Why is backline important?
I wanted to talk a little bit about the backline we have at The Motor Museum. When I say backline I mean amps, drums, pedals, cabinets, keyboards – anything that creates the sound that gets recorded.
Everything starts with good backline – its the primary colour palette of the recording studio. If the instrument doesn’t sound good then not even the most expensive recording gear will improve it. Other than the player it is the most important part of getting a great sound.
Old usually means inconsistent
So sounding great is one thing, but sounding great every day is another challenge entirely. I’ve come across pieces of gear (retro valve guitar amps spring to mind) whose sound changes throughout the day. You turn it on and it sounds one way, an hour passes and it’s got less gain, two hours pass and it gets duller etc. This can be a major pain when you’re re-writing parts mid-way through a production, and can be really difficult to match the tones you’ve already tracked.
Certain old drum kits are particular prone to going out of tune overnight when the temperature drops too. I’ve learnt to record drum samples as soon as I’ve dialled in a sound that I’m happy with. This means I’ve got a reference of where we had the tuning and can compare and retune between sessions.
What makes good backline?
So the two qualities I look for in great backline are sound and reliability. The other consideration is whether pieces of gear compliment each other. A good example is my collection of guitar amps. I have a Dr Z that is very bright and punchy, that I use whenever I want the sound of a great old Fender Deluxe. Next I have a BadCat. It’s an evolution of the Matchless circuit, which itself is a more refined Vox AC30. Think rich, thick, and chime-y with a slightly scooped midrange blends really well with the Dr Z. I like to layer them both, and use the balance of each amp to create the overall tone of the guitar.
What I really like about both of these amps is that you can’t really get a bad sound out of them. The controls interact with each other so that even extreme settings sound musical, and you can really stretch the sounds out of them.
The exception to the rule
Drums are the odd ones out. In eleven years of recording them I haven’t found a modern drum that sounds better than a sixties Ludwig or Gretsch. Newer drums tend to be longer in an effort to get deeper bass, but this reduces the attack. They also tend to have thicker shells with more ply’s, robbing them of tone and sensitivity. Whilst not as roadworthy, older drums just sound better in front of microphones. I own a 1968 Ludwig Super Classic that lives permanently at The Motor Museum. Everybody loves it and we choose it regularly. If you’ve never heard a great old Ludwig kit in a room like The Motor Museum’s stone room, you’re in for a treat.
For more info on the backline and other equipment in The Motor Museum, have a look at the equipment list.