“OVER THE YEARS,” SAYS JOHNS, “I’ve learned simple ways of recording guitars and complicated ways. My normal setup for years and years was two Shure SM57s on, say, the top right speaker— one straight on and one at 45 degrees, so it’s in phase. The straight one gives you the top end, the one at 45 degrees gives you the bottom end, and you need to balance those evenly. And then I would put an AKG C 414 on the bottom left speaker to get more bottom end and mix that in. But you have to mess with it until the capsules are equidistant, otherwise you get phase problems, which destroy the whole thing. It’s a big hassle.
“Lately I’ve fallen into this thing that is very beneficial. I’ve got this great Shure condenser mic, a KSM44, and it’s the most ubiquitous mic I’ve ever come across. I use it on vocals, drums, percussion, guitars— bloody everything. It’s better than a [Neumann] U67 or a U87. All I’ve got to do is put it in the vicinity, near the speaker, and it works every time. Just one mic, man. I put it three to six inches from the cab and it’s really rather delicious.
“I very rarely record guitars direct. I did that way back in the day with Pagey, on ‘Black Dog’ and ‘No Quarter.’ I used two Universal Audio 1176s. You crank the first one like mad and then run the second one in series to compress. Then you fiddle with the EQ. It’s very tricky and as soon as the cat stops playing there’s this tremendous rush of noise. The only other time I record guitars direct is with Rickenbacker 12-strings. That’s what we did on ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ Jimmy liked to play his Ricky 12 into a Vox AC30, but I told him I had success running them direct. We did and that’s why it chimes so well. I’ve read that he played a Fender 12-string on ‘Stairway’ but I remember it being a Ricky, because I locked onto that sound. I used that sound with Van Halen too.
“The thing with guitar sounds is, you can get the greatest tone in the world for a song. Then you move on to another song that’s in a different key and a different tempo and it won’t work. That’s why you’ve got to have a few tricks. What I’ve always struggled to do is to make it sound—even if you’re using four or six guitars in the rhythm section—as if you’re at a rehearsal, standing about 12 feet back from the stage, and it’s the best rehearsal they ever did. I think I’ve managed that over the years.”