If you’re a diehard Van Halen fan, the only thing you know for sure is that no one can get “THAT” exact sound but Ed himself. Yes, some people’s fingers can sound like Ed’s and some people’s rigs can sound like Ed’s, but to put it all together….
You might swear it’s been done. If so, get me a recording of it!
Anyhow, a couple of tone bloodhounds have taken it upon themselves to separate out the isolated guitar tracks from the Guitar Hero Van Halen game – they are isolated in the game itself, but from what I can gather it’s a b**tch getting them out and synching the tempo properly. Anyhow, these folks have done it, and I’ve heard it.
I’ll probably have to listen to them for the next 30 years or so to really understand everything they’re telling me, but here are my initial several-listen impressions, by album.
Van Halen I and II
A segment of diehard EVH toneheads swears that Ed’s amps were “slaved” in the studio. Slaving basically means that he plugged into one amp, then ran that amp into another amp. Why would he do this? Two reasons: to control volume, and because it incidentally sounds great.
(Ed also wouldn’t have been the first guy to do this, as others – including Tony Iommi, Ritchie Blackmore, Robin Trower and others – did it before him.)
By “sounds great,” I mean that it gives a 3D-like “air around the notes”/headroom quality (maybe epitomized by the “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” ISO track) that seems impossible to duplicate any other way – and which Ed seems to like, judging by his eventual use of the Eventide Harmonizer (more on that below).
Anyhow, when I listen to the iso tracks I hear three things: a cranked Marshall plexi, that magical “air,” and a TON of echo and reverb. So the question I still have is whether he slaved in the studio, which people who knew him at the time said he did NOT do, or whether the “air”/”bigness” in his sound is the echo, reverb and re-amping (just what it sounds like) of his tracks through Sunset Studios’ reverb room.
Right now I’m voting for the latter, but some people with a lot more sleuthing experience than me disagree!
Incidentally, the Shark guitar (Ibanez Destroyer) sounds much more gainy/distorted on the ISO tracks (“Running With the Devil,” “You Really Got Me,” “Feel Your Love Tonight”).
We also can’t forget to factor in the nuances of Ed’s EXACT signal chain (including effects), and the fact that he was using two very different kinds of speakers back then.
Van Halen II has less reverb and sounds drier – and thus less “huge,” and less like a slaved amp.
Women and Children First
On this album Ed’s guitar sounds the driest, to my ears. Like in “Loss of Control” – that’s just him banging away – sometimes so fast that he barely keeps up! (Makes me not feel so bad….) In “And the Cradle…”, the fills are recorded super-dry – not even any reverb. The two solos have barely any reverb.
His sound doesn’t sound slaved, so it makes me wonder what really was going on on VH I and II. After all, Ed did say that Donn Landee (engineer) and Ted Templeman (producer) made the Van Halen I guitar tracks sound huge.
For a long, long time, Fair Warning was the Holy Grail of guitar tone for me, and for many others. It’s darker-sounding, chewier, more aggressive and more distorted, and still has all that great Ed note clarity.
I’d been told it was an Eventide Harmonizer, but I just didn’t hear it. I heard the Harmonizer on the solos, but not the riffs. (The Harmonizer is like the world’s best chorus – makes the tone huge and wide, not swirly. Listen to all of Ed’s Sammy-era stuff and you’ll hear it. That “fatness.”)
Then I got an Eventide PitchFactor pedal (KILLER pedal), which IS a Harmonizer, fooled with it and still didn’t think it was “the” thing that made Ed’s tone on this album.
Meaning, after hearing the ISO tracks, I still don’t – not entirely, anyway, because the Harmonizer is all over Fair Warning. It’s all over the “Mean Street” and “Unchained” riffs – you can hear it clearly in the iso tracks. So it’s definitely a big part of the sound equation. Sorry I doubted whoever told me!
But I’m also hearing a boosted sound on FW, and I don’t think it’s just an EQ unless it’s the Boss GE-10 (quiet, transparent): the MXR 6-band would be too noisy. Might be a hotter pickup, who knows.
There’s also some more “oomph” (girth? bass? low-mids?) there, which might be a different body wood on the guitar as some have speculated, though Ed has said he recorded the whole album with Frankie. Some of the bigger tone is definitely contributed from the Eventide (dang it, I’ve GOT to put up my review/test of that pedal…), but not the darkness.
Maybe it was mic’ed differently?
As we all know – and which the ISO tracks prove in spades – Diver Down and 1984 aren’t nearly as dark-sounding, so some mystery remains….
Diver Down and 1984
The guitar tracks on these two albums sound much more raw than Fair Warning – and in iso still sound “skinny” to me, even compared to Women and Children First, and even though the Harmonizer is on there.
So there you have it. Nothing particularly earth-shattering, yet I’m left feeling that:
> Ed would sound aggressive even with a Telecaster through a 1-watt amp. It’s him, not the gear…
> …but listening to the iso tracks it feels like he is responding to or interacting with his gear. In other words, he isn’t just reacting to the band/Alex, but also to his sound – the slight sag of the amp (and of an A2 pickup?) and the air around the notes. Really cool.
> Fair Warning is the most different-sounding album, guitar-wise, especially when you hear the iso tracks. It’s a little odd that he didn’t return to that sound during the Dave era, but actually got closer to it in the Sammy era.
The coolest part about the iso tracks is hearing all the nuances in Ed’s playing that previously were obscured. No surprise, he’s just that much better.