Michael Landau

Session star

Published in PM November 2008
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People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers
Michael Landau may not be a familiar name to the public at large, but amongst musicians, and especially within the ranks of guitar aficionados, he is universally recognised for his supreme musicianship and versatility.
Joe Matera
Photo: Oliver Scroeder
First and foremost, Michael Landau is a session maestro of the highest order, having performed on more than 500 recordings since he answered his first studio call back in the late 1970s. And as an in-demand touring sideman, he has shared the world's stages with the likes of Boz Scaggs, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor, to name but a few. In between his demanding and often hectic schedule, he also finds time to record and tour with his own band, the Michael Landau Group. Performing Musician were recently granted a rare interview with Landau in which he discussed his illustrious playing career, his approach to performing and playing, as well as providing a look into his extensive rig.
Performing Musician: What influences led you to choose your musical path?
Michael Landau: "My uncle showed me my first chords when I was about 11 years old. He was learning Beatles tunes at the time, and when I heard the Beatles that was it for me. There was always music around my grandmother's house because my grandfather had been an alto sax player in the jazz and swing era."
PM: You've played with a diverse range of artistes, from Chicago to Richard Marx to Steve Perry. What were the main things you learned from all of them?
ML: "You grow from playing with different artistes. They give you a little bit of their music and you learn from them. And vice versa also."
PM: Being versatile is obviously an important element in your line of work?
ML: "Yes, and a lot of that came out of necessity and by being called upon by different artistes. I have a pretty good way of finding out what people want right away, sonic-wise and also playing-wise. And that has helped me develop a wider variety of techniques and sounds."
PM: When you're in the studio, are you able to play with total freedom knowing that the tape is running?
ML: "Yeah, I'm not afraid of the recording light. I know some people get a little uptight about it, but you know you can always do it again. So I always feel pretty free when I'm recording. Especially when we used to have a lot more tracking sessions where bands used to play together live, like bass, drums, guitars and keyboards, and the artiste singing as well. It is very inspiring when everyone is playing together. It all becomes this one big sound, which is bigger than the sound of the individual parts."
PM: When in the studio, what is your approach to the sessions?
ML: "I don't like to work things out. I really like to play music by having as much of it as I can just flowing out of me naturally. I know a lot of guitar players work things out, but to me it just seems more magical to just improvise and let it happen. Obviously, on pop songs, you need to play melodies that are part of the songs and things like that. But as much as I can, it is better for me to just let it rip. And if you fall on your face, then you just punch in the little bits that need it. But I try and keep everything as spontaneous as possible."
PM: How has your rig evolved over the years?
ML: "The studio rig has basically stayed the same for a long time now; what changes are the guitars I use and the different pedals etc. The tones I get these days are more regular amp tones and not so much heavily processed sounds."
PM: And when it comes to your guitar sound, it has surely gone through a similar evolution as well?
ML: "A lot of the evolution in that area has mainly come from listening and playing with other musicians. I was also fortunate to have played with different guitar players when I was growing up. Steve Lukather is a good friend of mine; I met him when I was around 12. We would feed off each other a lot back then. He's a great guitar player.
Also, sonics have always been an important issue with me, and I am always developing and looking for better ways to record guitar and process guitar. I worked a lot with Bob Bradshaw over the years on a lot of the sonic things. In the '80s, when guitar players used a lot of rack gear, line-level gear, the problem was trying to lower your amp down to get it to line level, and to be able to use these line-level effects with just regular guitar amps. So in the beginning we used dummy loads on the amps.
We would load down the amp with a dummy load resistor and then go into the line-level effects from a line out. This meant, though, that you had to use a power amp and also needed a left and right cabinet. But over the years we developed away from that because things didn't sound or feel natural. Later on, we decided to switch to using a regular speaker load, which made the amps behave more normally, and it sounded better.
A dummy load is like a big load resistor, where instead of plugging a speaker into your amp — a tube amp always needs to have a speaker load — you had this big resistor, which was loading it down. So instead of plugging into an 8Ω speaker cabinet, you would plug into an 8Ω 'speaker resistor.' This would protect your amp from blowing up.
Today, I have a rig dedicated to recording only. I now mic my own dry cabinet, and out of the mic pre I go into the line-level effects through a Bradshaw switching system. That way, I'm always getting a pure amp sound, which I can then process as needed. The engineer gets a left and right output from my rack through Jensen direct boxes built in."
PM: Do you spend time practising on the guitar?
ML: "I wouldn't call it practising, but I do play a lot, like a few hours a day just sitting around the house. Sometimes I will play over some changes or I may brush up on some theory, but I don't sit down and have a routine like practice scales or whatnot. I just improvise a lot."
PM: With so much gear at your disposal, how do you go about choosing the right gear when you need to go for a certain sound?
ML: "It just depends on the song and the artiste. Some artistes are more open to whatever you like to play or are inspired by. In the last 15 years, people have obviously called me because they are looking for more of my input, so in general I can usually give them my two cents worth and play what I think — at least initially. And then from there, if they ask for something very specific that they need me to do, then I will do that."
PM: Do you read music?
ML: "I don't consider myself a great reader, but I do think I'm an OK reader. Being able to read is pretty important when it comes to studio work, but more so for people who do movie dates. Working on movie scores usually means the parts are written out exactly. But I don't do a whole lot of those. With record dates, the reading is much lighter and there is more room for the musical input of the guitar player."
PM: How do you go about learning an artiste's set when you're employed as a touring sideman?
ML: "I usually do a little bit of homework first. And I like to hear the original records first. After that, there is usually a bunch of days of rehearsals set aside where we all kind of work on it together. And sometimes the arrangements are changed a little, while with others it all depends on the song and how old it is. I usually have a good idea of the songs before I go into rehearsal.
I like to stay true to the original parts that I really like or to the parts that the artistes really want to remain the same. In the end, it is a little bit of both worlds, but I try and respect the song first and foremost."
PM: How far do you go in order to get your recorded sounds accurately reproduced on stage?
ML: "I can usually get pretty close to recorded sounds in a live situation if I need to. For me, though, live and studio are two very different things."
PM: When it comes to both the studio and live environments, do you have a preference for either?
ML: "They are both completely different, and though I like them both, I do have a preference for playing live. Live, improvising is a really important part of music for me, as it creates that spark where you're together with different musicians and you improvise together. The song then becomes really exciting, as you don't know where it is going to go. So that is more exciting than studio work. In the studio you can lose that spark, especially if you've just done the song 10 times in a row and you still need to keep it fresh. So it is a little hard at times."
PM: How do you get yourself into the 'zone' for a recording date?
ML: "The main thing is to have my equipment together and be able to get my sounds quickly. And if everything is working right, then that is enough for me, as I can usually get it down fairly easily."
PM: Do you have a preference in the way you go about capturing your guitar sounds in the studio?
ML: "I do, which is why I bring in my own mic preamps. For 99 percent of the time, it is an SM57 placed right off the centre of the speaker cone and about one-inch back from the grille cloth. I usually add about 4dB at 200Hz to make up for the SM57, which is a bright mic. Between that and the amps and the pedals, I can usually get a pretty wide variety of sounds."
PM: What about when it comes to the live environment?
ML: "It all depends on the music and the artiste. I usually try and get the best amp sounds first from within the room acoustics, and then I will add the effects to it. With halls, you have to compensate a little bit, using less effects for a 'live' room and more effects if it is a 'dead' room. But I need to start with that initial amp sound.
I've toured Europe and found that every room is different, and sometimes the voltages aren't always the same too. Because of that, some nights your rig sounds crappy and you just have to deal with it, while at other times it can be a great-sounding room. The FOH guy is very important too, but on the small tours that I do I usually have a different soundman on every night, and so it becomes impossible for me to really know what it sounds like out there."
PM: Working with such a wide variety of artistes, do you adapt your rig to their differing requirements?
ML: "Yes. For live, I try and keep it very simple. I'll add pedals or take them off my pedalboard if I'm not going to use them. For the last James Taylor tour, I used a Blackface Pro Reverb. The pedals were a Fulltone OCD, a Rodger Mayer Voodoo Vibe, a Boss FV500H volume pedal, and a Line 6 DL4 delay pedal with an expression pedal hooked up.
For studio work, the rig I use isn't that big, but I do bring in a lot of guitars with me. I usually start with a Strat or a Les Paul and take it from there. The way I have my studio rig now, it is mainly comprised of two heads: a Dumble Slide Winder and a Custom Audio OD100 Classic Plus. The Slide Winder is more like a Fender sound, while the Custom Audio is more like a smooth, classic Marshall overdrive, and obviously it has a lot more gain than the Slide Winder. Between those two amps and a couple of guitars, I usually have a good starting point."
PM: Do you position your pedals in front of the amp or on a loop?
ML: "The small stomp-box-type pedals are always before the amp. The line-level effects are always after the amp or in a mixer in the effects loop of the amp."
PM: Is it a mono or stereo setup?
ML: "The studio rig is stereo, while the live rig is either mono or a 'wet-dry-wet' setup. A lot of it comes down to logistics. When I do my tours, we have to load everything into a van, so we can't bring a wet rig due to the sheer amount of equipment you'd have to bring. For an artiste tour, like with James Taylor, it is good to have the monitor rig, as it sounds better for his music anyway."
PM: When it comes to guitar choices, do you prefer vintage over more modern guitars?
ML: "It's hard to beat a vintage guitar when it's set up right, with good frets etc. I use simple guitars without a lot of 'push-pull' type extras on them. And usually, the simpler the better for me. I can usually do whatever I need to on a good Strat, Tele and Les Paul for studio work. I've developed a single-coil pickup with John Suhr and my buddy Kirk Fletcher called the FL Single Coil. John used my two old '63 Strats to really match the sound, and they are the best-sounding new single coils I've heard. Those, with his SSC (Silent Single Coil) system, make me a very happy little guy!"
PM: Do you like to hear your backline or monitors?
ML: "Always the sound from my amp only. I only put a band mix [everyone else] in the wedge. I never use in-ear monitors, as I can't stand them! They may be great for singers, but I don't like them for a couple of reasons. I don't like the way they sound. I need to hear my amp from the room and the air moving. The other thing is the communication between people is sort of cut off. Everyone has got their in-ear stuff in their ears and no one can hear each other talk, so it's like being in your own world. And to me that is the opposite of what music should be about. It is about playing together and listening together."
PM: What effective sound strategies do you employ when it comes to the differing room acoustics of varying venues?
ML: "I'll use less reverb/delay if it's a very live room, but you have to trust the soundman. Playing softer is usually better for a bad-sounding room."
PM: What sort of modus operandi do you adhere to when it comes to soundchecks?
ML: "With my trio, I like to set up physically as close together as we can and listen to each other acoustically as much as possible before adding a lot of instruments and level into the wedges. It glues the musicians together, sound-wise. And I use the same approach with the artistes I tour with too."
PM: How has modern technology impacted upon the way you record and perform music?
ML: "When it comes to playing live, it is the same for me. But recording-wise, it is a little bit different now. A lot of my studio work is mainly doing overdubs by myself, sitting alone in the studio and playing on other people's tracks. I do use Pro Tools and record things digitally, though I still have a two-inch machine, a nice analogue setup in my house. The analogue setup I'll use for my own projects, like my band projects. For my last studio record, The Star Spangled Banner (2001), I did all my basic tracks on tape and transferred it to Pro Tools and finished it up in there. But I usually like to have a little bit of tape sound from the drums and the original basic tracks if I can."
PM: Finally, can you tell us a little about your current projects?
ML: "I'm working on a new studio record of my own material, which will hopefully be out at the beginning of next year. It is going to be a more instrumental record, along the lines of Tales From The Bulge. I am also mixing my wife's [Karen Martin Landau] record, which features Charlie Drayton on drums. Next year, I'll be touring with James Taylor again and in Europe with my own trio too."  0

Studio setup
Michael Landau's studio rack and MIDI foot controller.
Michael Landau's studio rack and MIDI foot controller.
"For my studio setup, I mic the cabinet with a Shure SM57 through a Chandler Limited LTD-1 mic pre. That signal is then fed to the line input on the Custom Audio effects rack," says Michael.
Studio rack:
Dbx 160A compressor.Tri Stereo Chorus 618.Eventide H3000 D/SE Harmonizer.Lexicon MPX-1.Lexicon PCM 70.TC G-Force processor.Two Lexicon PCM 42s (left and right).Custom Audio Super Tremolo.
"Pedals before the amp are a vintage Tube Screamer TS-808, Roger Mayer Voodoo Vibe and a Boss volume pedal FV500H.
I use this setup only for recording, because the line-level processing is after the dry cabinet. In other words, I insert the rack effects between the dry cabinet and the recording console."
Studio amps:
Custom Audio OD100 Classic Plus.Dumble Slide Winder.Suhr Badger 18W.Phil Jameson custom 30W.'67 Plexi Marshall head.Suhr 100W ML hand-wired.4 x 12 Kerry Wright open-back cabinet with Celestion Heritage Series G12-65s.2 x 12 Kerry Wright open-back cabinet with Celestion Heritage Series G12-65s.Bogner Straight 4 x 12 with Celestion Vintage 30s.

Guitars
Live and in the studio, Michael mainly uses these guitars:
Suhr Strat with Suhr FLs neck and middle, Suhr SSV in bridge, and Suhr BPSSC (Backplate Silent Single Coil) system.Suhr Tele with Suhr S-90 in neck, Suhr Classic Tele in bridge.'97 Fender Custom Shop Strat with Suhr FLs neck and middle, Suhr SSV in bridge, Suhr Silent Single Coil system.Tyler Strat with DiMarzio 2.2 neck and middle, Suhr SSV in bridge.Tyler Strat with EMG pickups.'69 Black Fender Strat with Suhr FLs neck and middle, Suhr SSV in bridge, Suhr Silent Single Coil system.'68 Sunburst Fender Strat with DiMarzio 2.2 neck and middle, Suhr SSV in bridge.'63 Fiesta Red Fender Strat.'63 Gibson SG. '68 Gold Top Les Paul (with PAF humbuckers).

'Wet-dry-wet' rig and other live setups
Michael's well used '69 black Fender Strat is flanked by a Suhr Strat and a '68 Gold Top Les Paul. Both Strats are equipped with Suhr FLs in neck and middle positions with a Suhr SSV at the bridge.
Michael's well used '69 black Fender Strat is flanked by a Suhr Strat and a '68 Gold Top Les Paul. Both Strats are equipped with Suhr FLs in neck and middle positions with a Suhr SSV at the bridge.
For his live setup, Michael mainly uses pedals patched directly between guitar and amp.
Pedals:
Maxon SD-9 Sonic Distortion.Roger Mayer Voodoo 1.Arion Stereo Chorus (in mono). Boss VB-2.Tycobrahe Octavia.Custom Audio Super Tremolo.Custom Audio Black Cat Vibe. Cry Baby Wah Wah.Boss FV500H volume pedal.
"I also use a Lexicon MPX-1 processor in the effects loop of the amp with the Suhr MiniMix for reverb and delay," says Michael. "Or I take a speaker level out of the amp to a Palmer PGA-4 speaker simulator and feed that to the Lexicon MPX-1, which then goes to a Marshall Valvestate stereo power amp through two Custom Audio 2 x 10 cabs with Celestion Vintage 10 speakers. Sometimes I'll use a small pedalboard, as it's small and easy to cart around. For that, all the pedals are before the amp, so they are a Maxon SD-9 Sonic Distortion, Roger Mayer Voodoo 1, Real McCoy Wah Wah (red), Arion Stereo Chorus (in mono, true bypass mod), Roger Mayer Voodoo Vibe and a Boss volume pedal FV500H."
Live amps:
Custom Audio OD100 Classic Plus.'64 Pro Reverb with Celestion Heritage Series G12-65s.'64 Super Reverb with Dumble Ultra Phonix mod.'64 Deluxe Reverb with Dumble Ultra Phonix mod.Matchless HC-30.4 x 12 Kerry Wright open-back cabinet with Celestion Heritage Series G12-65s.2 x 12 Kerry Wright open-back cabinet with Celestion Heritage Series G12-65s.Bogner Straight 4 x 12 with Celestion Vintage 30s.

Published in PM November 2008