East LA Mystery Meat Los Lobos

When recording guitars, most musicians tend to use traditions of mic placement, preamp choices, and pedal-board rituals.

Los Lobos looks to achieve unique guitar sounds beyond technique and tradition

by Ken Micallef

When recording guitars, most musicians tend to use traditions of mic placement, preamp choices, and pedal-board rituals. But when cutting tracks for Los Lobos’ 18th album, Tin Can Trust (Shout Factory), guitarist-songwriter David Hidalgo found ways to go beyond the norm and over the top.

“It’s all Hidalgo’s methodology,” reports Los Lobos’ multiinstrumentalist and producer Steve Berlin. “Mostly, the guitar sounds came from an old TASCAM 488 Portastudio cassette recorder that Hidalgo refuses to give up. Every Los Lobos album since Kiko has songs that come right from Hidalgo’s eight-track demos, which we then add to.”

Hidalgo typically shows up in the studio (Manny Nieto Estudio in East L.A. for Tin Can Trust) with his cassette demos, which Los Lobos and engineer Shane Smith use either as a basic template for songs, or as guitar treatments.

“Hidalgo comes in with a paper bag of this shit,” Berlin laughs. “He’s like Professor Irwin Corey—it’s a comedy routine. The cassettes are all loose and unmarked. Dave just knows what’s on each tape. Sometimes he’ll fast forward through a tape and we’ll find something like the sound in ‘Jupiter or the Moon’ where the guitar solo sounds like a horde of bees. That was something Dave was listening to, and we stopped him and pulled out that bit. But I don’t know exactly what the sounds are. I’m not sure Dave knows either.

“I do know there is stompbox compression and multiples of it,” Berlin adds. “Compression upon compression upon compression. And probably a lot of multitracked guitar delays on top of each other. Dave has no professional gear. It’s all a Shure SM57 into line level, mics plugged into stompboxes into stompboxes. No preamps, and everything is into the eight-track. Nothing costs more than 100 bucks, except for the guitars. No part of the signal chain breaks the three-digit barrier.”

Guitar solos on “Jupiter or the Moon,” “27 Spanishes,” and “Burn It Down” (all performed on a Fender Telecaster reissue into a new Fender Deluxe Reverb) feature Hidalgo’s mystery meat sonics, which range from sounding like an exploding mushroom cloud to the clanging of bells or swarming locusts. It’s all the TASCAM.

“If you’re a fan of tape saturation, cassette is that sound on steroids,” engineer Shane Smith says. “I’d pull tracks into Pro Tools [HD 2, MacPro G5 Quad] off Dave’s cassettes. I let one tape run long and there was this crazy, creepy blues jam, this big sonic-scape thing. They liked it, and we put it in the front of the solo section on ‘Jupiter or the Moon.’ ‘Do the Murray’ is another perfect example of what eight-track cassette sounds like. It explodes at the end with automated reverb.”

Smith used a Sennheiser MD 409 (through the onboard pres of his Neotek Series 3C console) a quarter-inch away from the grille of the Deluxe Reverb. “The 409 gives the sound great point and sharpness,” Smith explains. “I also put a Sennheiser MD 421 II behind the amp, off center, flipped phase, four inches away. The 421 gives me girth and weight. I print each—the front and the back separately—then give it to the mixer, Dave McNair. McNair then creates the blend he enjoys. That is my usual guitar setup, but I also use a Bang & Olufsen ribbon on the front of the amp, and a Shure SM57 on the back. The B&O is old, the one they based the Royer 122 after. I lean on the ribbon for the girth and weight, and the 57 gives me the point and sharpness.”

Berlin describes Hidalgo’s non-standard guitar approach as giving Los Lobos’ roots-rock an “otherworldliness.”

“Dave is mysterious about his demos,” Berlin adds. “He won’t tell us how he does it. He wouldn’t tell you if you asked; he’s enigmatic. He owns that sound and he is not into sharing how he does it. Everybody asks but he shies away from revealing much.”