If you have even the slightest interest in recording, you'll know that Chris Lord-Alge has been at the forefront of mixing since the 80s.
Having worked with legends such as James Brown, Prince, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and many more, the five-time Grammy Award-winning mix engineer has also pretty much shaped the sound of modern rock in the 21st century.
Now, CLA has teamed up with long-time production collaborator Howard Benson and plugin brand STL Tones to expand on Benson's STL Tonality amp simulator plugin. The Chris Lord-Alge Trilogy preset pack adds the sound of Chris' analogue signal chain (including his SSL desk, Pultecs, and, in some cases, his Urei LA3 compressors) to your DAW.
The whole lot is refined into 50 guitar and 16 mix-ready bass presets created by Chris, with 20 of the guitar presets based on guitar sounds from some of his biggest and best-known mixes.
Meanwhile, the remaining 30 guitar patches see Chris creating new sounds from the Howard Benson Tonality plugin.
We caught up with Chris to find out more about the origins of the project, as well as pick the brains of the recording industry legend for his approach and advice on recording guitars at home.
You've worked with Howard a lot. Could tell us a little bit about how the whole the whole project came about?
“Okay, so if you look up Howard Benson and you look up me, we've done a lot together – we've done thousands of songs together. So we've been working together as a team for many, many records. I've done some plugins in the past for Waves and Howard wanted to create something.
“He connected with Sonny [from STL], and they created a plugin. We had a brief discussion about what that entails and I mentioned to Howard, 'If you're going to get involved in making a plugin, make a plugin based on exactly what's in your wheelhouse.'
“So hence, they came up with Howard Benson STL Tonality. This is really what this project does: it creates a plugin that gives the user what Howard does in his room. So how it started was 'How can I make a plugin that takes a DI, gets the sounds I get in my rig and make it sound right?'
“Sonny from STL is the one that worked with Howard. They worked on it for a long time to get the sonics right. And that is the most important thing, I mean, we're all about the sonics. Then, I mentioned to Howard, 'Make sure that the GUI is nice and simple.' So that's how that started.
“Howard Benson is the producer, Mike Plotnikoff's the engineer, Howard Benson and Mike worked together on the sounds. Mike is more the technician with the Neve and the sonics. Howard is the one that knows what amps and what cabinets he likes, so they work together.
“Howard's a bit of a rocket scientist, a very bright guy and the two connect to get their sounds. My end is the finisher. So since I'm mixing it all, my preset pack is there to give you the finished sounds and the presets – to give you the sounds you could use in your mix.“
So people can get the CLA guitar sound within their DAW. You've been a big advocate of making this stuff accessible in recent years, has your opinion on how digital emulations can be used changed over the last 10 years or so?
“Well, let's say it changed over the last 20 years. In the beginning, the emulations that I was hearing in plugins weren't really getting close at all, and it wasn't working for me.
“When I got with Waves, my whole thing was I wanted the emulations to sound a certain way. So I think obviously digital has gotten better and better and better, and the sonics have improved.
“We're creating tools for people who don't have arsenals of analogue gear, and creating a software emulator that gives you that sound. So, is it a replacement? No, everyone has their own personal taste. Is buying a Les Paul copy or a new Les Paul versus an old Les Paul the same? You know, it's a little bit similar in that respect.
“It's a newer version of it. It's not the actual hardware but we're creating emulations because that's the world we're in. We're in the plugin world, so I think it's really great for the user to be able to plug their guitar in anywhere in the world and be able to accomplish really cool stuff.“
It's important to note that these presets are captured based on your hardware chain in the studio…
“True. Now, there's two sounds I did, I did bass, I did guitar. There are presets where I've done it completely off a DI to give you that sound. And then there are emulations where I took the mixed sounds and they reverse engineered that into presets. So, it all culminates from what I would hear coming out of my mixer. I'm using my gear. Absolutely.“
What's your default hardware chain when you start working on a guitar track?
“If someone sends me a multi-track with raw guitar tracks, I listen to and I say, 'Okay, is this going to go through my analogue desk into a pair of LA3 [compressors]? With console EQ on it and then reverb and delay? Am I going down that road? Am I using 1176s on this?'
“So there's a few hardware changes, but it's basically analogue console, insert to a compressor, EQ on the console, maybe more compression on the desk and then effects.
“Since most of my presets are dry – because it'd be kind of pointless if they're too wet – It's all about the big picture of the EQ and the tone. But yeah, it's the compression. It's the analogue compression I can get.
“Because look, distorted guitar sound is compressed, that's what makes it distorted but still, you can use compression to actually smooth it out and make it even more silky.“
Aside from mixing, you're a very skilled, orthodox engineer. Do you still get involved on that side of things?
“I do a lot of producing, and I do a lot of engineering. I like recording, when you record you make the decision. So to be honest with you, the recording is really simple. If the guitar player is getting something reasonable for me then I keep it simple. I start with an SM57 I'll add a Royer (RE-20), and see if multi-mic'ing works.
“But generally, one mic into a nice preamp through an 1176 [compressor] is a great way to start. I always use Heritage mic preamps. To me, they're the best sounding mic preamps.
“HA73 EQs by Heritage, they're made in Madrid – to me those are great sounding. They're basically Neve 1073 emulations but brand new, which means they're not crusty, because I like brand new.
“And my second choice now is the Eighteen by Black Lion Audio, which is a combination Pultec mic preamp. And then Black Lion also makes a B173. So that's my mic pre chain because, well, what's wrong with a 1073? Nothing.
“But the problem with vintage sometimes is that when you're recording and you get some artefacts you don't want and you got a great performance, you're spending half a day eliminating those artefacts.
“So I like to have a chain that's dependable, new. I used to be an advocate of 1073s and 1081s, APIs. They're all great if you can get ones in perfect shape. But right now, I want to open up a brand new box, plug it in, and focus on what's currently being manufactured and functions.
“I've had a lot of success with that aspect of it. You know, when you go tracking on an old console, you're gambling with switches and pots. And sometimes you have to wrangle it.“
Do you think people tend to overthink the signal chain with so much power at our fingertips?
“I'd rather have one mic and then EQ it with a little compression and have a very simple signal chain. I mean, jeez, that's all I need. I mean, it really boils down to the guitar. I mean, like you're out there EQing, going, 'Well, the guitar's not sounding great'.
“Okay, switch from the Strat to the Tele or the Tele to the Les Paul. Use the instrument as the tool. I mean, once you have that part… When people start doing podium mic'ing on guitar amps, and it looks like one of those newscasters in front of a thousand people with a million mics in front of them. I mean, come on!
“Whatever. I've gone down that road. I did the podium mic'ing with Peter Frampton, I had, like, 16 mics on his rig. Because we were like, 'Okay, add another pair. Put up a [Neumann] 47, put up a 67, put up a [Sennheiser] 421. Just stack 'em, rack 'em and pack 'em!'
“After a while it was just more volume. It wasn't even better. It was just more confusion. So you know, start simple. If you have a studio where you get it working with one (mic), and then you start adding another one. I just think one mic and a room mic is the best place to start.“
Do you have any tips for keeping multiple mics in-phase with each other?
“Obviously, you're going to use your ear, but there is a device, funnily enough; I bought it from a friend of mine Richard Landers who works for Don Felder. He has this mic clip that you put a 57 and a Royer on, and it puts them exactly in-phase with each other on the clip.
“It was interesting, I used it and it worked perfect. But to be honest with you, after a while, I was like, 'Yeah, the two-mic thing's nice, but just give me the 57 again'. Or just give me the Royer, just give me the one mic.
“Everyone's got their own way of doing it. I don't have the time or inclination to really spend all this effort moving mics around. I try to keep it simple. Like I said, if you have a home studio and you have time you want to experiment, be my guest!
Has the advent of unlimited tracks stopped people from having to make decisions on what sound they're committing to 'tape'?
“I think the world is afraid of making decisions. In music, creating, making a decision is everything, and organising and making it make sense is everything. So imagine you have a song called Fire. And then you have Fire Session Number One, which is the one that has all your original screw around stuff with it. So just create a new session where it has all the exports of all your sonic changes.
“You end up with a session that's named, it's perfect, it's smaller. If you feel like 'Oh, you know what, I'm not really happy with what we ended up with that comp.' you can go back to the original session, export and re-import those. So you have one session which is the work session, and one session which is the master session, and then it's not all this huge mess. People have to be organised.
“I grew up where there was a 24 track tape machine. Well, it was 12 tracks 16 track 24 track. I loved when it was 48 tracks and a track sheet, and whatever's on there is what we got. You knew that that was it. So if there was a background vocal comp, I don't care if it was 60 tracks, that's what they did. So when it goes into hundreds of tracks, depending on what you're doing, it gets really ridiculous.“
Do you strip back a lot of the multiple guitar tracks you're sent for mixing?
“The bottom line is: I listen to the rough mix, and if that's what they're happy with, and that's what made up the record and it's a large amount of guitars, I make it work.
“If it's all spread out, my assistant and I will sit here and make some comps and clean it up and organise it. So I'm looking at maybe, four stereo pairs or five stereo pairs of guitars that are all the compilations of all of it.
“So you'll have a pair that's all the solo stuff. you'll have your rhythm pairs, your acoustics, whatever. I'll just organise it so that when I'm looking at the screen, the real estate that the guitars are taking up is no more than 10 tracks.
“I don't want to look at the screen and all I see is little Tetris chunks. The whole deal with looking at a ProTools screen is you only have X-amount of real estate. So I'll hide all the other stuff. It's all about what you want to tolerate.
“I will clean it up. There's some stuff I'll get rid of, here's what I get rid of. Guys do guitars, and then it rings over into the next section, which is in a different key. And it's a minor second, and I have to mute those downbeats because I have to make it sound like they actually played this as a whole part.
“There's a lot of times where I go 'What's that noise here? Oh, that guitar is ringing out into the next section because they played it one section at a time and that's not the chord.' I have to get rid of it! Like, 'Wow, a lot of thought went into that! Same with keyboards. But you know, anyway… That answers that question!“
Are a fan of kind of lots of stacked guitar parts?
“Whatever makes a song work. Whatever makes the whole picture work. So I have no rules, but my rules are I like everything cleaned up, and I don't want to be going, 'Oh, that guitar sustaining over the wrong chord' or something. So, it's all musical arrangement.“
You're known for hard-panning (Left, Centre, Right) your guitars…
“I start with LCR and if that doesn't work I'll find somewhere in between. But 90 per cent of the time it's LCR. Obviously, for percussion, sometimes I'll try to do some kind of placement. But I like to make it as stereo as possible.“
Talking of doubling, do you come across lots of copy and pasted, fake doubles?
“There are a lot of times where if I want something doubled, I'll fly chorus one against chorus two, and do some editing to make a double out of what's not.
“But yeah, I get plenty of fake doubles, they just shift it 25 milliseconds, and call it a double. I'm like, 'No, that's shifted 25 milliseconds!' I delete it.“
Do you have a preferred mic position when it comes to acoustic guitars?
“It's a foot away from the hand, wherever the hand is strumming about a foot away from that, kind of just aiming toward the neck a little bit. I'll use a really nice condenser mic, I like the Audio Technica mics, their condensers are so perfect for this. Then I'll just roll off some 60 Hz and if it doesn't sound mid-range enough, I'll just pull the mic back a bit.“
Do you stereo mic an acoustic?
“I prefer to just double the acoustic. I mean, it depends on what you're looking for. There's gonna be no stereo mic'ing. I mean, you want to mic it up at the top of the headstock and at the base of the guitar, and maybe that's gonna be stereo.
“But maybe you know more than me! You can try any which way you want; we live in a world where there's a lot of options. For me, there's nothing better than a really well doubled acoustic done right. Dead, spot on, perfectly phrased.
“It's an amazing sound when it's done perfectly and that's what I like. So that's my personal taste. So put in the effort. There's no automatic doubler for anything.“
What about mixing acoustic guitars?
“The problem with acoustic guitar is most people make it so bright and skinny there's no beef to it. If you put the mic too close, you're getting so much proximity to the low end of the guitar, it's useless. So you kind of want your acoustic to have some midrange.
“To me, that's the big deal. So [the mic] ends up being pulled back back a little bit. But, you know, no matter what the recording is, I will probably use a distortion box on the acoustic first rather than a compressor; I'll distort it so it gets some more sustain.
“I will try to avoid adding anything shiny and go for the mids because the shiny part's easy. So with acoustic, it's usually way too much low end going on and it's not forward enough in the lower mids.
“Most of the trouble is if the mic is too close. All you get is the attack and the low end and all this proximity. You don't really get the the sound of the guitar.“
Do you think that products such as your STL pack are eliminating the need for people to even need to mic a cab anymore?
“This is completely built for this era. You got your rig, you're in a small room, it's cosy. You don't want to make a lot of racket. You want to play guitar at two in the morning when you're inspired. The whole thing is, when you're inspired, what's going to work?
“Dragging out an amp and plugging in a mic and having someone knock on the door, shouting 'Hey, turn that shit down!'? Or, if you know that you can just pick up your guitar, crack open the plugin, select the one of the five different amps, put some pedals on it, and in five minutes you have a sound that encourages you to play then, to me, my job is done.
“And I personally think that it's up to the musician. If you're inspired, and the only way you can play is at a certain time of day or whatever and it's all virtual, there's nothing wrong with that.
These plugins give you that option to be able to do that.
“I think we are in a world that you can set your rig up to have virtually everything. You have the best guys in the world putting their ears on this stuff, so why not? You eventually may get to a place where you think 'You know what, this is working, but let me just see what this nice Dumble sounds like with a 47' and that is your option.
“I think you could accomplish anything you want to do, for any record, on the STL, plugin. And if you want to go further than that, then, hey, go get your mic and your amp and go for it. But we're creating a tool that simple and easy to use. With STL tonality, it's another tool in your toolbox for music creation.“
What would be your all-round favourite amp and guitar setup for recording?
“A vintage Deluxe, and a 57. You got to have a Les Paul, Tele and a Strat – the three flavours at least. But I'd be very happy to just have a really good Deluxe mic'd up, and then I just have my feed, and I can use the guitar to make the sound.
“That's what Keith Richards does. He just has his one amp and he knows that these guitars have hotter pickups, or this is going to distort more, or that's going to be cleaner. I think that's a good way to start.
“If you're doing rock stuff, you're gonna have a different amp, maybe you're gonna have a bluesbreaker or some smaller, more modern amp.“
Finally, what are the most common traits you see in amateur mixes that divide them from pro-sounding mixes?
“Well, to me, what makes an amateur mix is the more compressed it is, the more amateur it is. Because anybody can just throw throw a ton of compression and limiting on their mixes. To me what shows off a good engineering situation is something that has air, is punchy, and the low end and top end breathes.
“I mean, since I teach, I hear mixes that are compressed beyond anything I could imagine. I think people like the ease of operation of throwing a compressor and a limiter on something and it sort of auto-mixes.
“That's the problem, it's really easy just to have compression and limiting set really hard so that it just kind of auto-mixes whatever you throw in there. Everything just ends up mashed together. To me, that's just very amateur. You've got to season to taste.“
- The STL Tones Chris Lord-Alge Trilogy Presets Pack is available now, priced $59.99 (Tonality Howard Benson required, priced $129.99. See STL Tones for more info.