Queen of the Stone Age is the brainchild of guitarist, singer, songwriter and producer Josh Homme. Few bands have left such a lasting impression on the rock idiom since the 90s as Queens of the Stone Age, and it could be argued a lot of that is down to this man and the musicians and producers he surrounds himself with.
Hailing from Palm Desert, California, they’ve fallen under the umbrella of Desert Rock, a genre they are now synonymous with. They took the mantle where the sweaty Gen Xers grunge sound of the early 90s began to tire and become formulaic, incorporating elements of psychedelia, blues, heavy metal and hardcore punk.
Queens… are themselves a revolving door of talented musicians with Homme as their ring leader. You’d be forgiven for thinking Josh Homme’s playing style is simplistic as it lacks the flamboyance and pomposity of other contemporary guitar heroes.
It shares more in common with the directness of punk and grunge without some of the wilful ignorance towards the instrument some guitarists strangely take pride in. His style is DIY and idiosyncratic yet uncomplicated and well honed. He is (to borrow a dreadful cliché) a guitarists’ guitarist.
Rated R (2000) and Songs for the Deaf (2002) left a lasting mark on my attitudes towards how the guitar was played but also song writing and music production in general. Even considering my total lack of understanding of music equipment I could tell there was quirks about QOTSA’s sound that set them apart from the Marshall/Strat/Les Paul tribe. Their more recent works haven’t perhaps shared the same cult plaudits as the aforementioned albums but commercially they have remained successful.
I want to take a look at some of Josh’s equipment and how you can get a similar sound in your DAW on a budget in the same vein as some of my other articles on Aphex Twin, Shoegaze, Squarepusher, Stranger Things, The Prodigy and Radiohead.
This is not an exact ‘sound-a-like’ guide, nor should it be considered one. Hopefully it can shed some light on some of the more individual tones from one of this generation’s greats and inspire you to thing about different ways of processing your instruments. Enjoy!
I’ve long been fascinated with the QOTSA sound, and even though Josh has often kept his cards close to his chest about his pedals (note this parody video from their official YouTube channel) there’s still been some rigorous documentations of live rigs and studio techniques.
While it’s fantastically comprehensive, most of us don’t own the relevant vintage microphones, rare effects pedals or boutique guitars to achieve this sound purely with hardware. However it got me thinking that we could probably get something similar in Logic or Ableton using a combination of cheap, free and native plug-ins.
The sound of Queens… is largely down to Josh himself, who has co-produced many of their albums including older Kyuss records too. This article does focus around the above video, detailing Eric Valentine’s recording of Songs for the Deaf, but elsewhere I’ll allude to Rated R, which was produced by Joe Barresi (who also went on to produce Lullabies To Paralyze) and Chris Goss (no, not the terrible Spurs manager), who had a hand in various albums.
Eric has recently become a father and moved from working full time in his Barefoot Studio to a hybrid setup at his home. Warren Huart from Produce Like A Pro recently caught up with him to chat all things gear and you can watch the interview here.
Guitar Anti Hero
Is it a Strat? Is a Les Paul? No it’s some obscure guitar that’s not likely to become a household name anytime soon. Josh Homme has a vast collection of lesser-known beauties but perhaps one of the guitars he is more famed for wielding is the Ovation Ultra GP, some this website describes as the “ultimate junk guitar”(!).
I don’t know much about it other than that is has two humbucker pickups, which is handy as the only guitar close to me is a cheap Epiphone SG, which also has two humbuckers 😁.
My SG is by no means a close replica but it’s unlikely most of you reading will have the Ovation or even something more similar. This is really a guide about making do with what you’ve got rather than a forensic analysis or the equipment used.
A great deal of Queens of the Stone Age’s catalog is tuned down two whole steps (C F Bb Eb G C). Without having your guitar setup by a professional or getting some custom extra heavy gauge strings this can cause the strings to be a great deal more loose than normal and flap around when strumming.
ENSURE YOU CHECK YOUR TUNING BEFORE EACH TAKE AS IT WILL LIKELY DRIFT.
Amps, Microphones and Pre-Amps
Ordinarily I’d jump right into the pedalboard now but the amp sound and particularly the distortion from it is such a huge part of Josh’s overall sound it seems the natural place to start proper.
As you can garner from his Wiki Josh has an extensive collection of classics amplifiers including the big-hitters such as JCM 900s, Bassmans, VOX and Orange as well as some more atypical, obscure inclusions.
By far the amp the QOTSA sound is most closely associated with though is the Ampegs, which Josh has a vast collection of. VT-40s with a 4×10 cabinet can be seen on stage, but there’s potentially a whole load of others that he’s used in various combinations to help sculpt his signature sound. You can see shots of Josh’s live amp settings here.
There are various Ampeg simulations in Guitar Rig and Logic’s own plug-ins but by far the best sounding one I’ve heard is contained with IK Multimedia’s AmpliTube 4. This has by far the most flexibility of any guitar amp simulator with not only a plethora of famous amp models emulated but cabinet selection, microphone type and position (see below) and even custom rooms in-which to place your amps.
For those of you more on a budget, Logic’s Bass Amp Designer has some Ampeg-y sound and Computer Music have released a free simulation BassAmp CM, which is free with their magazine.
As a rule of thumb I’ve tried to keep the cabinets to 4x10s where applicable. I purchased a few microphone options inside AmpiTube to give me a wide palette of sound choices.
From the Valentine video we can infer he was using a tube condenser mic (Sony C-37A) for a warm, smooth and full bodied sound, a Sennheiser 441 dynamic mic, an RCA 44 Ribbon mic for the room and what he calls a ‘salt-shaker’ mic close to the cabinet. This provides the aggressive, bright high-end sound which can be blended with the other three mics to achiever a wider range of tones.
With this in mind, let’s take a quick look at The Lost Art Of Keeping A Secret:
All of the drums for this article were played by the extremely talented Stuart Pringle and tracked at Copper Brown in Finchley, London by the very kind Luke and his glamorous assistant Ollie. Please check them all out as I couldn’t have done this without their time and effort!
The drums are mostly mixed with SSL-style EQ (which Homme remarks is “the rock EQ”) into some FET-like compression and some Electra DSP transient EQ from The House of Kush (love these plug-ins!). I added a Logic apple loop shaker.
The bass is my brother’s Ibanez bass tuned down using some parallel distortion from Logic’s pedalboard. The allows the dry bass to be mixed with the distorted one, keeping some clarity.
There are two guitars tracked – one playing the simple power chords and the other adding the bluesy lick at the end of the four bars. Throughout this article I’m using Fielding DSP’s Reviver to add third order harmonics into the guitar sound. This adds a slight touch of drive that’s pleasant, and beset of all it’s super cheap!
The amp settings used are below. Notice how much midrange is added here. A big part of the sound is obtaining distortion from overdriving midrange EQ circuits. In the digital realm you need to be careful with your gain-staging as this can sound flabby and muffled if you’re not careful.
However this wasn’t quite right – I added iZotope’s Trash 2 to alter the tone some more. Trash uses the same convolution technology normally found in reverbs to simulate various cabinets and circuits. I used the Lincoln Standard to colour the sound and finished off with some SSL EQ.
The vibraphone is Logic’s EXS24 with some vibrato and plate reverb added. All the tracks are summed to a bus with a healthy bit of processing on. Some Kush Clariphonic EQ, Waves Fairchild emulation*, the excellent Goodhertz Vulf Compressor, followed by some tape saturation, a final bit of surgical EQ and limiting.
*Eric Valentine actually owns his own hardware Fairchild emulation company, producing the UnFairchild 670M II. Though retailing at $9,995 I wont be copping one any time soon!
The Illusive Pedal Board
Josh is very protective of his floor-based tonal secrets in interviews and Baresi and Valentine respectfully corroborate his stance stance. However, perverted pedal snoopers have obtained various upskirt shots to get a clearer idea of what sits between his guitar and amp.
A huge part of Josh’s sound is EQ, and in particular boosts to the mids and low-mids. In our DAW any digital EQ would handle this just fine but as Josh has been known to use a Boss GE-7 and MXR Graphic Equalisers I’ll follow in suit.
To demonstrate this, let’s take a look at You Think I Ain’t Worth a Dollar, But I Feel Like a Millionaire (the guitar kicks in at 1:00):
The drums are mostly mixed in the same way as the previous example except this time a healthy dose of Audio Damage Rough Rider (which is free, so no excuses for not downloading it NOW). This is an extremely aggressive compressor that works fantastically on shotgun mics to beef up toms or raise the room sound in the mix.
I added my own clap tracks, processed with iZotope Vinyl (another free plug-in) – I often use this as a limited EQ to thin sounds out. There’s also some gating, enveloping, EQ, limiting and mid-side processing to narrow the sound a little. Homme himself agrees:
A few plug-ins were really useful, like the iZotope Vinyl plug-in, which changes the frequencies to emulate old records.
The bass was very low in this track, hitting the lowest C. To combat this I used some multi-band compression to tame the super sub sonics, as well as AmpliTube and some optical compression. It doesn’t sound like a lot on it’s own, as the guitars take up so much of the mix, but it supports the track nicely.
I double tracked the guitar and panned them each off-centre. There could well be more than just two guitars, but it’s hard to tell in such a dense mix. I used Logic’s pedalboard EQ to boost around 400 and 600 Hz, really digging into the Ampeg.
Everything was mixed into some more Fairchild compression and ToneBoosters ReelBus. All together it sounds like this:
Of course, not all of Josh’s distortion comes from overdriven midrange EQ – there are some classic fuzz sounds to be found on his board including the sought-after Univox Super-Fuzz and Fulltone Fat-Boost, as well as various Boss compacts. Let’s take a quick look at Monsters In The Parasol:
The bass has a distinct distortion Nick Oliveri, which could well be a Boss FZ-2 Hyper Fuzz. Without one available I’m using AmpliTube’s Fulltone range, employing their OCD do handle bass-fuzz duties. Run that into an optical compressor (Logic’s native one is fine) and some of the Console EQ, and you’re there or there-abouts:
The guitar is processed using Native Instruments Guitar Rig’s aptly named Distortion module, almost certainly a clone of the Boss DS-1. Keep the tone and distortion dials below 9’o’clock and adjust the input gain to get it to break-up nicely without blasting the life out of it.
All the tracks are run into a bus with Softube’s free Saturation Knob plugin, some EQ, VCA compression and tape saturation.
The Stone Deaf PDF-1 is a contemporary homage to the Maestro Parametric Filter MPF-1 (Josh can be seen using the MPF-1 in some live footage too). The MPF-1 is a parametric EQ circuit designed by the legendary Bob Moog for Gibson Norlin back in the 1970s. The similarity of the Stone Deaf name is purely coincidental. The Height pot is a boost/attenuate with a range of +/- 20dB while the Freq sets the range of the EQ from 65 Hz right up to 3 kHz. Bandwidth is a five position switch controlling the quality of the filter.
It also has a clean/dirty toggle to switch between a more overdriven sound and there’s an auxiliary output for separating the dry from the effected signal. The emulate this in your DAW I’d suggest using a filter’s bandpass setting, sweeping the cutoff frequency until you get a narrow spectrum then adjusting the width accordingly. All DAWs come bundled with various filters, so get experimenting. Try adding a light crunchy overdrive before or after the circuit if there’s not one built into the filter.
No One Knows is another example of the classic Queens sound. The choppy guitar almost certainly uses this parametric EQ:
The guitar here is gated heavily (mostly to correct my terrible guitar playing) then EQd and enveloped again to reduce the gaps between chords. I’m boosting 400 and 600 Hz in a graphic EQ and adding some drive courtesy of Logic’s pedalboard Vintage Drive. I’m then using a second graphic EQ to emulate the job of the PDF-1, rolling off all the bottom and top end. This is run into AmpiTube and then EQd and enveloped again.
Josh is also known to the user the Zvex Super Hard On – a clean boost pedal. There isn’t anything specific that can emulate a clean boost inside Logic or Live – the big difference here is how analog circuits function when driven compared to DSP. In the digital realm we can’t pass a signal past 0 dBFS without introducing unpleasant clipping artefacts, where as the Super Hard On could comfortably boost up to sixty times unity gain.
The super hard-on has an input impedance of 5 million ohms and delivers up to 8.5 volts peak-to-peak, making it the loudest box available with a 9V battery. It uses no bipolar, fet, or op-amp devices, but rather a mosfet switch. Try listening to one turned down low with a strat. When it is on, you can clearly hear the pickup “open up” as the load is taken off by the very high input impedance.
Delays, Reverbs and other Modulation
It’s not all fuzz and distortion – there are plenty of other tasty pedals. Let’s take a look at In the Fade:
The track opens with an odd feedback sound and some Wurlitzer. I’ve recreated the latter with my Fender Rhodes:
The guitar double stops have a simple delay on them, likely a Moogerfooger (RIP) or Echodrive. I’ve emulated the sound using some compression and gating, a light overdrive and echo from Logic’s pedalboard into AmpliTube. However if you listen closely, every other chord is in stereo, this is probably more likely studio trickery. I’ve bypassed the Waves H-Delay and enabled it for every second chord:
Together with the drums, cabasa and bass, the whole thing sounds like this:
There’s a tonne of other effects too including wah pedals, synth pedals and more. It’s difficult to be absolute about what Josh is using where, but you can hear a vibrato/leslie speaker sort-of sound in the lead guitar from Go with the Flow (lead starts at 0.11):
I’ve tried to emulate this mostly using just Guitar Rig. I’ve gated it quite heavily to avoid any background noise then added the 1176-style compressor and some Big Muff-esq distortion. This lets the lead sustain and squeal but it doesn’t have that wobbly-quality. The Ensemble module works like the old Boss CE-1 – the classic Andy Summer sound. Disable the chorus and dial in just vibrato to taste. I’ve added the Rotator (a leslie cabinet simulator) to give it s slow swirl, then run that into the Orange amp with matched cabinet and some plate reverb. Please excuse my playing!
You can read more about Guitar Rig’s modules and the technology they emulate here.
I Think I Lost My Headache from Rated R has some interesting guitar sounds in, let’s take a peak:
The first repetition has just guitar, bass and drums. The bass is has some of Logic’s Tube EQ (Pultec emulation) and is super-compressed with Logic’s optical emulation as well as some API 560 graphic EQ and multiband compression to tame the low-end. The guitars were some of the hardest to get close; I ended up using a Whammy pedal and the Grinder pedal from Logic’s pedalboard with some graphic EQ.
This was run into another Graphic EQ form Logic’s Vintage EQ collection then Reviver, the Kush Omega mic-pre and some SSL channel strip. This still wasn’t cutting it so I doubled the guitar and used AmplitTube, some Distressor compression (the SOR8 again) and three EQs. Close enough.
In the second repetition we have some lap-steel guitar (played by Dave Catching). I don’t have one lying around so I’ve just used a trusty bottleneck. To get it sounding effective I had to compress it quite hard. I used Logic’s own amp simulator using the Stadium Amp and Pawnshop 1×8 cabinet with a Ribbon mic cranking the built in spring reverb right up. I added some plate reverb and boosted the sides with the (free) Goodhertz Midside Matrix.
In the next couple of repetitions we have a second guitar added that has a particularly squelchy tone to it. My theory is that it’s an Electro Harmonix MicroSynth, which we can emulate in Guitar Rig. Before that I’ve added some compression, EQ and a static-wah pedal. This makes the tone a little honky but it helps cut through the mix. In Guitar Rig I’ve added some Big Muff distortion and the Harmonic Synthesiser. Keep the Dry and Octave sliders up at full and experiment with the Att[ack], Res[onance] and rest of the filter section.
Let’s see how it all sounds together:
Studio Tools and Fishing Touches
Most all of the tracks were “mastered” in the same way. Firstly running into some sort of corrective EQ to surgically add or remove in any frequencies present in the original record. Plug-ins like Fab Filter’s Pro Q-2 have an excellent diagnostic EQ match feature that can help you identify some of the muddier frequencies in over-saturated guitars, but I wouldn’t rely on it to mix for you.
Typically I would then run in to a Fairchild-style compressor. This isn’t my go-to outside of this project but it was very clear that it’s such a popular master bus compressor in the rock world and Eric Valentine even has his own company making emulations of them. I used Wave’s one but there are others on the market (UAD Fairchild 670, Slate Digital FG-Mu, vladg/sound Molot, IK Multimedia Model 670, Native Instruments Vari Comp, Audified u73b to name but a few).
Next I would run into a tape plug-in. More recently I’ve been enjoying the ToneBoosters stuff but historically it was PSP Vintage Warmer. Here I try not to overdrive or colour the sound too much, but some light distortion can soften the higher frequencies which is great especially with fizzy guitars and splashy cymbals. Lastly I would use limiter and in some rare cases another EQ just before that.
I tried to keep the mixes as dry as possible as I couldn’t hear too much audible reverb in the recordings. Sometimes I’ve use Space Designer for a small room sound but the normally I tried to use the overheads to make the drums feel bigger and AmpliTube’s built in room simulation for the guitars. Throughout I must confess to using flex-time on pretty much everything. I’m a big believer in getting things right at tracking rather than relying on this but often time was against me and for a tutorial (rather than an artistic endeavour) I have no issue using this in small doses.
Josh, Eric and Joe have all documented the various EQs, compressors, microphones and desks they use in their respective studios. Most of the usual candidates can be found here, Pultec & API EQs, Fairchild compressors, obviously tape machines and other classic gear.
Pultecs are emulated by all the usual suspects of course including Waves, however Logic users can check out the new Vintage EQ collection. This not only emulates the Pultecs but Neve Console and an API 560 graphic EQ. For those of you on a budget that don’t own Logic Computer Music have a Pultec-stlye EQ with their free EQ CM. I’ve also come across this but haven’t tested it.
To recap some of the other free and cheap plug-ins I’ve used a tonne in this article here’s a short list:
- SOR8 – Distressor style compressor
- Audio Damage Rough Rider – aggressive compressor
- Fielding DSP Reviver – light harmonic distortion
- ToneBoosters Reel Bus – Tape emulator
- iZotope Vinyl – does what it says on the tin, but also a great EQ
- Softube Saturator Knob – couldn’t be simpler. Saturates your sound
- Kush Omega stuff – requires an iLok but well worth it
- Goodhertz Midside Matrix – simple control over mids and side volume
- Klanghelm IVGI – desk-style distortion
- Klanghelm MJUC jr. – vari-mu tube compressor, like Fairchild
- Tokyo Dawn Records Feedback Compressor – I don’t profess to know what “feed-forward” compression is, but it sounds good
- vladg/sound Molot – another Fairchild-like compressor
The reality is, a lot can be done with very limited tools. I’ve tried to get as close as I reasonably can with the tools I have within my DAW but even with a free copy of Guitar Rig or AmpliTube (both offer fully functional demoes) and the basic EQ, compression, modulation and spatial FX in your DAW, a lot can be done.
I hope this article has been of some use and you’ve had as much fun reading it as I’ve had writing it. Granted most of the guitar playing is a little ropey and the sounds aren’t perfect but I hope it’s inspired you to try and come up with your own tones using less conventional methods. After all, how many more Les Paul into Marshall amps do we need? I’ll leave you with some videos I used for part of the research for this article, starting off with the ever excellent Pensado’s Place with Eric Valentine’s Barefoot studio profiled.