Alan Branch on Recording Jeff Beck and Sinead O'Connor

Alan Branch started out as a tape op and engineer, working in several studios before landing the role of chief engineer at Roundhouse Studios in London. "I worked every session that came through the door, often back–to–back 20–hour sessions," he recalls. "I didn’t see much sunlight for a few years!"

He then went freelance, taking on sessions via producers and record company contacts.

"I was fortunate to have a wide variety of work, from reggae and dub albums with legendary On U Sound producer Adrian Sherwood to more mainstream pop, rock, and R&B singles and albums. I’d like to think I’m more of a modern day mixer that works with an artist to shape their record. I love making records. What’s better than working with a great artist and great songs?"

And what great artists, indeed. Branch has now worked with everyone from Andrea Corr to Depeche Mode, Eric Clapton to Simply Red. Recently, he was involved in albums by Morrissey and Marshall (We Rise), Damien Dempsey (Soulsun), and Tom Van Can (First Congress) as well as the soundtrack to RAW composed by Jim Williams.

Talking Shop

Over the years, Alan has used a lot of vintage gear and maintains an element of it in his current setup. "I have an all–valve signal path, with a hand–wired Chiswick Reach compressor. It's an amazing sounding piece of equipment. I use the not–so–vintage Neve 1073N and Rupert Neve Portico 5012 dual mic amp for tracking and a variety of old synths and foot pedals.

"My good friend and producer John Reynolds has an original vintage Telefunken U 47 with a V76 pre–amp that I get to use now and again — that's proper vintage! I'd love to get hold of a real EMI TG 12345 Curve Bender. Whether or not I can afford one is another matter!"

Alan also uses a mix of Waves and UAD plugins to emulate vintage gear, plus Sound Toys and Logic plugins. "I record guitar live into plugins and more creative inputs, such as Logic’s new Scripter plugin," he reveals.

"I did a recent session with Brian Eno, and he was showing me his new love for Scripter and his custom written javascript triggering some amazing sounds via some MeldaProduction plugins. It really goes to show how sound generating has come so far."

Recording Jeff Beck

Alan certainly has the knowledge for recording, so what is his advice for capturing the perfect guitar tone?

"A great guitar sound comes from a great guitar with a good amp and most of all, a great player," he replies. "With Jeff Beck, we mostly used his Marshall JTM Plexi or DSL100 head and 4x12, a small Fender Pro Junior 1x10 combo or a Fender Vibro–King 3x10 combo, with a Shure SM57 and a Neumann TLM 49 large condenser mic.

"These were the usual weapons of choice, and pedals would've been a Klon Centaur Professional Overdrive and a Snarling Dog Wah into a Lexicon Reflex vocal plate reverb.

"However, Jeff's sound mostly comes from his unique style of playing. His talent is extreme, and his right hand control of the tremolo arm, volume, and picking is stunning. He is continually changing his tone and getting sounds from his guitar like no other. Up close, it’s incredible to watch."

Even for those of us who aren't quite up there with Jeff Beck, Alan has some great words of recording wisdom.

"It really isn't that difficult to record good guitar," he says. "Most import is the source sound, so make sure the guitar has fresh strings. You'd be surprised how quickly the tone disappears, even after a day's playing. Then there is tuning, intonation, and pickup choice. Use your ears, and stop a player if you can hear the tuning is out. Don’t rely on fixing it later.

"Sometimes it can take a while to find the right sound for a song. If it’s electric, it’s about experimentation and listening to the amp."

Capturing that Exquisite Tone

Alan also recommends a similar mic setup to what he used to record Beck.

"In combination with a large diaphragm condenser mic, the humble Shure SM 57 can give you a wealth of options. Close–mic the 57, and point it at the centre of the speaker for a bright sound or further to the edge for something more mellow. Use the condenser to capture the direct and room sound.

Depending on your room, mic distances will vary. But start with a few feet and listen. Bear in mind any distance between the mics can cause phase problems by cancellation of certain frequencies. It’s easy to hear the tone change with these. If it is missing bass end or brightness, move the mics or check your mic balance."

As for processing, Alan uses a mix of old and new gear.

"I do like my Neve 1073 for EQ, as it’s great for tone adjustment, but I also like to use Pultec PE1A and API 500 series EQ. Some of UAD’s emulations sound great for treating guitar. Compression–wise, it varies depending on the guitar style and speed. You may need something with fast attack or something mellow — from a good old 1176 to the beautiful Fairchild tube limiter.

"EQing before or after compression also gives different results. For something smoother, try to EQ before. I particularly like the EP34 Tape Delay on guitar and have a fond memory of using one with Primal Scream on the Echo Dek album, so vintage tape delay plugins are great to have. I must mention that one of my other favourites is The Big Tree’s outboard preamp pedal by Audio Kitchen. Its quality is fantastic for treating guitars."

Alan Branch’s Tips for Recording Vocalists

Having worked with some of the greatest vocalists in the world, including the likes of Sinead O'Connor, Branch knows a thing or two about capturing a good vocal.

"One of the main things is gaining the trust of the vocalist and putting them at ease. The vocal isn't something a person can tune up or plug in.

"Getting them into a good frame of mind can be as simple as having everything ready before they turn up — mic levels, headphone balance, room temperature, lighting, lyric stand, etc. — and not forgetting cups of hot water or whatever their vocal lubricant might be.

"It’s crucial the singer feels comfortable and ready to put their heart and soul into a lyric. The control room full of people watching doesn’t tend to help a singer, so clear all distractions."

"I like to record close–mic and use the proximity effect to thicken the vocal. With the right choice of mic, it can sound warm and bright without sounding muddy or dull.

Enjoy all the moments that come your way. I simply love my work. There is nothing like making a great record."

"For new vocalists, set up three alternate mic choices so you can choose one that suits the voice quickly. A great large condenser mic and high–quality, class A mic pre are must–haves, but the old cliche of 'performance outweighs quality' is the rule here. You do what works for the singer."

According to Alan, these techniques worked quite well for Sinead O'Conner.

"Sinead is one of the most amazing singers that sings with such huge passion," he says. "It was wonderful to record with her. We used a classic Focusrite ISA430, the original blue mic pre. We didn’t use compression, as she hated hearing anything that pulled her vocal back. I’d use a tube mic like a Neumann U 47 or the Sony C800 to give plenty of warmth and intimate detail. She’d record with no reverb, but possibly a little 3/16th filtered delay, as she loved the dub sound."

Alan has some final words of advice for anyone wanting to make it in music.

"Making music for a living is one of the hardest professions to pull off, but if you work hard and catch a bit of luck, it can be one of the most rewarding. Owning an album that you helped put together is a wonderful feeling, so don’t give up. You never know when the phone might ring or a door will open.

"Enjoy all the moments that come your way. I simply love my work. There is nothing like making a great record."

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