At home in the Brewery (Home Recording 1997)

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Summary: Allan Holdsworth opts to record at home due to economic reasons. He primarily uses rented tape machines, such as Mitsubishi 88032-track and Otari MTR90 and MX80, balancing analog and digital equipment. For his recent release, "None Too Soon," he utilizes Alesis ADATs, emphasizing the importance of mic positioning and quality over heavy EQ in digital recording. Holdsworth's studio features a Trident 24 console, vintage mic preamps, and a Neumann U87 microphone. He meticulously fine-tunes mic positioning for a signature sound and is content with his small studio's familiarity and close-miking approach. He also utilizes signal processors creatively and employs Yamaha DG-1000 for its preamp-to-power amp character. Holdsworth's methodical studio setup and focus on the source sound are key to his recording process. He differentiates between digital quality based on converters and emphasizes the importance of music over technology in recording.

At home in the Brewery

Champagne chops in an ale-house facility

By Jon Chappell Photos by Rick Gould

HOME RECORDING, Volume 1, 1997.

Allan Holdsworth may be one of the World's most evolved guitarists, but he records at home for the simple reason most people do: economics. "What I usually do is rent a tape machine because it's cheaper to do that than to go up to L.A. and record in a big studio,” says Holdsworth. "I've rented the Mitsubishi 88032-track, the Otari MTR90 and MX80 and others. I've had a mix of analog and digital, but I've found that renting is the best solution, because I take a long, long time to mix. I simply couldn't afford to take the time to mix what I do at home in a big studio."

And So Holdsworth has outfitted his studio with care in regards to his board (a Trident 24), his outboard gear (tons of vintage mic pres, EQ's and digital processors), and mics (his favorite being a Neumann U87). But unless he's been budgeted for a big machine, Holdsworth records on Alesis ADATs, as he did for his latest release, None Too Soon (AH Records). "They certainly don't give you the same quality that the big machines do," he says, "but that doesn't stop you from being creative with them."

For this project, and when working with the ADATs in general, Holdsworth tries to get as much of the sound from the mic pre's and mic positioning as possible, and to rely very little on EQ'ing. "I've found that with digital recording you shouldn't really count on EQ'ing too much, especially if it's something with the high frequencies," he observes. "When you start EQ'ing highs in the digital domain, it can sound really terrible, so I use good mic pre's and go right into the tape machine. I never actually recorded anything through my board for guitar. The board's just for monitoring."

For that direct-as-possible sound, Holdsworth has collected and used a variety of mic preamps, both stand-alone units and ones pulled from mixing consoles. "I have access to some Neve modules that belong to a friend of mine, the 1073's, and I have two AMEK preamp/equalizers that were designed by Rupert Neve, and I have a James Demeter mic preamp which is absolutely wonderful on some things. I think possibly the best one I've ever used was made by Millennia, but I couldn't afford it. The guy who lent it to me was really generous because he let me keep it for a long time. I was kind of sad to see it go."

The quest for good mics to record guitars seems a lot more straightforward for Holdsworth than the mic pre quest. He states simply: "Everybody's got their own opinion, but for me, there's a Neumann U87 and then there's everything else." Holdsworth uses other mics, such as the Neumann TLM170, though he still prefers the U87 for most guitar things. "I have a couple of the Shure SM-7's and a Shure single-point stereo mic that I like a lot, which I'll use for drums. I, of course, like dynamic mics on drums, so I'll use an SM-57 for a lot of things. This U87 actually belongs to Scott Henderson, but he likes dynamic mics on guitars. So when he needs it for vocals or something, he just comes and borrows it back."

In true Holdsworthian attention to detail, Allan gets his sound through a methodical approach to mic positioning. There are no quick fixes in his method, which involves setting the mic in front of the speaker in the live room, going back into the control room and listening, then going back into the studio to make position tweaks. "I always use close-miking, and I very rarely use more than one mic because of all the potential phase problems that exist,” he explains. "I think of the speaker as being divided in half, so there's the center line and then you can move the mic off to the left, toward the edge. Usually the mic is placed about halfway between the center of the cone and the edge. Sometimes I'll angle the mic slightly downward into the speaker, toward the speaker cabinet, ever so slightly. But that's what takes the longest, that positioning. I don't use headphones, they're too confining, so I go in there, put the mic up, and walk back and forth from the studio to the control room, moving the mic one centimeter at a time."

Holdsworth's home studio is not specially designed or constructed, and the live and control rooms have dimensions fairly typical of rooms found in a basement. Because he is so familiar with the space and because he close-mics critical things like the guitar sound, he doesn't really find this a limitation. "I've been to a lot of places, and I've found it's about familiarity. Once I know a room's characteristics I can deal with it, and that's true really of any studio, state of the art or not. They all have a character. The reason you acoustically treat rooms is so that as you go from one to another there's not that much of a change."

Even the fact that the walls are lined with wood doesn't pose a problem, as Holdsworth likes to record at lower levels. "Obviously, close miking helps, because the room's not really big enough to warrant putting up ambient mics,” he explains. "But I do record drums in there, and if a guy doesn't play too loudly, the reflections aren't really a problem. I like to record the guitars at a lower volume anyway, because then it's not so tremendously loud that the speaker cabinet reaches that honk point, which they all have. Once you're loud enough to activate the cabinet's resonant frequency point, it alters the sound dramatically."

At the heart of "The Brewery,” Holdsworth's affectionate name for his studio, is an old Trident 24 series console that he's modified quite a bit. "To me they're the best sounding boards ever made, along with the Neves,” he says. "I've put in large capacitors in the first eight channels, which gives me a lot of headroom and makes the board really punchy. Also, the thing that I love about this console is it's not hard-wired to a patch bay. Patch bays are great for getting things hooked up really quick, but I've found that connectors can be a big source of degradation in the sound. Luckily, with this console every channel has its own input/output. There's a mic in, a line in, a line out, and a send and return per channel. I'll just take a processor and physically move it close to the board and connect it with the shortest cord possible.”

Crafted signal processing has always been a part of Holdsworth's core sound, and he explains part of his approach: "An example of what I do is to take the four Yamaha 1500 DDLs I have in a rack and combine them all as one unit. I've always done that, actually. I group processors together, multi-ing three or four to make one sound. For example, I use an entire unit to place an effect on the left side and One unit on the right for a stereo sound. I don't use the same unit for left and right. I use Intellifex processors because there's, like, eight voices in there, and I used to have to use eight single-delay lines to create the same sound."

Amongst all the old and hard-won analog gear is a relatively new (and inexpensive) piece of guitar processing gear, the Yamaha DG-1000 digital guitar preamp. "I love it,” says Holdsworth without hesitation. "To me, it comes the closest to capturing the sound the way I used to construct it, which was taking a speaker output from a head and converting it to a line level." Holdsworth is referring to the process of allowing the guitar signal to go through an amp's preamp and power amp section and then tapping it at the speaker output. The signal is then converted into line level so that it can run back through a signal processor, and ultimately into a power amp and speaker. "I discovered the DG-1000's when I was touring in Japan, and the sound is just wonderful. The DG-1000 has that preamp-to-power amp character that I'm used to working with."

When Holdsworth does create his tone the old-fashioned way—using the preamp, power amp, and speakers for the total sound—he employs a now-standard method that he helped invent and popularize. "I take the signal out of the speaker jack, because I feel you have to have the interaction of the preamp with the power amp. You can't just take the preamp signal of a Marshall and process it with, say, a solid-state power amp because that signal wasn't designed for that type of amp. So I'll take the preamp and power amp signal combined, feed it through a black box that converts it to line level and feed that through a solid-state Carvin power amp. Not a tube power amp, but a solid-state one. I have a couple of 300’s, a 600 series and a 1200 series. They sound particularly good with guitar."

Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifiers are Holdsworth's current favorite amp heads, though he does give them the "speaker out-tap” treatment. "I absolutely love the Rectifier, but for my music, it's just a little too bold, so I tame it by putting it through my blackbox. Sometimes I'll add some EQ coming in or going out of the black box. If I plugged the Rectifier right into the Speaker cabinet, then I'd have to run it too loud to get the right Sound. As I said, this is just for my sound. It's not a criticism or anything. Mainly, it's just a volume thing-the level at which I personally like to listen."

Holdsworth has two basic speaker cabinet setups, and he favors Mesa/Boogies for this application as well. "The 2x12's are all Dual Rectifier cabinets and the lx12's are all Single Rectifier cabinets. They have a mix of Celestions in them, including ones that are specially made for Boogie. I like the closed-back cabinets for lead and the open-backs for the chord sound. With the closed back you can feel the notes more. It's punchier. But for the chordal sound, I play a lot with my fingers, and the open backs sound more open. It gets clumpy in there if I try to play chords with the closed back.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge Holdsworth faces in recording is not in his acoustics or the home recording environment, but in the recording machines themselves, as he discussed at the beginning. To Holdsworth, the issue is not about analog vs. digital, because he's recorded on both and had successful results with both. The real question is the quality of digital. "People think that digital is digital, and it's just not true," he says. "I've rented these expensive digital machines and run them alongside of ADATS, and there's just no comparison. You don't even have to have good ears to hear the difference, it's so astounding. You don't even have to be musically inclined. But people don't understand there are levels of digital. They also think that any digital is superior to analog, which just isn't true. ADATs are great, and I record on them, but you have to understand there's a difference between the converters on them and the ones Apogee makes as replacements for the Mitsubishi machines."

It's the converters, Holdsworth maintains, that make all the difference. Anybody can make a machine that is 16-bit or 20-bit or 24bit, but the quality of the anti-aliasing filters and the A/D-D/A converters is where a world of disparities exist, quality-wise. "I've been fortunate enough to have the machines all right next to each other to be able to hear the difference myself," says Holdsworth. "I've rented all the big machines and have monitored off the multitracks, only to be horrified when I listened to the playback of the two track DAT, or whatever it was. You have to be careful and you have to know that there is a difference. If you think about a Mitsubishi machine that costs $160,000 and that to put Apogee filters on it would cost you another $32,000, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that there's something going on here that you're not going to find in a $500 DAT. That's why I spend so much time on the front end with the mic pre's and the things that I can hear at the source; things I can control. Ultimately, you must have sound together for your own ears and then you can deal with the limitations of the technology. Technology shouldn't be the reason you're recording something or not recording something. It should be because you have something to say, musically."