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.
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