I recently wrote an article about unconventional guitar tones that will soon be posted on http://invisibleoranges.com/, one of the finest metal blogs I’ve seen (not that I’m looking very hard. What do you think, I am some sort of nerd?) This gave me occasion to contact a few of my favorite musicians with some questions about their equipment and techniques. I’ve been mesmerized by these sounds for decades, so it seemed important to get hard facts that would balance all the accumulated hallucinatory nonsense in my thoughts. These artists responded with thoughtful, eloquent accounts that should be read by any guitarist developing an approach to metal from an angle beyond the norm. It was gratifying to find that I was dead-on about some stuff, and amusing to note the points on which I was totally out to lunch. Anyway, this is some grail quest-type shit. Read on and burn at the touch of metal obsession.
Hemlock-Lust for Fire
Desecrator: If i remember correctly, Azalin, His Eminence and Myself used A Mesa boogie combo, a gorilla practice amp and a digitech effects pedal. the guitar used was a japanese black ibanez strat shape, not sure of the model, maybe a 470 with emg pick ups and 11 gauge strings which all belonged to Azalin sans the boogie which was used at ultrasound, our old rehearsal place.
Balth: (responding to my prompt about analog tape distortion) No, actually Lust For Fire was done on my Roland VS-1680, a portable hard-disk recorder as digital as they come. When people say you can't get a warm, natural sound from a digital recorder, I doubt they're using the right recording methods. Not that Lust is a very warm record, of course! The guitar sound is pretty much derived from a pedalboard Azalin used. We found a nice, nasty tone and recorded 4 guitar tracks of it. This technique of "quadrupling" the guitar tracks (not typical in black metal) resulted in the unique and deadly guitar tone.
In the mix we emphasized the nasty frequencies with EQ, making it even more abrasive.
The guitar tracks were recorded in Azalin's crypt deep in the bowels of Staten Island, as far as I can recall we just close-miked the cab he was running out of and rolled with it. Like I said, the settings on his pedalboard pretty much determined the tone. I think doing 4 tracks of that tone was the secret.
(about the brutal heaviness) Ha! I think that must have been the speaker vibrating since we had his shit cranked pretty fucking loud. I would guess that palm-muting brings about a lot of bass response during recording, and that's what'll move a speaker the most.
You can trust me that there was nothing consciously put on the record soundwise, it was a much more primitive approach, believe me.
Hemlock was not the type of band that put that much thought into what kind of sounds we wanted, we basically miked up our shit with the tones we used live. The only vision was to take the riffs and sounds we had and try to capture all that chaos and intensity so we could poison the world.
Usurper-The Early Years
Scythe: The early days of Usurper: "Visions from the Gods" [demo 1994], "Diabolosis" , "Threshold of the Usurper" , "Skeletal Season"  - I used very specific gear and techniques to record all the guitar tracks. The idea was to get a very thick, creepy tone out of the guitar - on one hand classic underground metal crunch, but on the other hand I wanted it to be a bit more dark, raw and eerie.
Most black metal bands at the time had a lot of cool dark tones, but the actual distortion was a bit thin and tinny. Most death metal bands at the time had decent crunch, but relied a bit too much on de-tuning to get a heavy tone. The thrash bands from that era usually had good crunch, but it didn't sound dark or creepy. Since I really liked a lot of bands from all those genres, I wanted to take the best elements of the things I liked and eliminate the things I didn't like as much.
Even though in the early days of Usurper I was the only guitarist, and played rhythm and lead guitar, I always prided myself on my rhythm guitar playing and tones. I always felt that that was the backbone of a song and a band. My idea was always have the music, tones, lyrics and artwork all work together to tell a story. I wanted a tone that really added a story telling element instead of just a buzz box.
The gear I used back then was simple but very effective. I had this old 82 Washburn "Stage Series" guitar. Say what you want about Washburn, but the Axe was a solid USA Neck Thru Mahogany battle Axe. I had a Seymore Duncan Invader pick-up in that bad-boy and the tones were just the heaviest even NOT plugged in. I still have it by the way, but since 1997 used BC Rich exclusively. Here's a link to the style guitar I used Washburn Stage Series
As for guitar heads, I've experimented with a lot. I always get shit for this - trust me, I know the value of a good tube head. I've used Mesa Boogie Dual and Triple Rectifier Amps on Twilight Dominion and Cryptobeast. Yes tube heads are great. But for a dirty, thick recording tone, I used this 1985 Crate G 150 Head. A 150 Watt Solid State Distortion monster!
Believe me, this think was a tank. I've tried the ones that came out the next year and beyond and the distortion and tones sucked. But the old Crates (with the original deep red, stencil logo and Ozite covering) had this super crunch tone that just sounded amazing. When they changed the logo and look a year or two later, the Crate stuff was just cheap garbage. But this one was an old model that had the heaviest distortion of any amp on the market in the mid 80's.
So I used the Washburn Stage Series with the Duncan Invader Humbucker, The vintage Crate G 150 Head and oversized Birch Wood cabs with Celestian speakers... but that wasn't the only secret to those tones. I also used some pedals. At first I tried the Big Muff, although it has a kick ass tone, it was just too noisy, even through the effects loop. Instead I used an original DOD Octoplus pedal. Again, it was the "original Octoplus" they replaced it a little later and it wasn't as good, then DOD took it off the market all together.
The Octoplus dropped the notes one Octave like other octave pedals do, but the Octoplus was cool because the subtle balance of original tone and Octave levels to this day are unmatched by any pedal. I used a Boss OCTAVE now and it sucks compared to the original "OCTOPLUS" With the OCTOPLUS you could really dial in just the right amount of Octave effect, where you would find this sweet spot between the original tone and low octave effect - they would start to try to cancel each other out a bit and at that point it started to have just a thick element to the original distortion - you couldn't really notice it was an Octave effect. It created this 3rd new tone instead of two octave parts. It became total darkness and evil HA! HA!
Another key has been the Jimi Hendrix Wah. I know now a days everyone uses a Wah and most just use it as a crutch for inferior lead playing. I used it in those early days as a cool tone. When combined with the Octoplus and my unconventional tuning (I'll get to that next), it had such a heavy tone (listen to the opening riff of "Deep in the Forest" from the demo or Diabolosis to hear what I am talking about).
The tuning was weird. We usually de-tuned slightly either to D or C+ or C, but within whichever tuning we chose for a particular song, I always changed things up a bit. I would always do 4 rhythm tracks - it's been my standard since day one and through every Usurper album - I've always layered 4 rhythm tracks, and it was always me. Even when Carcass Chris joined the band for the last 2 albums, he only played leads on the recordings, never rhythm guitar.
4 rhythm guitar tracks were basically 2 identical tracks for one guitar part and then 2 rhythm guitar tracks for the 2nd guitar part. So for example, when you hear one guitar playing a riff and the other playing a harmonized version of that riff - it is really 2 guitars doing the original part and 2 guitars doing the harmonized part. 4 guitar tracks would equal 2 guitar parts.
This is where the tuning nuance comes in: I would lay down the original guitar riff then as I would go to double the same part I would slightly tune the guitar just a hair flat. When they were combined and turned into one guitar track it would create a natural, slight chorus effect. It was all natural and not an effect, so it never popped out to the listeners ear, it just created a "tone". So I would mix those two parts on to one track and then proceed with the 2nd rhythm part doing the same process - record the 2nd guitar part on one track, slightly flatten the tuning and then mirror the same part.
The effect was very cool, but most casual listeners would never notice it. It was frustrating because so much work and effort went into molding the guitar tones, but since I wasn't a typical shredder, it never got noticed.
After the years went on and the band got a little bigger and we had bigger budgets and bigger studios with real producers it was very hard to justify using all this out-dated equipment and unusual techniques. Don't get me wrong, I love the guitar tones on Cryptobeast and Twilight Dominion too, but you can tell I was using different gear. I was using all tube, Mesa Boogies and newer BC Rich guitars - which made sense since the tones were more streamlined and the songs were more polished. The older guitar tones might not have worked as well with the more polished high budget recordings...
But now that I'm doing a solo project called SCYTHE these days, I am going back to the original style of how I recorded in the old days. Bring back some of the unique SCYTHE guitar sound. Thanks for noticing the guitar tones, not too many people ever did.
- Rick Scythe
Chris Black: The rhythm guitars were recorded direct through one of these:
I believe on preset 34. The studio was pretty bare bones, and nobody in the band really had anything better, so this was actually the best option. Recording days were spread out -- a day or two now, then a day or two next month, etc. -- and this enabled us to get the same exact tone every time.
The solos I believe were recorded through a high end Fender Twin, and the bass was recorded direct and then run through a distortion pedal in the mix.
Scott Hoffman: Glad you like the tone on Catharsis! Honestly, I've never really been that happy with any of the guitar tones on the Dawnbringer albums. The forthcoming Pendulum has the best sound of them all by a long shot, but I think even it could be improved. Guess I'm pretty picky!
But the Catharsis tone is interesting, and it does somehow work with the overall sound on that album. The studio engineer dialed in that tone for us, using a Digitech GSP 2101... at least, I think that was the preamp. It might have been a different model. It was weird recording direct with no amp, and there really weren't any good amp simulators then like there are now. But we were pressed for time and didn't have access to any great sounding 'metal' amps and cabinets, so we just went with what was available. The resulting guitar sound seems a bit thin and clean to me, which is what one would expect from a digital preamp in the late 90s.
Guitar-wise, I think I was playing a Carvin DC127 at that point, with stock Carvin pickups.
There's not much more to it than that. I don't remember what settings we used on the preamp. The engineer just played with the menus until we had something that sounded good through the studio monitors.
There isn't really any doubling of guitar tracks on Catharsis. Most of the time, there are two guitar tracks (sometimes three or more), playing harmony or counterpoint lines. That contributes to the thin sound a little bit, too. If we had doubled some of the guitar tracks, the sound would have been thicker, but we would lose a bit of clarity. Plus, we didn't have time for that, ha!
Order from Chaos-Stillbirth Machine
Chuck Keller: The 1991 'Stillbirth Machine' recording took place in the personal studio of Gary West, of Shooting Star [minor] fame, called The Sound Factory. His brother, Ron - himself the vocalist in one of KC's most successful '70s bands, Missouri, had helped us record 'Crushed Infamy' and 'Will to Power' in his personal studio. But for a full length, Ron advised we use Gary's facility...and because I was a family friend, the price was right. It was once one of the nicer studios in the Kansas City metro area, however the equipment's heyday was 1969-1985...and it hadn't been kept up since that era, so there were several technical anomalies that made recording the album quite an adventure.
My equipment was a BC Rich Ironbird, Boss Heavy Metal pedal, Marshall 100w Mosfet head, and an early-1970's Marshall 1960A cabinet. Probably mic'd with Sennheuser. When we started, I wanted to capitalize on the sound I stumbled on with 1989's 'Crushed Infamy,' - which involved turning all the knobs to ten on a Boss Heavy Metal pedal...exactly the formula the Swedes had discovered at Sunlight Studios about the same time...only with 'Crushed Infamy,' I was aiming for Assassin's 'Interstellar Experience' guitar sound.
Unfortunately the guitar tone that ended up on ‘Stillbirth Machine’ was not what was intended - nor what it sounded like 'in the studio.' I think I scrapped one set of recorded guitar tracks and rerecorded the entire thing. The recorded track was cloned with a very slight delay to speaker B for the stereo effect. The production phase lasted months. Sessions of endless tweaking, adding and subtracting parametric EQs, multiple experimental mixes and all sorts of other technical nonsense… I was never satisfied with it, but at a certain point had to go with a sound I thought I could live with. And that is what we hear today.
After 'Stillbirth Machine,' OFC recorded at the home studio of the parents of Chris Overton, drummer for Nepenthe, and future drummer and keyboardist in Vulpecula. Comparatively it was a barebones situation, but building on what we had learned from recording the demos, 7" and album, we dived into 'Plateau of Invincibility.' I was no longer concerned with recreating what was done on 'Crushed Infamy,' but wanted a thicker, fuller guitar sound across a wider part of the guitar's sound spectrum. While better than the 'Stillbirth Machine' sound from my perspective, 'Plateau of Invincibility' was still far from ideal. Same with the 'Dawn Bringer' sound. Only with 'An Ending in Fire' did I get a sound that I was close to satisfied with.
My goal for Ares Kingdom's guitar tone is the same as it’s always been - massive and heavy, but still capable of allowing diminished chords or other subtleties to shine through. On 'Return to Dust' I used the Boss Hyper-Metal pedal through Marshall JCM 800 Lead 50w and the old '70s era 1960A cabinet. 'Incendiary' represents a departure from my norm in that I used the stock Marshall distortion in the JCM 50w and a 1980's era 1960A cabinet. I guess you can say its more of a traditional approach.
It seems to be a fundamental truth in my life that I'll never be wholly satisfied with my last guitar sound - which I expect will continue to serve as motivation to get it right next time...
Anacrusis-Screams and Whispers
Kenn Nardi: One thing that was pretty unusual for us was that we all played through Peavey amps the entire time the band was together. Early on Kevin and I had identical Peavey RoadMaster heads that we both got in around 1985-86. We used these on the early stuff along with various stomp pedals for distortion.
By the time we got to the Manic Impressions album, we were both using Boss ME-5 (and later Boss ME-10) multi-effects boards. We loved the ability change effects easily and go from clean to distortion, but we realized transistor distortion couldn't touch real tube overdrive, so by the time we got to the Screams and Whispers album, we had both picked up a Peavey RockMaster head, which was a separate tube pre-amp unit and a tube power-amp.
We would use the pre-amp for our distortion but running out of our effects-loop of our ME-10 and into a graphic EQ which I would use to boost the midrange and pull the muddier low-end frequencies out. After the mid-boost, we would run to the pre-amp for distortion and then back out of the pre-amp to a 2nd graphic EQ to pull down the mid-range post-distortion. This way we could set up patches that combined chorus, delay and reverb or whatever else we needed and just open the fx loop for our distortion. Because of our extremely low-tuning (2 1/2 steps down to B), strong mid-range was always essential to have any clarity in the riffs.
On Screams and Whispers we basically used straight distortion the way I described for most riffs along with a quieter version drenched in chorus and around a 250 ms delay on songs like "My Soul's Affliction" and parts of "Driven". I played all of the clean parts on the album directly through my ME-10 pedalboard using the built-in chorus, flange, delay and reverb. The "acoustic" guitar on the bridge sections of the remix version of "Release" is actually my same Ibanez RG570 that I used for everything on Manic and Screams. I played straight into the board using a single-coil setting and placed a microphone near the strings to record the pick noise which made it sound kinda like an acoustic guitar. None of us had a decent acoustic handy (especially tuned down to B), so it was the best I could do.
Well, there you have it. I hope that is the info you were asking for.
(for a technical breakdown of the guitar tones for which I am accountable, as heard here and here, check this out: die without fear, die with rust. -Matt)