Universal Audio Tone Guru James Santiago Talks Guitar and More

Santiago discusses the guitar landscape, gear, and his experience with both hardware and software development teams at Universal Audio.
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Ever hear a classic guitar track and wonder, “how in the hell did they get that tone!?”

Turns out, there’s a human encyclopedia for that, and his name is James Santiago. Name your favorite riff of any genre… James will rattle off the guitar, amp, microphone, studio and room that achieved it. If he doesn’t know, you can expect an educated guess.

James’ résumé reads like a to-do list of guitar enthusiasm: professional gigging since age 15, Guitar Player reviewer at age 20, contributor for network television and video games like Dirty Jobs and Guitar Hero III. Eventually, he had his own GP column dedicated to breaking down the rigs of Robben Ford, Eric Johnson, Michael Landua and other ace players. In turn, James has become a self proclaimed gear nerd and indulges in everything from vintage guitars to modern day pedals and software.

While he can still be found at the occasional L.A. jazz gig or Dweezil Zappa show, James has taken his expansive knowledge of guitar gear to the world of product design and marketing. After retiring from year-round touring around 2000, he joined Line 6, and later Voodoo Lab, developing and promoting new products. His latest experience includes oversight of the Fender ’55 Tweed Deluxe plug-in and OX Amp Top Box developments with Universal Audio, each a resounding success in guitar hardware and software.

We sat down with James for a Q&A on the guitar landscape, go-to gear, and his experience with both hardware and software development teams at Universal Audio.

Find out more at uaudio.com.

You’re quite the guitar collector… can you talk about a few of your favorites and how they’ve shaped your playing style over the years?

Well, it feels more like a random pile of junk than a proper collection. I’m most comfortable on a Fender Stratocaster. There are so many great sounds hidden in there when you dig into the tone controls, and use the treble drop when rolling down the volume to your advantage. Although, if I was just playing distorted lead all day, you really can’t beat a Les Paul with PAFs. Really, I feel like every guitar makes you play a little differently. That’s what makes it fun and a challenge. When a piece of gear takes you out of your comfort zone, you’re more likely to go in a new musical direction for better for worse… and I like that.

How about amps and pedals? What’s inspired you as of late?

I love delays and fuzz pedals. Cranking up an old Marshall Plexi with a Fuzz Face and Uni-vibe still makes me happy. It also has tons of musical baggage in a way. So, half the time I just go straight into the amp and even turn off the reverb if the amp has one internally. That forces me to think musically while also working harder to get the tone. Recently, I’ve been using an amp a friend made that’s like a great AC-30, and a custom Two Rock amp that’s like the best parts of the Dumble amps I’ve used over the years, but with the power section from a Deluxe.

Say, hypothetically, your studio is on fire. What makes it out in the 911 box?

Our seven pound studio assistant/Chihuahua (probably three pounds, realistically) named Fender, my hard drive backup, and 1956 Stratocaster.

What’s your stance on the growth of digital amp emulations?

I think it’s great. They’re all tools for making music and should be treated that way. If someone gets inspired to make music using an old tube amp, or plugging direct into a laptop or rackmount modeler, it shouldn’t matter. Whatever inspires your creative side is the best tool at that moment.

Take us through your experience working on the development of the UAD Fender ’55 Tweed Deluxe Amp plug-in.

It all starts with finding the right gold reference units. A lot of the old tweed Deluxe units I found sounded good, but there’s always one or two that have that mojo. Then comes the research on why it sounds so amazing. The 5E3 is a pretty simple circuit on paper, but the reason guitar players love that amp is the way it sounds in a non-linear, out of spec way. We had to develop new ways to capture all the things that circuit does when it’s coming apart at the seams. In fact, just like the real amp, our model gets hot and the speaker sounds different when the amp is on 12. To truly model that amp, we looked at every single piece that shaped how the amp sounded, but more importantly, how it felt. I could write a book on the subject at this point.

What are some things that surprised you? Any lessons learned?

The biggest lesson was to never doubt my ears and hands. In fact, at the end, I set up an A/B switch with one side going to the real amp mic’d up in the studio, and the other going to the plugin. When you can’t tell which one is which, that’s when you’re done!

Do you envision guitarists adopting these digital amps into live rigs in the future?

Honestly, many of the bands we see on big stages are hiding digital modeling software in a rack offstage. I think whatever presents your music the best is the solution in the end.

Tell us a bit about the new UA OX Amp Top Box.

One of the greatest things about a tube amp is all the sounds you can get just by turning it up. A 100-watt Marshall head has an amazing clean sound at 4, killer rhythm crunch at 7, and lead tone for days on 10. But you’re also talking about an amp that was meant to carry your sound throughout the Royal Albert Hall. OX allows you to use your amp at all volumes to get every bit of tone out of it. It has a reactive attenuator that lets you hear your amp quietly while also giving you a line out that sounds like a cabinet in a killer studio all mic’d up and ready to go. I use it every day.

What have been the main challenges on this project? What excites you most about the product?

I feel like I’ve been secretly working towards something like this for 25 years. There are so many things that happen once your speaker has a mic on it that can ruin your tone. So, that turned me into a guitar recording nerd. It’s been a mission of mine to not only know what gear was used on a classic tone, but where it was recorded, which mic or console, where in the room the amp was, were their baffles up, etc. OX is basically a giant history lesson of recorded tone, and I’m happy that I’ve finally found something to do with all this formally useless knowledge.

Might as well ask… who’s your top three?

I have so many across all genres, but Andy Summers from the Police was the first person I heard that had a guitar tone I couldn’t understand as a 12-year-old. That’s when I first heard about compression, flanging, what an Echoplex tape delay was and more. He also used jazz chords in pop which blew my mind. After that, Eric Johnson picked up where Andy left off. Eric had the clean sound with tape delays, but also had an incredible lead tone. One interesting thing they both did was use the harp harmonic technique. Andy on “Can’t Stand Losing You” and Eric’s “Victory” from Tones really set me off. That lead me to studying with Ted Greene who also had an influence on those guys. Ted was a master at chords and melody, and probably the only real genius of the instrument I’ve ever met. He wrote the book Chord Chemistry. I was lucky to be around him. He still influences me to this day.