Guitarists: Robert Smith of The Cure

I could have started this series about guitarists by featuring a fast heavy metal guitar slinger (and believe me, I love them) but instead I have decided to scrutinize the style and tone of The Cure‘s Guitarist: Robert Smith. We will also see how we can reproduce his tone using some common pedals.

image courtesy of

The Cure formed in 1976 as “the Easy Cure” to be renamed “The Cure” two years later. Characterized by a dark sound  and gloomy lyrics, it was at the forefront of a movement labeled as new wave alongside acts such as Joy Division. The Cure is still in activity today and released an album (4:13) in 2008. Although the line up has changed constantly through the years, guitarist/singer Robert Smith has been a constant in the band (alongside bass player Simon Gallup) and the main writer/composer. Look here for a complete biography of the band.

As a guitarist, Robert Smith is very much into creating atmospheres using various modulation effects as well as delay. Starting with the disintegration album released in 1989, the Fender Bass VI, a baritone guitar, became an essential part of his sound and he is one of the rare users of the instrument in the realm of rock.

But I will focus here on an album which, to me, defined The Cure sound: Seventeen Seconds released in 1980. In particular, this album features ‘A Forest’. This song was so influential in the 80s that I remember it being the very first song I ever played in a band (I was playing the keyboards at the time and was shockingly bad at it).

The production of  ‘A Forest’ is explained in details in the December 04 edition of Sound on Sound Magazine. What is particularly interesting in this article is the fact that the base of the guitar sound was a Fender Jazzmaster plugged into a Roland JC-120 whose built-in stereo chorus  and clean tone was captured using two microphones. On top of that, a lot of outboard effects (flanger, delays and reverb) were used to create that very atmospheric sound. At the beginning of the song, the guitar sound is fairly dry, only some modulation is present and towards the end more delay is introduced.

This pattern is reproduced in this quite early live rendition and Robert Smith uses pedals to reproduce the studio tone:

There are plenty of versions of this song on youtube and you’ll notice that in the more recent versions, the guitar tone is even more modulated and that quite some delay is added.

Let’s try to reproduce this particular tone using these simple pedals (the makeup and the hairdo are optional but they help in getting the tone right):

  • A Boss BF-2 Flanger (now replaced by the BF-3 but easy to find on the second hand market). The settings were manual 60%, Depth 75%, Rate 50% and Res 25%.
  • A Boss DD-3 Delay: all knobs more or less at 50%.
  • A Boss RV-3 Reverb (discontinued too and replaced by the RV-5): balance 25%, tone 30%, r.time 40%, mode 10.

Of course, other brands than BOSS are fine to emulate Robert Smith’s tone as long as you have a good chorus or flanger (a flanger is preferable but a strong chorus can do the trick) but the man himself uses a BF-2 (he actually has been using the whole Boss modulation/delay collection over the years).

In these examples, I use a Fender Custom Shop American Classic Fender Stratocaster from 1997. It is equipped with noiseless Kinman pickups (the av-n blues set) and plugged into a Marshall JMP-1 preamp set clean (channel “clean 1”, gain 9) and plugged straight into the recorder, a Boss MICRO-BR. The drums are provided by the drumbox built in the recorder.

Guitar only first (first part is clean, second part has the BF-2 flanger on, third part has the Boss DD-3 delay and the flanger on):

Audio MP3

And now an attempt to capture the atmosphere (I have played the intro followed by a kind of improv) :

Audio MP3

The Proco RAT 2 (or how to make your strat or tele sound fat) – Updated

I would like to introduce this “Timeless Classics” series about effects with a pedal that I discovered quite recently (about two years ago) after trying and owning a lot of distortion/overdrive pedals: The Proco Rat-2.

Proco Rat 2
Proco Rat 2

The Rat 2 is the granddaughter of the RAT, released at the end of the 70s and whose 1985 reissue model has just been announced by Proco. The RAT has been the pedal of choice of a number of guitarists including at some stage Jeff Beck.

My model has a below 300000 serial number. According to Robert Keeley (who knows a thing or two about effects), the RAT 2 made after serial number 300000 (early 2008) are of inferior quality. I have not been able to compare mine to a more recent model tonewise so I will not comment first hand on that. Nonetheless, if you have your eyes on a second hand RAT 2, you might want to check the serial number under the pedal.

Anyway, I find the RAT highly effective. It can go from a nice overdriven sound at lower gain settings to a fat slightly fuzzy distortion at higher gain settings. If you are into lower gain overdrive type of sounds there is a lot of alternatives but for high gain distortion types of sound (and for a reasonable price) it is pretty unique. The filter is very effective and works differently from most pedals as it cuts highs as you increase it. A slight variation can make a big difference. The volume will not provide a huge boost but a boost nonetheless. Gilmourish has an excellent piece about the RAT and explains why it is a good staple distortion pedal.

In particular, I find it as effective with single coils as it is with humbuckers which is where I find most distortion pedals to be lacking. I have recorded two videos showing the fat tone you can get from a Telecaster and a RAT. I understand this type of hairy fat tone is not everyone’s cup of tea but if it  is what you are looking for, chances are a proco RAT 2 will do it for you.

In these clips, the settings on the RAT 2 are as follows: gain 2 o’clock, filter 3 o’clock, volume 2 o’clock.

First using a 1978 Telecaster with stock pickups through a 5 watts all tube 1974 Fender Silverface champ miked by a Shure SM-57 pluggeg into a Boss Micro-BR recorder (some BOSS DD-3 delay added mid way and BOSS RV-3 reverb always on):

Update 24-10-2010: here is another video of my Telecaster, the Proco Rat 2 and my trusty Fender amp (same as video above). The sound quality is better and you get to hear how it sounds with a slapback echo added in the second part of the video.

And now the same guitar and the same pedals through a Marshall JM-1 Preamp set clean and plugged directly into the recorder (I have used the “clean 1” channel with  a gain of 9):

Two years with the BOSS Micro-BR Part 1

In March of 2008, I went hunting for a recorder that could be used to record ambient sounds (check out my girlfriend Pia’s soundscapes) and interviews without requiring an external microphone as well as doubling up as a guitarist notepad (and that could run on batteries). I went for the BOSS Micro-BR and I thought I would tell you about its strengths and weaknesses after two years (a performance review of some kind). In this first part, I will focus on the recordings and mixing capabilities of the machine. In a following post, I will be looking at mastering on the Micro-BR, the integrated MP3 player, the exporting capabilities as well as the pros and cons of this little machine. I will also include a wish list for version 2. The Micro-BR is the little brother of the BR-600 and Br-1600 themselves being descendants of the VS (now V) series of recorders that Roland started over 10 years ago (I remember drooling over the VS-880 in the late 90s). In a nutshell, it sports 4 tracks plus a rhythm drum box track (and 32 virtual tracks, more on that later). It stores data on a standard SD-Card and is small enough to fit in a pocket:

Boss Micro-BR
Boss Micro-BR

The integrated microphone is stereo and surprisingly good and there is a standard jack input for your guitar or your bass. There is also a mini-jack input in which you can plug a microphone or a stereo line source. On that topic, a piece of information that was not that easy to find is that yes you can use a standard mono dynamic microphone, for instance a good old SM-57 to record an amp, providing you have the right cable or adapter to plug into the mini jack external port. In that case, you will only be able to record one track at a time of course. If you plug a stereo microphone or 2 microphones with a Y cable, you can record two tracks at a time. It is quite flexible although you cannot record using two different sources (e.g. the integrated mike and the guitar input) simultaneously. I must say I am not too fond of the external mini-jack port, I would have liked to have a full size jack port, adapters can be a bit wiggly sometimes. Here is a little example with an acoustic guitar recorded by the built in microphone:

[audio:|titles=Micro-BR Acoustic]

There is one reverb unit and you can hear the reverb on the input as well as on every track and the rythm track. There is also a multi-effect unit which, depending on the type of input selected (guitar/bass, microphone, line) will behave as a guitar/bass multi-effect unit, a vocal multi-effect unit or a generic audio processing unit (think compression, equalization, limiting, etc.). The Guitar multi-effect unit is based on the usual COSM modeling found in BOSS multi-effects (which means that if you don’t like them, chances are you will not like the Micro-BR guitar tones). That said, there is some good stuff in there and it allows for quite some tweakability. The guitar amp models cover all the bases (from clean to heavily distorted) and some of the effects are very good, I am especially  fond of the chorus/delays. This multi-effect allows to record guitars by plugging them directly into the machine, quite invaluable if you don’t have your favorite amp nearby. There is something that I miss though, it is a pitch-shifter or octaver to simulate a bass with a guitar.

The rhythm track can be thought of as a ‘fifth’ track. It is actually an integrated drum box whose patterns cannot be changed. That said you can create “arrangements” (play pattern 1 for 4 measures then play pattern 45 then go back to pattern 1, etc.). It does sound “drumboxy” but can be useful for recording a demo or just practicing your instrument. There are plenty of drumming styles and a few kits to choose from and even a good old metronome sound. I especially like the TR-808 kit if you are into that sort of stuff. There is something super annoying (so much that it seems like a software bug to me): if you don’t create an arrangement for a song, the tempo will default back to 130 the next time you power up the Micro-BR.

Boss Micro-BR inputs
Boss Micro-BR inputs
Mixing and Bouncing: Virtual Tracks

Before going into the mixing and bouncing capabilities of this little shiny machine, let’s have a closer look at the notion of “virtual track”. The Micro-BR has 32 virtual tracks. Each can contain a full quality mono recording. Out of these 32 tracks, only 4 can be played simultaneously. In other words you can think of them as “repositories”. You can for instance record 4 versions of a solo each stored in a virtual track and you can choose which version you prefer to be played alongside 3 other tracks and the rhythm track. You can also copy and paste between virtual tracks (you can select parts of the track based on time or bars which make it easy to create a composite track out of several other tracks).

Apart from that, mixing is pretty simple as you don’t have any automation, all you can set is pretty much the volume, pan and amount of reverb of every track. You can also use the aforementioned multi effect unit to process one or two tracks (you can “join” two mono tracks to form a stereo track). There is no EQ per track which means using the multi effect is the only way to really tweak the sound of one track (we’ll see when we approach the subject of mastering that there is some EQ possibilities for the overall sound). You can also apply this multi-effect to the rhythm section. Once you are happy with the sound of that processed track, you can bounce the result of the processing of one track onto a virtual track which allows you to process another track with the multi-effect and so on. Moreover, the Bouncing mode takes full advantage of these virtual tracks and allows you to bounce as much as all of the 4 tracks + the rhythm track onto a pair of virtual tracks in order to free up some track space. Exactly like in the old days of tape based 4 track recorders except we often had to bounce 3 tracks on 1, we did not have the luxury of virtual tracks. So after some mixing and some bouncing action, you should be ready for the final phase: the mastering. But this will be for another post. While you are waiting, here is a quick demo recorded and mixed on the Micro-BR:

[audio:|titles=CHAMP Rock number 10]

All the guitars were recorded with a 1978 telecaster (stock pickups) plugged into various pedals and a 1978 fender Silverface Champ. The amp was miked with an SM-57. The bass was plugged directly into the Micro-BR. The drums were provided by the little machine itself (don’t you love the drum rolls ? 😉 ).


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