Engineer/producer Tony Platt has tracked and mixed some of the most legendary albums ever recorded. Beginning with Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Catch a Fire and Burnin’ albums, Platt went on to work with acts ranging from Sparks, Die Krupps, Buddy Guy, and the Bad Plus — among hundreds of others.
But among his star-studded CV, it’s Platt’s contributions to AC/DC’s landmark albums Highway to Hell and Back in Black that he is perhaps most identified with — particularly the album’s ultra iconic guitar tones. Platt took Angus and Malcolm Young’s primal Marshall roar and gave it a three-dimensional toughness that still packed all of the punch and fury of the group’s earlier records.
So it’s no wonder that UA direct developer Softube enlisted Platt to craft presets for the Marshall Plexi Super Lead 1959 plug-in, using his platinum-approved microphone recipes and vast experience capturing the power and glory of Marshall amps.
Was the Softube Marshall Plexi Super Lead 1959 plug-in the first time you’ve been involved in developing a guitar amp emulation?
Yes — and a very interesting and illuminating experience it was. I absolutely love the attention to detail that everyone at Softube displayed, along with the fundamental understanding about what makes the Marshall Super Lead special in a creative context.
Do you remember the first session that you recorded a Marshall rig?
It would probably be working with Luther Grosvenor, the guitar player from Spooky Tooth when I worked on his solo album, Under Open Skies. Of course Paul Kossoff from Free had a legendary purple Marshall rig that recorded beautifully. Most of the guitarists in those early days had their sound and technique pretty sorted out. My job was choosing the best way to capture that sound rather than having to actually craft it.
Was it daunting trying to capture such a legendary rig?
It was, in the sense of, a “good” guitar sound is really quite subjective and everyone’s personal favorite will be different. Also, capturing “the” sound is also affected by a number of other factors, such as the age of the valves and other components, the matching of the amplifier with the speakers, the difference between the flat front and sloping front cabinets, the room it is in, the guitar being used and most importantly, the player.
What are the inherent challenges of capturing such a high-power, high-volume amplifier?
The most difficult aspect is capturing the power, but retaining the detail. Getting the right sound from a Marshall doesn’t necessarily require the brute force of turning it up all the way. In fact, doing that is likely to be unrecordable. The trick is finding that spot at which the amplifier — and the space it inhabits — begins to really “sing.”
Do you find Marshalls to be useful for tones other than heavy crunch?
With the right guitar and the right Marshall amplifier you can get a very wide range of tones from “swampy” gritty tones through to buzzsaw tones. Probably only bright glassy tones are not really in there! I find that the trouble usually begins when you try to make an amplifier give you a tone that is not there in the first place.
One of the coolest things about the Marshall Plexi Super Lead 1959 plug-in is its Channel Strip, featuring a mixer with your microphone recipes — Dynamic, FET, and Valve. How do you determine what mic setup you are going to use?
For me, it’s all about the context in which the part is going to be used. For example, if the guitar is a smaller part of a blend of instruments and you don’t want it to take up much room in the mix, then using the right dynamic mic can filter out many of the frequencies and characteristics you don’t want — or need — without having to use EQ or compression.
Similarly, the use of a good valve condenser mic on a loud amplifier can provide a type of compression that just isn’t available any other way. The valves will add to the richness of the low end, while the FET mic will often deliver smooth top.
In general, positioning the microphones to capture the frequencies they are best at and then combining them to balance the texture you want is so much more effective than just using an EQ.
The tones you helped track for AC/DC’s Back in Black and Highway to Hell are some of the most iconic Marshall tones ever recorded. Did you have a lot of amps to choose from?
No, we didn’t have that many amplifiers — about 4 or 5 as far as I can remember and around the same number of cabinets — of course this gives you quite a few possible combinations.
How did you decide on the various combinations?
We simply fired up each amp/cabinet combination and I made notes about their particular characteristics. That way, for each rhythm part and solo for each song, I could make a very informed guess about which combination would be best. There are no layered guitars on the AC/DC albums I worked on — just two rhythm guitars up to the solo — and then Angus would play a second rhythm after the solo so that the intensity didn’t drop once the solo had finished.
Do you ever use different combinations of Marshalls together when tracking?
I certainly do! Combining amplifiers to access different parts of the total sound has always seemed, to me, to make total sense. I do that a lot when recording bass guitars, in fact. I record a big bass amplifier for the low end and use a guitar amplifier — often a Marshall — to sharpen up the middle and high frequencies and give a little crunch.
When trying to dial-in that iconic Marshall power, is there an element that people tend to overlook?
Making sure that the room isn’t introducing unwanted elements is an aspect often overlooked. If you get the level, mic choice, and mic positioning, then the natural compression that will encourage contributes to the power of the sound as well.
You have mentioned that some techniques you used when you tracked Bob Marley’s Catch a Fire and Burnin’ albums have informed your heavy rock recordings, and vice-versa. Can you elaborate?
Mostly in the use of cross microphone leakage to “glue” the overall sound together, as well as the use of ambience to create perspective. Also, the elasticity of the bass sounds which can help give a mix something to sit on.
One of your signatures is creating an ambient space around the guitars in a mix. Do you ever use our Ocean Way Studios plug-in?
The Ocean Way Studios plug-in is one of my favorites! I was fortunate to record in Ocean Way back in the ’80s and when I first tried the plug-in it was really quite uncanny. Straight away I recognised the tone and timbre of those unique rooms.
What are some of your other favorite UAD plug-ins for mixing guitars?
I really like using a little EQ from the Neve 1073 Preamp & EQ Plug-In Collection and if I want a touch of compression the Fairchild Tube Limiter Plug-In Collection works like a dream, keeping the toughness but not taking away the bite. Of course the API Vision Channel Strip plug-in gets a lot of use along with the API 560 EQ from the API 500 Series Collection if I need to pick out a particular frequency to lift or cut. Solving phasing problems with the Little Labs® IBP Phase Alignment Tool plug-in is so easy and I do like what the Summit Audio TLA-100A Compressor plug-in does on many instruments, not just guitars.
Visit Tony Platt here.