.

“You can’t do that…” “Really? I just did — listen to this!”

When recording with Humble Pie, both Andy and Glyn Johns worked with us at separate times in the studio. Glyn used his original four mikes on the kit set-up which is a classic, great sound, whereas Andy would close mic every drum. Both of them recorded John Bonham and both made his kit sound amazing. Andy went on to capture the increasing hugeness of John’s sound by distant miking. “When The Levee Breaks” has very few mics on the kit. (There’s a wonderful video done by Bonham’s US tech detailing how his drums where always mic’d, set-up and tuned). When a drummer has a great internal balance like John, this makes the job of recording the drums so much easier.

Our fearless leader and TQR editor, David, hinted to me when I first suggested that I write a piece for Tone Quest, that I might give some details on the recording of my first instrumental CD Fingerprints. OK, so I will attempt to remember as much as I can and if I forget something, I hope to get Grammy award winning engineers Aaron Swihart and Chuck Ainlay to help me out. I will start by describing how things work at my home studio in Cincinnati.

The studio is in my basement and I have the two main rooms, one control room and then, what I call the drum room/live room. I record almost anything in there but it was built primarily for drums. My theory is that if drums sound good in there, then everything else will too. I was going for a very natural, slightly ambient room sound so the surfaces of the floor, ceiling and walls were very important to get right. It has a wood floor which I can cover with carpet if I need be to calm down the ambience. One wall is stone covered, two walls are covered with cherry wood, and the remaining wall is a combination of stone and then a portion of fabric which covers sound absorption material. There are no parallel walls and the ceiling is dropped slightly to give room for soundproofing material so my family can watch TV in the den upstairs (laughing). Dave Mattingly, from Nashville, a well-known studio builder, built my place and used two foot square, individually handmade wood tiles covered in fabric to complete the ceiling. (Those suckers are heavy!) When I need to completely dampen down the drum room for a real close, dead sound, then I put up heavy curtains to cover all the walls. The room itself is not as big as it sounds when you listen to either the Now or Fingerprints CDs. (Neither was Motown’s Hitsville Studio A. I first visited there last year and for me it was as if I had gone to Mecca). Whoever plays the drums must drive the band! For drums we used the same drum riser we use on stage but with 8″ legs instead of the 36″ high ones. This is a lesson I learned from Glyn Johns when Humble Pie first recorded with him at Olympic Studios in the UK. This disconnects the drums from the floor and lets them breath and ring longer. Example: If you suspend a tom-tom with an iso mount on a stand it sounds so much better when you hit it than if you attach it to the bass drum with a regular old tom tom mount attached to the shell. Same principal here. Pretty much all the bands Glyn recorded there used that same riser. That would be The Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, Small Faces, Humble Pie and the list goes on and on and on!

When Chuck Ainlay was setting up mics on the drums, he had a Shure SM 57 on top of the snare and something else underneath. The toms were mic’d on top with Sennheiser 421s and underneath we used Audio Technica clip-on mics. These are the same ones we use on the top of each drum for live shows. Hi-hat was an AKG 451 while the two overheads were AKG 441s. The bass drum had an AKG D112 inside and in front Chuck used a Neumann FET 47 about 18″ from the front opening as the front skin had been removed. He did build a kind of “packing blanket tunnel” starting at the front rim of the bass drum and coming far enough out to cover the Fet 47. This was so the bass drum did not swamp the room and separation between it and the rest of the kit was cool. The most natural sound of a drum kit is not right on top of each drum but at a distance, so the room sound of the drums was recorded with my two vintage Neumann U67s. (Aaaaah, these are two of my very favorite mics ever!) They were placed about 8′ to 10′ away as a wide stereo pair. The same mic’ing technique was used for Chad Cromwell’s DW kit as well as Shawn Fichter’s Fibes kit. Chuck used a slew of Neve 1081 and 1073 mic pres plus others.

My console is an old 1986 SSL 4000 with a G computer and has 56 inputs. I still look twice every time I go in my studio because I can’t believe there’s an SSL staring at me! This truly is my dream studio. I have collected old outboard gear for years and have Pultec equalisers as well as an LA 2A Teletronics limiter/compressor, three old original Universal Audio1176 limiters, and a pair of Brent Averill rack mounted Neve 1073s. Vintech make beautiful recreations of Neve gear, so I have about 12 channels of various different models of their mic pres. Universal Audio are also making fantastic reissues of their old mic pres and limiters, so needless to say, I have a bunch. There’s a whole lot of other stuff like reverbs and the like and I’ll get into those as I describe specific sounds. What can I say? The wife has this shoe thing, but for me it’s guitars, amps, mics, and outboard gear. I tell her I get it all for free and she says she believes me… Still not sure about that though!

Analog to Digital?

When Studer announced that they were not going to make anymore 2″ analog machines, I had to get one. Having virtually cut my teeth on magnetic tape, it was the perfect thing for me to do. So when recording the band, we start out on 24-track tape. When the track is finished and the best take is chosen, we then transfer it to the digital world, and for this I use Nuendo running on an AMD PC at 96k/24bit with two video monitors and Apogee convertors. No, I didn’t go the Pro-Tools route, because at the time we did the Now CD it was before their HD rigs came out, and I could hear a big difference between the Studer’s wonderful full, rich, warm sound and the Pro-Tools sound. Chuck Ainlay had already been working with AMD using Nuendo, and when he came up the first time to my studio he brought his dig rig with him. He, like most engineers and musicians brought up on analog, was resistant to changing over to digital, but he said that when he heard Nuendo for the first time he could see that there might be hope digitally. To demonstrate it for me, we did the A/B test by recording on both analog tape (running at 30ips/ no Dolby) and Nuendo (running at 96k/24bit) both at the same time. Now hearing the result, I realized that this was so much better, and it was extremely hard to tell the difference. I was sold. To my surprise, AMD were thrilled to hear that I wanted to make the change, and to this day, AMD’s Charlie Boswell and Kelly Stuart have supplied me with whatever I have needed for the studio and for touring. Their support has been incredible. I had never used a PC before this, having always been and still am a MAC man, but Nuendo is a PC native program and the program screams on an AMD configured PC computer.

Guitars!

It’s been a life-long love affair I have with all guitars— even yours! When you are playing electric, there are so many different directions to go sound wise, and I think I have visited quite a few of those places on Fingerprints. From the opening track, “Boot It Up” to the last, Django-inspired, “Souvenirs De Nos Peres,” there are many different guitars and amps, but pretty much the same mics. If we look at “Double Nickels” first, that is my 1959 Gibson 175 played through two amps. The first one is a 1959 Fender Tweed Twin which is one of Fender’s earliest statements of how great an amp can really be. In my opinion, it is a standard that is yet to be surpassed— equaled only by their own 1959 Bassman. The other amp I used was a ‘60s Vox AC15 that has been modified by Victor Mason of Plexi Palace. So, I started getting as good a Kenny Burrell sound as I could through the Fender Twin. When I got what I wanted out of that, I unplugged from the Twin and moved on to the Vox AC15. A friend of mine once called my methodical technique of “sound getting” like I was “walking in molasses.” When I play live, there is no time for take two, and that is the beauty of the moment. I am always going for that moment in the studio, too. Whether it be take one or even take twenty, you can never predict when the moment will happen. I always want to make sure that no technical mistakes are made before I hit ‘record’ so that when that moment arrives, it is captured as perfectly as possible. It’s like cooking a good meal— it might take the chef all day to create it, but then in comes the customer and he/she finishes it in twenty minutes or so. (Hopefully, they send their compliments back to the chef!)

Now that I have the sounds out of both amps that I like, it’s time to hook them both together. For this I use the best possible A/B combiner box made— the Framptone Amp Switcher! The whole idea behind even considering making my own amp switcher/combiner, designed by Framptone partner Mark Snyder, was to maintain the original sound of plugging straight into each amp separately, but using a “gadget” to combine the two. Transparency is what I was after here, and Mark sure got that right! A lot of A/B boxes colour the sound– and not in a good way. Here I must mention the genius of Mario Marino of Axxess Electronics, Canada. After blind testing many different components, I chose Mario’s buffer, which is a major player in the Amp Switcher and the “Framptone 3 banger” (same principal, but with three amp option switches and three outputs plus a tuner output.) When I first put the amp switcher in line, I check each amp separately and then hit the ‘Both’ switch. If I instantly get that distasteful 60 cycle hum/buzz, that we have all heard so many times, I hit ground switch on the side. This is when the isolation transformer inside makes it possible not to have to physically lift the ground of one of the amps at the wall socket.

Next, I check that both amps are in phase. If the amps are making my ears go crazy and all the bass disappears, I know they are 180 degrees out of phase and I throw the phase switch. (This is inside but easy to get at.) OK— now I can play around with the two amp’s controls to find the sweet spot when they both complement each other and become one good sound. I set the Vox so it is just on the verge of almost breaking up— just a little hair but, I mean very little. The Fender Twin will never break up… well, not until you have it at the level of ear bleeding. For this, it’s good to have some Kleenex close by just in case a little blood oozes from either or both ears. Absolutely nothing to worry about, though. I try to have the two amps somewhat close in level just in case I want to use room mics so the blend is maintained at a distance. For this jazz guitar sound, I wanted it to be as close and in your face as I could, so no room mics were used this time.

Microphones

You just never have enough! Valve, or tube mics as we call them over here are in the same family as analog tape for me and they really suit each other well. By this point in the process, I have achieved a really rich tone playing my Gibson ES 175 coming through two beautiful old tube amps. My instant choice of mic was my Neumann U67s. I placed one in front of each amp approximately a foot to 18″ away from the speaker. (Put your ear at the level of the speaker and see if you prefer the sound a little closer or a little further back from the speaker.) I make sure that the mic is recording not looking at the center coil, but more towards the paper cone— slightly off center. Some people like the sound of mic’ing the coil, but for me it is too honky, or rather, it has those mid frequencies that you try to get rid of when equalizing the tone on the console later. The U67 is a very resilient piece, but with guitar amps I use the 14db pad, which reduces the amount of level the mic sees by that amount. When I am totally happy with the sound in the live room, then and only then do I move into the control room.

Gear, how I love gear!

Now first let’s choose the mic preamps. With the selection I have collected over the years, there is more than one that would be good, but I chose the two Neve 1073s, as I don’t think you can go wrong here. Whether I am recording to the Studer or to Nuendo, I still use the same chain of gear. First, I listen to both mics straight from the output of the Neves into two channels of line in on the SSL console and hear what I have. Usually, if I have plugged everything in correctly and the power supplies are on for the 67s, I should see the two VU meters move as I start to play the guitar. (With the buffer in the Framptone, I am able to use an extended amount of guitar cable to run all the way from the amps in the live room into the control room, where I find it most desirable to play and listen). The objective here is obviously that the sound you now have coming through the control room speakers is the same sound you spent all that time getting in the first place. A great engineer will always ask when you are happy with your sound in the room— then he will come out and listen to what you have, rather than sending the assistant out to throw the mic up and only listen to it from the comfort of his Herman Miller chair.

So let’s say I got it right the first time and we have sound coming through the speakers! By the way, I use Dyn Audio monitor speakers. Now I listen to both amps individually and then together, and I might make changes using the EQ on the Neves. If I have chosen the right mic and positioned it in the sweet spot, the sound should be pretty close to what it sounds like in the room with little or no EQ needed at this point. To get the sound closer to what I want, I will most likely try either an LA 2A limiter/compressor or one of my Universal Audio 1176LNs on each mic. This audio chain is plugged physically at the patch bay where all the outboard gear, inputs, outputs and inserts terminate.

Now, here is where the magic starts to happen… There’s something that a great limiter does to the sound that I can’t really put into words, but I’ll try (cough!). Technically, a limiter prevents the sound level from going above a certain point and a compressor does this plus it brings up the quieter parts so that it places well within the track. And so you aren’t constantly raising and lowering the level of the fader while the track plays. That said, each limiter or compressor has its own unique sound, which it adds whether you like it or not. The LA 2A adds a wonderful warmth, due to it having a tube or two in there, and the 1176LN adds a certain high mid frequency, both of which are, to me, incredibly pleasing to the ear. That’s the magic! I believe I put the LA 2A on the Vox and the 1176LN on the Fender Tweed Twin. This process of searching for the ‘Holy Grail of sound’ is probably the most enjoyable part for me, other than playing the part and then sitting back and listening to the take.

Because I have the studio and the luxury of time, I might take all day trying different combinations of guitars, amps, mics and studio gear for just one part. If I am working alone, after I get the sound coming through the speakers that blows me away, I usually find that I’ll need to get away from being the engineer and clear my ears. Time for a cup of tea and play with the dog a little. The engineering side is all encompassing and is a completely different head from where I need to be to create.

So why don’t I have someone do the engineering? Well, most of the time I do, especially when tracking with the band or doing solos when I just need to concentrate on not thinking but just the playing. The bottom line is that I just love to experiment with sounds and don’t want to feel rushed, especially if there is an engineer sitting at the board twiddling their thumbs waiting for me to try my many minute adjustments. Remember in the early Frankenstein movies when the servant brings the Doctor his dinner to the laboratory door? Then, with disgust in his voice, you hear him shout, “Don’t come in— just leave it outside!” That’s me! Oiy!— Peter Frampton TQ

www.frampton.com