No one has mastered the unique sound of a Rickenbacker 12-string guitar like Roger McGuinn. Generations of listeners have felt chills down their spines when they heard McGuinn’s “jingle-jangle” playing on the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” or the band’s classic version of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
But long before he was a 60s folk-music prodigy who wrote songs for Bobby Darin and formed the Byrds with Gene Clark and David Crosby, McGuinn was immersed in technology. Today, along with his wife and business partner Camilla, McGuinn still stokes the jingle-jangle flames in his Florida home studio. He’s released six solo albums since the Byrds disbanded in 1973, including 2001’s Treasures From the Folk Den, a Grammy-nominated collection of remote recordings from the dens of Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and other folk greats. A seventh album called Limited Edition, released last year, showcases McGuinn’s high-tech approach to recording, mixing, and selling his timeless music.
Have you always been technically inclined in the studio?
Actually, I’ve been an avid technology fan since the 1940s. My love of technology started in Chicago when I was just three years old. My grandfather was an engineer, and he used to take me to the Museum of Science and Industry every weekend. I got to play with the exhibits and became very interested in technology.
With the Byrds
By high school I was considering a career in broadcasting because I was so into electronics and communication technologies. I really wanted to do something with that in the entertainment industry well before my opportunities as a musician arrived.
As a long-time computer-recording enthusiast, you must have suffered through a lot of session-losing crashes over the years.
Not really. I’ve had a few hard drives go down during sessions and have lost a lot of data, but I look at the positive side of it: If you lose a song on a multitrack computer recording, you can always do it better.
Maybe that first version wasn’t the right one to begin with. It’s not like that’s the only time you’re going to get that performance. If you’re in a controlled studio environment, you can always do it better. But there are situations when you’re out in the field recording live when a rare performance will happen just once.
Treasures from the Folk Den was a remote recording. Did you lose any data then?
No, those sessions went real smooth. The only thing that happened was my flat-screen monitor broke in my luggage on the flight home. Now it makes pretty rainbow colors if I plug it in.
That's an affectionate way of putting it. Have you ever built your own computer?
The one I’m sitting at now is the first one I’ve built from scratch. It’s a D875PBZ motherboard with an Intel chip set, a 3GB Pentium 4 with hyperthreading that looks like a dual processor to the system. I’m running Windows XP and 1GB of RAM, 280GB of NTFS drive space, two monitors, and four 7,200 rpm FireWire hard drives.
I’ve taken computers apart and put in different components over the years, but I’ve also owned prefabbed computers from various manufacturers. I’ve owned APIs and ASTs and always liked the Dells I’ve owned, and Woz [Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak] recently gave me my first Mac, a Cube with a Cinema Display.
What was the first computer you owned?
In the 80s I got the precursor to laptops, the IBM Convertible. It was a huge thing the size of a suitcase, but it was slick. It had its own printer module and a modem you could plug into the wall.
I bought a sound card before those were bundled with PC systems. It came with a primitive but interesting two-track shareware recording program called Cool Edit. I thought how great it would be if they had a multitrack version of it, and so then got very into using it when they came out with Cool Edit Pro. That program eventually became Adobe Audition, which is what I use now.
What do you like about Audition?
I like it for its intuitiveness. It’s really easy to use. You just drag and clip things, and they go where you think they should go without having to sort through some arcane menu system just to find what you want. I also just got a copy of Cakewalk’s Sonar 4, which I like too. It comes with some cool automation that’s really fun for mixing, sort of like a Neve console.
Are you mixing with a hardware controller?
No, it’s all in Audition, which also has its own mixer with lots of buses and sends and real-time effects. I use a Kensington Expert Mouse trackball for all my mixing. I’ve mixed on a lot of big consoles over the years, but I’m not an old-school guy who needs to mix with a console or control surface. I’ve always been comfortable using a mouse. In fact, I’ve got a mixing console here that I just use to power my Genelec monitors.
How does hyperthreading affect Audition’s performance?
Audition is set up to use a RAID-like system of hard-drive caching, so it doesn’t rely as much on the processor as it does on caching to hard drives. I’m running four 7,200 rpm FireWire drives and using Edirol’s two-channel UA-25 for input/output, which is a left-right input box with XLRs, phantom power, and a built-in limiter. I also have a 24-bit Lexicon Omega, an eight-input by four-bus by two-out USB I/O mixer with phantom power on two of the inputs, and two mic preamps. I’m capable of taking in a bunch of things at once—for instance when I’m tracking [recording] drums.
Compared to analog tape, how do your Audition tracks sound?
The medium to which you record is irrelevant. It’s not the tools; it’s the instruments and how musicians play them.
After 40 years of negotiating record-label contracts, you’ve decided to do your own distribution. Why?
We decided to stop dealing with the traditional distribution channels because they’re so inefficient. They’ve got something called “returns,” which is really just a sneaky way to sell ’em out the back door in order to avoid paying the artist. Limited Edition is the first project we’ve done completely with our own production company. I’ve wanted to do this for ten years but I had to get it by Camilla first [laughs]. The only advantage of a record company is the publicity machine they offer. They can get you on Leno and Letterman and Oprah to push a new record. I’m not equipped to do that now but, really, how many records do you need to sell?
If you don’t mind my asking, how do your profit margins differ now?
We got nice royalties from our Treasures from the Folk Den project in 2001, but we still had to pay the record company $7 per disc in order to sell them on our own. Now we get ’em for a very reasonable price and sell the discs on McGuinn.com, Amazon.com, and [at] venues, and there’s no returns. We turned a profit within two weeks of releasing Limited Edition last year so it’s all gravy now. I don’t mean to bellyache about it, but the record business is just not totally honest with the artists.
But now you have to pay for what the labels used to absorb.
Yes, of course, we have overhead now—the production and duplication costs and musicians’ fees and printing expenses, and we hired a publicity agency for the first couple of months after releasing the record. Beyond that, the only thing we’re doing differently now is that we carry CDs around with us and sell ’em at the shows. That’s been very profitable, especially when we went to Europe. It put us on the economy over there and gave us the ability to walk on their economic level without paying the premium of giving most of it away to the record label.
Do you do any Internet marketing or other types of guerilla marketing?
Not really. Epiphone did a giveaway of a guitar and mentioned Limited Edition in their materials, little promo things like that. The CD is up on McGuinn.com and sales are still going strong there and on Amazon.com, but honestly I don’t know how people find out about the record.
You must have a large fan base who tune in no matter who is distributing your records.
Yeah, it’s mostly guitar-playing guys in their forties and fifties that follow me. [Laughs.] They’re really devoted and into it.
The new Martin 7-string guitar you’ve designed must help spread the word about Limited Edition as well.
Yes, the Martin HD7. The HD stands for “herringbone dreadnaught,” but I like to think of it as “high definition” because the extra G string gives the sound more definition. The seventh string is tuned an octave above the G string.
The single most important element of the 12-string sound is the G pair. With the HD7 you’ve got the flexibility of a 6-string where you can bend the notes on the top, for the blues, and then do your bluegrass runs on the bottom strings. Plus, I’ve always tended to play a lot of my lead work up and down the G string—that’s a trick I learned from George Harrison.
The G pair is the essence of the “jingle-jangle” sound. It’s the best-sounding pair on a 12-string because the other string pairs tend to sound a little more thuddy, whereas the G pair is bright and uplifting.
What alterations did Martin make to a standard 6-string in creating the HD7?
The only differences are that the tailpiece has an extra peg for the seventh string, there’s an extra slot on the nut, and of course there’s an extra tuning peg. I also had them put some really pretty inlays on the neck.
What was the genesis of your jingle-jangle guitar sound?
Actually, the sound was already around in the early 60s. The Searchers and The Seekers were doing it on songs like “Needles and Pins” and “Every Time You Walk in the Room.” I think Harrison picked up on that and started a little bit of that sound when the Rickenbacker company gave him his first electric 12-string. The Byrds were big Beatles and Searchers and Seekers fans, so when I got the electric 12, I pursued that sound further myself. I had been playing around with Bach-like stuff at that time, too, which together with the 12-string became the basis of the intro riff to “Mr. Tambourine Man.” A little “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” kind of thing there.
I’ve always heard it was the other way around, that the Beatles were huge Byrds fans.
They called us their favorite band the second time they came over to America—that excited us a lot. They had come to see one of our gigs in England and we all hung out after the show. The next night I went to Paul McCartney’s club in St. James and he took me out for a drive around London in his Aston Martin DB5. It was a really amazing time.
“The most important piece of equipment in the acoustic guitar recording process is the microphone,” says McGuinn. His main mic is the Stedman 1100B, a $4,500, hand-built, large-diaphragm, tube condenser microphone he uses for vocals as well. “I also like the Audix condenser mics, and the Avlex CI33 is a nice little condenser mic with a nice, warm sound for guitars,” he continues. “I position it toward the last fret just a little bit away from the sound hole. If you put it right over the hole, you get too much boom.”
With electric guitars, McGuinn most often bypasses his guitar amplifier and records directly into the computer. Lately he’s added a pair of JangleBox stomp boxes to his jingle-jangle signal chain. Based on the compressor circuit built into his Rickenbacker 370/12 McGuinn Limited Edition 12-string guitar, he says the JangleBox sounds great. Once he’s recorded his acoustic and electric guitar tracks into his computer, McGuinn leans on Adobe Audition’s Hard Limiter plugin.
“I’ll select the whole track, hard-limit it, and then maybe put on some delay. I don’t really need to compress the electric guitar track in Audition because the JangleBox has already nicely compressed it. I like to hard-limit the track and really punch it to the edges of the envelope.”
He typically boosts the signal by 6dB to fill out the track. “Hard Limiter takes the signal right up to the edge of the envelope at 0dB without clipping,” he says. “It sounds really fat and full and big. You can overdo it if you’re not careful, but actually I like to do this with just about everything. It’s a trend these days to make everything sound as loud and full as possible.”
McGuinn’s Limited Edition makes great use of creative crossfading between tracks. “I went back to that Notorious Byrd Brothers approach [from 1968] where songs overlap and fade into each other,” he says. “I love that as a listener, but some people actually thought it was an error when they heard my disc! It wasn’t. I just like the effect that has on the listening experience. But I also had to make a special version of Limited Edition for the radio stations with discrete start and stop points between each song.”
Here’s how he sets up the crossfading: Once his songs are completed, McGuinn creates a new Adobe Audition session and imports each song into its own track. With the entire album visually and horizontally stacked before him, he then slides each song around until the heads and tails of each song overlap at just the right crossover points.
“It’s simple to do with Audition,” he explains. “Once everything fits just right, I simply hit F8 to put in the various cue indexes across the album and then create a two-track version of that session. That’s then my two-track master with the CD index points in it. I put the index points where I feel they sound the best—not necessarily where one song ends and another begins but where the two songs best fade out of and into one another.”