8 Famous Guitar Tones That Were Recorded Straight Into the Board

Pink Floyd (19). Photo by: Michael Ochs / Getty Images.

If there’s anything guitarists love as much as their guitars, it's their amplifiers. Countless words have been written about who used which amp with which cabinet and which speakers, but it may surprise you to learn that some of the most iconic sounds ever recorded were created via direct injection: the act of plugging right into a console’s preamp.

The most-cited example is probably the single version of the Beatles’ "Revolution." John Lennon’s desire for an aggressive sound prompted engineer Geoff Emerick to run the guitar straight into two daisy-chained preamps for maximum fuzzy overdrive — but they weren’t the only ones to do it.

Today, we're exploring eight more instances where, whether accidental or intentional, the direct injection technique happened to be just the ticket to achieve these diverse sounds.

The Byrds - "Mr. Tambourine Man"

In a rather strange career move, the Byrds recorded a cover of Bob Dylan’s acoustic masterpiece the same year the original was released and made it the title track of their debut album. It could have been derivative and uninspired, if it weren’t for the band putting their unique jangle-pop stamp on it.

One of the defining elements of that signature sound came from Roger McGuinn’s chiming Rickenbacker 12-string, selected in emulation of The Beatles. That signature chime is on full display in the opening notes of "Mr. Tambourine Man," enhanced by a subtle studio trick.

In January 1965, the Byrds convened at Columbia Recording Studios in Hollywood to record the single with help from famed session musicians the Wrecking Crew. Engineer Ray Gerhardt ran the direct guitar signal through tube compression to "protect his precious equipment from loud rock and roll," as McGuinn recalls.

The compression thickened up the slightly tinny guitar and sounded so good that Gerhardt added another compressor in line with the first, creating the snappy yet sustained tone heard on the song — and many Byrds recordings since.

Led Zeppelin - "Black Dog"

Jimmy Page seems to be synonymous with cranked Marshall stacks, but Zeppelin was known to make use of a broad range of guitars, amps, and techniques in the studio. Curiously, one of the band’s most iconic riffs was created in a rather unorthodox way.

The band’s longtime studio-hand Andy Johns (having gotten the idea from Buffalo Springfield’s engineer) fed Page’s Les Paul through a direct box, straight into a preamp on the desk, then into two UREI 1176 compressors (again, in series).

The first unit had the compression buttons disengaged and the output level cranked, functioning more like an amplifier. The already somewhat distorted signal hit the next unit hot enough to overdrive the input, resulting in the classic sound. The part was then tripled to thicken the sound.

"I couldn’t have done it without the 1176s," Johns later confessed in an interview with Universal Audio (formerly UREI). "There is not another compressor that will do that, because you can take out the compression stuff." EQ lent the final touch: "A bit of bottom to make it sing," according to Johns.

The Carpenters - "Goodbye to Love" (solo)

In what would turn out to be a rather polarizing move, wholesome soft-rock sibling duo Richard and Karen Carpenter decided their proto-power ballad needed a soaring guitar solo to take the arrangement to the next level.

Karen got ahold of Mark "Paul Revere" Lindsay’s guitarist Tony Peluso, whom she thought would be perfect for the track. Peluso wasn’t sure he was the right fit at first, but after some nudging, The Carpenters got him in the studio to lay it down.

Peluso initially played something sweet and pretty, befitting the song’s texture, but Richard felt the song needed an extra push over the edge. "Play the melody for five bars, then burn it up!" he instructed Peluso. "Soar off into the stratosphere!"

And he did, laying down two solos with a fuzzed-out DI sound. No doubt the sudden switch from schmaltz to shred lost The Carpenters a few fans, but it also ushered in an era of guitars wailing over emotional piano chords that lives on in massive arenas to this day.

Chic - "Le Freak"

When you think of funky guitar, clean tones naturally come to mind. Besides the occasional wah-wah or envelope filter, it’s not the most effects-heavy genre. And what cleaner tone is there than a guitar feeding a preamp, feeding a recorder?

Chic’s party anthem was conceived in the last hours of 1977, after the band was denied entry to the legendary Studio 54 nightclub on New Year’s Eve. After slogging through the slush in their finest suits back to guitarist Nile Rodgers’ nearby apartment, the band jammed their frustrations out on a new riff, initially singing, "Aaaaah, fuck off!"

When it came time to record at The Power Station in NYC, a young Bob Clearmountain fed Rodgers’ "Hitmaker" Stratocaster into the studio’s Neve board, creating the chunky rhythm sound (a method Rodgers would continue to use throughout his career).

Several live takes were done with the band. Then, the best was chosen and copious handclaps, ethereal keyboard chords, and (of course) those luscious disco strings were added around the core groove, fleshing out the production.

Update: Bob Clearmountain himself commented on this article below, writing, "You got Nile's sound on 'Le Freak' half right. The other half was via a Fender amp (it was either a Deluxe or a Vibrolux—that I'm having trouble remembering). I'd always flip the phase on one of them and tweak the balance of the two until it sounded right, then through a Neve compressor and a Pultec EQP 1A3."

Pink Floyd - "Another Brick in the Wall pt. 2" (solo)

Chic’s influence was far-reaching, and one of the groups they inspired inhabits a very different part of the musical spectrum. "Pink Floyd will tell you straight up when they wrote ‘Another Brick in the Wall,’ they were in the studio next to us," Nile Rodgers told Rolling Stone.

The influence is clearly heard in the song’s simple dance beat and the choppy strumming of the rhythm guitar — a big divergence for Floyd and another polarizing production move — but it’s actually the hybrid blues-funk guitar solo that utilized the direct injection technique.

Recording direct was producer Bob Ezrin’s suggestion, and David Gilmour’s Les Paul (sorry guitar nerds, it wasn’t the famed "black Strat") was run clean into the board for a snappy sound. Upon hearing playback though, Gilmour, "Didn’t think it had quite enough meat."

The track was then run back into an amplifier and recorded again, with the direct and re-amped tracks being blended in the mix for a complex, present-yet-crunchy tone that’ll never be attained simply by copying Gilmour’s pedalboard.

David Bowie - "Heroes"

Speaking of walls, another legendary DI sound was made right in the shadow of the Berlin Wall. Most rock fans know David Bowie’s "Heroes," even if they couldn’t name the guitarist who contributed the memorable, two-note refrain that carries the song.

Robert Fripp’s long been known for an ethereal, sustained fuzz sound, but the real magic is in the unorthodox way he creates music. And when you add in three other musical visionaries (Bowie, collaborator Brian Eno, and producer Tony Visconti), strange, wonderful things happen.

Fripp arrived in Berlin with his trusty Les Paul, no amp, and a very short window to record. Creating the necessary feedback for a sound like the "Heroes" lead normally requires a high-powered amplifier in close proximity to the player, but with no amp close at hand, Fripp tracked right in the control room at Hansa Tonstudio with the monitors turned up well past an appropriate level.

Three takes were done, and on a whim Visconti tried turning them all on at once. "All his little out-of-tune wiggles suddenly worked with the other previously recorded guitars," Visconti recounted on the Sound Opinions podcast. "It got a quality that none of us anticipated. It was this dreamy, wailing quality, almost crying sound in the background. And we were just flabbergasted."

Prince - "Kiss" (solo)

Another eccentric creator made a habit of recording his guitar direct, but this time, pure efficiency was the impetus (though it did result in some very nice sounds). Prince established a reputation as one of the most prolific recording artists ever, and he did a lot of it by himself.

Prince definitely had the resources to hire engineers at his lavish Paisley Park studio complex in Minnesota, but he always had a drum machine, vocal mic, and guitar hooked up and ready to go so he could create freely, without fussing with mic’ing up an amp.

Prince originally recorded an acoustic demo of "Kiss" and gave the song to the band Mazarati, who gave the song its stripped-down electronic texture. Prince loved the sound and took the song back, adding his own vocals, drums, and signature clean, spanky guitar (heard prominently in the solo/breakdown toward the end).

Nirvana - "Territorial Pissings"

Our last example of straight-in guitar also came out of the Midwest, specifically at Butch Vig’s Smart Studios. The Garbage drummer’s productions are characteristically heavy yet polished, and Nirvana’s Nevermind is a classic example of his style — except for one song.

The thrashy, high-octane "Territorial Pissings" stands in stark contrast to the other tracks on the record, which are mostly heavy grunge jams sprinkled with pop hooks and tinged with a sheen of chorus, reverb, and delay. Legend has it that Kurt Cobain wanted a "trashy punk sound," insisting on plugging straight into the board.

In the reverse of the Pink Floyd scenario, the producer was allegedly against the idea this time, saying the guitar lacked "balls" (hey, it was the ‘90s...). Again, the final mix contains a blend of Kurt’s amplifier and the direct signal through a (ProCo RAT) into Smart Studio’s Neve console.

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