Producer/Engineer Mack On Getting Great Guitar Sounds

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With a who’s who list of credits such as Queen, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, The Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath, Electric Light Orchestra, Rory Gallagher, Sparks, Giorgio Moroder, Donna Summer, Billy Squire, and Extreme, the producer/engineer who goes simply by the name Mack has made his living making superstars sound great. Having recorded so many big hits that have become the fabric of our listening history, Mack’s engineering approach is steeped in European classical technique coupled with just the right amount of rock & roll attitude. Here’s an excerpt from an interview that we did for my Recording Engineer’s Handbook.

“Bobby: Do you have a philosophy about recording?
Mack: Yeah, to get the most “meat” or the biggest possible frequency spectrum from each instrument because you only have that chance once. You can always screw the sound up later after you’ve recorded it (laughs). Sure, you can say “OK, this requires a small sounding piano” or something like that, but you’re confining yourself and you can’t change your mind later.

That goes for multitrack recording, which in the old days, if you had to put a band down on an 8 track machine then you’d record them on two tracks and have 6 left for overdubs. So you had to have a precise image of what the balance needed to be when you started recording.

I try to get the biggest, pristine sound that I can so it can be bent in any direction later. Something small and tiny is really hard to make bigger.

Do you have a standard setup that you start from every time?

No. It’s totally dependent upon the type of music. Different types require different setups. If it’s something with a really fast tempo, you would mic things tighter than if it was a slow bluesy thing, which is better with some open space. I would pick the microphones and placement of the mics with that in mind.

How long does it take you to get things where you like it?

Probably anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour or so. I tend to work really fast. I don’t want anything technical to get in the way of the music. You usually don’t get a lot of time anyway because people are frequently wandering around and anxious to play. I like to use that time to get the whole setup done when the players are pretty uninhibited. When we start taking I don’t want to interfere with the creative process and go, “Can you give me that left tom again, and again, and again?”

That doesn’t give you much time to experiment.

Not all that much but I get that time back because it’s inevitable that the band will go through a song and come to a passage where they want to change something. While they run over things again and again, that’s when I use the time to check individual things out and experiment. 

You’ve done so many great guitar bands with great guitar players, what is your approach to electric guitar?
Just leave enough distance from the amp so you get a bit of room reflection to it. I used to do the thing where you crank the amp so it’s noisy, then put on headphones and move the mic around until you find the sweet spot.

I usually use 2 mics (which is sort of contrary to my beliefs because you get a lot of phase stuff) because you get a natural EQ if you move the second one around. If you can remember what the hiss sounded like when you had a good guitar sound then half the battle is won.

One of my big things is not to use EQ, or as little as possible, and not to add any but find what’s offensive and get rid of that as opposed to cranking other stuff to compensate.

The most simple thing is what translates – It’s kind of like when you’re frying eggs, the whole house immediately knows it. But if you have a French chef with a lot of ingredients you know that somebody’s cooking something up but you don’t know what it is.

So mics do you use on guitar then?
I like a KM84 and an SM58. One is straight on axis and one is off to the side.

Does it matter where the amp is in the room?
Yes, that matters very much. It’s the same philosophy as with a monitor speaker. If you pull it away from the wall by a foot or two then your whole system sounds different and the same thing applies to guitar amps. Little things like tilting it a bit or changing it around. For some reason amps are usually put in place by somebody like a roadie and nobody ever moves it after that. But moving it around a little and angling it can really make the sound change a lot.

Do you usually have everyone playing together trying to get keeper tracks?

I try to get everybody at the same time. I recently worked with Elton’s band and everyone was like “Wow, he’s letting us all play together in the same room. This is pretty cool.”

You don’t care about leakage then?

I do, but there are gobos and blankets to help out. If it’s a good band then you do notice the difference. Stuff that has been layered in parts are just not the same. The little accelerations and decelerations are so together that it just makes things come to life. I’d rather leave the little flaws in or repair them latter. You don’t notice a lot of them any way. It’s the performance that counts.  

I try to keep everyone pretty close so they can communicate outside the headphones. There’s nothing worse than putting someone in a box out of his environment.”

You can read more from Mac, The Recording Engineer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of

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