In the summer of 2017, Grammy-winning guitarist Al Petteway got an interesting proposition from Anthony Russo, a former student and guitar aficionado. Russo was feeling pretty good about how his collection of fine instruments had evolved in recent years. He wanted Petteway to visit his house and play the luthier-built guitars, so that he could hear what they sound like from a listener’s perspective, and, more important, document them on a recording. “I immediately accepted Tony’s invitation,” says Petteway, himself a collector. “It would have been great just to hang out with Tony, but this was quite a special opportunity.”
Russo, an attorney and lobbyist in the Washington, DC area, offered to fly Petteway from his home in Asheville, North Carolina, to Northern Virginia. Petteway soon began assembling gear for the informal recording sessions. He packed a pair of matched Sennheiser MKH 40 microphones and, wanting to travel light, an Apple iPad Pro. “I also found a small and inexpensive interface that would work with the iPad—Roland’s Duo-Capture EX—and I downloaded a $20 recording app called Auria LE. I figured that this setup would be good enough for memorializing the guitars.”
When Petteway arrived at Russo’s house in mid-August, he was floored by the top-shelf guitars that his friend had assembled—a couple of Traugotts, a BK Fan Fret and an R; a Somogyi OM; a Smallman nylon-string; an Olson SJ; a Greenfield G1.2; a Walker OM; a Lowden O-35; a Martin OM-45 GE; and a Ryan Mission Grand Concert. “I’ve played thousands of great guitars at Dream Guitars,” Petteway says, referring to the shop not far from his house, where he often does video demos of instruments, “but this collection was something else.”
Russo says, “I knew I had some nice guitars, but I didn’t understand just how great they were until I heard Al, this master guitarist, playing them.”
Petteway spent a day playing Russo compositions from his catalog, and Russo selected a couple of dozen to use for the project. Afterwards, Petteway set up his rig and made a test recording. When he listened back with headphones, he found an unpleasant surprise. “It was really hot outside, and the air conditioning was really loud. Tony was so used to the sound of the air conditioning that he had blocked it out and hadn’t considered that it would detract from the sound of the recording.”
The next day Russo and Petteway repaired to an un-air-conditioned portion of the house, a small porch with a glass enclosure. Petteway played a few notes on a guitar, and he and Russo were struck by how good the room sounded. The guitarist set up his recording equipment, placing the iPad on a TV-dinner tray and arranging the Sennheisers in a close-miked stereo configuration (the ORTF technique, which was pioneered in 1960 at the Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française in France), to minimize background noises, like children playing outside. Russo selected the best Petteway composition for each guitar, and the guitarist, trying to ignore how hot it was inside, worked for hours on end. “It felt so inspiring to be playing in that room and putting on what was essentially a private concert for Tony,” Petteway says. “I must have recorded 16 tunes in a row, most of them in only one take.”
Things didn’t go as well the day after that. “It felt like everyone in the area decided to mow their lawns on the same day,” Petteway says, laughing, adding that the noise made additional recording in the sunroom all but impossible.
Still, Petteway had plenty of good material in the can. Reviewing things with Russo, he was pleased by how naturally he had played and didn’t mind the occasional anomalies, like unintended notes. And both Petteway and Russo were surprised by the sonic quality of the recording, which greatly exceeded their expectations. “We just couldn’t believe how much warmth and detail we’d gotten from the iPad and cheap interface,” Petteway says.
On the last day of Petteway’s visit, Russo asked if he could buy the recording rig, microphones included, and Petteway obliged his friend. By the time he was back in North Carolina, it had occurred to Petteway and Russo that they had made not just an audio document of Russo’s collection, but music for public consumption. It didn’t feel quite complete, though, so Petteway got to work in his home studio. Using a matched pair of Miktek C5 microphones, an API preamp, and MOTU Performer 9.5 audio software, he recorded his most recent compositions on some of his own favorite guitars: a custom Martin 00-42, a Circa OM-28, a Tippin Al Petteway Signature, a Sifel Dryad dreadnought, a Knaggs/Sifel Night Sky, and a Thompson 000-12. “I was extremely pleased at how well the iPad recordings held up to the ones done at my home with much more expensive equipment,” Petteway says.
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Still, to prepare the album for general release, it seemed ideal to use a skilled mastering engineer, especially since the job would involve matching levels on 16 guitars recorded in two different rooms with two different rigs. Petteway and Russo enlisted two of the best in the business—Greg Lukens and Bill Wolf, the latter of whom has worked with acoustic legends like Tony Rice and Doc Watson—to master the audio.
The end results are heard on Petteway’s latest album, The Collector’s Passion (a transcription of “Midsummer Moon” appears in the same May issue as this article), all solo guitar and without any overdubs. “Not only is the album a celebration of fine handcrafted guitars, it just goes to show that you don’t necessarily need to spend lots of time in the studio with the clock ticking to get beautiful results,” Petteway says.
This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.