One of the first things that I want to let you know is that our videos won’t be blocked in any country from now on (unless they lock me up for copyright infringement, that is, which sooner or later they will and then some of you who have direct access to Mal or Ang will have to vouch for me). Our videos are now on our own server. Should be visible from any media player too, including the pads, peds, pods etc.
With that out of the way, let me tell you that it was a big challenge to cover this one, and it took us over one month.
Was it the solos? The rhythm part? What was so challenging? The rhythm sound. Boy what an Angus’ rhythm part they pulled. Not that they usually didn’t, I love ’em all, especially the older albums like this masterpiece album here, “Highway To Hell“. But this song was certainly no exception.
And let me say it immediately, I got close (eventually) but no guitar (as Ken Schaffer told me personally 😆 as a substitute for “close, but no cigar”).
It’s hard – very hard – to improvise myself as a tech of all sorts (guitar player, sound engineer, cameraman and video editor). Don’t get it as an excuse though, because I am loving each one of these roles to life (as opposed to the other way of saying). Only, it will take me some more time to master each one of these better, as I do intend to do to deliver quality from every drop of what I do. Because this is what I always wanted to do, and I tried for years and years as a hobby; now, thanks to the Schaffer-Vega Diversity System “discovery”, I am taking a serious chance at swapping these activities as my real job; meaning, full times, at least 8 hours a day, every day for the entire coming year (after which, I’ll summarise the results and see if it was worth it or not). But I have given myself this one year. So after all, I got my excuse for this year. And boy – if you know me at least one bit – am I going to give it all.
But I digress. The sound, we were saying. The sound of Ang’s guitar part got me here. Because you know, I did start tracking with “only” one microphone. If you remember that book “AC/DC In The Studio” which we mentioned here in the past, Highway To Hell was mentioned as having been recorded – guitar wise – with three microphones per cabinet, one cabinet for each brother. The microphones being, two Shure SM57s and one Sennheiser MD421. Basically – yes, you got it right – all dynamic microphones.
Naturally, since I didn’t own an MD421 (nor I wanted to) I started heavily rehearsing with the SM57 I had around.
I had been able to single out – in the past, if you remember – the fact that I was sure (fairly sure) that the whole “Highway To Hell” album must have been recorded with at least Angus playing on the Marshall Lead Master 2203; probably even Malcolm, but not sure about that yet.
With Angus, we can be 100% positive this was the choice (as it had been for the entire Powerage album, probably including Malcolm with it for its entirety). It is just sonically evident (and if it wasn’t, I guess you can take this video here as the definitive proof – as I have shot this one entirely with one of my three original, 1970s 2203s).
Settings? Rhythm settings.
But nothing cut the original “vibe” of Angus’ sound with that single SM57 (i.e, “I” wasn’t able to). Also of note, in the room at the time (early September 2013) I only had a 1978/1979 Marshall 4×12 slanted cabinet with original Celestion G12-65s inside. If you strip Malcolm’s left channel and mono Angus’ right channel (which is how I “study” the sounds to begin with) you will probably hear, too, the character of Angus’ tone on this song.
It’s got a “clean” sounding “low end” (bass), then there seems to be clearly a lack of LMF (lower mid frequencies) and all of a sudden, the high mids and treble blossom in the most sophisticated possible way. A joy for the ears, I could say. A classic, beautiful Marshall sound of the old era. And mind you, cut with a “newer”, often disliked Marshall 2203!
A skilful catch indeed, from both the original sound engineer who did the tracking and Tony Platt’s & Lange’s sound editing afterwards.
I can not stress this enough. You have to know this. Over a month I have been after this daily the whole day (when I wasn’t working on other things – the recent TSR™ & RNR Relics videos, TSR Production, customer contacts etc.: it’s already gotten an action packed job! :lol:).
Still, I don’t think (no cigar) I matched it 100%. 100% is nowadays a possibility, so you don’t have to think that it is impossible. We have all kind of plug-in emulators of the older gear of the time, including consoles, compressors, tape recorders and the like. And I do have these and use them extensively each time (I use Universal Audio versions, that I like very, very much, as well as some Slate Digital components). I will detail my typical recording/editing process in the future; only, I didn’t want to give it “all away” at once nor I felt I was prepared to give you a qualitative insight on these things before I had a better grip on them myself.
Much likely – hoping you (our beloved members) won’t spit on our faces, we are going to make this community a pay-for community. Just something monthly, a little something, to help us survive (hey I got family!) and keep on maintain our online gear, pay for the costs etc. Will see when the time comes.
In short (more or less) I soon realised that, without an MD421, I was doomed (or I thought so). So… ebay is your friend. Bought two, both vintage ones. because rumour has it that the new model MkII has changed the sound (something of recent). The other versions of MkI MD421s from the various eras, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s should be more or less the same.
Yes, microphone(s) placement.
To make extra sure, I got one from the 1960s/1970s (comes in a beautiful light grey) and one from the 1980s (comes in black). I used the grey one, picture here with its SM57 in all of its splendour. Then I started going for positions. Boy. Mind you, the picture shows you a 4×12 Marshall B cab with checkered cloth (VERY important!) and vintage G12Ms inside. Before I realised this had to be the case, I messed around with the other cabinet I had started with, i..e, my black cloth, Marshall 4×12 type A cabinet loaded with G12-65s. Basically, I was convinced that even Highway To Hell had been recorded with the then new, G12-65s. I think I was wrong. OR at least, at the very least, they chose from song to song, for each different guitar part. Why not? If you think about it, that sounds (pun intended) as the most logical choice when you’re in the studio, have a bunch of gear sitting there and you know how to use it. So the point is that it is even more “difficult” – if you will – than what one may figure out from their comfortable chair at home; they used what they thought worked best.
nother mikes close up
G12Ms just have the grit it took for this song, and the G12-65s didn’t. Period. In fact, what moved me away from the G12-65s was the fact that I simply wasn’t able to capture the fine high end treble side of the sound. Wouldn’t match, couldn’t match, I had been moving the microphones from every possible position on the cab (and even pulling them away a bit) imaginable for more than a week, seven or eight hours a day. Pulling, re-positioning, re-playing rhythm, re-listen, shake your head, re-move the microphones, etc.
This had been the process for me, this has been the way I did it this time. And if you want to know the truth, I enjoyed this to life. At first, when in the first two days I had started recording I realised I wasn’t pulling it right I almost fell on the verge of desperation, especially at the end of the day, in the evening. Franz knows this well, as he and I have been (we are, typically) in contact maybe 50 times a day thanks to the great WhatsApp application on our iphones. We’d be lost without it 😆 I sent him dozens of versions of my recordings of a specific guitar part (when Angus plays alone for a couple of moments) that I knew was the sound to match. Gorgeous, to die for tone. It’s that pure Marshall tone few have on tape, but AC/DC do and managed to do it several times. When you hear that sound – and Angus’ timing and chord changing, which is intimately all part of the same heavenly thing – you feel your adrenaline pump. At least I do. I still do, after listening to that part and the song for probably hundreds of times. I love them so, to this point, that it makes no difference how many times I listen to them, I still love ’em like the first time. Isn’t this what characterises this timeless huge pieces of classic rock history? Yes, it is.
When I realised it couldn’t be G12-65s, I pulled in another cab in the lab. For ease of transportation, I thought my 1969 (dated) original Marshall 4×12 loaded with pre-rola greenbacks and basket weave cloth might do the trick. It took me days to realise that the thick basket wave (that light brown one, the older type) was such an equaliser itself that it wouldn’t let the frequencies shine. I had to replace it with another one. At this point, I had two more non slanted 4×12 cabs, one loaded with G12H30s and one with 4 more G12Ms ” blackbacks” from the late 1970s (I only later remembered that these were probably exactly the types of G12Ms used by AC/DC from Let There Be Rock onwards). I tried both and got disgusted by the G12H30s – at least on the 2203. Went for the latter. Finally was rewarded. I’m telling you all of this just to let you know that I tested stuff; so you don’t have to, if you want. You can start from here, if you too plan of matching your sound as closely as possible to the original.
As you read, even the cloth type will make a considerable difference… so much that you may not be able to match a sound.
Lastly, play lightly. Lightly, gently. Just barely touch the strings when strumming. The tonal difference will amaze you.
It’s a formula, frankly, and one that no one ever put down so meticulously before as I have and am doing; but we did, right here and now, and now you and I can use it (and abuse it) even planning on simulating it with other gear. In fact, in my not so humble opinion, only once we start from the original, authentic stuff we can then proceed to recreating or simulating such sounds in a serious way; all the other talk on the internet leaves me indifferent, and such rumour of “I sound like AC/DC with a Peavey such and such” is comical. Not because it can’t happen – maybe it can – but I just demand proof and a serious approach (scientific, if you would).
Actually, part of what pushed me (us) into this quest (the tone quest) was also the (in)famous internet talk that has been going on for years (and before it, probably word of mouth). You have people swearing that Higway To Hell was played with a JTM45 because someone told someone else that Angus Young only used JTM45s especially in the early days (…).
Dear god, please make them go away ( 😆 ). So we had people actually buying gear because some arrogant twat was having a big mouth telling foolish stories with no back up. This has got to end, and I have been doing what I do also with this purpose.
Now that I also got this out of my system (but we’ll talk about arrogance several times more, as when it comes to AC/DC many other “musicians” not aware of what it takes to play AC/DC have very large mouths), let’s proceed on with one big image (and its description) of the signal path inside protools for this track (for the rhythm part, precisely).
(please take a look at the picture to the right; open it in a new tab if necessary to see it in its entirety)
Angus Rhythm Guitar Processing within ProTools. From left to Right, Tape Delay, Helios EQ, Slate Digital Virtual Console, Ocean Way Studio Reverb, Fairchild Compressor and Tape Simulator
It could be scary (to look at), and most of all, one could think… “Fil how in heaven much do these plugins change/affect the sound? How much therefore stays of your original performance in tone, given the amount of plugins you are using?”. Well, here’s the confusing (and true to the bone) answer: the sound as originally recorded is the one that counts for 90%. All these other gimmicks serve me (us) only the purpose of, in my case, give some true “recording studio” depth to my otherwise “clothes closet”sound that I call laboratory.
The fascinating part about these plug ins is that more than less, they do what they claim to do: add that “depth” of true sound as captured by analog gear back in the day. The Slate Digital console for example, you can’t almost hear it’s there (and it takes a whole lot processing power of my Mac Pro with 12 cores!). If you put it on and off, we almost can’t tell the difference (but it is there). Some other plugins are definitely more obvious, such as, for example, Equalisers. Equalisers were almost always used. Now, let’s take as an example what really happened with the recording (and mixing) of Highway To Hell.
1. AC/DC went in the studio
2. microphones were placed, more or less in the same room, with baffles separating at least partially the musicians.
– For Ang and Malcolm, three microphones were used (we are using two). Each microphone then went into the console, where some initial EQ was applied, before the sounds being recorded to tape (tape machines were the only way of recording back then!). We are UNAWARE if the microphones were added altogether and then equalised as just one signal, or equalised independently and then added together. In this exercise that I did here, I equalised the sounds of the two microphones independently, then added them on the same channel where I further processed them together. The further processing being mainly, mild compression (fairchild), reverb (Ocean Way: it simulates the sound of a real room) and tape (which adds a little more compression – slightly – and some colour). Professional recording engineers of yesteryear and today tell us that both of these methods were used at the time and today: they say, “use whatever works”.
I can assure you – because I tried! – that you either have a great starting sound or with these toys, you will get to NOTHING. Nada. It is depressing on one side – our childish side if you will – and utterly stimulating on the other side. You read above that the child in me got desperate as I started with even this more serious quest I am now into. But as the days got by, I simply realised more and more that the “artistic”, real way of doing this is just… doing it seriously, learning and trying hard. Working hard, basically, that once again has been one of the founding values of our beloved AC/DC (yes!).
3. once these initial takes were done, such tapes were brought to the mixing console, where mixes were done (in this case, by Platt/Lange). Mixing a song basically implies careful adjustment of instrument (microphone) levels, panning and the use of outboard gear – typically – such as, in fact, compressor, equalisers, reverbs, delays etc. And another tape machine – at the time – to record the final results onto.
What I am now about to underline is that two separate sets of equalisers were used, then tapes (compression) and some other compression (through compressors). So you do understand how much processing even then went down… I am really adding little to this. Matter of fact, I just added “one equalisation” step to this chain, precisely, I added the only equaliser we are told from Tony Platt himself: the one on the Helios console that he did use to mix this album. Which is exactly why I used the Helios plugins here (as well as the Fairchild compressor, that was THE compressor to be find on Helios consoles). Isn’t this tremendously fascinating?