Music producers are notoriously detail-oriented individuals. They can spend hours on end crafting unique sounds for their productions just to have them appear for just a second in the song before disappearing behind something else. They love sweetening songs with little stingers and “ear candy” that add character to a production and make it uniquely theirs.
Don’t get me wrong and think that I’m pigeonholing every producer into in-the-box, sample & synth-based music fans though. Each producer has their genres that they prefer to work with and sounds that they specialize in. For rock and metal production, having a producer that knows how to find the right guitar tones for a song is essential.
With so many different tonal options to choose from – where should a producer begin and how involved should they be in the process?
Know Your Client
One of the biggest things I think newer producers overlook is how much time has already gone into getting a specific tone by the guitarists themselves. It can be new and exciting to have a bunch of new gear to play with, but if your guitarist is already happy with their tone and it fits the band’s style, what are you really going to gain by trying to change things up.
Just look at some of the most iconic guitarists of the past decades… Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmour, The Edge, Jimmy Page, Jack White, John Petrucci, Slash, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Jeff Beck, Eric Johnson. Every single one of these guitarists can be picked out of a line based on their guitar tone alone. Do you think they’re going into their sessions asking producers to help them find a new sound? Heck no!
Finding the right tone for an album is a two-way street that you need to approach cautiously. If you’ve got a guitarist looking to keep their tone the same, shift your energy to capturing the best possible recording of that tone that you can. If they’re open to experimentation and guidance (which most artists should be when bringing in a producer), that’s where you can start to drive the decisions on which tones make it and which ones get cut.
Know Your Gear
I think many producers in the industry would agree that great sounding productions are less about the amount of gear you have available and more about how well you know the gear you have. A great guitar engineer or producer should be able to take a single-channel amp and get a dozen different tones from it without any fancy pedals. Between the amp’s settings, mic placement, EQ & compression, there are plenty of pieces in the signal chain that can be tweaked for a new tone.
Over time, you should begin refining your choices – picking up gear that makes the process of finding new tones easier and grants you more flexibility in the options you have available. This is why I’m always so pumped when an artist wants to work on a virtual guitar rig based on live-tracked tones. With Toneforge Jason Richardson, we were able to do just that.
With Taylor Larson (From First To Last, Asking Alexandria, Periphery) behind the producer’s desk, Jason was able to record a wide variety of tones for his album, I. Taylor was proactive enough to capture IRs from the sessions which we were able to bring directly into the plugin. From there, we created a collection of three distinct amps based on the tones found on the album.
To this day, Taylor, Jason & others that are intimately familiar with the plugin continue to find new tonal options inside!
The Ultimate Guide to Tone
No matter your level of experience, getting a great guitar tone doesn’t have to be complicated. There are some critical listening exercises that can be used to learn good tone. Shortcuts you can take as a producer or engineer to get a better starting point in each and every session. From there, you need to understand how your guitars sit together in the mix and how you can make them sound full without being overbearing.
Yes, it’s a lot. But when broken down into simple steps you can take, it’s a lot more manageable.
If you’re interested in getting the guitar tones you’ve always heard and dreamt of recording, be sure to check out our Toneforge Bootcamp course – including over 30 videos equivalent to 6 weeks of training all focused on great tone.