Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Endorsement Game

Just saw a note on Opeth's Facebook page that Mikael Åkerfeldt had a new endorsement deal with Marshall Amps and his new 'amp of choice' is the Marshall Vintage Modern. He had previously been endorsed by Laney Amps. Åkerfeldt has all sorts of good things to say about the Vintage Modern and, no doubt the majority of them are true. Marshall knows how to make a good amp that covers the ground between vintage tube sound and modern high-gain sounds.

I still find myself rolling my eyes a bit, though. Because in most interviews the guys from Opeth and their guitar tech mention that when they are on the road they run all the amps on clean and use their effects and modeling boards to approximate their recorded sounds. The amps on stage all say Marshall or Blackstar, but the color is more likely to come from a Roland multi-effect unit preset than from the Marshall.

Likewise, Opeth are endorsed by PRS Guitars and use them on tour. They are really good guitars that the guys sometimes use for live recording, but they also use older Gibsons and Jacksons and, recently, a vintage Strat or two as well. There's no telling what guitar the guys used to get a particular sound on record unless you read it in an interview and they tell you straight out.

It's a weird game, really, with bands using all sorts of stuff -- whatever they can get their hands on -- to get 'the sound' they are looking for or re-recording dry tracks run through layers of different equipment for a more dense sound or changing mics and mic placement, etc in order to get the sound that young guitar players fall in love with and want to emulate. When they hear the sound on record they look in the guitar magazine and see that their hero uses StoneTone Amps and figure that's where the sound comes from. And when they see their heroes perform live they see that guitar and that amp again and hear that tone again.

But the guitar is playing clean and the amp is being used more like a stage monitor PA between the digital effects and the house PA. And they still sound great, but it's not the sound of that guitar and that amp. It's the sound of those hands playing a guitar that's sending a signal through an amp sim to a house PA with maybe a Dunlop Crybaby and a vintage delay in the chain for some analog magic that sounds something like whatever alchemy they cooked up in the studio without the fragility and risk associated with bringing a bunch of cranky old equipment on the road.

The artists really have three sounds. There's the one they have when they are playing by themselves and writing the music -- their private sound. Then there's the one that ends up on record after all the engineering is done which may be close to that private sound or may be only a distant cousin. And then there's the live sound, which is as close to the recorded sound as one can get with a minimum of risk and a maximum of consistent repeatability.

The music can still be magic, but that magic is rarely in the equipment being endorsed. You will have to find your own magic in those instruments.