To capture the tone of Eric Clapton, George Harrison, and Tom Petty – stay out of the way

by Keith Hatschek on April 11, 2012 · 0 comments

in Fast Forward,Recording & Mastering

The Golden MomentA Conversation with Grammy-winning producer Richard Dodd
Excerpt from an interview originally done in 2004 with five-time Grammy winning engineer Richard Dodd. The full interview can be found in Keith’s book, The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets of the Pros.

Richard Dodd is a transplanted Englishman who marches to the beat of a different drummer. Known and respected for his work with artists such as Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Green Day, Jeff Lynne, Clannad, George Harrison, Keith Urban, and The Traveling Wilburys, he spends most of his time at his studio in the Berry Hill suburb of Nashville mixing and mastering a wide variety of artists. His work on Petty’s 1995 album, Wildflowers, earned the Best Engineered Recording Grammy, while 2001’s Nothing Personal by Delbert McClinton earned the Best Contemporary Blues Recording Grammy. 2007’s Not Ready to Make Nice by the Dixie Chicks garnered three more Grammys for Dodd, including Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Country Album.

Tom Petty and the HeartbreakersOne of the interesting things about your work with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is the diversity of sounds achieved with basically a rock quintet. How does that come about?
Tom Petty and Mike Campbell both know what a good guitar sound is, so the guitar sound they end up with is the one they wanted. They know what works to achieve a particular sound, and there’s a little bit of room to see what else might be interesting. Sometimes, they’ve done a particular part or a sound so many times, that they just try a different guitar or a different pick just to mix things up. But basically, they are creating exactly the sound they want in the studio.

When you are working with a really good player with a good instrument, then it’s up to the engineer to adapt to what they are playing and to be careful to do no harm to their sound. The best thing to do is, do nothing. Be ready to offer a suggestion or experiment, but be prepared to "boringly" sling a 57 in front of the amp and have it sound great. It’s fine to do nothing and let the player shine.

It’s that magic four-letter word, the holy grail of recording – tone. It takes a long while to recognize tone. Players can hear it first. And then they’re on an uphill struggle to find the crew that won’t strip them of their tone. Not intentionally, but not everyone hears it.

Can you share an example?
Well, I was privileged to be working with George Harrison at his home on a project. He was playing a Strat into a direct box with a little bit of compression and EQ. During the process of working up a guitar part and getting comfortable with the track, the doorbell rang and it was his friend, Eric Clapton. After talking for a while, George turned to Eric and asked, "Do you fancy having a go at this?"

I was sitting in the center, and I handed the guitar from George Harrison on my right to Eric Clapton on my left and I thought to myself, "Same song, same sound, this is like a laboratory experiment to see what difference if any there might be."

Clapton started to play and as we recorded, I was staring hard down at my shoes, hoping that nobody would say anything to me. When we finished up, George punched my arm and said to me, "How come it don’t sound like that when I play it?"

"Well," I thought, "what’s the diplomatic answer to that?"

I didn’t have one. So George let me squirm a while – he loved to wind people up a bit – then after what seemed an eternity, he laughed and said "He’s good isn’t he?"

You see, he knew it. In fact, he’d known it for a much longer time than I had: that Eric Clapton’s tone came from the way he played the guitar – his fingertips and the information going to those fingertips. With his technique, there was a different tone when he played the exact same set up.

That said, George himself would produce amazing sounds by various styles and methods that wouldn’t be at all like Eric Clapton. And Eric would produce something you’d recognize and it would be very unique-sounding also. And that’s the wonder.

So that is the long answer to a very simple question, "How do you get a good guitar sound?" It’s simple. Get a good player. And along with a good player, usually come all the necessary trappings. It might be a vintage guitar and amp, or it might be a rectifier or an emulator of some sort, and you know what? That might be right for that project or song.

I could play that gold top through a Marshall, and Mike Campbell could play a ukulele, and I’m going to be far more interested in Mike Campbell than I am in me! So it’s the player that makes all the difference.

If you get an album to mix, and it has a lot of guitars, resulting in a loss of clarity among the various parts, what can you do to fix it in the mix?
It’s too bad mono is a thing of the past since it’s one of our best assets. If you monitor in mono, you can’t escape it, you can’t deceive yourself. You can find out exactly what is obscuring and blurring the track. So "mono" is a good button to use. When you’ve decided from a musical standpoint which elements are carrying parts, but sonically they’re interrupting the mix, then you go back to stereo and start to see if you can move things around.

Then it’s a matter of balancing the parts, and of course, back to the tone. Because if a particular part sounds great, it’s very hard to turn it off. It’s really all about the tune and the tone. If you have two guitar parts, and the good one has tone and sounds alright thin or thick, and the second part is a bit weaker and only sounds good thick, then you go back and thin out the good sound so they can mesh. Because the good part is going to survive. Sometimes, rather than tone, the part is what it’s all about, the sequence of notes, so you can mess about with the sound and still have it make sense because somewhere else in the track you have great tone.

We’ve talked a lot about electric guitar sounds, but what about a rock track that also needs to have an acoustic guitar added?
Well, most great rock records have an acoustic guitar even though you may not notice it. In my experience, string choice and pick choice affect an acoustic guitar more than an electric.

And mic choice and placement?
I would favor a condenser mic, a non-tube model, such as a Neumann KM 140 or 84 or 85. Or an AKG 451, because I know the sound of those microphones, so therefore I’ll use them to investigate.

The first thing to do is to listen. But be careful, and don’t put your ear two inches away from a snare drum. But, for instance, on an acoustic guitar, you can use one ear and block the other, to quickly hear what is happening 2, 3, or 12 inches away from the guitar. Find a spot that sounds good and start there. Choose a mic you’ve used successfully before. Because if that’s working, why waste time experimenting?

You’re recording this interview with a cassette. If Roy Orbison decided to make a return performance to this earth for one song right now, guess what would be the best thing to record him with? That cassette, because it’s already in "Record!" I could hand deliver the best equipment in the world 30 seconds after he’s gone, but at that point it’s not relevant. Being ready to capture that golden moment is paramount.

So even if I don’t have the perfect mic or compressor set up on a part, if the artist is really nailing it, you keep it and work with it, because that performance is what will make the best recording?
That’s right. So if I’m working with a band in the studio and I’ve decided which song I’d like to record first, I’ll actually have them warm up and get my sounds on another song. So that when we start the song we’re going to record, I’m ready. The same with a vocalist. The only time you’ve got to experiment is while they warm up. The moment they’re ready, you’ve got to be ready. Your first choice has got to be a good choice, because everything should be usable.

And sometimes, even though your first choice was the right choice, a vocalist may not be making the grade. So you might go out and switch mics to another that you know will also work, and say, "You know, it really wasn’t sounding quite right, let’s try this other mic," and often that change will help the vocalist to get the part right because they think that now there’s been an improvement.

Richard DoddFor a complete discography of Richard’s work, and an introduction to his mixing, mastering and mix review consultation services visit www.RichardDodd.com.

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