Joe Satriani - Getting Some Strange


Practicing guitar wizardry can be a very satisfying experience. Very demanding too. Even the greatest need to chill out once in awhile. caught up with Joe Satriani during a recent touring break and found Joe enjoying California's High Sierras from his Lake Tahoe home. During downtime, it turns out, Joe likes to get in a little hiking or snowboarding to clear his mind. In fact, Satch was just getting back from a hike when we called, and the thin air at 8,000 feet had left him a little breathless.

But not so winded that he couldnt share his thoughts on Strange Beautiful Music, his latest Epic Records release, and on some of the tricks and tools of the trade that made that music. In this exclusive interview, Joe discusses his home recording studio setup and gives definitive tips on the gear he used and why he used it to lay down the demo tracks. And with the high-quality recording tools available for even home use these days, most of those demo tracks, Joe says, made it to the finished product. Hi Joe. I guess you're enjoying a break after a few days on the road, hanging out up in Tahoe? Is that where you go to relax and clear your mind?

Joe Satriani: Yeah, we've always been attracted to the mountains, and we really like the winter sports. We do a lot of snowboarding up here in the winter. And in the summertime it's more hiking and trying to tame the wilderness a little bit. Isn't snowboarding dangerous for your hands and shoulders? Those are the primary injuries snowboarders suffer from.

Satriani: Yeah, it is. Just about everything is. I figure it's probably less dangerous than touring [laughs], but more dangerous than reading a book, I guess. But it sure is a lot of fun. Its just so exhilarating. How long have you been boarding?

Satriani: About six years. Boarding is definitely exhilarating. Let's talk about the new album, and the changes in your touring lineup this year. You've got Matt Bissonette playing bass instead of Stu.

Satriani: It's great to have Matt. Matt and I did The Extremist together, and then he did the Extremist tour. And then he came in and played on a couple of sessions that were for the Joe Satriani record, and of course the live stuff on Time Machine. And I played on his brothers record [Editors note: Greg Bissonette is a very busy drummer with a long and impressive resume.], when Matt's been producing, once or twice. It's just really great to get back with him. I had a record that's just really rockin and, Stu is an amazing bass player, but his true calling is not rock. The music he really likes to listen to is simply not rock, and so he doesn't naturally dip back into roots of rock and blues and R&B all the stuff that I do. He's more into classical music and jazz and jazz fusion.

Almost every record I ever did, with the exception of Crystal Planet, I couldn't actually bring him along to the recording because we just didn't have enough in common to be able to make the songs go the distance. So I wanted to make sure this time that I had a rhythm section that, without prodding without any convincing on my part knew exactly where the song should go. So it was great having Matt on the sessions. I do hear a lot of classic, almost nostalgic influences, in a sense.

Satriani: I think any time you play rock music, that's what you do. I think maybe before the advent of hip hop, people didn't notice it. It was a genre that had no past, in a way. It was just surging forward. But since hip hop came along, I think rock is standing in its own little area now. It's not as all encompassing as it once was. So now I think its very much like blues or any other style of music, when you go to play it, you begin to notice that there's a little bit of quoting of roots from distant time periods going on. And that's what legitimizes the style. It was always going on, but because it was the newest style, you never really thought about it. But it's not the newest style of music anymore, so you tend to notice musical signposts here and there when you hear people playing a certain way.

When you sit down and actually go to arrange music you realize there are only really a few ways to elicit a particular feeling. You can get really easy going with it, like with pop music, or you can get really heavy into it, leaning on the psychology of music and thinking, What notes create fear in the listener? What's peaceful? What sounds like fire, and what sounds like a waterfall? What gets people excited, and what puts them to sleep?

You sort of run down the line and then you get into the subtleties of style. If you want people to get into a slight R&B or bluesy mood, there's only one way to do it, which is to quote from the lexicon of those styles. But hopefully you do it in an original way. It's sort of like you're opening a door, and its like an invitation to a party. And you have to use something familiar to get people into it. Today this is 2002 there are more styles out there now that millions of people are totally into. There are people out there who have grown up on hip hop and have never listened to rock and have no idea whats going on with it who made it up and who were the major players, and that kind of stuff. You did include Matt and drummer Jeff Campitelli more in the actual creation or should I say arrangement of the songs than on previous records?

Satriani: Yeah, the arrangements would be more like it. I guess one of the key things that is different about the record, a little parameter that I set up, was to record most of the guitars at home, in my own studio. That's how I basically did it. I wrote the songs and recorded the performances before arranging it. Now that seems totally insane, but you can do that when you record using Pro Tools, using a digital format. You can edit non-destructively forever. So you don't need to worry about the arrangement bringing the performance down, let's put it that way. You can record more first impressions when you're feeling the absolute most excited about this new song youve created. You don't have to be brought down by worries of, "Is the song too long or too short," or whatever. You just go and you record.

I recorded most of the guitars that way, so most of the melodies, solos, and rhythm parts were done. I was able to make some pretty good demos with some embarrassing drum and bass parts on them, and I sent the demos out with a disclaimer: When you listen to the bass and drums, I'm just giving you the basic idea. But the idea is that I want you to take over in that department and help create this thing. I told them, I want this to be a real rock record.

So I gave them ideas of how I was hoping the sound would be very organic and big sounding, and that you'd hear all of the drum kit. We'd experiment with simple miking, and I wanted the bass to be big and growling that it wouldn't be tucked away in the mix. When Jeff and Matt had the CD for a month, they were able to think about where they wanted to go with it. And when we got to the studio they didn't have to worry about playing simply and reliably so that the guitarist could get his performances down. It was all about them. It was all about capturing them doing the unexpected and getting the best sound possible.

So we spent a couple of weeks recording bass and drums in all the different ways that all of us myself, and my engineer John Cuniberti and co-producer Eric Caudieux felt might work and what might be interesting. Everyone was giving suggestions, and we had time to try things and see which of our ideas worked out best. For me it brought the songs to life, having different personalities. One thing that I notice with solo records of any kind, the danger is that there's too much of one persons ideas. For some reason you can tell. By working with people who aren't afraid to tell you that the idea you have really sucks [laughs], it really helps because after awhile you realize, it really is a better idea. It may not put me in the spotlight for four minutes, but it makes the music more interesting in the end. It brings the true feeling of the music to the listener. And that's really what we're trying to do with a recording. When you lay down drums on your demo, are you using a machine or playing a kit?

Satriani: I have a set of [Roland] V-Drums, an electronic kit set up just like a set of drums, except it has rubber pads and skins that trigger sounds in a drum module. I studied drums for two years it was my first instrument and I still have- Basic dexterity.

Satriani: Yeah. I'm missing about 25 percent coordination [laughs], which my MIDI editing program makes up for. But it's much more natural to sit down with a crazy idea and just come up with a groove, because inside my head I'm still that great drummer I always wanted to be. But I can actually see it now. When I look at my tracks on Pro Tools its really embarrassing because I can actually see where I'm late and early. And then I'd go in there and correct it and edit it down to a couple of riffs. Then when Jeff would hear it he'd say, "Oh, I get it: These are the three basic ideas, and what you need is a performance. " And if he felt that the tempo was right we'd leave it; if he felt that it was fast we'd check it out.

And then with bass, I've actually played bass as long as I've played guitar. But I'm a pick bass player, a real rock bass player I'm not funky or jazzy or anything like that. So my bass playing seems to follow the guitar, sometimes a little too closely. That's why I prefer to have someone with a real bass personality play on my records. And Matt is perfect like that. He always surprises me with putting lines in different places that I would never think of. And of course his ideas are always better, because he's a bass player. He has a natural affinity toward knowing where a bass line should be, where it should start and end. That's really admirable in a bass player. And then did you re-record all your guitar parts after Jeff and Matt did their thing?

Satriani: No. Once in the studio, we did all the bass and drums at the Plant in Sausalito. And then if I go from the top of the CD down: We replaced rhythm guitars in the song Starry Night, which had a very different sound in the demo. Eventually I played all acoustic rhythm instruments that were done there at the studio. I think I had to do melodies and solos for Belly Dancer. In Mind Storm I had to replace the rhythm guitars, but we left the melodies, and I think I re-did the solos. But everything else was done at home. I had actually finished it before we even showed up in the studio.

I've got a really neat little digital studio. I was very careful and had my engineer John Cuniberti come over months earlier. And I said to him, John, if I start to record these things, and I say to you that I want to use this, what would make you feel better from an audiophiles and engineers point of view? And he said, Well, what you need is a great mic pre-amp and a really great D/A and A/D converter [Editors note: Satch is talking about digital to analog and analog to digital converters.].

So at his urging, I purchased a Millennia Media Origin STT-1. It's a really beautiful tube and solid state mic pre-amp with parametric EQ and compression. And then also an Apogee PSX-100, which is the D/A A/D converter, before going into Pro Tools.

And I was just super conservative. I didn't EQ anything, I didn't use any overt limiting or compression. I just basically tried to get the sound out of my amp and I have several amps at home. And I used a Palmer speaker simulator. So I was able to get a really full range sound without going crazy with any effects, so that when we got in there John could say, Wow, this is something I can really work with. It's full range, it's recorded professionally, and it's got all the frequency range that allows me to EQ it in any direction I want. That's a very important fact when you start recording at home. You want to make sure you don't record things skewered in any particular way, due to the listening environment.

I also had this guy Manny LaCarrubba come over and tune the room. He brings a computer and they send a signal through the speakers and they listen to the room. They can tell which frequencies your room is boosting or somehow minimizing due to the shape of the room, or the windows, or the materials in the walls. And then they use a studio equalizer so that what you're hearing is what you're going to hear when you go to this studio or that studio. It's the real deal, not hyped in any one area. That's pretty crucial.

Then I was off on my own. And I was able to experiment and record at any hour of the day without worrying about the dollar signs clicking by as the seconds did, which is often the problem when you're in the studio. You get nervous because it's costing so much money. Since there are so many people getting into home recording these days, can you explain what that particular mic pre-amp, the Millennia Media Origin STT-1, did for you? What's the difference between that and a less expensive mic pre?

Satriani: Well, it's sort of like the quality of anything else you can think of. It's sort of like the difference between a cheap television and an expensive television. The visual representation on the screen of the same quality lets say you're playing a DVD, and you're looking at the DVD on a screen that only has so many pixels in it, and the quality of the pixels is low. That means that no matter how good that DVD is, it's still going to look like crap on that screen. You play that on a really fantastic screen, with a higher pixel count, and better components, and you get to see more or supposedly all of the rich color that's on the DVD.

And with sound it's down the same way. You take a guitar sound and you put it into one of those thin, coiled cords that guitar players used to use in the early 60s, and the sound actually degrades as it goes through the wire, because the wire acts as a filter, in a way. Because of its lack of size its actually cutting out some high end. Oddly enough some people prefer that [laughs]. When you're dealing with recording studios you start getting into expensive wire thats $200 and $300 per foot. And they use virgin copper and all this weird stuff that they try to put in there. Basically it's like plumbing, I guess. You want the biggest pipe to allow the most amount of water to flow through unimpeded.

And when it comes to mic pres and dealing with a digital interface, very often the problem is that the signal needs to be a certain quality in order for the sound to be recorded with as many digital bits as that recorder can give you. If you give it a sound that is somewhat diminished, the recording system how can I put it ?...because it doesn't see enough bits in there, it fills them in with stuff, and basically makes it sound kind of cheesy.

So you're trying to get the biggest, boldest, most beautiful signal to come through, and when it hits that digital interface, you can keep it right below red-lining. And in order to do that, you need something thats going to give you a little bit of soft limiting let's say, so that if there are any peaks, that unit like the PSX-100 will very softly sort of polish off that peak so that it doesn't disturb the recording medium, but it maintains a high level of integrity and signal level, output to whatever Pro Tools in this case.

The other side of it is that you need to take a signal, and you need to get its line-level adjusted for the way that a recording device wants to see it. A guitar is a high-impedance instrument, and you need to drop that down. The quality of those boxes has a lot to do with the quality of the sound. By going into something like the Origin by Millennia Media, youre going into a super hi-fi piece of gear that will bring out every feature of the sound that you're putting into it. You can enhance it with delicate to over-the-top equalization that's on board there. It's also got a very light optical compressor, which is great for just sort of containing the sound without changing it too much. It's got a de-esser, which is great for vocals or acoustic guitar, taking the high little essssssss sounds out of things.

In other words it prepares the sound for recording for both digital and analog. And once that goes into a really great converter, the quality of the converter also is transferring most of the sound the idea that all of the sound thats in the analog world gets turned into a number and no numbers are missed or filled in by the software of the converter. The opposite of that piece would be $16 CD player, like a little imitation Walkman or something like that. They have the cheapest converters. You can put in the greatest recording ever, and the CD player is guessing half of what's going on there, and sort of making it up. So you wind up with sort of a tinny, hollow sounding result because the quality of the converter is so low. As the quality goes up it's playing you more of whats on that CD, the full band width. Do you do a lot of your recordings alone, or do you have an engineer like John with you most of the time?

Satriani: When I'm in a studio I dont even want to think of that. I mean at home.

Satriani: Oh, at home I do it on my own. I've worked with John forever. He's been my live sound engineer since Jeff and I were in a band called the Squares back in '79 through '84. We recorded all of our demos together; John's been on every record I've ever made, to some degree either being the engineer entirely, or sharing duties with someone else. So I've learned a lot from John after making all these records and live shows, about what is sort of a good prudent way to record.  

But my setup at home is really simple. I'm just getting guitar, I'm not using microphones. That's a whole other art form. John excels in many areas, but one of them is that he knows microphones, he knows what to do with them. He knows which ones to use for which sound, and where to put them. I've got about two or three microphones that I've grown fond of. But you're using mics on amps, correct?

Satriani: Yes, but not at home. I use a Palmer speaker simulator, which is something that goes in between your amp and your mic pre-amp. It takes the place of a speaker. That way I can turn my amp to 11 [laughs], and you can listen to it as loud as you listen to the morning news, which is really great because then you can work for 12 hours and you still have ears. Actually it takes the place of the speaker and the microphone.

Satriani: Yes it does. Were there any more toys on the guitar equipment front that you played around with on this recording?

Satriani: Not really. Probably what you can tell from the album is that it's very up front. The sounds are very natural. You can tell: There's a wah wah, and there's an octave device. That guitar is cleaner, and that one is a little more distorted. But I don't think anything was really odd. The only odd thing was when Robert Fripp came over my house and he recorded a bunch of guitars for the cover song, Sleepwalk. But even that was pretty simple. He was using a Gibson guitar with, I think, a Fernandes pickup called The Sustainer, and going into this little GTR-100 a Roland guitar pre-amp thing to get that continually sort of Frippertronic thing. Having worked with him and his Frippertronic exercises, what is his take on digital recording, and the Pro Tools approach to recording?

Satriani: Oh I think he loves it. I think that you'll find every musician says the same thing, which is, "Nothing sounds better than analog," but once you record a full record using any digital recording suite, you realize how much more friendly it is to the creative process. And that says a lot right there, because that's always the bane of any musicians existence in the studio: Why did we record my not-best idea? Why is that take when the band was tired and not when the band was really screaming? And there's always some analog excuse about that, or "Too bad we can't use that solo and put it on that take, and the vocal from two weeks ago."

Those things are very difficult to do with tape. And of course the Beach Boys and the Beatles pioneered the idea of using razor blades and tape, and chopping up and combining things. But for years, from the Beach Boys to Metallica, that's how people made records. The razor blade was out there and you were cutting pieces of tape to put performances together. But it's time-consuming, musicians really can't tell what its going to sound like until its all assembled. And then going back is almost impossible. It's what they call destructive editing.

But once you start recording digitally you finally say, Well, if the world listens to my music on radio stations that keep all my music on mp3 files, and the rest of the world listens to my music on CD, which is 16 or 24 bit digital audio, then why am I complaining? Why am I spending millions of dollars trying to maintain this sort of analog audiophile existence when no one in the world hears it except for us? And these days, with music being copied and musicians having a much harder time making a living off of selling records, the idea of spending the lions share of your supposed income on recording an audiophile analog project just starts to fall apart the whole scheme.

And everyone starts to think, "Well, I really want the record to be a recording of our favorite performances our best ones and I don't mind if theres a little funny stuff going on up there at 20K where people can't hear." So, it's just the reality of it.

But I think that everyone, including Robert Fripp for instance, when we were recording that track, we were just sort of going. We'd record one, we'd do another take, and another one. We were just sort of seeing what was happening. With Pro Tools, you're looking at it almost as if you were looking at an orchestral score, you can see it. You can't help but visually start to think, "What if that was over there?" So at one point we said, "Why don't we leave five guitars on at the same time?" We hadn't thought that there would be multiple tracks of Robert Fripp. We had just thought there would be one of him and one of me. But when we turned them on and spread them out, all the sudden we realized a little serendipity happened and it was really magical.

And that only really would have happened if we felt free to record a hundred takes, cause space was not a problem. It's not like we only had 24 tracks or something. We could save, get rid of, combine whatever we wanted. The atmosphere was very relaxed and super-creative. No idea was too crazy. And obviously we were working on a very simple piece of music, only two-and-a-half minutes long.

You can imagine if you have an eight minute piece, and there's a lot of people playing on it, and it's a difficult piece of music, how recording with something like Nuendo or Pro Tools or Logic Audio, it's just, Wow! It takes away that barrier and the anxiety. And then I think that musicians play in a more risky manner. They play with more feeling because they realize that if they play their best performance ever, and then right at the end theres a clam, that little mistake can be fixed, or eliminated, so easily. And it won't negatively impact anyone else's performance.

I probably need to move on, but there's this one funny thing: When I was talking to Roger McGuinn from the Byrds many years ago, and we were talking about multiple takes, he had said something like Mr. Tambourine Man took like 85 takes! And he said by the time everyone had gotten through it without making the most horrendous errors, they had played the song to death and it was nowhere near the best performance of the song. The best one was around take number three. But he said, unfortunately, if it wasn't him, it was someone else in the band, and there was no way to fix it. So they would just kill themselves trying to get through the song, and he was bemoaning the fact that, the one that everybody heard, it wasn't the best one. It was just the one that we could get through. And that's a shame.

That certainly doesn't work when you're doing instrumental rock songs. Part of the excitement is in the power of the performance. It's all about that. I think that's why we all enjoy this most recent records set up: We were all allowed to grow into that area and focus on the power. Is there a banjo on Starry Night?

Satriani: [laughs] Yes there is. Did you play that?

Satriani: Yes I did. Had you played banjo before?

Satriani: Yeah, I've got two banjos that the guys from Deering banjos made me way back in 1989. The first time I played banjo was on the Flying in a Blue Dream record. So I've got a six-string and a 12-string. They're set up more like guitars, in a way. I love the sound though. Yes, it fits in real well there. And then in Mind Storm, which is sort of a nod toward Engines of Creation, to me.

Satriani: That's interesting. I never heard that before. Theres a section in the middle of it and it almost sounds like scratching. Is it a whammy pedal?

Satriani: That's either like a 9-volt battery, or maybe a slide guitar bar that was sitting there on my recording console as I was getting ready for the solo that follows it. And I just sort of looked at it and picked it up. I used to do that a lot back in '84 or ''85. I released a record that was almost entirely scratching, hitting, rubbing guitar strings. It was an Ep called Joe Satriani, most of which wound up on the Time Machine record. But I spent a good year of my life doing nothing but weird stuff like that. Some of it wound up on the next record, Not of This Earth, a lot of that weird scraping, hitting, using-household-implements-on-your-guitar [laughs]. It reminded me of the electronica style you delved into on Engines of Creation.

Satriani: Yeah, I can see that. To me it brings me back to that first record I ever recorded, where I did a lot of that stuff. And New Last Jam sounds a lot like a Led Zeppelin kind of groove.

Satriani: Yeah, well that song was originally the bulk of the song, the middle of the song, was written for the Not of This Earth record. Jeff and I tried recording it. It was about this band that Jeff and I were in called the Squares. It was sort of a salute to our old band. We played kind of like the Foo Fighters and Green Day thats kind of what we sounded like back then. But we totally failed after five years, and so I went into this other style of making records.

But the song wasnt finished and for years I tried to figure out what to do with it. And the weird part is that the song uses this guitar where all the strings are tuned to E, and I wanted to have a more dramatic way of getting into the song, of breaking it down. So I had been fooling around with these scales an Oriental scale, a Hungarian scale, and a symmetrical scale. And one day it all just fell together like that. And yeah, it does have a Jimmy Page vibe to it even the sound of the guitar.

[Editors Note: As examples, the A Oriental scale is A, Bb, C#, D, Eb, F#, G, A. The A minor Hungarian scale is A, B, C, D#, E, F, G#, A. The A major Hungarian scale is A, B#, C#, D#, E, F#, G, A. The symmetrical scales to which Joe is referring can be either the whole tone scale (A-B-C#-D#-F-G-A), the whole-half diminished (A-B-C-D-Eb-F-G-A), or the half-whole diminished (A-Bb-C-Db-Eb-E-F#-G-A).] And what kind of seven string did you use on Seven String?

Satriani: I used a prototype for a Joe Satriani type seven-string guitar that Ibanez made for me. Are they putting them out?

Satriani: I don't know yet. I'm not really sure about that. We generally focus on the six-string in our line of Ibanez guitars. It's just that I was working with one of Steve Vai's seven string guitars, but couldn't relate to the sound of it. So I had them make me one like mine, and they put one together with a mahogany body, the same basic shape as the JS guitars. And I had DiMarzio make the Joe Satriani style pickups, so I could at least get in the ballpark. And it just really sort of set me free. Once I heard that particular set of frequencies, the guitar felt right, and I started writing a lot of seven string songs. And Steve's wife, Pia Vai, guests on Chords of Life?

Satriani: Yeah, it was funny. I was up here in the Sierras, and Steve's got a house not too far from here. So last Christmas we were over, we were doing some boarding and skiing together. And one evening I brought over the demo for Steve to listen to, so he could shred it to pieces [laughs] as we usually do as a courtesy to each other. And at one point Pia had come downstairs to the studio and said, "Hey look, Steve got me this little harp for Christmas." And it reminded me that Pia had been studying harp for the past 18 months. So I put two and two together and said, "There's a harp on this song, would you like to play on it?" And she said yes. So I said, OK, I'll send you the files.

And with the miracle of modern technology, I first e-mailed her the files, and then sent her some backup on CD. And Steve and his engineer were able to record her in the nick of time and then send the files back to us. She put in a really beautiful performance that I thought really helped the song. Cool. Joe, thanks for your time, and have fun out there on the road.

Satriani: Thanks, I'm all re-charged and ready to go!

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