Zen of Recording

A Tone Alone

Personality. We all have it. A unique set of distinctive traits and characteristics that define us (at least outwardly) for the world around us. Extroverts, introverts, smiley folks, and even stoic individuals all have some manner of being that can be assessed and evaluated by others.

The regular poker game I’ve attended for several years now certainly has its share of colorful characters. Several are musicians or are involved in music in some way, so I guess you could say we’re alike in that regard. A little time spent at the table however will reveal vast differences between not just our poker playing styles, but also our outside interests, our political views and even what we think is funny.

That’s the thing about situational assessment, if I may coin a phrase. At the very outset of a recording project, you can be called upon to make a veritable cornucopia of quick decisions and snap judgments in the studio: Bass amp or DI? Steel or maple snare? Is that the right tempo? More verb in the phones! More guitar in the phones! LESS guitar in the phones! The point is one can find themselves in the wobbly balancing act of preparedness vs. adaptability.

I used to have a personal policy in my studio that I would zero out the board settings (after taking detailed notes) and breakdown all the mikes, cords, DI’s, etc., between sessions. This, as you might imagine, added significantly to my setup time, but it also encouraged me to accept each new artist on their own audio and artistic terms, right as they’re walking in the door. I still believe as many do, that is essential to fulfilling the compact between artist and producer


I’m doing a lot more sessions these days and time, as Booker and the MGs so aptly put it, is tight. There’s little time for reinventing the wheel on a three-session day, so I may have certain microphone setups I’ll go to based upon recent or past experience; certain preamps, compression ratios and eq settings that work well for what I believe will be a good starting point. That’s preparedness.

The adaptability, or “situational,” element arrives when your instincts are contradicted by reality: I thought she was a folk waif, but she’s really, really loud. The bass player arrived with an upright bass and no pickup. “We ran into our buddy on the way here… He plays djembe!” “Where should we put the Leslie for the B3?” Little surprises that can throw a proverbial wrench into matters, for certain.

This dichotomy will be revisited during subsequent overdubbing or mixing sessions in the form of mike choices and positioning, eq tastes, sweetening, and effects that are employed along the way. Even if 80% of it sounds great initially, I’m always chasing down that 20% that best suits the song’s

Guitar tones can be even more elusive. It doesn’t help that I’ve seen more guys jamming an SM57 into the grill of a beat-up Crate amp and expecting Eric Clapton’s sound than I would care to remember, but the more time you can spend with good guitarists and a lot of pedals, the more you can familiarize with their tonal palette and the possibilities that exist.

The FAT Drive ($189 retail, $149 street) from über-cool pedal pushers Pigtronix (www.pigtronix.com) is a unique color indeed, one I might guess as burnt umber.

Like all of Pigtronix’s products, this thing is built like a tank, albeit a tiny one that measures just 2″x4″x1″, making it an easy fit into a crowded pedal board. The three black knobs at the top of the unit (Vol, Gain, and Tone) are small in diameter but deep, too. This facilitates a solid grip and the white markers contrast nicely, which helps for dialing in tones in dark stage or studio environments.

Not as much can be said for the little silver toggle switch nestled just below, as I couldn’t even engage it with my bare foot! Here’s a scenario: you’re playing the big solo of the night. The crowd is rockin’ and the lights are flashing. The band is tighter than ever and it feels like you’re sailing on a silvery sea of rock ‘n’ roll nectar. You’re building to a musical climax… time to reach for the boost and you… uhhhh…. hang on… it’s just right dowwwwwwn heeeeeeere…. almost got it! Wait! I ripped my pants! Yeah, maybe another footswitch would be better here.

Seriously, the FAT Drive does deliver some serious tone. Its multi-stage tube emulated clipping is very unique and the personality one’s tone takes on is as big and aggressive as an NFL linebacker. Working between the Vol and Gain knobs, you can also add some of your amp’s drive into the mix, if desired. I was even able to get a thick and domineering tone just using the Fat Drive direct into my console!

The tone knob is really a Low Pass filter, essentially shelving off more of the highs the further you turn it counterclockwise. I’d prefer a little hi boost as well, as the pedal’s tone is quite dark right out of the can. It also doesn’t have a lot of the compressed treble “sing” of say an Ibanez Tube Screamer, or the fast attack punch of the BOSS OD1, either. I’d characterize it as more of a powerful, lumbering brute. One whose tone seems best-suited to rhythm guitars in blues and rock styles. Engaging the boost brought just the right amount of attitude to an already vicious tone and I could hear the obvious care that went into this circuit’s Howard Davis design.

My poker buddies all agreed, noting that while it was different than what they were used to, it “had it’s own thing.” As an addition to one’s ever-evolving studio palette, one could do well to have a little burnt umber on hand in the form of the FAT Drive.

Sven-Erik Seaholm is an award-winning independent record producer (www.kaspro.com) and performing artist (www.reverbnation.com/seaholmmackintosh/).

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