Known the world over for incredible fingerpicking prowess and string-snapping bends, Adrian Legg is nearly impossible to pin a style on. His latest release, Inheritance [Favored Nations], is packed with eclectic compositions that draw on elements of folk, Celtic jigs, blues, and church hymns.
Never an acoustic purist—or one to rest on the tried-and-true—Legg recorded the album using a custom-built guitar and a hybrid acoustic-electric-synth controller to trigger digital models of acoustic guitars from a Roland VG-88. The kick is that while Legg professes little knowledge of modern recording tools or techniques, he nonetheless has no qualms when it comes to using technology to achieve his sound.
Did you record Inheritance at home or in a commercial studio?
I record my demos and experiments on a Tascam 788 8-track digital Portastudio, but when the process gets serious, I need somebody intelligent at the controls. I come from the steam age, technology-wise. So I did most of the album with Phil Hilborne at his WM Studio. He uses Emagic Logic, and all kinds of equipment that I’m just totally incompetent with. His knowledge and skill are really quite phenomenal, and he has sorted out many of my clams.
You also changed your choice of guitar for the album sessions.
I haven’t used my Ovations for a while, because I need an instrument that can fit in the overhead compartment of a Boeing 777 when I’m touring. I also needed a guitar that puts less stress on my back. I found that my spine was under tension all the time while I was sitting down to play, and I’m getting to an age where I’m starting to show some wear-and-tear. A gentleman named Bill Puplett made me a guitar that sits nicely diagonal on my body, keeps my back straight, and fits in the overhead on the Boeing.
What are the details of that guitar?
The neck is black walnut with an ebony fretboard, and the body is two-piece swamp ash with a walnut bridge. The body is routed out, so it’s technically “semi-hollow.” At the time, I really wanted a richer harmonic content than a traditional magnetic pickup would give me, so I stuck with the Ovation’s piezo—which has been a very good pickup for me. The guitar also has a custom DiMarzio magnetic pickup that’s only 6mm deep, because I didn’t want to cut into the hollow section near the bridge. There’s something very important happening in that area in terms of vibration transmission and balance.
Getting the guitar just right took some experimentation, however. We cut a bit off the body, and ported-out the cavity on the treble-side cutaway to change the resonant pitch, which eased up the treble a bit. Then I wanted to get into MIDI and modeling, so I tried the Roland VG-88 and its GK-2 pickup. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the performance I needed from the GK-2, so I made a big leap last year and went with the GraphTech Ghost system. Of course, I had to completely re-program the VG-88, because, all of a sudden, I could use notes that didn’t sound right with the previous setup.
Could you elaborate on that?
Well, the key to all these MIDI and modeling things is the pickup. To me, the speed at which the controller tracks your notes doesn’t matter as much as how it translates your attack. I believe the Ghost system gives me a great acoustic sound because it translates the attack transient of the guitar—and that transient is what helps us identify certain instruments. If you take an oboe and a steel guitar, the aspect that really separates them is their different attack transients.
You must be pleased enough with the Roland VG-88 to use it as the primary tone generator for Inheritance.
It’s a very impressive tool. The body shape and size modeling are really good. The EQ bands are well chosen, and the compression and limiting are not bad. I don’t bother with the effects that much, but the reverb is nice. The VG-88’s artificial tunings are a waste of time, though. They wobble and sound vile. But if you’re just adding an octave above or below a note, it works okay—just as long as you keep the artificial note down in the mix.
What was your typical signal path for the Inheritance sessions?
I went straight out of the VG-88 to the mixing console, and I also ran a line from the DiMarzio pickup to a Trace Elliot TA100 amp that was set up in another room. The tone from the VG-88 starts out as a fairly straightforward small-bodied acoustic-guitar model. However, the Ghost system picks up body resonance, as well, so the sound I’m delivering to the VG-88 has a considerable amount of character to start with, and then I tweak that sound with the unit’s onboard processing. I would not expect to get the same sound with, say, a typical solidbody guitar. I can’t put a percentage figure on all of the sonic elements, but the sound is definitely a combination of many things coming together, of which the guitar and the pickup system play a very large part. Basically, I just fumble towards something that I like, and then I hope that other people like it as well.
Do you get much static from the acoustic purists for your setup?
At times. The acoustic guitar is this wonderful instrument that you can play in your kitchen with a group of friends and have a lot of fun. It’s very personal and intimate. But as soon as you amplify it, it’s no longer acoustic. In addition, it’s very rare that anybody gets a good tone from an amplified acoustic, because the sonic nature of the acoustic is essentially so diffused. You hear sounds coming out of the neck, the sides, and even coming through your ribs, as well as the soundhole. You have this wonderful,
diffused instrument, and you can’t put a pickup on just one part of it and say, “That is the acoustic guitar,” because it isn’t. And, to me, this is where modeling is beneficial, because it allows you to control many of those sonic parameters and define a different type of acoustic sound. However, I must admit that I don’t take a purist approach to recording acoustic guitars. I’ll do whatever it takes to produce a sound that somebody will enjoy. •