The Musician's Room: That FAT '70s Sound
The Doobie Brothers, Knoxville, TN, 04/05/1973
I was recently asked to discuss the methods used in the seventies to get that full, fat, lead guitar sound from the period. As a guitarist during the seventies, I racked my brains and wasted lots of money trying to reproduce these sounds, often with nothing but an amp and stomp boxes. I'd see pictures of guitarists in the studio with a little Fender Princeton or Deluxe sitting by them and think, "He can't have used that peewee to make that monstrous sound!" But they did, although it often wasn't as simple as it looked. It wasn't until I became a recording engineer that I really got a grasp of some of these sounds. I’m going to approach the present discussion from both the guitar system and recording system standpoints, because both influenced what we heard on records. The last thing in the list will be particular artist info.
GUITAR SYSTEM GENERAL NOTES:
The guitar amps of the time only offered medium gain, so the sound wasn’t nearly as saturated as it has become in later decades. Some guitarists created or bought preamps to get a little more gain. We’d use an outboard preamp such as an Electro-Harmonics LPB1 or LPB2 ("a sound like unto a wall of Marshalls") or an MXR MicroAmp to jack up the gain and get more sustain live, but on the recordings, the sounds had lower gain but still sustained. Compression, sometimes to an extreme, was added in the recording signal chain to give the guitars a fatter sound. It gave you a long sustain, but a far different sound from high-gain. A good example of the low-gain, high-compression sound is David Gilmore’s solo from Pink Floyd’s "The Wall Pt.2". While it has singing sustain, you can still hear much of the attack character of his guitar because the gain is moderate. That's a Les Paul with P-90 pickups recorded directly into the mixing console with compression applied.
Touch sensitivity was important back then and the "brown zone" of the period has become famous of late. The brown zone is the area of gain in an amp between clean and dirty, right on the ragged edge. "Touch sensitivity" is the amp’s ability to react to the intensity of the players picking by moving from clean to dirty. This also translated into an ability to go from dirty to clean by backing off pick attack or the guitar’s volume control. Medium-gain amplifiers did this nicely but had a limited total gain palette. Master volume and channel-switching amps don’t do this as well, but offer easy switching from really clean to really dirty.
It's important to realize that much of the lead sustain of the period came from flogging tube power amplifiers wide open, not from simply jacking up the input gain. When pushed past their clean reproduction capabilities, power tubes tend to begin compressing the sound and generating musical harmonics. Once past their threshold of distortion, the harder you push them, the less they are able to respond with an increase in volume. Also, as you push the amp, the rectifier tube begins to be unable to keep up as well. You end up with a soft, cushiony sustain being generated. Power tubes generate a more gentle distortion than preamp tubes as well. In the studio, engineers and producers would usually have you flog a smaller amp to get the distorted and compressed sound, but that usually wouldn't do onstage. Of course, our hearing couldn't survive the onslaught very long if you used a large amp, so master volume control was invented to allow a reasonable, if inferior, alternative, and the preamp gain race was on.
Most of you will know this, but I’d better cover it anyway. Humbucking pickups are fatter sounding than single-coil ones. They typically reproduce a full octave less high-end overtones than single-coil pickups, emphasize the midrange more, and have a higher output which drives amps harder. During the ‘70s, DeMarzio began winding hot pickups with higher output but even less high-end. It became the fashion to replace your stock pickups with these. It also was fashionable to raise up the pickups to right underneath the strings, which gave a higher output but also reduced highs. Unfortunately it was also discovered the hard way that it is possible to raise your pickups high enough that their magnetic influence dampens the string’s sustain. The overall feeling of "sweetness" reduces as well.
The seventies was also a period when guitarists had these fantastic tones on record but weren’t able to reproduce them on stage. This is where all the frustrated head-banging on the part of guitarists came in. Entire songs were written around riffs generated within effects combinations which couldn't easily be reproduced onstage with the existing analog effects. Sometimes it was truly a disappointment to hear a great guitarist live, because he couldn’t reproduce the studio sound from which the whole song sprang. I also remember Steve Howe’s and Jimmy Page's early attempts to reproduce some of their stuff involving both acoustic and electric sounds by using a Gibson EDS1275 double-neck 12/6 electric. That was ugly.
Here’s something to remember: A flanger, phaser, or echo applied to a recording of a gained-up guitar sounds entirely different from one used as a stomp-box in the amp’s input chain. Oh boy. It is disappointing to buy an expensive phase-shifter and plug it in before the amp only to find that the effect gets totally lost once you gain up. When applied to a recording in the studio, it swooshes over the entire spectrum of overtones generated by the amp’s distortion for a much more profound effect. When applied in the chain before the gained-up amp, those same overtones obscure the effect. Remember also that flanger, phaser, and chorus effects work best over a broad spectrum of frequencies, so you'll be able to hear them best over a bright guitar's sound. If your amp has an effects loop that is situated post-preamp and you create your distortion in the preamp you can get a reasonable sound with these effects plugged into the loop.
Echo applied before a gained-up amp dynamically alters the amp's degree of saturation, and thus, its overall sound. For that matter, most stomp boxes alter the EQ, gain, noise floor, and/or impedance of your guitar signal while they are in the circuit. In the seventies, it was normal to build up a huge, wonderful sound via stomp boxes in the guitar-amp chain and then try to add just one more effect, only to have it ruin everything. Very frustrating. One of the few devices which had a positive effect on the sound was the Echoplex tape echo machine. Even with the echo off, it fattened up and smoothed out the sound of your guitar nicely.
So, one of the biggest contributors to the fat sounds was an effects chain applied to the recording. This is where the recording system came in.
RECORDING SYSTEM GENERAL NOTES:
In recording, the ‘70s and late ‘60s saw lots of experimentation with compression. The compressors available at the time were Lang and UREI tube compressors and the onboard compressors on Neve 8000 series consoles. Currently, these units are hoarded like gold. We recently sold one of our 8058 Neve consoles from the facility where I work. Before it could even leave our facility, the various modules and compressors had been parted out to people all over the world. As you increased compression on these units, the high-end became soft and the low-end filled in. Also, a limitation of the old circuits turned out to be a benefit: Tube compressors and the early solid state ones were very "gentle" because they responded fairly slowly, compared to modern ones. It all contributed to a rounder sound.
Another difference from current technique was the nature of recording rooms themselves. While Jimmy Page's practice of playing and recording in naturally ambient rooms and taking advantage of their properties may have formed part of his signature, the typical ‘70s recording was done in an extremely dead room and all ambience was added via acoustic chambers, spring and plate reverbs, tape echo, and early digital delays. All this was in continual flux. A big turning-point album is 1982's "Toto IV", which shows a return to 'live' recording rooms and recordings.
Ambiences: After the surf craze, in most cases, you didn’t hear spring reverb from the guitar amp. Instead, until 1979, most reverb was via reverb rooms with hard walls or either plate or gold-foil reverb systems. A good EMT plate, tweaked for instruments, gave a very dense, fat reverb sound but very little high-end. A pre-delay was sometimes added by running the reverb bus through a tape delay before hitting the reverb. Simply put, pre-delay makes the reverb sound larger but helps prevent it from competing with the main sound by distancing the reverb onset from the initial sound in time.
In 1979, the Lexicon Corporation debuted the model 224, the first really flexible but reasonably affordable digital studio reverb. It featured very round and life-like reverb programs and emulations of previous analog reverbs. From that point on came a trend towards the use of brighter and brighter reverbs. The trend peaked in the electronic late ‘80s and was followed by a return to more realistic, darker reverbs from that point on. Probably the brightest were Yamaha’s REV and SPX series of studio reverbs.
Echo: Digital delay made its early debut around 1972. The first generation was both clumsy and noisy. By the way, I worked at the studio that received the first of Lexicon’s second-generation DDL, the "Prime Time," serial #00001. Its flexibility revolutionized delay and was the standard throughout most of the eighties. Before digital delay lines, delay was created with tape decks by recording a sound and playing it back in real time from the tape deck's play head. To get multiple echoes, you mixed part of the deck's output back into the input. Early consoles referred to this as "spin". For different delay times, you changed the deck's speed. As the echo faded off and was regenerated, each pass through the deck cut treble, added bass, increased noise, and increased distortion. Often, electric guitar parts with echo were recorded through an "Echoplex" boxed tape echo machine. Joe Walsh used Echoplexes extensively through the James Gang "Rides Again" album and even played interactively with his. Eighties players decried the tape echo sound and went for all-digital clean repeats. As it turned out, the tape method actually quite elegantly emulated the natural characteristics of acoustic echo, where multiple passages through air and bounces off irregular surfaces progressively distorted the sound and limited its bandwidth. We’ve gone full circle with this. My modern, inexpensive, and very cool digital delay pedal offers both clean repeats and extensive tape emulation features (bandwidth reduction per iteration, iterative distortion and noise). Nevertheless, I was an idiot when I sold my Echoplex: Even though it was bulky, noisy, and clunky, I missed its sound. I was eventaully forced to find another 'Plex. It was one of those effects which made the guitar sound better even when it was bypassed.
How about the effect of tape itself? From the mid-seventies to the early eighties, pop music was recorded at pretty hot levels on analog tape. As you pushed the level on tape, it compressed the sound and began to add third-harmonic distortion. Another factor was at play as well: As soon as the recording was finished, the tape began what was called "high-end relaxation," where the gain and dynamic range of the high-end began to progressively drop off over time. Toward the end of the seventies, they’d rush the tapes from the studio to the mastering engineer, often via courier. There they would have them cut to the master immediately in order to catch the high-end before it sagged. Ever wonder why you bought the first run of an album, wore it out and bought a second, only to find that it sounded inferior to the first? There you go. High-end relaxation. Remember Queen? Their producer, Roy Thomas Baker, recorded all their music on narrow track format Stephens multi-track recorders, deliberately over-modulating the tape, to give the product a hard, gritty edge. These days, when I hear these recordings on CD, they will set my teeth on edge. They were, however, an anomaly and an extreme.
EQs from period consoles had limited abilities. Up until about 1974, console EQs didn’t go above 10k! From there until 1979, console EQs were mostly of the fixed or switched-frequency variety, offering maybe twelve frequencies at most. Engineers used outboard graphic EQs to get a little more flexibility. One console manufacturer (Sphere) offered a graphic EQ unit on each input channel. Outboard parametrics weren’t available until about 1975 and you might only have two to four channels available in a studio, unless your budget was huge and you rented. Val Garay, owner of Record One Recording in L.A. and producer and engineer for Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, and Orleans, once related the story of loosing a mix to another engineer around 1973 because the other fellow discovered the high-end EQ on his board before Val did.
One thing that isn’t generally known is the degree to which producers had an impact on the gear used by the artists for recording. For obvious reasons, the artists themselves are reticent to discuss it. However, Tirane Porter, former bassist for the Doobie Brothers, did a Guitar Player interview in which he admitted that Ted Templeman, the Doobie’s producer, even chose his bass strings, in order to create a piano-ish sound. Tirane didn’t particularly like the sound of those strings but Ted used them to get the recordings.
So. What does it all mean? All of the above factors contributed to a sound with lots of sustain but only medium gain and, often, nice articulation on the attack. They also militated for guitar sounds which weren’t horribly hi-fi, even if they sounded wonderful. To get authentic sounds, remember the limitations of the time, and dial them into your setups and recorded sounds. If you want to emulate these sounds, think in terms of the old, medium-gain amps from the period. Also, throughout the signal chain, think tubes, tubes, tubes. Wherever there are tubes, there is a gentler high-end, slightly more noise, and the warm, round sound. On the Line6 POD and other modeling devices, you can achieve some of these goals by not gaining up too far and by using the available compressor to give you a singing sustain. Don’t fall for bright, sharp, ambiences. Remember what kind of echo was used and try some pre-delay on the reverb. In your amp chain, you can back off the gain and add a good compressor to simulate studio compression. The best I've heard lately is the Barber Tone Press compressor.
Production/Engineering philosophy issues: The seventies were a time of experimentation! People weren’t the least bit afraid to wind out an EQ until it screamed. It was a regular practice for some of the period to apply generous EQ, much more generous that we apply this days. They weren’t at all aware that EQ caused phase shift and ringing, so they literally worked with their ears. Just remember the limitations of the time. In recording, you should be aware that you can saturate a particular frequency range and drop your overall headroom if you boost too much at that frequency. An alternative is to use your EQ to remove other frequencies so that your target frequency range is more pronounced. Get to know your mid and upper-mid freqs - a little subtractive EQ can often be the key to a particular sound.
The Doobie Brothers
General notes: Producer Ted Templeman (who later produced Van Halen) and Engineer Don Landee had a philosophy of EQ’ing each sound to occupy it’s own portion of the sound spectrum. Listen for it and adjust.
Tom Johnston: Originally a Les Paul gold top and an SG but he moved into a Flying V and, I think, a Firebird. Live amps: Super reverbs first and then some of the first Mesa-Boogies later in the seventies.
Pat Simmons: Live in the early seventies, he used Gibson ES335s and ES345s and Ampeg "Portaflex" flip-top bass amps with 15" speakers. That wide-range sound comes through on "Wheels of Fortune" from Taking it to the Streets. He ran at a lower gain than many for rhythm and his low-end was noticeable.
Jeff Baxter: By the mid-late ‘70s, he used and endorsed "Delta" custom amps with radio-button-selectable setups and tape-cartridge echo. I saw him play one in 1978. He built his own Tele and Strat and even wound his own pickups. He was an early proponent of the Roland Guitar synth. By Living on the Fault Line you heard plenty of it.
Recording: The Doobies recorded with Deluxes and Princetons, used a Champ for "listening to the music", and shared an old blonde Bandmaster for leads on many recordings, if I remember right. I think they made a short fore’ into Marshall around "The Captain and Me".
Live, he used hot-rodded, blackface Twins in the early seventies and later used Bandmasters. He removed the yellow cap (sometimes red) between the bright switch and the treble control on the normal channel and placed it in parallel with the one on the vibrato channel to increase gain and high-end. Early on in the studio, he used hot-rodded Fender Vibroluxes and Deluxe reverbs to record. He did his own mods. Joe used Echoplex EP2s (tube) and EP3s (solid state). He also used Leslies, which can be pretty well copied when recording with a Hughes & Kettner Tube Rotosphere. His tones, however, can't be easily emulated without some study. For some of these sounds, Joe used an Echoplex ahead of the rotating speaker, which yields a very distinctive sound. Many of his sounds were heavily compressed as well, starting with the James Gang's Rides Again. On Thirds you can hear him playing with the studio compression on an acoustic guitar: apparently they used it during recording and he interacted with it through the headphones. The James Gang Live at Carnagie Hall shows off the early period of Joe's live rig: a pair of Marshall Plexis with his Les Paul and Echoplex.
Joe uses mostly glass slides in the studio and heavy brass slides on stage. Though he learned slide from Duane Allman, he plays slide with a pick. Post-amplifier studio effects added in recording or the mix were sometimes the key to his sound, i.e. a flanger or phaser, post everything. So What is full of post amp-chain phase shifter and there's a sunburst ES335 used for some of the parts. He placed Leslie units in odd places in the signal chain as well. Producer Bill Szymczyk used real tape flanging on many of these recordings when you hear it, i.e. the end of "Days Gone By" from The Smoker You Drink the Player You Get or "Life In the Fast Lane" from Hotel California. That was often applied to a copy of the entire mix and the resultant effected sections were edited in to the master tape.
Joe used a Les Paul custom and Vibrolux for stuff like "The Bomber/Bolero/Cast Your Fate to the Wind", though the Leslie passage was played on a Tele (with action lowered 'til it buzzed). For the slide lead part, he mic'd the Vibrolux and ran the Echoplex to it and directly into the console, on separate tracks. They manually panned them around separately during the mix. Joe liked to jack up the Les Paul's pickups really high to increase the output. He also had a nice Strat ("Life's Been Good"). During the very early seventies, Joe made a name for himself by locating and buying '58, '59, and '60 Les Pauls and other vintage guitars and giving them away to friends.
Following Joe's recorded processing through the years is like an education in recording engineering. His producer/engineer, Bill Szymczyk, is brilliant. On "In the City", from The Long Run, his slide parts were recorded through both a Fender amp and a tube Leslie amp. The mic'ing on the Leslie is a story unto itself. The basic sound is the Fender amp, but if you listen carefully toward the end of the cut, when he holds a sustained note, they subtly crossfade from the Fender to the stereo Leslie, on which the rotors are winding upwards to high speed. What a touch! The sound spreads outboard and fades down into the modulation of the Leslie.
Allman Brothers Band
I had always wondered why Dickey Betts sounded so different from Duane. Then I discovered this: Dickey used Marshall model 1959SLP 100-watt amps, gained up only about 3/4s to keep them clean. It gave him a clean, bright, edgey sound with a sharp attack. Duane used the model 1986 50-watt bass amp or model 1987 50-watt guitar amp, and cranked them wide open to get a singing sustain when he opened up the guitar. If he needed more volume, he'd add a second 50-watt head and run it wide open. He had a corner cut out of the back panel of each speaker cab to create a port and had the standard green-back speakers replaced with JBLs to get the smoother, clearer, but less-focused sound of an open-back cab. The result was a sound somewhere between Marshall and Fender.
Duane used two methods for volume control: 1) He'd run the pickup selector in the middle and manually mix between the two pickups to get his tone. If you ever saw a film or saw him live, you saw that he was constantly fiddling with the volumes as he played, to be brighter or rounder. 2) For some songs, he'd also preset one pickup to a low level (typically the treble one) and the other wide open and switch from rhythm to lead with the pickup selector to get the volume jump. You can see variations on these techniques in action with the Allman's latter-day guitarists, Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks. They are both extremely involved in their tone, and will adjust constantly to accomplish what they are looking for. Derek uses the two pickup blend extensively and works his volume to vary the amount of distortion in his sound. Warren is the most active pickup switcher I've ever seen. During "Black Hearted Woman" I remember seeing him switch to the neck pickup for fills and lead and to the bridge pickup for rhythm. We are talking about flipping over to the neck at the end of every line for fills and then back to the bridge during the line. He can sometimes flip the switch twenty or thirty times in a single song.
The Allman Brothers used blackface Fender amps (Super Reverbs?) with Strats and Teles for their eponymous first album, The Allman Brothers Band. I've seen one pic of Duane working those sessions with an ES-335. During the next year, they began moving over to Gibsons and Marshalls. You can hear some of the results on their next album, Idlewild South, and the transition is complete by the live Fillmore album. Duane used Pyrex Corricidin bottles for slide and wore them on his ring finger. Duane’s technique was built around having a low-mass slide centered on the pivot point of the wrist. The mass of a heavy slide placed on a finger way outboard hinders the vibrato and fine pitch articulation Duane achieved. His brilliance showed up in the amount of control he had with that setup. At some point before his death, he showed Joe Walsh his technique. Joe adapted it to play with a pick! I remember an odd Guitar Player article showing you "How to play slide like Duane!" (Oct. ’81), in which they basically negated much of Duane’s technique: They didn’t mention one of Duane’s favorite open tunings (D), they disagreed with and advised against Duane’s choice of finger for the slide (ring), preferring the little finger, and they lamented Duane’s choice of light Corricidin bottles and recommended a heavy brass one instead. That about covers it... Duane wrote and performed the main riff for Clapton’s "Layla" and played the sweet slide parts, including the birds at the end. Interestingly, Duane’s favorite aged sunburst Les Paul originally belonged to Christopher Cross. Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top hooked up the two. As I remember, it was a ’59. He also had a ’58 cherryburst with pickups from a ’57 that was the guitar he used for everything on the Fillmore East album. After that, he used a Les Paul/SG for slide.
Jan Akkerman of Focus
During his heyday, Jan liked a bright sound with lots of "oomph". To get it, he used a Les Paul with rewound pickups and a Color Sound treble booster. I think he started with blackface twins. I’ve seen pics of him in front of combined Fender and Marshall stacks. What was the short-run Fender amp head from the seventies, which had a dual-row of knobs? The Super Showman. I’ve seen him with those towards the end of Focus. He ended up using Crown PA amplifiers and a hi-fi preamp. He liked JBL speakers. He had the maple cap of his Les Paul Custom removed and replaced with a new one while adding a one-piece tailpiece and bridge unit for greater sustain. At the same time, he also had the neck radius flattened. He used .008 extra-light strings.
Tom Scholtz of Boston
Tom credited much of his sound to Marshall amps, but there was much more to it. He cobbled up basic noise reduction for his signal chain: He put a home-made treble booster at the front of his chain so he could reduce the high-end at the amp, and thus kill some hiss. He used an MXR 6-band graphic to shape his sound and create a static "wah" sound for leads. He lamented that the MXR was really noisy, as I found out when I bought one. He had his Les Paul pickups screwed directly to the maple top to increase sustain, but ran the screws through a rubber grommet to kill feedback. He was the first to add mechanical foot pedals to an Echoplex to control delay length by shifting the head. Eric Johnson has modified his pair of Echoplexes this way. Boston's first album was recorded mostly in his basement on a Scully 12-track, then transferred to a 3M 24-track for overdubs. You have to remember that Tom was an MIT grad and a Polaroid engineer, not at all short of brains. He was building his own gear from scratch when he couldn't make the box stuff do what he wanted. On top of that, he was really a keyboardist who had only recently picked up guitar.
I just read an article in Mix Magazine about Boston's first album. It was an interview with the album's co-producer, John Boylan, who had also produced Linda Ronstadt, Pure Prarie League, and others. He confirms that Tom really did do most of the engineering and mixing himself. He was intelligent but inexperienced, so he needed some tutoring. No problem! He was a quick learner.
In fact, Tom was the guy who inspired me to become a recording engineer. You don't hear this said much, but I think his "doubler" (that beast which made the guitars sound so thick - a combination of a first-generation digital delay and a harmonizer) was the inspiration for the "chorus" effect everyone now carries around in his gig bag.
He used his favorite Gibson ES-175 and Dual Showmans for years but moved to reissue Twins. As of 2005, that ES-175 which his parents bought new for him in 1963 hadn't been refretted! They buy a plane ticket for it and it travels next to him as "Mr. Gibson" when he travels in Europe. He also used a Fender "Broadcaster" and Gibson "The Paul" and used Big Muffs for distortion. At one point he toured with eleven guitars onstage. He's got a penchant for Fender lap steel guitars including a three-neck Stringmaster and a Studio Deluxe, and uses a knife-edge slide. His latest rig is integrating Line6 guitars and amps.
Do you remember that weird bagpipe-sounding guitar figure at 6:33 into Yes' Siberian Khatru? The one with the odd Doppler thing happening? Ever wonder how they got that sound, especially in 1972? Producer/engineer Eddie Offord wanted to do a "Leslie-esque" sort of sound but wanted something more unique. They fiddled about and eventually he had his assistant go into the studio and twirl the mic around over his head on its cord. If he did this while standing in front of the amp, it imparted the Doppler pitch shift and volume modulation. They initially tried it with a short length of cable but ended up using up most of the studio to contain the arc of the mic's travel. In the mix, the mono sound from this was manually panned back and forth in the stereo field.
The Beach Boys were near the "cutting edge" with Fender. They traveled through different setups just like the Beatles. They did both combos and stacks. They used the Twin extensively. Their stacks started with Bandmasters, but as the levels came up, they eventually went to the Showman. I'm not sure they ever went as far as Dick Dale and Steve Howe with the Dual Showman, before retreating back to Twins and eventually Supers. Lately, what's left of the group has been touring with, get this, Roland JC-120 amps. They used Strats, as someone mentioned, but I've seen pics of them with Jags or Jazz Masters in the studio. I remember pics of Glenn Campbell playing in the studio with them using a Bandmaster.
Jimmy Page has spoken of using the Tele for the first album and many other things like the solo from "Stairway" in several articles. When recording, he jumped around a lot from guitar to guitar and used different amps as well, using Marshalls, Fenders, Supros and other. The lead on "Stairway" was his Fender Tele. I've seen a list that puts him in a Fender Super through much of 1969, but by "LZII" (1969) he was using the Marshall 1959 extensively. Others on the list include a Supro "Super" (five watt, 1x8), a Vox AC-30, and an Orange. Apparently the Supro was used for much of the early material but I don't know how the others fit in the timeline.
On to the question of modeling vs. "the real thing" (tube amps). I grew up with the real thing and haven't owned a solid state amp since the early seventies. I still run tube amps. I'll tell you, though, once you run a nicely tweaked modeling device through a PA or record it, you're gonna be hard pressed to tell any difference with the modeling gear. I don't run flat-out 50 watt or 100 watt stacks anymore: I can't afford to expose myself to those sound pressure levels. I do, however, run my POD through a tube guitar amp.
I've been replacing my Marshall combo with my POD gear in some situations. The Blackface Deluxe model is amazing and I really love it. Some of the high-gain models aren't overly convincing to my ears unless you really play them loud with lots of watts behind them. Otherwise, they can sound like a Marshall master volume with the volume down - buzzy.
POD Preset Info
Okay, let’s talk about my current "large room" gigging POD setup. I’m working with both humbucker and single-coil guitars. I have a POD HD500X that I keep updated to the latest software. The POD is run into a monitor system which I control from my playing position and from there to either the PA or a pair of guitar amps running clean. For live use I’ve basically set up six sounds: a clean-ish sound rhythm sound, a clean chorused sound, a heavy crunch sound, and three lead sounds: a singing, full-tilt Fender sound, a clean compressed sound, and a bluesy Marshall 50 Watt lead sound. What models did I choose as my basis? I was looking for sounds which would allow my guitar to work as a “garnish” on top of the rhythm section. Over and over again, I came back to three amp models: The Blackface Fender Deluxe Reverb (BFDR), the Vox AC30 top boost, and the Marshall 1987.
Basic clean-ish sound: I chose the BFDR, set with the treble up high, brightness on, the bass up pretty far, and the middle at 12 o’clock. I tweaked the reverb length (tap/hold-reverb) a little longer than normal and set it low enough that it is just perceptible. The model's gain is set so that we’re just a little gritchy and twangy when the guitar is wide open, but it can be cleaned up by backing off the guitar volume just a pinch.
Chorused sound: I fiddled between the AC30 and the BFDR, but finally settled on the AC30 because of its upper-end clarity. I left the brightness off but cranked up the treble pretty far. It’s important to remember the Vox had a CUT-ONLY middle control, actually set in the upper mids. Line6 accurately models this, and I work with it thus. I found that cutting the middle just muddied things up, so I ran it full tilt. The one problem I had was, once a gentle chorus was added, the bass end seemed a bit thin, even with the control all the way up. I decided to monkey with cabinet selections (tap/hold-Fxselect). Believe it or not, after tweaking around, I settled on the 4x12” Marshall 1960 cab, which gave a solid lower-end with a clear mid and upper mid. I run this sound with a little reverb.
Crunch: I wanted a crunch which still retained some string sound and brightness. For that, what can beat the BFDR? I simply cranked up the gain to "full" on my clean sound and added some reverb. I’m considering adding a pinch of delay as well.
Singing Fender and clean compressed lead sounds: Here’s where the manipulations really come in. I took the moderately gained-up BFDR and added a touch of combined compression and delay post-amp. I run the compression with the SFX tweak set at about eleven o’clock. I’ve set a medium delay length (tap/hold-tweak) with a nice, medium-long decay (tap/hold-bass), and I’ve made it quiet enough that all it does is fill-in the background. I’ve also tweaked the reverb to a medium length and set it way back in the mix. The result is a smooth but raunchy sound with long sustain, much like Joe Walsh had for "Turn to Stone" from So What. For the clean compressed sound, I cleaned up this same sound and increased the compression a pinch to end up with a David Gilmore-esque sweet, clean sound.
For the Marshall blues sound, I wanted something with a little more grit than the Fender but still a fairly smooth sound. I selected the Marshall 1987 amp sound and gained it up all the way, but substituted the open-back 2x12 cabinet, which has a JBL smooth sort of feel. With a pinch of compression and reverb, it yields a sound very much like the Duane's Fillmore sound.
Now, how about the finishing touches? One of the most important things to do in setting up your sounds is to set the volumes so that you can change from one to another without jumps in level. The only time you want the level to jump out is when you go from chording to single note lead solos. To accomplish this, save your sounds to their final locations, re-tweak the “Channel Volume” of each to make them interact well, then resave them. Line6 suggests you run your sounds as loud as possible to place them as far as possible above the noise floor. Consequently, I initially worked this setup backwards, from the loudest, hardest sound to the most gentle one. Gee, THAT didn’t quite work! While switching, once I got to the Vox chorus sound, the bottom fell out of the volume. In the end, I set the Vox as loudly as I could and then set the rest to work well with it.
How does it all work? Marvelously well, actually. Live, there were a couple of volume tweaks needed, but everything does what it is supposed to and sounds very nice. It’s amazing how smoothly things go and how well you can play when your sounds are just right. Incidently, my sounds don’t have a whole lot of bass so they cut through well and don’t muddy up the mix. For definition, I split the humbuckers and use them individually or run with them combined with only one split, to have both bass and treble. For a really nice, articulated lead sound, I kick over to the treble pickup and run it in humbucking mode. For something sweeter, I hope on over to neck pickup land. I’m really pleased with the performance and sounds. And to top it off, I can sling my “amp” over my free shoulder in its carry bag to tote it to the gig!
An Interesting '70s sound POD Application