Conscious Intentions

5 studio tips from session great Michael Landau.
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At the age of 20, Guitarist Michael Landau set foot in a recording studio for the first time. By the time he was 30, he was the king of the ’80s Los Angeles music scene, having played on sessions for Boz Scaggs, Michael Jackson, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Miles Davis, Ray Charles, and countless others—so many, in fact, that at some point, he lost count of how many records he’d been on.

“I think people called me for sonic reasons,” says Landau. “There was a certain sound I had that seemed to stand out. At the same time, you don’t want to stand out too much. That’s the job of the singer. I always tried to tailor my sound and my parts so that I wasn’t abusing whoever was singing.”

Landau tried to go easy on the vocalists on his new solo album, Rock Bottom [Provogue], but he also admits he relished the opportunity to cut loose. “I always want the vocalists to carry the tune, but, on the other hand, it’s my album, and I wanted to rock out more, and get some harder-edged sounds than I usually use on sessions.”

But whether he chooses to nurture or abuse vocalists, Landau’s approach to guitar tone in the recording studio offers players some great ways to up their sonic games, whether they’re working on home demos, or dreaming of becoming the next session master.


“Over the years, I’ve found I’m always happier when my setup is small and simple, because it frees me up to play the music,” says Landau. “Whether I’m doing sessions or playing live, I bring two pedalboards with me: one with overdrive and modulation boxes to feed a dry amp, and a smaller second pedalboard with delay and reverb pedals that goes out to my wet amp. I would also recommend using good cables, and that includes the patch cables on your pedalboard. I like Belden 9778, Mogami, and Canare cables—they all deliver great sound—and I try to keep the length no longer than ten feet before my first pedal or buffer.”


“I know it’s very trendy these days to use two microphones on a guitar cabinet. The typical combination I see are a Shure SM57 and a Royer ribbon mic. While both of these mics are great for recording guitars, I prefer to use just one of them when I work. The main reason is when you try to place two mics on a single speaker, you end up having both mics in the wrong spot, resulting in one mic sounding too bright, and the other sounding too dark. To compensate, people often blend both mics, but all they’re doing is masking the problem. I’ve also noticed that the two-mic arrangement usually results in an unnatural midrange buildup, and unless you have both mics positioned just right, there will always be some amount of frequency cancellation from the mics being out of phase—which sounds very unnatural to my ears.

“So I prefer the sound of just one mic on a cabinet, and, for me, a single SM57 is a bulletproof method that works every time. It gets me going quickly, and it gives me a pure and punchy tone. I usually position the mic straight at the cabinet, about a half-inch from the grille cloth, and just off center to the middle of the cone. With a Royer ribbon mic, I like it pretty much near the center of the speaker—one to six inches back, depending on the sound I want. The back of the Royer is active, as well, so I’ll get some natural room ambience if I’m in a nice-sounding space. Another great guitar mic is a Neumann U87. I usually place one about six to eight inches from the cabinet, and a couple of inches from the center of the cone.”


“Guitars always need constant adjustments to keep them playing and sounding right. I always carry a small tool kit with me, and I do the setups on all of my guitars. I would highly recommend that every guitar player learns how to do all the basics—trussrod adjustment, action, and intonation. It’s important for you to set the intonation, because you’re the one playing the guitar. One thing I like to do is buff out the saddles with a little sheet of fine sandpaper. I do this every time I change my strings, and I find it eliminates annoying string buzz. Being able to set up and adjust the guitar yourself is a soulful way to bond with your instrument. Plus, it’s great not to have to constantly rely on someone else to do it for you.”


“There’s so much gear available these days that it’s overwhelming. The amount of Tube Screamer-style overdrive pedals alone is enough for a lifetime of experimentation. It can be a lot of fun to geek out on gear, but it also eats up a lot of your precious time. And, seriously, how many Tube Screamers does one really need? Use your time to write a song, or listen to a type of music you normally wouldn’t—whether it’s classical, jazz, punk, or whatever. In my view, playing the guitar and listening to music will always be more rewarding than messing around with gear.”


“Even if I’m doing just a short eight-bar solo on a record, I always try to tell a story. To me, the most important thing is to make every note count, and to play each note with conviction and sincerity. This will help your tone, as well, because you’re playing every note with intention. I always try to make the guitar sing in a style similar to a good vocalist. Playing along to singers is a wonderful way to improve your phrasing and keep your tone solid.”