U2 Producer & 6-String Wizard Daniel Lanois Says You Don't Need Big Money To
Make Big Music
Guitar Player, 1993
Of course Daniel Lanois' new album sounds great. Who would expect any less
from one of the world's most admired producers? But For The Beauty Of
Wynona, his second Warner Bros. solo LP, is more than an audio coffeetable
book full of strange and beautiful guitar tones; it's a powerful collection
of moody, atmospheric songs that will help Lanois' pen, voice, and fingers
share in the praise that's already been heaped on his ears for their work
with U2, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, the Neville Brothers,
by Joe Gore
As on most of the projects Daniel has been involved with since starting out
as a country and gospel session player in the '70s, Wynona evokes both past
and future. The album blends rootsy directness and modernistic edge, be it
modal meditations that echo the fiddle music Daniel heard his father and
grandfather play as he was growing up in Quebec, or multiprocessor-run-amok
digital chaos. And Lanois gets superb support from a crack band that
includes Neville Brothers veteran Daryl Johnson on bass and Bill Dillon on
Guitorgan. These days Daniel divides his time between London, New Orleans,
and wherever his production duties take him. Friendly and forthcomming, he
is the polar opposite of the stereotypical paranoid producer who jealously
guards his studio secrets. His unspoken attitude seems to be, why not share
a good idea if it will help someone make better music?
G.P. Your new album is so emotionaly powerful, it seems a shame to discuss
it in techno speak.
D.L. I don't mind, I LOVE technical stuff! And besides, I'm a guitar
player. With all due respect to the people I work with, I'm real thrilled
to be talking about guitars instead of being asked, "What's it like to work
G.P. How has being a guitarist molded you as a producer?
D.L. I share a language with musicians. I can count well. I can listen to
a song once and have the whole structure mapped out on paper. That kind of
thing can save a lot of time in the studio. Also, I get to play along with
G.P. And how has being a producer improved your guitar work?
D.L. It's helped me spot good guitar sounds. As a young player, I didn't
have a good tone at all - it was dreadful now that I think of it. It was
only through studio recordings that I learned what the great sounds were,
and that built my confidence. Now I think I've got some great tones.
G.P. The title track has some spectacular ones.
D.L. That was one of my very favorites. I just ran a '58 Strat through a
tweed 4x10 Bassman, no effects, as loud as it could go. During the mix,
[guitarist/keyboardist] Malcolm Burn "played" the graphic equalizers on my
API board like an instrument, getting a sort of wah effect.
G.P. The solo tone on "Messenger" is wonderful too - soft and reflective,
but threatening to erupt into feedback
D.L. It was the same guitar with no effects, but through a Vox AC30. I
like to turn the amp real loud so that if you were really hitting the
guitar, you'd get power chords. But I use a real gentle feel instead, just
flesh on string. In the mix, that part was spread in stereo through an AMS
harmonizer, with 100ms delay on the left and 200ms on the right.
G.P. A lot of your sounds seem to be based on that collision of high and
low tech: simple instruments and setups that are given an offbeat digital
spin in the mix.
D.L. That's not far from the truth. A lot of my sounds are recorded very
pure, but when it comes to working on the console, it's no holds barred -
the crazier, the better.
G.P. What's your favorite way to record guitars?
D.L. It's very important to record musicians as physically close together
as possible. You and I are sitting about two feet apart; if we were playing
acoustic guitars, we wouldn't have to wave or ask someone to turn up the
cans. That's why I like to use two amplifiers with each guitar. Once sits
right next to you; that's your personal monitor. Then I put another amp of
the same type down the hall, splitting the signal with a Morley splitter
box. I track both amps, but I usually end up using the isolated sound,
which still sounds close and personal even if the amps are three rooms
apart. I usually place a single dynamic mic fairly close to the speaker,
G.P. How about acoustic guitars?
D.L. My main acoustic is this little Guild student model fromt he late
'60s. It's not real loud, but it's fantastic for recording. I keep it in
an open tuning; F,F,C,F,A,C low to high, or sometimes F,F,C,F,F,C. I don't
use a pick. I sometimes mike the guitar, but more often I use these
early-'80s Lawrence pickups that The Edge turned me on to. Pickups can
actually be more musical than the pure instrument. You get additional
harmonics that you don't hear acoustically. If you're a real purist, this
idea makes no sense. But I like to take advantage of the personality of the
guitar, pickup, and amp.
G.P. Is board EQ part of the equation?
D.L. I don't rely on board EQ to get a good sound, but I will use it to
create a stranger sound. I'll give away one of my secret techniques: Say
you've just spent a few hours mixing a song with a lot of effects, crazy EQ,
and so on. Put that song away and play every other song on the record
through that same mix. I guarantee that at least two or three songs will
have something fantastic. That technique has directed me towards a lot of
strange approaches that I never would have come up with normally.
G.P. Any other mixing advice?
D.L. There isn't room for everything to be big. Take Jimi Hendrix records
as an example: The guitars are big and powerful, but the drums are like
jazz kit recordings. They sound beautiful, but the snares aren't as big as
a house and the kick drums don't occupy the whole spectrum. Something might
serve the music better if it has its own little corner. That doesn't mean
it's less important than the foreground, but not everything can be the icing
on the cake.
G.P. To what extent are you the architect of the guitar sounds on records
D.L. Most guitar players have a big rig that they've worked on and put
sounds into, and I usually don't mess with that. But quite often I suggest
alternative rigs, usually simpler ones. The big rig is generally in the
band room, and there's a more informal one in the console area where you're
working out parts. For example, Bono has this old green Gretsch that we
often do D.I. just to work out chords. That may sound great, so the guitar
works its way into Edge's hands, and we record it that way. Nine times out
of ten, if you just plug in to work out a part, you actually end up with a
pretty good sound. In fact, a lot of Edge's sounds on Achtung Baby were
recorded on this little solid state practice amp we had in the control room
instead of the AC30.
G.P. But Wynona drips AC30.
D.L. Yeah. I started using them shortly after first working with Edge on
The Unforgettable Fire. Basically, I stole his sound. It wasn't a
complicated rig: just a guitar he liked through a Korg SDD-3000 digital
delay into a Vox. Three components, mono - that's it. The great thing
about the Korgs is its three-position level switch, which lets you hit the
amp with about 10 extra dB. It's more overdriven than if you just plugged
the guitar straight into the amp, even when it's on bypass. But a lot of
the guitar sounds on Achtung Baby were recorded through a Kork A3 effects
G.P. Is it possible to make a great record with an inexpensive 4-track
machine and a couple of Shure mikes?
D.L. No problem! Cheap recordings can be musical. I know people who
recorded on PortaStudios and were never able to replicate the warm,
overdriven sounds of those machines in big studios. Some of that quality
comes from EQing tracks when you bounce them. The version of "The Ballad of
Hollis Brown" on the Neville Brothers Yellow Moon was recorded on an Akai
12-track in my apartment. We mixed onto a good Sony cassette machine, and I
never got a better mix, so we ended up putting the cassette mix on the final
Remember, the number of tracks has nothing to do with sound quality. For
example, I have a Fostex 1" 24-track machine I take on the road with me. It
sounds just fine, and you get the same exact quality on their 8 and 16-track
G.P. What about bouncing?
D.L. It's not a bad thing. People used to mix bass, guitar, and tamborine
on one track so they could add a little top to bring out the tambourine or
add lows to boost the bass. I encourage premixes, because they make you
commit to an overall EQ, and that's when you get great overall
equalizations. When you have to EQ every single track by itself, you get
lost. But if you have drums, bass, and fundamental guitars mixed to two
tracks in stereo, you can come up with a great overall EQ and still have
control over the lead instruments and vocals on seperate tracks. It's the
same mentality that's used on mastering sessions - you bring in your tape
and put it all through an overall program EQ. It's a great technique.
Equalizers become more musical when they have lots of information going
G.P. How about mics?
D.L. You don't necessarily need expensive mikes. I've always recorded
Bono's vocals through a Shure SM-58 or 58 Beta. Some of the best guitar
recordings are done with inexpensive dynamic mikes. I almost always use a
Beyer 88 or Shure 57 or 58, though if you want a really pure vocal or
acoustic recording, you might have to go with a great tube mike.
Sometimes technical limitations just mean you have to be resourceful, and
resourcefulness never goes out of fashion. We were going to record Achtung
Baby in a house outside Dublin using Edge's big Neve console, but they
couldn't get it ready in time, so we recorded most of it through a cheap
Soundcraft console - basically a P.A. board. We did use some external Neve
preamps, but the board itself sounded great. Remember, energy and ideas
override technology. If you have the technology, use it. But if you
haven't got the cash, don't worry.