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Picture yourself with your back to a double-stacked row of Marshall amps, each feasting on your heavily processed guitar signal and then blasting your riffs into the ears and hearts of 50,000 devoted fans. Such was Adam Williams’s life during the past 13 years in the “action rock” band Powerman 5000.
Williams recently left PM5K on good terms to focus on recording and producing new rock, hip-hop, pop, and jazz artists with a Mac, a fistful of plug-ins, and Digidesign Pro Tools in his Los Angeles apartment studio. He’s also finishing a new Powerman album and a number of music-licensing projects for video games and film soundtracks along with Spider One, Powerman’s vocalist.
Despite the ear-splitting volume and stage antics, Powerman 5000 and Williams aren’t the hollowed-out metal thrashers you might expect. The band’s intelligent lyrics have more to do with the books they’re reading than their apocalyptic end-of-the-world imagery and stage presence.
Being raised by liberal, scholarly parents and playing guitar in the band for 13 years have given Williams a very open mind. His father, John A. Williams, is a respected novelist and college professor who wrote and performed the introductory poem “Assess the Mess” for the song “Transform” on Powerman 5000’s latest album. Williams’ mother Lori is an editor, and Williams credits both parents for imbuing in him a reverence for punctuation that to this day haunts his every e-mail.
Although raised in New Jersey, Williams now finds inner inspiration in his West Coast environment. “Surfing and practicing Qi Gong are my meditations before sessions,” he says. “I have to do at least one of those things every day before I can sit down in front of the computer screen.”
You’re more comfortable recording and producing in a studio than playing in a band, aren’t you?
Yes; that’s what got me into music in the first place. I was an only child who always found a way to keep myself busy, and I don’t mind working alone. Obviously you need people to bounce ideas off of, but from the day I got my first TASCAM Porta One [multitrack cassette recorder] I’ve been fascinated with the process of recording. I learned to appreciate good production even if I wasn’t particularly into the song itself.
How did your parents’ careers affect your choice to go into recording and playing music?
I was always into music and they were extremely supportive of whatever I wanted to do. Because I was a child of an interracial marriage, they knew I was going to have obstacles in life and so they were totally behind anything I wanted to do. I started early on with trumpet and was so awful at it that my teacher sent me home with a note suggesting I take something else. [Laughs.] My cousin then gave me a guitar with one string, and soon after that I bought a crappy Strat copy, took lessons, and jammed all through high school.
My father’s books center on the African-American experience. Some of his recent titles include Clifford’s Blues, which is about a black jazz musician in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II, and Safari West, which is a book of poetry.
Your father also wrote and performed the intro to your last album. Have you collaborated with him on any other projects?
There’s a bass player in Philadelphia named Tyrone Brown who just wrote a suite of music based on a number of my father’s writings. He asked me to play on it and sent me the Pro Tools files with some space left for me to solo and comp my guitar parts. [“Comp” is short for “compositing,” creating a polished track by combining the best parts of several recordings. You can hear an excerpt of the finished piece below.]
Where did you learn about music and the art of recording?
I went to the University of Rochester, which has the Eastman School of Music, but I wasn’t prepared for that level of serious jazz and classical training. After a couple of years there I moved to Boston and studied music at Berklee College of Music, where two of the original members of Powerman 5000 were also attending.
During that time I was also interning as an engineer at some local studios, and one of the bigwig producers in town, Drew Townsend, liked what I was doing. On his recommendation, I was accepted into Berklee’s recording program. I was so into it that I rode my bike 40 minutes each way at 4:00 in the morning just to get a half hour of free studio time before classes began at 8:00.
Were you jamming and studying with the PM5K guys back then?
No; I didn’t know them then and I didn’t really hang out with a lot of musicians outside of the studio. Actually, to this day I still feel more comfortable interacting with other musicians in a studio situation, as opposed to playing in a band. Maybe that’s because my true love is the creative process of recording and engineering music.
How do you record vocals and loud guitars in an apartment every day without upsetting your neighbors?
I’ve got a walk-in closet that I’ve turned into a vocal booth, and I’ve learned how to build bass traps and where to hang overhead diffusers. I’m always trying to learn as much as I can about studio acoustics and sonic treatment. I’ve picked up a bunch of old crappy little tube amps that I bought from a guy on Craig’s List. One amp, the Super 8 Melody Plus, has a 6-inch speaker and takes forever to warm up.
That reminds me of all those players who recorded through a Pignose amp—or Joe Walsh, who recorded “Rocky Mountain Way” through an overdriven, little orange Roland Cube-20 amp.
Yeah, small amps are great for recording. A lot of the early Zeppelin sounds are from small amps. I’ll run these amps of mine into the bathroom for isolation and to hear them clearly in my tiny apartment control room. I’ll also open up the shower door and put one of the little amps facing into the shower with a mic hung in front of it for ambience.
I still use [Line 6’s] Amp Farm plug-in for a lot of what I’m recording, especially these days. I’ll drive that signal with something before going into the computer, such as my Focusrite Penta Platinum mic preamp/compressor. I also like to use the “Pantera” preset in the SansAmp plug-in for some of the heavier stuff.
Are there times when you record the guitars solely with your computer and plug-ins?
Sometimes I like to work very quickly with Spider and the new artists I’m producing when we’re just looking for ideas. That’s when I’ll definitely just plug my guitar straight into the Pro Tools interface and use Amp Farm. I’ll record it as a dry track and use Amp Farm as a plug-in without printing [recording] the effects on it. That’s especially important if we’re planning down the road to take the song into a larger studio for more production and mixing. [For more on Williams’s Amp Farm techniques, see QuickTip #1.]
What are some other ways you come up with those massive guitar tracks?
Another cool thing I do is to plug my guitar directly into a Radial Engineering J48 DI Box, a “direct input” unit with two discrete channel outputs. I’ll run one channel out of the Radial through a great PreSonus Blue Tube mic preamp I have, which costs under $200, and run the other output through this crazy beat-up fuzz pedal I bought called the Half ’N’ Half. I have no idea who makes it. I bought it used, and the funny thing is that half the time it works, the other half it doesn’t—I have to literally shake the thing to make it work! It’s one of those great gourmet guitar pedals you see a lot of these days; I love it.
I’ll also send the PreSonus channel into Amp Farm and send my dry guitar through the fuzz pedal to its own Pro Tools track.
What does that sound like all mixed together?
It’s awesome! I’ve got this real heavy, thick sound with Amp Farm on one side and the drier, fuzzier tone through the Half ’N’ Half on the other side, which sounds a lot like a mosquito. I then pan them out [left and right in stereo] to create a nice, wide, dynamic heavy guitar sound. I’ll typically track [i.e., record] one take of a part and pan it to 8 and 12 o’clock, for instance, then do another performance of the same part panned at 1:00 and 5:00 to spread it all out.
Another thing I like to do is double the guitar part with some kind of buzzy-sounding synth.
What else do home recordists need to know about recording their heaviest guitar parts?
It really all starts with your guitar and your pickups. If you’re using single-coil pickups, say like on a Strat, you’re not going to get that heavy sound. It’s going to be thinner and buzzier. The Radial DI box has a low-cut switch and a polarity-flip button that really help to get rid of those buzzes, which is very important if you happen to be using a single-coil pickup—and especially if you’re recording in an apartment like I am. Houses and apartments are notorious for buzzing and humming where you pick up every little line noise your refrigerator and light dimmers generate.
What about humbucking pickups?
I suggest that if you’re looking for that heavy, “metal” sound that you definitely need a guitar with humbuckers. And, of course, the heavier the strings, the thicker it’s all going to sound. Those are things you need to know just to start off with before you even begin thinking about how best to use Amp Farm or [IK Multimedia] AmpliTube or any other guitar plug-ins on your computer.
“The first thing I’d suggest is to not have an abundance of hotly recorded, high-gain Amp Farm tracks,” Adam Williams warns, referring to the popular Line 6 amp-modeling plug-in. “Or any other amp-simulation tracks, for that matter, if you’re tracking multiple guitar parts. You have to be careful to keep the signal level, drive, and saturation down because even if you can’t hear it in your home studio, you’ll start to get these little clicking sounds down the road at another studio or in a good mastering studio. Even if the waveforms look just fine to you and the level meter isn’t jumping over 0dB, I’ve discovered that too many overdriven Amp Farm tracks can start to really sound bad after a while.”
Williams explains that software mixers sometimes just can’t handle all those distorted tracks pushed right up against the 0dB ceiling, and end up generating audible clicks. In fact, he recommends keeping clean, undistorted versions of your guitar tracks as a backup, even if you think you’ve got the sonic equivalent of Godzilla going on in your home studio.
“I’ll just turn the clean guitar signal voice off in Pro Tools and hide it on that track’s playlist,” he says. “That’s just in case an engineer or I want to go back and try something different with a track—for instance, to reamplify it.” [Reamping refers to running a clean, recorded signal through an amp and then rerecording the distorted output.]
But if you need just one massively overdriven guitar in a song, Williams offers the following tips: “I often use the Marshall JCM800 preset in Amp Farm as my starting point to come up with just the right tone,” he says. “I’ll also use the 4x12 Near cabinet setting, which means the mic-placement emulation is near to the virtual amp.
“I’m always using a humbucking pickup, so I like to crank the treble up to high, with some extra gain, and I set the Drive parameter way, way up. The bass is in the middle, set at about 4 o’clock, and the mid is usually set to the middle of the dial. Depending on how the guitar is sitting in your mix, you can then roll the drive off a little to give it some more clarity and less saturation.”
Williams also suggests listening to classic Van Halen tracks to prove to yourself that less can be more: Two tracks of a rhythm guitar performance often sound much bigger than four or five.
Adam Williams admits that he goes back to Prosoniq’s Orange Vocoder plug-in again and again to brainstorm new melodies. He doesn’t just use it on vocals—guitars, basses, and anything else have been fodder for this software filter bank.
Williams recalls how one of the Powerman 5000 tracks he worked on before leaving the band, “Song About Nuthin’,” was sounding great but missing the melodic feel the band was trying to achieve. “Spider [vocalist Spider One] was trying to be more melodic on this song, but for some reason it just wasn’t happening,” Williams says. “So I threw Orange Vocoder on his original vocal in the verses and moused around with the onscreen keyboard and the default settings to change keys, and let it generate a great drone all on its own. I quickly printed a new melody Spider liked onto a new Pro Tools track and then looped it for him so he could do his new vocal while listening to the drone track. It was something melodic he hadn’t thought of at first, but now it’s totally his own because he riffed it off of Orange Vocoder for a while.”
“I changed the chords around in Orange Vocoder using its little onscreen keyboard to match the song,” Williams continues. “All those major-7th chords in that preset were too jazzy for what we were doing.”
“We did the same thing on a song called ’Hey, That’s Right!,’ where Orange Vocoder came from nowhere to help us. Siggy, the band’s bass player, had this cool rhythmic idea for the song that moved up a minor 3rd, like a bluesy feel. He played the Orange Vocoder’s mouse keyboard himself in real time as the melody was bounced to another track, which is another way to use Orange Vocoder for coming up with simple melodies.”
Williams also recommends using Pro Tools and Orange Vocoder to select, process, and highlight hip-hop and rap vocal lines. “You can bring in the vocoder on the last phrase or word of every line to accent what’s being said, that upbeat on the end of a line,” he explains. “The sound is great but, like Amp Farm, if you use too much it quickly wears thin. A little bit goes a long way, but the melodic possibilities with these plug-ins and Pro Tools are endless.”
Randy Alberts is an author, musician, and photographer who lives on Lummi Island, Washington.
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