The secrets of the Alice In Chains ‘Dirt’ guitar sound

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The secrets of the Alice In Chains ‘Dirt’ guitar sound

alice in chains dirt
Words by Mixdown Staff

How to emulate one of the most classic guitar tones 30 years on

Time and again when interviewing bands, I hear the words, “Alice In Chains’ Dirt album has one of my favourite guitar tones.” It’s amazing to think that a 30-year-old album can continue to have such an influence – not just on songwriting and vocal harmonies, but on guitar tone itself.

Jerry Cantrell’s sound on that record was fat and chunky, and it’s simply not something you can coax out of any one amplifier. Why? Well, that all comes down to a trick used by producer Dave Jerden.

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Jerden had Cantrell use a multi-amp rig to fatten up the guitar sound on that record, selecting each guitar and amp combination for the particular frequencies it emphasised. But it’s not just a matter of plugging into three amps and having at it; what you’re hearing on Dirt (and other Jerden-produced albums like Anthrax’s The Sound Of White Noise) are six guitar tracks.

Anthrax’s Scott Ian explained the technique to me once: “Each amp was EQ’d differently: one for mids, one was for highs, and one was for lows,” he said. “So I would do three tracks on the left with three different amps, then three tracks on the right with the same amps. So it was six tracks of rhythms.”

When using this technique, Jerden would start with the midrange takes, since that’s where so much of the guitar’s harmonic content lives. Think about it: if you started with just the treble tones, you’d slice your ears clear off. If you started with the bass, you wouldn’t really have any sense of attack or harmonic content. By laying down the midrange first, you’re then able to effectively play along with the more ear-friendly midrange tracks when you’re adding the bite and the thud.

“The hardest was the low end because he had this Matchless amp that we used,” Ian said, “and we had this Russian Sovtek fuzz box in front of it so it was like this blown-out, super-bassy, stoner-rock low end tone that on its own would have been completely unusable. All together with the mids and the highs, it sounded good. It’s just that a lot of the frequencies started to cancel each other out.”

Ian wasn’t a huge fan of the results, though. “[It] was completely superfluous, to be honest with you,” he said. “It was a giant waste of time. It was his idea to try it and I went for it. I spent all of that time playing six tracks of rhythm on every song, but two well-EQ’d tracks would have worked just as well in the end. That’s something I’ve learned: don’t use six tracks of rhythm. I think it was a good idea on paper, but functionally, it was kind of a waste of time.”

Having said that, what didn’t really work for Ian’s personal tastes might just work for you. Personally, I like to approximate this effect with my home recording software by using IK Multimedia’s AmpliTube 4 to combine a Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier or Vox AC30 for the low end, and a Marshall JCM800-style model or an Orange model for the mids, with a Soldano SLO100 model for the high end.

I place each plugin on a separate track, dial out the frequencies I don’t need from each amp, and select the same input for each track. Of course, each part on Dirt was double-tracked, so you might want to do the same in a recording context, or use a stereo doubling effect live if you’re one of the growing number of guitarists who uses a laptop live instead of an amp.

This technique can open up all sorts of interesting possibilities, and is limited only by the number of amps, amp models or studio tracks you have. Give it a try and see what works for you.

More on Dirt here.