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Mmmm…the pedal steel. A delectable treat to have on recordings, and in the hands of a tasteful player it can really sweeten up a track.
But how do we savor this instrument’s flavor during the recording process, and really capture its palate of sounds and expression?
Check out these tips for ways to really experience what this instrument has to offer for your recordings…
Understanding the Tone and Frequency Range
When beginning the recording process, try to understand and become more aware of what the instrument is bringing to the table sonically.
The pedal steel can seem like a guitar, keyboard, organ, and spaceship combined into one, and in a way it is.
The pedal steel has the capability to sound like many instruments, in both their way of expression, articulation, and their frequency range.
With its volume pedal and the bar’s sustain, a pedal steel player can create lilting sounds adding textures that seem to float in the listener’s ears, much like an organ.
The pedal steel also has the unique ability to perform glissandos between notes and chords in a smooth, uninterrupted manner. It really is, in the mind’s eye, a hybrid of a gigantic slide guitar and an organ.
Did you know that your standard double neck pedal steel usually has a couple of strings that are so low in frequency, they pretty much mimic a bass guitar?
The lowest C string, usually found on the C6 neck, is the same as an A string on a bass guitar once a player engages a certain pedal.
Add in the bar’s slide capabilities, with the fact that the instrument is fretless, and the pedal steel can essentially voice notes like a bass guitarist. You could also think of it as being similar to an upright bass played electrically with a bow or other style of attack.
Speaking of style of attacks, the pedal steel has been used in various recordings to mimic strings, and has all kinds of capabilities to create pads, textures, and ethereal sounds. Add in overdubbing, and the sky really is the limit with the pedal steel.
Pedal steel string section anyone?!
The High End
Moving to the higher end of the spectrum, where perhaps the pedal steel is most notorious, it has awesome capabilities with higher frequencies.
We often tend to think of the pedal steel as an instrument that cries with emotion, and can really howl expressively on top of the mix.
This is where the pedal steel begins branching away from its guitar buddy: pedal steel can reach really high frequencies when played on its highest pitched string, way up on the fretboard.
And if a player plays harmonics, they can chime away in the high end more so than most instruments.
This can be a great way to make sure it sits well in the track/mix too. I posted an article that dives deeper into the pedal steel’s frequency range and sound, with tips and tricks for EQing it during mixing.
The pedal steel really can be the cherry on top of the other instruments, and add some sweetness to the high end of the track.
A great way to bring out some of this sweet high end from the pedal steel is to use an EQ plugin like Sonnox’s Oxford EQ and create a shelf that adds 0.5 dB of boost to frequencies starting at 10kHz, 16kHz, or even 20kHz.
The 10 kHz or 16 kHz boosts can really add some clarity and sizzle to the high end. The 20 kHz boost is arguably inaudible, but with focus and attentive ears you can notice that some airy presence is added.
When using a shelf like this, even if it is only a 0.5 dB boost, be careful that you don’t make the pedal steel’s highs sound too shrill. If they do end up sounding piercing, then it can be a good idea to try a boost without a shelf at these frequencies, or to not use one at all.
So you may be asking, “well ok, now that I know all of this, how do I just record the dang thing and enjoy what I’m hearing”? Good question, and let’s get back to the basics.
Which Amp To Record With?
Let’s recall that the pedal steel can voice itself in the lower end, like a bass player, and in the remarkably high end. It is an instrument with a really broad sonic range.
This is why most pedal steel players use amps that are tailored particularly for the instrument.
Most guitar amps made don’t reproduce what the instrument is truly capable of.
Not only does the amp need to be able to essentially handle the frequency range of a bass, guitar, and keyboard in one, but it also needs to be able to handle the very hot pickups that pedal steels have.
Pedal steel pickups can send a really hot signal to the amp or wherever, and some headroom is extra special in the amp department when it comes to pedal steel.
Another important thing to consider when using an amp for pedal steel is whether to use a tube amp or a solid state amp…
Tube vs. Solid State
With pedal steel, a tube amp can really make this instrument come alive and shine warmly in the mix…many of the classic pedal steel recordings captured incredible tone from the instrument with clarity and character.
In these recordings, the pedal steel was often played through giant, powerful 15 inch Fender Twins. Ahhh…if only to be a fly on the wall hearing that beautiful (and loud) sound in the room!
Nowadays, Fender makes a ’68 Custom Twin Reverb that is an 85 watt silverface reissue, which has two 12-inch speakers and would sound great with pedal steel in the studio.
Many pedal steel players also go the solid state route, which can be a great way to preserve the crystallic highs of the pedal steel. This helps bring clarity and clean tone to all areas of the frequency range, and they’ll often use an amp like the Quilter Steelaire Amplifier that is a 200 watt with a 15-inch speaker.
All in all, most pedal steel players will have their own amp, which they find suitable through their experience and playing of their instrument that matches the instrument and their tone.
And if not, some amps in the studio will voice it in a certain way to produce desirable results, after all it doesn’t need to be perfect and rocket science. Experiment and see what sounds good. Problem solved…let’s mic this baby up!
Miking A Pedal Steel: As Simple As it Sounds
Usually mic’ing the pedal steel amp is very similar to mic’ing a guitar amp. So most mic’ing techniques and mics you’d use for guitar are also effective for pedal steel.
Keep in mind that pedal steel can often sound great with more clarity, so going a route used for distorted guitar recording may not be suitable. This all depends on the style and vibe of the music though, so really anything goes!
Placing a Shure SM57 (click to view on Amazon) close to the amp’s grill, at a certain position on the speaker, can produce great results. Especially if the amp is a tube amp.
However, you may want to add another mic to capture frequencies above 15,000 Hz, which is where the SM57’s frequency response ends.
Ribbon mics and condensers can be nice for capturing enough of the clarity and frequency range of the pedal steel. These types of mics are good options for solid state amps, or whenever you’re not getting enough transparency to reflect the true timbre of the instrument.
A ribbon mic may be a great way to catch the warmth of the steel, while staying true in the clarity department. Microphones like Rode’s NTR Active Ribbon Mic are great use with pedal steel, and its 20Hz- 20,000Hz frequency response will pick up the definition and sharpness of the pedal steel, and provide enough warmth for the signal.
Sometimes It’s Nice To Have Options
You can also throw all three types of mics on there if you really want to have some options and sounds to fall back on in the mixing process.
A nice large-diaphragm condenser mic such as AKG’s C 414 XL II would be a good condenser mic option for capturing clarity, and subtle nuances in the pedal steel’s sound.
This combination of a dynamic, ribbon, and condenser mic will give you great blending options for shaping the tone and sound of the pedal steel during the mixing process.
All three combined may produce a fat, interesting sound, just keep in mind that usually less is more, and if one mic sounds better than the others then it may be a great one to focus on.
Like many things in recording, always think about phasing issues too when using multiple mics or tracks.
All in all, use some of your favorite guitar amp recording techniques, or learn some new ones. Try them out to see what sounds best and pleasant for your session and what you’re hoping to get out of it!
Am I Being Too Direct?
Believe it or not, recording the pedal steel direct often produces the best results.
As a player of the instrument and an audio engineer, I love the sound of pedal steel recorded directly. I often prefer this method above any other for the pedal steel.
Gotta Love A Good Tube Preamp
When I go into a studio session to play pedal steel, often the first thing I inquire about are any nice tube preamps I can play through, such as UA’s classic LA-610 Mk II which sounds phenomenal with pretty much every instrument.
Having the tube component of the preamp is very beneficial in the direct method with pedal steel. Good results can come without tubes, especially in the hands of a solid mixing engineer, but tubes are a great sonic tool to have.
With a quality tube preamp, it sure is enjoyable to hear the sweet tones that can result.
I always bring my amp to the session, but if the engineer or producer asks about my opinion on tone, recording, or what I’d like to play through besides my normal amp, then I always steer in this direction.
Like many things with tubes, they add warmth and a sweetness to the pedal steel.
For home recording, a great tube preamp option is UA’s Solo/610, which would provide plenty of warmth and tonal options.
A Direct Preservation of Tone
The true beauty of recording direct is that it allows a good preservation of the pedal steel’s broad frequency range, which can sometimes become obscured through amps and mics.
So really, this method provides the best of both worlds.
Better yet, it’s super easy and simple, and we can relish with the bass player as to how nice it is to just plug straight-in, with no amp, and get great results.
But want to take this further, and get even better results?
Going Direct And Using A Mic: Time to Double Down
A win-win situation, mic’ing up an amp, and also recording direct is a great way to get solid pedal steel tracks.
Most likely, both of these individual tracks will sound great on their own after experimenting with some of the techniques mentioned earlier.
Combine these tracks and we have sonic bliss. To be sure of it, try this…
Tips and Tricks
Getting A Thick Sound With Presence
After recording both of these tracks (direct and amp) during tracking, pan one of the tracks hard left. I personally like the direct in the left channel, and the other hard right.
Now, take the track that was panned hard right, and delay it by about 10-15 ms.
It may take more/less time than this, so experiment with what sounds good to your ears and keep phasing issues in mind.
Often this will create a nice, warm and juicy stereo sound for the pedal steel that will envelope the listener with musical bliss (or at least sound pretty dang good).
This is just like the common technique of widening the main vocals in mixing: trying to bring them more into the front of the mix by using multiple tracks, panning, and delay options.
You can go ahead and pan the tracks to each channel during the recording/tracking process (no delay needed yet) to hear how this sounds overall.
If it helps, try to imagine the sound of the pedal steel in the opening tracks of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon.
To the ears, it feels like the pedal steel’s sounds are floating ethereally with the music. It seems to surround the listener with a warmth and presence that may give them goosebumps.
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This song definitely creates an ambience that sets up the rest of the record beautifully.
Add Even More Life To The Tracks
Here’s an idea for even more stereo warmth.
Have the left channel’s track contain little to no reverb, then add a good bit of reverb using a plugin like Waves’ Renaissance Reverb to the track on the right channel. This creates even more depth to the delay, reverb, and ambience of the pedal steel within the mix.
The dryer sound in the left channel can mimic the attack of the instrument’s sound, and then the right channel can accentuate the sustain of the pedal steel.
This is much like the instrument is actually played. It will likely sound better if the dry sound in the left channel is lower in volume than the right channel’s steel track.
To make things easier in the tracking process, most volume pedals that pedal steel players use will have two outputs to run out of them. This makes it easy to run one signal to the amp, and the other to the direct input.
By the way, did I mention that pedal steel is usually thrilled to have reverb as its companion?
Pedal steel truly shines in this department.
The sustain and glissandos of the instrument lend incredibly well to reverb and delay, which most pedal steel players readily employ through their amps and EFX pedals. I wrote an in-depth post on using delay and reverb with pedal steel, which takes a deeper look into why they are great effects for pedal steel.
In any way that delay can be added tastefully during the recording or mixing process, do so at your desire.
If you really want to get rowdy with reverb, then track a channel with the pedal steel amp in a specific room in the studio. Just like you would with other instruments or vocals, this produces a natural sounding reverb that sounds good in particular situations.
Plate reverb can sound amazing with pedal steel too, but then again, plate reverb usually makes anything sound great in my honest opinion!
A Feast For the Ears
Now that you’ve gotten a taste of recording the pedal steel, it’s time to enjoy the whole meal.
Sit back and savor every morsel of music the pedal steel player creates, and be at ease knowing that you’re capturing some really good sound.
Better yet, when you get to the next course of the meal, the mixing process, the pedal steel gets even more delectable.
Always remember that there’s no rule or set in stone option for recording pedal steel! Use your ears and imagination!
Thanks for checking out this post, hope it is helpful and makes playing more enjoyable! If you’re interested in diving deeper into playing chords and scales on E9 pedal steel, check out these guides…
The Chord Guide for E9 Pedal Steel (E-Book, Digital Download)
Learn the chords on the E9 neck in a way that makes playing simple and enjoyable…
- Almost Every Chord You’ll Ever Need for E9
- Intuitive and Easy to Use
- Make Use of Pedal and Lever Combinations
- Example Tabs of Chord Movements
- Easily Utilize the Nashville Number System
- Great For Any Key and Style of Music
Includes a bonus section of over a hundred pages of extra chord charts, key references, and more!
More Digital Downloads for Pedal Steel…
For tips and ideas on using reverb with the pedal steel’s sound, check out the page below…