This is my approach when I want a malevolent, Tom Waits-style guitar sound with a very sharp attack and a bright slapback. Set your amp in front of a hard reflective surface, such as a large window or mirror. Place a large-diaphragm condenser mic—set to its cardioid pattern—facing the window at the exact point where the speaker cone would be reflected if the surface was a mirror. You can start with the mic a few inches from the surface, but experiment with the apparent delay of the reflected sound by moving the mic further away. For added skank (or midrange emphasis), place the mic 90 degrees off-axis to the reflective surface. Now, turn your amp up nice and loud, and check out that evil slapback! Keep in mind that we haven’t close-miked the amp, so the source tone is the sound of the reflection. Are you wicked enough to let that sound ride? Sometimes, even I will add another mic to capture some source sound, but, in keeping with the nasty vibe, I’ll mic the back of an open-cabinet amp with a condenser. This typically provides some low-mid punch that adds impact without completely destroying the effect of the slapback.
The Zappa Special
Frank Zappa used the Pignose amp to great effect, and you can get a lead sound out of those tiny solid-state boxes that can cut through layers of guitars like a hot knife through butter. Open the Pignose up about 45 degrees (side to side), and stick a large-diaphragm dynamic—such as an Electro-Voice RE20 or an AKG D 112—right into the middle of the amp. This will give you a searing solo sound that also contains some depth. To add a little ambience and room tone to this blissful buzz, I’ll also position a large-diaphragm condenser about six feet away from the amp at a height of ten feet.
How can a lone nylon-string acoustic-electric compete with layers of Les Pauls through Marshalls and Mesa-Boogies? One of my engineers had the bizarre idea to go tubular. We have a ten-foot-long cardboard tube lying around the studio that we sometimes use to produce kick-drum effects. This time, however, we isolated a speaker on a 4x12 cabinet by covering all the speakers but one with heavy blankets. Then, we butted the cardboard cylinder right up against the speaker cone, and positioned a Shure SM57 at the opposite opening. (We found the SM57 dynamic didn’t capture the unwanted “woof” that the condensers were picking up from the tube.) The resulting guitar sound was uniquely bright—like an acoustic guitar on steroids—and it sat perfectly atop the other, more overdriven guitar layers. Victory!
Well, I hope these three techniques have been instructive. Now, go out and make your own noises!