Strong stuff from the brewery (EQ magazine 1997)
Strong Stuff From the Brewery. Allan Holdsworth, the guitarist's guitarist, stirs up some (tasty) concoctions in his project studio.
EQ magazine, March 1997.
By Alan Di Perna
Guitar virtuoso Allan Holdsworth spends lots of quality time in his garage studio, which is adjacent to his house in San Diego, California. He calls the place The Brewery. "It's where we brew up all the music," he explains, "Plus, I like beer." Soft-spoken, Northern-English born, and mechanically inclined, Holdsworth has even invented and patented his own beer pump. But most of his exceptional digital dexterity has been devoted to music. Holdsworth emerged as a key figure on the '70s fusion and art rock scenes, playing with Soft Machine, Tony Williams' Lifetime, Jean Luc Ponty, Gong, and with drummer Bill Bruford in the U.K.
By the time the '80s arrived, Holdsworth had emerged as an able composer and bandleader in his own right - his 1984 Road Games album was nominated for a Grammy - while continuing to record with fellow virtuosi like Stanley Clarke, Michael Brecker, and Chad Wackerman. The guitarist has long been in the habit of mixing his projects at home, but a recent move from Orange County (just outside L.A.) to the San Diego area netted him an extra bonus: a garage with enough space for a tracking room as well as a control room.
"So now I can record guitar," Allan enthuses. "A carpenter friend of mine basically divided the garage in half, making two rooms." The garage has a sloping roof, so ceiling height in the control room varies from approximately 8 to 12 feet, and from 12 feet to 17 feet in the tracking room, giving Holdsworth a fairly high-ceilinged space for cutting tracks. The tracking room measures approximately 15 feet wide and 30 feet long.
The studio is based around a 44-input Trident console and Yamaha NS40 monitors driven by a UREA power amp. The outboard gear on hand includes a Demeter mic preamp, two Neve mic and line amps, a GAL 5-band stereo parametric EQ, and a pair of Trident TSM EQ modules. "In the studio, I mostly use old single-delay lines, in pairs," says Holdsworth. "I have bunch of old Yamaha 1500's I use for that. The digital effects all date from the days before multiprocessors. The only multiprocessors I have are Rocktron Intellifexes, which I like a lot. But I use those mainly for live work. I don't actually own a really good reverb. I usually rent one when I need one. I used to have an AMS 1580S and RMX-16, but I sold those to Steve Vai a long time ago and could never afford to buy them back."
Another item not in use at the Brewery is a patchbay. "I don't believe in them," Holdsworth declares. "Every time you run a signal through a connector, you screw up the sound. All the pieces of equipment in my studio are very mobile, so if I want to put an EQ or limiter on something, I can take it right to the source." Tape machines are also rented in for recording projects. "I'm a big fan of Mitsubishi 880's," says Holdsworth, "and, of course, analog machines. I'll sometimes rent an Otari. It depends on what the budget can go for." The guitarist owns a pair of Alesis ADAT machines, which he keeps in the studio mainly for writing purposes. The same goes for his modest MIDI rig, which is driven by Cubase software running on an old Atari ST computer, Holdsworth's Synth Axe MIDI controller, which was his main axe a few years ago, is now principally used to input data to the sequencer for writing applications or to trigger the occasional synth pad on records. While Allan was once mad for MIDI, the M-word now plays a fairly minor role in his music. "I quit on the MIDI stuff completely for a while, but I just got back into it recently. I don't do it a lot, though, and I don't want to do it a lot anymore; although it's cool for writing."
Apart from recording "basic rough ideas" when writing, Holdsworth also doesn't believe in demos: "Every time my band has done a demo, there's always something on the demo that I like better than what's on the master. But the demo's overall sound quality is never good enough to use. So now I avoid that trap. I just wait until we're ready to go in and record the thing for real."
Holdsworth cut band tracks for his most recent album, None Too Soon (1996), at the Brewery. He also used the studio to record his guitar tracks for Heavy Machinery (1996), an album he did with former Yngwie Malmsteen sidemen Anders and Jens Johansson: "They just sent me (8-track) ADAT tapes. I played to the tapes and sent them back. It was kind of cool. The tapes had stereo drums, stereo keyboards, and bass, That gave me two or three tracks to mess around with. It can be hard, trying to play an overdub so it sounds like it really belongs on the track. So I try to get a feel for the shape of the tune before I even begin putting anything to tape."
A good, old-fashioned "one guitar man," Holdsworth records with essentially the same equipment he uses for live gigs. The only difference is that he adds effects processing live, but prints his signals dry in the studio, preferring to add effects in the mix. The current axe in Allan's life is a custom Carvin that he designed himself: a set-neck instrument with an ebony fingerboard, 20-inch radius neck, a semi-hollow alder body, and a single custom-wound Carvin humbucker. His guitar signal is split out to two stereo amp rigs: a pair of Mesa Boogie Mark III's for clean sounds and a pair of Boogie Dual Rectifier amps with single 12-inch cabinets for distorted leads. He uses Rocktron Intellifexes and a Roland VG-8 guitar system to process his guitar signals.
Over the years, Holdsworth has evolved a very specific approach to recording his guitar: "I always mic the cabinet for lead sounds, but for clean sounds, I go DI a lot of times. I just take a stereo) output straight off the rig and onto two channels of the tape machine. I don't run it through the board or anything."
Of those clean sounds, the guitarist estimates that he uses the Roland VG-8, "for 75 percent of the chordal things I do." Unlike the Synth Axe, the VG-8 doesn't ensnare Holdsworth in the mire of MIDI. It doesn't work by triggering external synth modules, but performs physical modeling on signals derived directly from string vibrations.
"It's just like an extension of the guitar," Holdsworth elaborates. "You're not dealing with any modules where you have to figure out how to control the envelopes and all that stuff. Instead, you can manipulate the input from a single pickup guitar like I use and make it sound like a three-pickup Strat or two single coils or an acoustic guitar."
Because he's highly sensitive to string drag (inhibition of string vibration caused by the magnetic pull of pickups), Holdsworth is a staunch believer in guitars with just one pickup. He finds the VG-8 allows him to achieve multiple pickup tones without compromising the responsiveness of his instrument.
"It just adds all these extra colors that are guitar-based. And there are no time delay problems that I can perceive. It's like using an EQ or a phase shifter. If I mix the VG-8 signal with a straight signal, it'll be synchronous. And since I use two stereo amp setups, I can send the straight signal to one rig and the VG-8 patch to the other rig, which really sounds good."
On the occasions when Holdsworth uses a mic rather than a DI for clean guitar sounds, "it's because I want the coloration from the speaker box and/or the mic and the positioning," he explains. "I have two Shure SM7's that I use for clean sounds. I use Shure SM81's for overheads on drums. And I use the Shure VP88, a big stereo microphone, for a variety of things, including guitar. It's a single point source stereo mic. It sounds particularly good on solo guitar, when there's nothing else going on. It makes the guitar sound huge."
For distorted leads, Holdsworth always uses a Neumann U87 or TLM170, positioned about an inch from the speaker cone. "The variable that I experiment with is exactly where the mic is positioned on the speaker cone. Every millimeter gives you a new sound. But the distance always remains more or less the same, about an inch. And I rarely use more than one mic. With those big diaphragm mics, you'll be able to hear ambience. It's got this presence because it's sitting right in front of the speaker. And it gives you control in the mix, because you can push the guitar forward or you can bring it back.
"That's also what I like about using stereo delays instead of reverb on lead guitar tracks. There's a lot of albums I've done where there's no reverb on the guitar solos at all. Instead, I use multiple stereo echoes, because that gives the sound a spatial quality, but it doesn't pull it back in the mix. When you use reverb, it will start to draw the guitar back into the mix. But if you use a stereo echo, you're essentially listening to the dry sound. And if it was close miked, you can put the guitar right up in the listener's face if you want. Or you can draw it back. But you have the choice, rather than being stuck with a sound that's too ambient and can't be brought forward. And by using multiple stereo echoes, you can hear each repeat, which gives the guitar an imaging thing that I like. More so than a reverb. Most of the time, reverb on a mono signal still sounds mono. Whereas multiple stereo echoes will put some perceived stereo onto a mono signal."
One last thing: some of the most roaring tones Holdsworth achieves on record and onstage these days are actually generated at very low volumes, thanks to a reactive load device he's invented called The Harness:
"Even with the amp's master volume pretty low, it will still sound cranked. You can usually talk over the volume that I record guitar at. That's something I've been working on for a while now. I just got fed up playing loud. I feel like the volume pushes you into playing things that you don't necessarily want to. It's taken me a long time to realize that music can be really fiery, but not loud. You don't need volume to make it intense."