Jimmy Carbonetti handed me a $20,000 guitar he had made himself.
“Try it out,” he said with a wide grin.
I gingerly took the neck and plucked a few chords. It had a nice sustain, felt heavy in my hands, and I detected a faint smell from the wood like it had been recently oiled. The guitarist for the indie band Caveman has 70s-era sideburns and a Gram Parsons vibe. I’m a journalist covering his band and he (perhaps unwisely) let me try his custom guitar, one that has his own name printed on the head-stock and that he was about to use on stage.
This was going to be a blast, I thought.
Bands go to enormous lengths to make sure their music sounds pristine in concert. Despite what you might guess, it’s not as much about the EQ settings on a sound board or the size of the room that counts. It has more to do with replicating their songs—right down to the chromatic tuners for a horn section or that favorite distortion pedal positioned just perfectly on stage.
To learn how the process works, I spent an afternoon with two wildly different bands. Caveman was gracious enough to let me hang out with them at a coffee-shop, inspect their gear, chat with each band member and watch their live show at the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis. Hillsong is a Christian worship band from Australia that has sold over 12 million albums and performed at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, the same venue where Bruce Springsteen played the month before. My goal was to pick their brains, not pick their guitars. What I learned turned out to be one of the most eye-opening experiences in my 15-year career in journalism.
Matthew Iwanusa is the lead singer and founder of Caveman. He struck me as a meditative and thoughtful person with a go-with-the-flow vibe. Before a warm-up, he kept his head down off in the corner almost like one of those bobsledders thinking about a run before the Olympics. His lyrics tend to be about lost loves and giving people a second chance, while the music is a rollicking, driving take on classic rock reminiscent of The War on Drugs.
The band’s third album, called Otero War, comes out on June 17. Iwanusa told me they wanted a bigger arena rock sound, so they recorded to tape and relied on vintage instruments and custom-made guitars. Glancing around the stage, it was obvious the band brought along the instruments they used for recording the album. Iwanusa said the one exception is the song “The State of Mind” off the new record because it uses a string section in the intro.
“We were all in a room for the majority of the recording,” says Carbonetti, the main guitar player. “We wanted to capture the energy of playing live and then add overdubs later.”
Recording to tape was a brilliant way to prep for their tour opening for Frightened Rabbit. Because it’s a more expensive process, Iwanusa said you have to think about your parts more closely, which transfers nicely to the road.
Since Caveman wanted a big sound, they made sure there was a clean and pure sound going in from vintage and high-quality instruments. They knew they could add effects as needed, but go “clean” for recording and the live shows.
There were other, more obvious steps, like having guitar pedals arranged the same way for concerts as they did for the recording sessions. Carbonetti says everyone in the band has highly refined parts they played on the record and then duplicate in a live setting, whereas previous records relied on more spontaneous jamming that might be harder to replicate live.
A good example is the song “80 West”, which has a guitar trill about halfway through. It builds up slowly and echoes the sentiments in the lyrics about waiting for someone. The lush synths add a brilliant backdrop on that song in particular. During every concert, there are three synths on stage, one vintage model, one for strings, and a Roland Gaia SH-01 for quirkier sounds.
For guitar, Carbonetti uses effects pedals like the EarthQuaker Gray Channel, the EarthQuaker Monarch, and the Vemuram Jan Ray for overdrive. Once again, he uses those pedals to get a warm tone for live performances that matches the mellower studio sounds. There’s little distortion on most songs. Caveman is all about a throwback sound.
Another interesting method they use for recording had to with acoustic guitar. They recorded every song with a primary acoustic track, which is interesting because none of the songs actually have any acoustic when they play live. The point was to make sure there is always a center on the song, a more vintage feel that can transfer easily to the live version.
Some of the tricks the band used to make sure a live show matches the recording are fairly unique. Iwanusa described how they went through a few different versions of the song “On My Own” before trying out a quick piano part as a background element. They recorded the part with a smartphone, which is sort of a “live” technique and then ended up making that part a focal point. (It’s part of a call-and-response between vocals and the synth.)
At the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, a police dog sniffed at my camera bag. I had to laugh. The band had just gotten out of a prayer meeting and they were strumming through the opening salvos of their worship hit “Forever Reign”. If they were taking drugs, we’re all in deep trouble.
For Hillsong, it might be a bit easier for the live music to match the recording, since many of their albums are recorded live. Yet, the song structures still have to match up. The gear choices have to match the songs they will play in concert.
A manager took me around to look at all of the gear and talk to the band. A few techniques they use for replicating their recorded albums became obvious. One is that they tend to use synth and analog bass, sometimes switching between them mid song. For example, on “Forever Reign” the song starts out with a subtle intro but eventually has a big uplifting chorus. At that “drop” (if you can use a nightclub term for a Christian band), the bass switches to synth for a sub-drenched stadium filling tone. Another technique has to do with playing high on the neck or lower. To make sure the songs match the recorded versions, the bass player always plays up higher to avoid interfering with the vocals, which are always front and center.
Hillsong also plans out where each artist is situated. The drummer happens to be left handed, so the bass sits to his left. (That’s why the drums are far stage right.) One thing that became clear is that this is a highly professional band that is orchestrating an experience in concert as much as orchestrating the song arrangements. Every member told me they want the music to be flexible enough that they can sense the moment and adjust to crowd dynamics.
For the bass, they use a SansAmp pedal for amp modeling, a Polytune Chromatic Tuner, a Little Big Muff for sustain and a warm tone, and an Interlacer board interface that ties it all together. The entire setup was meant to make sure the tones are warm and pristine, not distorted.
In recent years, Hillsong has moved away from an acoustic and electric guitar driven sound to something more lush and orchestrated. That means the synth is incredibly important. For pedals, one key element is the Big Sky, which creates a big arena-rock sound. Hillsong is making music that creates an atmosphere and is never meant to distract the listener. For that charter in the band to lead the crowd and not get in the way, the synth relies on the Main Stage 3 app from Apple for samples parts and a KORG Kontrol 2 controller.
What was so eye-opening to me about both bands is that there is some serious forethought put into the live shows. Even at the songwriting stage, Iwanusa from Caveman was thinking about how songs might be duplicated on stage. In some ways, that’s the difference between a so-so act and one that sticks around for a long time. Ask anyone who has seen Bruce Springsteen live and you’ll hear about how the heart of each song comes through. What makes a band terrible is when there’s a disconnect from what they do on stage and what they do on an album.
Part of it is equipment, but most of it is related to being intentional. Hillsong wants the music to play a secondary role to the vocals. They want a warm, enveloping sound. Caveman wants to sound cohesive. They worked incredibly hard to make sure each song works as a whole. My education made me want to go to more concerts and see how the magic happens.