Next up on our list of Tone Partners to meet is Michael Nielsen of Big Hairy Guitars.
We sat down with Michael to discuss his background as a professional musician and how he came about producing his TONEX Collections of ′80s and ′90s guitar preamps, which are available on ToneNET to demo and purchase HERE.
Learn more about Big Hairy Guitars (Michael Nielsen):
IK Multimedia: You created several collections based on classic preamps from the ′80s and ′90s. Why these pre-amps?
Michael Nielsen: I started with the pre-amps that have been used on big records. For instance, the CAE3+ was used by Van Halen for a bit. The Bogner Fish was used by Alice In Chains. The ADA MP-1 was the tone on “Get The Funk Out” by Nuno Bettencourt. It gave me really good targets to shoot for when creating sounds.
IK: Why TONEX?
MN: I’ve always liked Amplitube and I’ve used IK mixing plug-ins for ages, so it was very exciting to hear that IK was getting into the tone-capturing world. I love that TONEX is able to capture tones that just confuse some of the other profiling devices. The tone captures have a lot of depth and rich harmonic information to them. It’s definitely the next level of capturing.
IK: What’s your approach to dialing in pre-amps for TONEX
MN: Firstly, I set up a power amp or run the preamp through my Friedman head into my cabinet. It’s important to dial in a setting that sounds awesome, but also translates to several different guitars because there’s no way to know what guitar someone else will be using. I’ll often try different power amps as well to make sure I’m getting most of the awesomeness from the preamp. I’ll also run the preamp straight through an IR to make sure it works that way as well.
IK: These are DI captures. What IRs do you like to use?
MN: Creating IRs is strangely not exact. You can have a perfect sound, but by the time you send a sine sweep signal through a power amp and capture it through the speaker and convert that to an IR, sometimes the tone is similar but not exact. So, I make a lot of IRs then throw out a bunch and narrow it down to my favorite. For these pre-amp captures I created a IR that has the sound of the power amp in it, so you can pull up a tone capture, slap on this IR, and it’s very close to the sound of a full rack rig.
IK: Do you have any new collections in the works?
MN: The one amp collection I released was for a very high-end amp made by Carstens Amplification. I worked with Brian Carstens to get it right and were all very happy with it. I’m looking forward to doing more of their amps, as well as adding some more rare pre-amps.
IK: Let’s go back to the beginning. When did you start playing guitar and why guitar?
MN: I got struck by guitar lighting three times in the same month; I was in middle school and my dad played me the "Crossroads" movie with the epic Steve Vai guitar duel. Then I was at a new friend's house and he played me the ’87 Whitesnake album and proceeded to plug a Strat into a Rockman, and I couldn’t believe how amazing it all sounded. I was done for after all of that. It was guitar obsession from there on out.
IK: Who were some early influences and why?
MN: When I was a kid, the guitar magazines like “Guitar For The Practicing Musician” and “Guitar World” were the source for all of the awesome guitar gear and new hot players. Every month I’d read those and then go to the used record store and look for albums from those players. So, I always had a really wide range of music that I was listening to and trying to learn from. For me, the tone and the notes are very intertwined, and there were certain players that have both. Steve Lukather was one of the biggest for me. He played on SO many guitar songs (as well as his own) played soaring solos, and had this huge rack behind him!
IK: What was your best gig and worst gig?
Ages ago, I auditioned to play for this big international pop diva. I was SO ready for this, but when the drummer kicked off the tunes, they were in a completely different tempo and feel. As it turns out, I was incorrectly given all of the dance remixes to learn, but the audition was for the original songs. It was a disaster!
My BEST gig was actually with someone else playing guitar. I’ve produced several albums for the blues rock powerhouse Philip Sayce. We always have an incredible time together. It’s always super creative, and pure.
IK: Was there a moment in your life when you made a conscious decision to pursue music professionally?
MN: I’m so lucky to have worked in music professionally since I was about 20 years old. I’ve gone from playing in bands to engineering and mixing to writing and producing, and now composing. Now my daily life is writing music for video games, or trailers and commercials, as well as creating guitar content on YouTube, and designing guitar tones, like my TONEX collections.
IK: One piece of advice to players starting out on guitar?
MN: The guitar culture these days is very different from when I started. Most kids I meet these days really have their heads on straight. They dig straight into songs and understand that the songs are THE most important thing. When I started out, the gear and technique were almost as important as the tunes. So, if I chat with a kid, I try to corrupt them by showing them cool gear to buy, but if I was giving advice to older players, I’d tell them to play songs.
IK: You write and produce for a lot of different mediums (games, film, artists, YouTube, etc...) What’s your approach to writing for these different mediums? How do come up with ideas?
MN: It’s different for each medium. For YouTube, I’m trying to do something that’s both complimentary to guitar sounds and musically rewarding, and if I can sneak in one cool technical moment then I feel like that can be a fun video. For most of the other scoring I do, there isn’t any guitar, however, I’ll often think of things emotionally, like how it feels when “Immigrant Song” kicks in. Then I’ll try to capture that visceral energy but with orchestra and synths.
IK: Can you name 3 favorite guitars you own and why?
- My Les Paul R8 with Lollar Pickups has been with me forever and sounds amazing for everything.
- My Shabat guitar is what I play most of the time. My latest is a Tele shape with 2 humbuckers and a Floyd. They shaped the neck to be exactly what I wanted. Every guitar they make just rings out like a great Steinway grand piano.
- I just got an old original Steinberger headless guitar. It’s SO ′80s, shockingly sounds amazing, and plays great. Those graphite necks never go out of tune.
IK: What do you look for in a guitar amp?
MN: When I plug into an amp I like to just dive in and go. If I have to put on my thinking cap to get a cool tone, I just get frustrated. It doesn’t matter if it’s a great AC30, or a Friedman, or an ADA MP-1. A great amp will have a personality and I’m happy to bend my playing to the amp's personality. I think that’s why I like pre-amps as well. It’s an easy way to get a whole new personality out of my rig.
IK: How important is gear?
MN: To me, gear is very important. It doesn’t have to be expensive gear, but it has to sound great. Most of the music I make these days is instrumental, so the timbre of the instruments is critical to me. A sound carries a lot of emotional weight to it. A particular guitar sound can instantly be off-putting or it can be compelling. That kind of sonic information is critical when I’m trying to make the listener feel a certain emotion. I don’t really care if a sound came from an actual piece of hardware, or if it’s a software recreation. I’m looking for gear that can deliver vibes!
IK: What would your desert island rig look like? You can only choose 1 amp, 1 cab and 3 pedals.
- Amp: Friedman BE100, mine was modded by Dave Friedman to have a BE channel and a Dirty Shirley channel, it’s my number one amp.
- Cab: My cab is a ′80s Marshall 412 with 2 Vintage ′30s on the bottom and 2 20w Greenbacks on top. It’s the cab that most of my IRs are based on.
- Pedals: I would totally cheat and take a TONEX so I could have all of my preamps with me. I’m currently in love with the Revv Tilt Boost pedal, and then maybe I’d cheat and take a Lexicon PCM70 instead of a pedal.
IK: You have a successful YouTube channel. How did you come up with the name BHG?
MN: A friend of mine asked me if I had a “BHAG”, which I learned means Big Hairy Audacious Goal. It’s a far-reaching goal that you would like to achieve. Mine was to try all of the awesome gear my hero’s used when I was growing up. Combine that with the notion of hair metal, and it all kinda seemed to fit together into Big Hairy Guitars.
IK: How did you get into making YouTube videos?
MN: In the studio, I’m always doing A/B tests and trying gear and comparing gear. You have to compare to really understand the characteristic of a sound. I thought that maybe other people would be interested in this studio nerdery as well. So, my early videos were comparing a ton of different reverbs and old rack delay units, showing old guitar preamps, and trying to recreate certain album tones. But I started meeting people that made great new gear and thought, “Hey I can probably do a cool demo for you?” Video production has had a steep learning curve for me. My early videos were all barely in focus. Everything was bad except the audio! I’ve gotten better. Haha.
IK: You demo a lot of gear. What’s your approach to creating gear reviews on your channel?
MN: I don’t have a lot of time to make videos, so I don’t want to waste my effort on some piece of gear I don’t like. For the most part, I only show gear that I like. Although I have made a few videos of gear that is so bad it’s good again. As far as amps, there are only so many 100w heads that most people can own at one time, so that gets a little tricky. That’s where preamps have an advantage. I have about 15 great preamps, and my buddy Michael Toren probably has the world's biggest preamp collection, so if there’s anything I don’t have, he for sure has it!
IK: You create some amazing tunes on your YouTube channel. How do you come up with ideas? What does your writing process look like?
MN: Thanks! Sometimes it’s pretty easy. There are times when I plug into a piece of gear and ideas just start coming out. It’s VERY important to record that initial inspiration! Trying to recall a spontaneous idea a day later is impossible for me. I’ll start sketching out the idea and evolving parts. I wish I was the kind of player that could solo for 20 minutes and it’s all killer, but that’s not me. I’ll improvise a little, then refine, improvise, then refine. Then I put on my editing hat and throw out stuff I don’t like.
IK: Where do you see guitar gear going? Any predictions?
MN: I think there’s room for improvement with cabinet modeling and small room modeling. Often when people play their amp in their room it sounds glorious and 3D. The sound surrounds you and hits you from every direction, then we stick an SM57 on a cab and everything turns to bummer-ville! I think that bridging this gap is the next hurdle.
IK: Anything we can expect to see in the future? Projects? Videos?
MN: I’m constantly working on music for movie trailers. Our latest is always up on NinjaTracks.com. And I’ve been working on scoring a big Microsoft game for over a year. That will be released at the end of this year, but I’m technically not allowed to talk about it yet. SOON!