U2 Producer & 6-String Wizard Daniel Lanois Says You Don't Need Big Money To Make Big Music

Guitar Player, 1993
by Joe Gore

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, and others.

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 with Bono?"

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 people!

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, but off-center.

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 you produce?

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 processor.

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 album.

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 machines.

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 through them.

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.