By Peter Hodgson
Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley — Roger Mayer has worked with them all on stage or in the studio, dating back to his associations with Page and Beck in the early '60s, and his electronic innovations have been key to some of their most legendary sounds. A very early pioneer of fuzz, octave and modulation effects, Mayer comes from a time when, if you wanted unique gear for a recording studio or a live performance, you simply had to roll up the sleeves and build it yourself. Mayer says it was not uncommon for engineers to hand-build one-off items solely for that recording facility; there often simply was no other option.
"When I started looking into guitar amplifiers and playing with them, I started making for the recording studio an item, a preamp box, that basically had a very similar front end like a classic amplifier," Mayer said, "Because people in the studio wanted to have a direct sound that they could put into the studio desk that had tubes in front of it. This was a three-tube, 12AX7 unit. Basically you had a similar circuit to a good amplifier up to the power tubes, then a nice little transformer output that went into a recording desk."
This partial amp-mimicking preamp was also used to punch up the gain going into an amp, like players would start doing later with solid-state overdrive pedals. "You realize quickly, playing with tubes, that you can only go so far with distortion with them. The actual characteristic people tend to like is, they like to hear a distorted sound but that also overdrives the first stage - the preamp tubes. Then it starts getting sweet. But just using tubes on its own to produce distortion - which was kind of popular at the time - that makes a very nasal, nasty sound, really."
Mayer says a particular amplifier company went down that route in the '70s when they added an extra stage on their preamplifiers, and he found the results more challenging to work with. "The actual front end became really nasal and one-dimensional," he said. "The actual sound of a 12AX7 used to get sustain and distortion on its own is not that desirable, but in my experience the 12AX7 which is in the front end of 99% of all amplifiers likes to be driven hard. But you cannot use it as a distortion device. In other words, you can hit the front end of a 12AX7 quite hard on a peak and it loves it, but you can't go any more than that."
In the '70s Mayer spent time building synthesizers for Stevie Wonder, and he worked extensively in the studio with Bob Marley. It's clear that — whether you're on stage or in the studio — if you have Mayer in your team, chances are you're going to end up with some pretty unique gear and a great mix in the headphones. "Another thing that should be stressed to everybody is, if you're going to record something and you're listening through headphones, you've got to spend some time to immerse yourself in the music," Mayer says. "Take some real time to get the blend and the balance so you feel part of the music when you're playing. You really get your head into the music, get the echo right and everything, because that is what you're going to play. You just can't slap a pair of headphones on and say, 'Yeah, I can hear myself, yay!' It ain't gonna happen, mate! You're going to play the wrong part! You've got to be a complete muppet not to realize that!"
Mayer's get-it-right-the-first-time approach carried over to his live work. A guitarist himself, Mayer knows all about getting it right for the artist. "It's the same thing with setting an amp up on stage," he says. "With Bob Marley, for instance, on stage we used to set it up not too loud because he hasn't got a super-strong voice, and we've got acoustic instruments on the stage — drums and percussion — so you can't have 130dB on the stage. It's not necessary. And it sounded like a record on the stage. We used to duplicate the guitars with two amps so it would be mirrored from left to right, so if Bob moved across the stage to sing in somebody else's microphone or whatever, it still sounded good. Spending that amount of time to create the environment you're going to play in is so important. It's more important than what boxes you're going to use. You've got to spend some time in getting the sound right because it's everything."