Musician Magazine, August 1992

Home Recording Special Report

The Speed of Sound: Lindsey Buckingham gets tight with tone

by Alan Di Perna

"I wanted to assert the guitar more than I'd been doing in the past." Comfortably seated in his guitar-littered home studio, Lindsey Buckingham is describing the game plan for his new album Out of the Cradle. In this room, high on a Bel Air hillside, he's been working on it since leaving Fleetwood Mac in 1987. His longtime co-producer Richard Dashut sits opposite his old friend as he carries on explaining his desire to "flaunt the guitar this time."

Uh-oh. When most guitarists start talking like this, it's a sure prelude to bombastic power chords and over-inflated leads. But on Out of the Cradle, Buckingham went in the opposite direction: The result is an album full of subtle, spiky guitar textures that draw listeners in rather than blasting them out. Buckingham and Dashut have successfully snubbed the "ambience is next to godliness" rule that governs modern record making.

"We did a lot of mono recording of instruments, instead of stereo spreads," Buckingham elaborates. "Some arrangements are fairly dense. Mono made it possible to have a series of contained points going from left to right, which made it easier to put more parts in the songs and still have them clean and defined."

And nearly 95 to 98 percent of the guitars on the album were recorded direct-even the distorted ones. Some of Buckingham's stinging solo tones pose a challenge to the received wisdom that the only way to get a good, raunchy lead sound is with close and ambient mikes on an amp.

"With an amp in a room, you've got acoustic reverberations and delays to deal with," Dashut explains. "They just fill up space in the track. The way Lindsey works, a lot of parts make up the whole. And if we're to hear all those parts, there can't be a huge room guitar washing over the spectrum. The trick was to get a distorted sound with balls, but more contained."

The most important technique used to achieve the album's unique, concise guitar timbres was analog tape varispeeding. Buckingham is a VSO fiend from way back, and uses it on backing vocals and drums as well as guitar. "It's a voicing tool," he says, "a way of refining a sound-the harmonics of it-so it sits right in the track. It's like another version of EQ."

The actual technique is pretty obvious, says Lindsey: "You just slow the tape down to where you think it's going to sound right. Then you just play to the slowed-down tape; you've got to transpose, of course. After that, you take it back up to normal speed and see how it sounds. It's a real trial-and-error thing."

Varispeeding accounts for some 40 percent of the guitar sounds on the record, Buckingham estimates: "On 'Countdown' a lot of rhythm stuff was [recorded with tape speed] taken down, in order to come up more crystalline. And the lead sound is a Tele recorded through a fuzz preamp and VSOed. The idea was to make it come up like a violin sound. When [engineer] Chris Lord-Alge was mixing that he kept trying to fatten it up. I told him, 'No, it's gotta sting like a bee.'"

The dulcimer-like timbres in the intro to "Soul Drifter" were made with several tracks of VSOed guitars. "The ascending line"-Lindsey sings the riff-"that's two guitars in octaves. Then there's a [muted] 3/4-time pattern that goes across that."

Buckingham says VSOing produces results very much like Nashville tuning-"that high, harpsichord type of sound." While there are no Nashville-tuned guitars on the disc, there are a few open-G, 'E and dropped 'D tunings. There's also one Lindsey invented and dubbed his "oriental" tuning: "We put all high E and B strings on my Strat and tuned them all a half-step or whole step apart. So you get this . . .[he imitates the sound of a sitar's sympathetic strings]. You can get these nice open things going with it, like in the verses of 'This is the Time.'"

With all this trickery, it's no wonder that listeners start hearing things as they ain't. "A guy in New York was swearing he was hearing all these effects," Buckingham recounts. "He was saying, 'Yeah, you used a harmonizer on there.' But I didn't use any of that stuff. I had to tell him, 'I hate to burst your bubble, but it's just a different approach to recording.'"

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Out Of The Catalog

Onstage, Lindsey Buckingham has used a custom Rick Turner guitar for years. On Out of the Cradle he turned elsewhere: to a '63 Fender Strat, a Tele, a Steinberger, an Ovation and a nylon-string Takamine; he uses Martin Marquis on acoustics and D'Addarios on electrics. A Groove Tube Studio Series Tube Preamp proved indispensable in recording D.I. guitar sounds through a Neotek console. All of the tape-speed manipulation happened on an analog Otari 24-track synced to a Sony 3324 digital multitrack. On the rare occasions when an amp was used, it was a MESA/Boogie. Two old Fairlights (Series I and II) provided other sounds. Mikes were Neumann U47s, U87s and a Sennheiser dynamic.

Thanks to Les for posting this to the Ledge and to Anusha for formatting and sending it to us.