Angus Young is a dangerous musician to talk about in this column—there is a wealth of knowledge out there on Angus’s setup and for no one else has so much been written about so little (check out this crazy little diagram of his standard set-up). SG, cable, Marshall stack with the output all the way up. Can it get any simpler? No pedals, no effects, no muss, no fuss. Still, the questions keep coming so clearly there is something else that people are missing when trying to replicate his sound.
Well the first thing we have to do is make sure that we separate the Brothers Young. AC/DC is a band known for its stark simplicity and so the casual listener who likes the face-melting loudness of the band and can name only one band member (and maybe that one guy who died) may not realize that a lot of the big ballsy hooks that we remember and associate with Angus, like the opening to “TNT,” are actually played by his brother Malcolm. Some of the hooks are a combination of both of them playing the same thing such as in “Back in Black.” Of course all these videos are from live performances and there is no real way to know who plays what in the studio. To me, the quintessential Angus Young sound is the opening of “Thunderstruck” that really captures the dryness, the raunchy nasal tone of the SG, and the surprisingly clear tone that he has.
I found this great website, which is really intended for guitar instruction, that attempts to separate the parts of various AC/DC tunes. The site invites you to pick a song and “pretend you’re Angus and play solos over Malcolm’s giant riffs!” Again, there is no real way of knowing if Angus didn’t record all the parts while Malcolm sat in the corner and self-flagellated. But given Mike Fraser’s comments after engineering Black Ice, the band is as no frills as they come—“They plug in, turn up… and there you go, you’ve got AC/DC comin’ atcha…” That would lead me to believe that most of the rhythm parts are handled by Malcolm with Angus chipping in where possible since they probably track live and Angus needs to do his soloing thang (using mostly pentatonic and hexatonic, I don’t want to waste too much space talking about his note selection since it is so simple).
So let’s face it—when people say that they want to sound like Angus Young, some of them probably just mean they want to sound like that guitar thingie from AC/DC, which in the end is a combination of at least two guitar sounds in many cases.
Furthermore, in AC/DC’s megahit, 1980’s Highway to Hell, it is likely that these simple punchy parts are the product of numerous guitars stacked on top of each other as a result of engineer/producer Mutt Lange’s “penchant” for “overdubs.” According to Alex Call of the band Clover, Mutt would often have them sing eight tracks of backgrounds going “oooooh” and then bounce them down to a single track, then do it again to make a stereo double. Just imagine the mountain of guitar tracks he probably had for a “guitar group.”
Regardless of production techniques though, it is clear that AC/DC are able to get pretty close to their signature sound that exists on tape when they perform live. So if that is the case, how can they get two guitars to sound so damn loud? I think a lot of it comes from the orchestration of the tune. As a “guitar rock” group, there truly isn’t much else to them. The drums are ridiculously simple, short, dry, and don’t take up much space in the mix while the bass in many songs is practically non-existent. The guitars are titanic in the mix compared to everything else.
With the drums and bass being so small, there isn’t much lower mid and low frequency content. I’m still working on this metaphor, so forgive me in advance: Think of a mix as a closed box filled with sports equipment, bassy sounds are like big Pilates balls whereas treble-y sounds are like ping pong balls. Think of loudness as filling the box as completely as possible. You can make something loud and bassy, but you won’t have much stuff in the mix. Or you can make something loud and treble-y and you can have a whole lot of stuff in the mix.
Moreover, the guitars are very nasal in timbre. Angus’s SG with nickel humbuckers is very treble-y without a whole lot of bass content until he gets that amp crunching with the big chords. Malcolm’s Gretsch Firebird Jet is of a similar tonality although he often plays different voicings to give thickness. He even took out his neck and middle pickups just to focus on that present lead tone. Ultimately, what this means is that there is a whole lot of upper-mid and high frequency content.
Contributing to presence, Young is known for using heavy picks and having a very strong pick attack. On the surface, this may not seem like much since Pete Townsend is also known for having a strong pick attack and they have different sounds. However, Angus’s SG uses low output humbuckers, which are clearer and have more note definition. This also allows him to drive the power tubes harder and the preamp tubes not so hard, whereas Pete Townsend uses high output pickups (like p90s) and drives the preamp tubes more.
Recording 101 tells us that putting reverb on a track has the effect of pushing things into the background. So the utter dryness of AC/DC’s guitar parts contributes to the presence of their sound. Many less professional players balk at hearing themselves play with nothing extending their sounds, whether it be compression, reverb, delay, or anything else. But that is how AC/DC rolls. No effects, the only compression that would come would be from the tubes in the Marshall stacks.
Since there is no reverb, the decay on the guitars is very short. And since the rest of the band is not really filling in the holes that much, especially on the intros that define the band’s most memorable moments, that leaves a whole lot of room to compare how loud the guitars are to total silence. With an album like My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, there is so much going on all at the same time that there is never any reference to silence to let you know just how loud everything is. Your ears adjust. Have you ever rocked out while driving down the highway, then parked, got out of the car, came back, turn the car on, and gotten blasted by how ungodly loud you were listening to that record? Well with the orchestration of AC/DC tunes, namely in the first 20 seconds where it is just big guitar hits over drumming, it’s the same effect, you start the record in silence, hear the big guitar hit, then go back to silence, then back to another hit, and so on. Your ears never adjust to a new baseline.
Lastly, looking at the gear list for Compass Point Recording Studios in the Bahamas, which is where Back In Black was recorded, I see a standard collection of solid-state gear, very high-fi with lots of head room. But another thing that I see that is somewhat uncommon is the Aphex Aural Exciter, which became very prominent in the 80s to give things presence and bite. I wonder how much of that was used in the tracking/mixing.
Well, so much for an article about an SG, a cable, and a Marshall amp. Even the simplest set ups can spawn a lot of academic items to ponder and perhaps with the emergence of home recording and hobbyist recording, we could stand to put a little more science and analytics into engineering.