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Recording Chops Workshop: How To Record Great Electric Guitar

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It’s loud, it’s reckless and it’s often irreverent as it gets; but it drives the people wild. I’m talking about the electric guitar. Before the crunchy, distorted blastings of the electric guitar came along, a band would need a horn section to deliver such a fine helping of overtones and harmonics. Now, one derelict with a guitar and combo amp can do it all himself, and claim all the groupies for himself as well.

With the electric guitar firmly fixed as the icon of rock and roll, you had better know how to capture this untamed beast in the studio. Read on for a solid discourse on the fine art of recording electric guitar.

Start with the guitar itself

Great sound starts at the source. In other words, if you put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig. If you are recording yourself in your own studio, feel free to dig a bit deeper; but don’t expect to be able to hack and modify a guitarists pride and joy. Here are a few items that you may get away with looking over. Remember, a guitar is a personal thing, so be tactful when “looking under the hood”.

How recently have the strings been changed?

A shiny new set of strings may add some extra sparkle to the guitar’s sound. Don’t buy into the fallacy that new strings will give you tuning nightmares at first. The truth is: new strings that are improperly installed or halfheartedly stretched will result in tuning headaches. Follow these steps to stretch a new set of strings:

  • The strings must be properly installed. The end goal of proper string installation is to have the strings locked into place on the winding post without gobs of extra windings wrapped around them. If the guitar in question has locking tuners, very little windings are needed on the tuning posts. In the pictures, you will see two different methods for locking your strings in place at the tuning posts. While the second picture sports a good method for locking the string in place, note that it is dangerously approaching too many windings. In the third picture, this guitar belongs to someone who needs to be slapped and have his guitar taken away. These unneeded windings provide a bit of extra real estate where variations in string tension can arise. Don’t go wild with the windings and your guitar will stay in tune better.

How to lock guitar string on post 1How to lock guitar string on post 2How to NOT install guitar strings

  • Tune the guitar as normal.
  • How to stretch guitar stringsGrasp each individual string with your thumb and first two fingers. Use a twisting motion to press down with the thumb while pulling up with the fingers. This will stretch the string. After applying some stretching pressure, bring the string back into tune and continue stretching and tuning until the string stays in tune after having this pressure applied to it.
  • Always stretch strings over the body of the guitar. Grasping them over the fretboard may cause a buzz if the string is kinked a bit.
  • You will find that the G string usually has the furthest to stretch. Be patient. Keep stretching and tuning until each string will stay in tune. Your efforts will be rewarded.

Be sure the guitar is intonated properly

A guitar that is not intonated properly will never quite seem to be in tune no matter how hard you try. With the open strings in tune, notes further up the fretboard will still sound out of tune. Carefully intonate a guitar to make it sound spot on when you tune:

  • Compare the pitch of the 12th fret note with the 12th fret harmonic. If they sound precisely the same, that string is intonated correctly.
  • Most guitars have a way to adjust the bridge saddles individually to lengthen or shorten the free length of the vibrating string. You may need an Allen wrench or Phillips screwdriver to make adjustments.
  • If the 12th fret harmonic is flat in comparison to the 12th fret note, change the adjustment to move the saddle back (lengthen the vibrating string). If the harmonic is sharp in comparison, move the saddle in so that you shorten the vibrating length of string.
  • You will need to re-tune the string after each adjustment.
  • It’s best to use a quality electronic guitar tuner like the Rocktron VersaTune to be sure that you are doing this accurately.
  • Repeat this process with each string on the guitar.

Rocktron Versatune rack tuner

Just in case you are wondering, there are a number of things that will cause a guitar to lose its intonation:

  • A change in the curve of the neck
  • Changing the string heights above the fretboard
  • Strings that have become extremely old
  • Changing to a thicker or thinner string gauge
  • A drastic change in playing style

Proper tuning goes a long way

It pains me to have to mention this. Guitar players should already know this by the time they find themselves in the studio. You would be surprised at how many bands will just show up and start playing with minimal effort put into tuning.

  • Each instrument should be tuned to the same tuner. The fact is that most tuners do not agree on what is precisely in tune.
  • The Rocktron VersaTune mentioned above makes a great studio tuner for all kinds of instruments.
  • Don’t ever come across as telling a guitar player that they don’t know how to tune their guitar. To diplomatically get around this sensitive wording, simply exchange the word “calibration” for tuning. While “calibration” is technically incorrect, things go over easier for musicians with inflated egos and you still get to be sure that everyone is in tune before recording begins.

Heavier strings equals beefier tone

While some guitar players may love the playability of super light gauge strings when performing those death defying 14 finger two handed tapping licks, thicker strings give you a more robust tone. More metal vibrating over the pickups equals more tone. It’s that simple.

Pickup height: hotter isn’t always better

Without delving too far into rebuilding a client’s guitar, keep in mind that a hotter signal from the pickups isn’t always better. This is a matter of personal preference. Optimal pickup height is not always cranked as close to the strings as possible, but rather whatever works the best with the amp or pedals that come right after the guitar. Some of the surprising side effects of pickups that are adjusted too close to the strings are:

  • The pickup will dominate the tone of your guitar rather than allowing the sound of the wood to shine through.
  • The magnets in the pickup may actually exert enough pull on the strings to bend them towards the body slightly. This may cause fret buzz and a lack of sustain.
  • The output of the pickup may be too hot for for the pedal or amp that first receives the signal from your guitar.

If you or a frustrated client are head scratching over these kinds of symptoms, try using the two adjustment screws to lower the pickups just a bit. Keep in mind that pickup adjustments will also affect the relative loudness of the different pickups on your guitar.

How to adjust pickup height on guitar

Getting great sounds out of the amplifier

I promise that we won’t be addressing strictly guitar and amp tech’ issues in this article. We WILL get to some great techniques for actual recording. The simple fact is, if you or your clients have a problem with an instrument not sounding quite right, be it from poor calibration, dying tubes or the elusive hardware rattle, it becomes your problem. Nothing is going to get recorded if the band’s gear is not working right. You can be ice cold and tell them to come back after they have their gear sorted or be the studio cat from heaven and share your wisdom to help them on their way.

In keeping with the belief that great sounds start at the source, let’s look at a few of the things that will help you get great tone from the guitar amplifier.

Levitate the amp

Ultimate Support AMP-15 amp standGator Cases GFE-GTR-AMP amp stand

As a general rule, don’t mike an amplifier with it simply sitting on the ground. This creates a situation where you are picking up the direct sound from the amp and a close reflection from the floor. When these signals combine, the result is bad for your guitar sound.

A few amps have built in legs that allow you to kick the amp back at an angle. Use them. Most amps do not have these handy legs. To remedy this, quip your studio with a stand to support the amp off the floor and at an upward angle. Ultimate Support makes a compact stand called the AMP-15 at a reasonable price. For a bit more coin, Gator Cases offers the GFW-GTR-AMP, a stand that will hold up to the heaviest of amps. The point here is to either get the amp and mics away from the floor or tilt the amp back a bit so that reflections from the floor are not in the equation.

Put the amp flat on its back

As an alternative to setting an amp at an angle, you can try placing on its back on the floor. Be careful to ensure that the tubes in a tube amp will not overheat the flooring or start a fire. When you place an amp completely on its back, you get the following effects:

  • When close miked, short reflections from the floor are eliminated.
  • An open back combo amp will take on a beefier sound when you block the back using the floor.
  • Some maddening rattles and vibrations emanating from the amp may politely go away.

Isolate the amp from the floor

Auralex amp isolator pad

An amp that is left to vibrate the floor it is under will transmit muddy sound through mic stands that may be serving other instruments in the room. Depending on the robustness of your studio isolation, those low, rumbling frequencies will be the first to be heard in the next room over. Remedy this problem by using an amp isolation pad. In addition to its normal use, these iso-pads can also be placed under the base of a mic stand to prevent spurious rumbles from transmitting up the stand.

Use multiple amps

While getting a great sound does not absolutely require a wall of posh amps, it sure doesn’t hurt. Plenty of famous sounds have been recorded while miking multiple amps at once.

It is true that you can get a guitar signal to multiple amps by using a simple “Y”cable, but it is generally a bad idea. Using this less than desirable method will often give you reduced high frequency content from your guitar and ground loop hum that will give you nightmares. Split your guitar signal the right way using an ABY splitter box. This will send a healthy feed to both amps from one guitar.

Radial Big Shot ABY box

With the guitar signal split out to two amps, there are a number of different ways you can milk some amazing tone out of this setup:

  • Run one amp at full bore overdrive and the other with a bit less dirt. Record these amps to separate tracks and then use these two wisely during mix-down, favoring the more aggressive amp during the chorus and the more conservative sound during the verses.
  • Use two amps that really shine in different areas from each other. For example: Use a VOX for the high end and a Fender for the nice low end. During mix-down, you may choose to use a parametric EQ to shave the bottom end off of the VOX signal and attenuate the highs from the fender a bit. This will allow the specialty of each amp to shine without competing with the same frequency range from the other amp. Fat tones can be obtained this way.

Microphone choices

There is a plethora of delicious guitar tones to be had for the studio engineer who knows how to select the right microphone for the particular job. I am completely aware that we are venturing into an area that is subjective to the power of ten. This IS music. Be not afraid.

Microphone types

Different types of mics pick up sound using completely different technologies. This results in plenty of choices that will render drastically different outcomes. Let’s cruise through some different microphone types to fill out your tonal tool chest. Later, we will get into using these different microphones to capture those shimmering guitar sounds that studio engineers the world over dream of.

Dynamic mics have long been the staple of guitar recordings around the world. They can generally handle extremely loud volumes with no problem and may be tough enough to double as a hammer. This makes them suitable for studio and live use.

  • If you have listened to recordings of the electric guitar in the past decade, you have heard guitars recorded with a Shure SM57. It’s Ironic that the SM57 was invented by Shure engineer Ernie Seeler when you consider that although Seeler hated rock music, his design has been used to record some of the best guitar tracks in rock history. The SM57 is quite capable at handling paint peeling volume levels often encountered when driving an amp hard enough to make it sing with harmonic richness. Besides being capable of handling high volume levels, the SM57 is apparently capable of handling excessive amounts of hot air, as evidenced by the fact that every U.S. President since Lyndon B. Johnson has delivered speeches through an SM57.
  • The Sennheiser MD421 is another tried and true dynamic microphone that has found its way to the front of many a speaker grill. The MD421 offers a wider frequency range than the SM57 and has a bit larger diaphragm. This larger diaphragm makes it sound a bit warmer than the SM57. There is a bass roll off switch that allows attenuation of lower frequencies if needed. Being a hyper-cardioid mic, the MD421 has an off-axis rejection of 18db. This can come in pretty handy in noisy environments. 
  • Another mic that has earned its place in front of guitar cabinets everywhere is the Electro-Voice RE20. One thing that is unique about the RE20 is that it has virtually no proximity effect, which is common among directional microphones. The proximity effect is a boost in bass response as a microphone is positioned close to the sound source. The RE20 is great whether it’s found in front of a singer’s grill or a speaker grill.
  • The leading contender in the “quick and easy” department is the Sennheiser e609 silver. Its compact, flat shape makes it easy to hang it right in front of a speaker cabinet without the help of a mic stand. Engineers have used these live and in the studio as a convenient way to snatch those close up guitar sounds with ease.

Shure SM57 microphoneSennheiser MD421 microphoneElectrovoice RE-20Sennheiser e609 silver microphone

Condenser mics are a whole different animal than the dynamic variety. Their diaphragms do not have a voice coil riding on them. They are light and compliant to subtle sound waves traveling through the air. Let’s look at a few well established large and small diaphragm mics that excel at grabbing those guitar tones out of the air.

  • The AKG C414 large diaphragm condenser mic shines in a number of different applications. It has a light, one inch diaphragm and a frequency response of 20Hz to 20kHz. Switchable polar patterns make this mic all the more versatile. Some condenser mics don’t deal well with super loud sounds. To help with this, selectable pre-attenuation pads are built in. Engineers will throw this mic into the mix to ensure that ample low end is available on guitar tracks.
  • The well known U87 is a large diaphragm condenser mic made by Neuman, the Berlin based company who produced the first commercially available condenser microphone. The Neuman U87 may be the most famous recording mic of all time. Just like the C414, many great guitar recordings have been made by blending a U87 with a dynamic mic to provide mid range punch as well as solid low end.
  • In the small diaphragm condenser department, a Shure KSM137 can be employed to capture sizzling high end from a guitar amp. I don’t suggest going it alone with just a small diaphragm condenser in front of an amp, but rather using one to focus on the sonic areas that small diaphragms really capture well. The KSM137 has a few switchable options for a high pass filter and pad. Specialization is the name of the game when employing a small diaphragm condenser as a part of an electric guitar miking scheme.
  • For those who are willing to pay for quality, stick an Earthworks SR30 small diaphragm condenser in front of a guitar cabinet and marvel at the fine highs and phase coherent mids. The frequency response of these odd shaped mics is an incredible 30Hz to 30kHz.

AKG C414 microphoneNeumann U87 microphoneShure KSM137Earthworks SR30 microphone

Ribbon mics are well known for their warm sound. This feature has been put to good use on

Some very famous guitar recordings.

  • The Beyerdynamic M160 was reportedly a favorite of well known producer Eddie Kramer while recording epic acts such as Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. This mic has been in production for 64 years and counting. They must be doing something right.
  • The Royer R121 ribbon mic is a more modern offering in the world of ribbon mics. It is designed to be tough and compact. These mics have found their way into guitar recordings by Rascal Flatts, Slash and King’s X just to name a few.

Beyerdynamic M160 microphoneRoyer R121 ribbon microphone

How to mike a guitar amp

So you have the next guitar hero right there in your studio. He’s cranking out licks and riffs that would make Jimi Hendrix blush. The band is pumpin’ and the studio lava lamp is warmed up and putting out the vibe in a far out happenin’ kind of way. Capturing that next great hit is up to you. Are you going to stand there with a blank look on your face, holding that SM57 and wondering where to put it? Don’t worry. I’ll tell you where you can stick it.

Frequency distribution from a speaker cone

The speaker cone: all kinds of tone

An experienced studio engineer knows full well that there is a plethora of tones just waiting to be had for the recordist that will take the time to carefully find the optimum place to mic the speaker cone. In general, the higher frequencies are focused around the center of the cone. Warmer tones can be increasingly found the further you go towards the edge of the cone.

If you have not heard the amazing difference in tone with just a few inches of movement across the speaker cone, you owe it to yourself to try a little experiment:

  • The next time you have a hot guitar player in the studio, enlist the help of an assistant. Send him or her out into the studio room where the guitarist is shaking the earth with some great chops while you hide in the safety of the control room.
  • Equip your assistant with one microphone and a pair of headphones to protect her ears while she moves the microphone across the speaker cone.
  • As the microphone is moved across the cone, note how the tone it picks up changes drastically with each inch.

Where to mic a speaker cone

To start, I suggest you place your microphone halfway between the center and edge of the speaker cone. This generally gives you a nice blend of brightness and warmth.

Cover your axis

There is more to the speaker-mic equation than just X-Y movement across the cone. When you point a directional mic straight at a speaker cone, it will pick up sound different than if the mic is placed at an angle.

Grab your trusty assistant and repeat the same experiment as above, but now include a change of angle in the variables. This is going to show just how much of an effect you can have on the sound you record as the savvy amp miking pro that you are.

The effects of on and off axis miking of a speaker

Go the distance

Just in case there were not enough variables, let’s add another multiplier into the equation. The distance that the microphone is placed from the front of the speaker has an effect on captured tone in a few different ways, including:

  • The proximity effect, which is very common to directional microphones, will be subtracted from the equation as you move the mic further from the sound source.
  • As you move the mic back from the speaker, it will be less focused on one point on the speaker and will take in sound from a broader cross section. If the speaker cabinet has more than one speaker, this counts as multiple sound sources projecting to the mic simultaneously but at varying distances from the mic. Multiple sound waves arriving at the mic at different times equals something called “phase effects”. We will get into phase in a bit. In short, it equals drastic changes in the sound of the recorded guitar.
  • The further away from the amp you get, the more the room acoustics come into play in the recording.

Drag your assistant back into the studio and play around with this new variable. A world of aural possibilities has just opened up to you.

Use multiple mics like the big boys do

Take your guitar recording to the next level by using multiple mics. This allows you to blend the best facets of different mics, amps or speakers into a great sounding track. If you did the experiments in the above sections, you are already fully aware that there are oodles of great tones you can capture using simple mic placement. Once you begin to get a handle on using multiple mics, you are well on your way to guitar track domination.

Phase can work for you or against you

Before you master multiple mic techniques, you need to understand phase well enough to use it to your benefit and avoid having it ruin your tracks. When we are talking about multiple signals that will blend together, “phase” is a term that speaks to how waves of sound combine to build each other up, cancel each other out or any variation between the two.

Waves of sound are much like waves in a pond. Each peak traveling along the pond is followed by a trough. In terms of sound, the peaks are compressions of air and the troughs are a slight vacuum. These cycles of compressions and vacuums travel along through a springy medium that we call air.

If there are two sources for these compressions and vacuums emanating waves into the air, what happens when a compression from one source meets a vacuum from the other? The simple answer is, they cancel each other out. Imagine that a peak from source number one meets a peak from source two. These will combine and create a larger compression. It gets really interesting when two waves combine imperfectly. The combined waves are quite complex.

Phase and combining waves

Because different pitches have different wavelengths, wave-trains from two sources will combine differently based on not only the distance from each source, but the pitch of each wave. The interesting thing is, we are very much dealing with space and time here.

We could go on and on here about the space-time continuum and such brainy sounding talk, but let’s jump ahead and plug this into a practical example that you can hear in the studio. Let’s take advantage of the experimental setup we used above to find nice tones from a guitar amp. We will be using two identical mics instead of one.

  • Fix one mic into place on a mic stand that is set to capture a nice close miked sound from the amp.
  • The second mic will be held by your assistant. He will start the second mic as close to the first mic as possible.
  • While you sit in the control room and monitor the two mic tracks, be sure that you have both channels panned to the center and each volume set the same.
  • As your studio guitarist plays her best chops, have your assistant slowly begin to move the second mic straight back from the amplifier.
  • Once you hear the effect on the combined tone of the two mics, the light bulb will go on. You will hear how the tone changes drastically with each small shift of the second mic. Some tones will be terrible sounding, others will sound great. This is the power of phase EQ.

When you are using two or more mics on an amplifier, always check for nasty phase effects by listening to the first mic and then include the second. If your sound goes down the toilet when you include the second mic, the phase relationship between the two is bad. Adjust this by slightly changing the second mic’s distance from the speaker relative to the first. You will be able to hear it when you have reached a nice phase relationship between the two mics.

Use two identical mics on the same speaker

Place the first mic closer to the center of the speaker where it will pick up a nice bright sound. You will then choose a location for the second mic that accentuates a warm sound. Blend the two mics together and ALWAYS check for destructive phase effects.

In the mix: These two tracks can be simply combined into true tonal bliss, or you can get a bit more creative by panning the bright track slightly left and the warm track slightly right. Alternatively, the bright track can be bumped up a bit during solos or key guitar parts and tucked back into the mix when the guitar needs to take a back seat to other instruments.

Use two different kinds of mics on one speaker

Place an SM57 in a location where it picks up a punchy mid-sound. Use an MD421 where it will grab some nice low end from the speaker. This exact setup has been used on many well known guitar recordings.

Miking with a guitar cab with an SM57 and MD421

Try placing a Shure SM57 and a Royer 121 in front of the same speaker. This combines the ability of the SM57 to focus on the guitar’s main voice with the ribbon mic bringing in the warmth like only a ribbon can.

Close mike two different speakers

Believe it or not, all of the identical speakers in your amp do not sound the same. Place mics on multiple speakers in your combo amp and you will get the benefit from these slight variations.

One close mic and one distant

Close and distant miking of a guitar cabinet

Here is another great multi-mic technique that has seen a lot of mileage around the world. Place a SM57 right on the speaker grill and an AKG C414 several feet back from the amp. In a setup like this, the dynamic mic is always collecting the tight, dry sound while the large diaphragm condenser picks up a blend of the whole amp plus a bit of room ambiance. As always, check for phase.

When looking at this technique, most people will assume that the distant mic should always be facing toward the amp. Try turning the C414 to where its back faces the amp (with it set to cardioid) so that it picks up more room sound. Don’t be afraid to be subtle when blending the room mic in. It takes very little room mic to add realistic flavor to the guitar sound. Unless you are using a boundary mic, don’t place this distant mic too close to any flat surface such as the walls, ceiling or floor. The close reflections from walls can create unwanted phase effects

Make a mic-cab-mic sandwich

Do you have an open backed amp and want to make it sound ten feet tall? Here is another well known multi-mic trick that will create a huge guitar sound.

  • Place a close mic on the front of the cabinet as usual.
  • Place a second mic inside of the open back of your amp. You will generally get a warmer sound from the back of the amp than from the front. Tailor your mic choice to capture this.
  • Using the phase switch on your interface, DAW or mixing desk, flip the phase of the channel serving the mic that is in the back of the amp.
  • Grin in delight at the behemoth sound you just created.

Mike the back of a guitar cabinetThe phase switch on a preamp

Direct recording

Should you use the direct output from the back of the guitar amp?

If you are tempted to use the direct output from the back of the amp, be sure to give it an objective listen first. While there are a few amp manufacturers that do make nice sounding direct outputs, you will find that a great deal of them sound like a drunk cat being strangled to death.

If you wind up using a direct output in combination with microphone signals, it may be worthwhile to slide the direct signal’s recorded track back in time by several samples in the DAW to compensate for the slight delay caused by the extra space and equipment being in the microphone signal path. You will hear an improvement in the combined guitar sound.

The benefits of a virtual amp

If you live in an apartment complex or if setting up mics in front of an amp isn’t really your thing, perhaps direct recording with a virtual amp will work for you. There are plenty of good virtual guitar processing systems such as Amplitube, Guitar Rig and Pod Farm. With a little time and effort, worthy guitar sounds can be created ranging from a clean jazz amp to screaming overdrive tones.

Recording with a virtual guitar amp offers some attractive benefits:

  • Screaming guitar tones are possible without giving your upstairs neighbors a heart attack.
  • All of those virtual amps live in your computer and won’t take up a whole room by themselves.
  • A large collection of studio mics is not needed to record your guitar.
  • You can easily change amp sounds after you have recorded the track.

Your biggest virtual enemy

Latency is going to be your biggest enemy when direct recording guitar parts to your computer. Latency is the time it takes for a computer to receive, process and send a monitoring signal back to your speakers. This short processing delay can really play havoc with your timing and feel as you play your guitar. As a general rule of thumb, you may be able to live with as much as 128 samples of latency, but 64 samples or less is ideal.

Achieving the lowest latency for recording is a balancing act. One of the leading causes of latency in computer recording is buffer size. Using a larger buffer size takes some of the strain off your computer but results in more latency. If you turn the buffer size down too low, your computer will begin to choke when trying to handle all of the tasks a DAW throws at it. The trick here is to find the lowest possible buffer setting that will still allow your computer to maintain its composure. This may take a bit of tweaking in your DAW settings, but is well worth the effort.

Remember that you can use one setup for low latency tracking and another for mixing. When it comes time to mix with enough plugins to choke a server at NASA, crank up that buffer setting to take some of the load off of your computer. During mix-down, latency isn’t such an issue anyways.

How to get a virtual amp to sound real

While there is nothing quite like the sound of a properly miked guitar amp. There are a number of tricks that can coax your virtual guitar sounds into sounding more convincing.

  • Steinberg Vintage Open Deck softwareIf your computer can handle it, enable the “oversampling” feature in your amp simulator.
  • Run your recording session at a higher sampling rate such as 96kHz.
  • Be aware of the gain that you are hitting your interface and virtual amp plugin with. The place to produce desirable distortion is in the amp simulator, not before it.
  • Use a tape/tube saturation plugin to sweeten the guitar track. Steinberg has a nice plugin called “Open Deck Analog Tape”. Antares offers its nice sounding “Tube Saturation” software. Compare the guitar track with and without a saturation plugin and I think you will agree.
  • Use a parametric EQ to roll off frequencies below 75Hz and above 9kHz. This will help mimic the physical limitations of a real guitar amp.
  • Carve some of those annoying frequencies out of the guitar sound with a parametric EQ. Set each filter to a narrow Q width and boost it so you can sweep through the frequency range and locate the annoying sounds that stick out to you. Once you have located the harsh spots, change the filter to cut instead of boost. The rule of thumb for EQ is to cut narrow and boost wide.
  • In preparation for mix-down, re-broadcast the virtual amp sound through a speaker in the studio and mic the speaker cabinet and/or room. This gives you the benefits of a virtual amp with the much loved elements of miking a guitar amp.

Antares Tube emulator softwareOxford Sonnox parametric EQ software

Overdubbing and doubling

If one guitar is good, then two guitars are better right? This can be true depending on the kind of music you are recording. Let’s look at a few ways to double up on guitar parts while recording and mixing that can add some excitement and dimension to a recording.

Create the guitar wall of doom

If you are into heavy guitar sounds, I know that I already have your attention. With words like “doom” describing your sound, what’s not to like?

When recording those bone crushing rhythm guitar tracks, have the guitarist record two or more identical takes. Pan one take far to the left and the other far to the right. You could pan the first 50 takes to the right and the other 50 to the left, but I think that is why the saying “less is more” was invented. Once you hear the effect this has on the guitar sound, you will recognize it in popular rock recordings galore. This trick works with lead guitar parts if you have a guitar player who can handle tracking the same lead twice with any accuracy.

Try the above trick, but use three takes and allow one of them to be panned center and take the bulk of the spotlight while the other two are panned left and right. Bring the volume down on the panned guitar takes to ensure that they support the overall sound while still allowing the clarity of the center track to be dominant.

Having presented the above idea, I think that it’s worth stating that it would be a pity to rely on this trick so much that you do not know how to get a large, aggressive guitar sound otherwise. Be sure that you master some other flavors and know when to use them.

Mix it up

Try getting multiple takes like above, but use different guitars, amps or pickups for each take. You will find that this kind of layering may work best with the tracks not panned so wide. In certain situations, you may pan these tracks wide, but will find that this will make the combined guitar sound appear to be coming from the direction of the brightest sounding layer.

Delay and pan

There is a similar and simpler alternative to the “wall of doom” trick listed above:

  • Use just one guitar take.
  • Put the track through a delay unit set between 20 and 30 milliseconds.
  • Pan the dry signal right and the delayed signal left.

This layering technique has a whole different flavor than using multiple takes. Try it on and see if it suits you.

Tips and tricks

No guitar recording instructional would be complete without a few rogue tips and tricks to round out your knowledge of standard practices. Here are a few nuggets of wisdom and weirdness for you to keep in your bag of tricks until the need arises.

It’s a mismatch

Plug your guitar straight into the mixing desk or interface using an input that is NOT specifically designed for the guitar. This will intentionally create an impedance mismatch, giving you a raw, spanky tone that works really well for funk and maybe even country.

Radial passive reamping box

Reamping

With reamping becoming more popular all the time, it straddles the line between an effective trick and a common technique. In a nutshell, use a reamping box to record a dry signal to your DAW while listening to the tailored tone from your amp. Next, use the reamping box to play the dry performance back to your guitar amp. You can dial in alternate tones using the same performance that has already been captured. Mic the amp as usual and record these alternate tones till your heart’s content. This is a great way to layer different sounds while using just one take.

Let’s interact

With all of the great technology and recording equipment available to the non-billionaire crowd, one of the killer benefits of an amp cranked up loud enough to crack windows gets overlooked. I’m talking about that important interaction between the amplifier and the resonant wood in the body of an electric guitar. There is something very real about this amp-guitar synergy that adds flavor and sustain to the guitar sound. Since over-saturation begins to make a guitar sound small, try backing off on the drive and replace it with this resonance created by blasting the guitar body.

If a guitar player insists on being in the control room while recording his tracks, try setting up a small speaker really close to where he is standing. This speaker should be sent a feed from the miked guitar sound. This speaker does not have to be cranked up very loud to have the intended effect. The guitarist can step closer to the speaker for more interaction and further away for less.

Mic the body of the electric guitar

For a guitarist who wants to sit in the control room while recording tracks, slip a set of monitoring headphones on her and then set up a mic right in front of her electric guitar body. Blend this in with the amped sound and compress it a bit. This is a neat way to add some excitement to the sound of the track.

Specialization

Whenever you are dealing with multiple mics, amps or girlfriends, keep in mind that specialization is the key. Grab the mids with an SM57 and the highs and lows with a C414. Decide ahead of time what elements of the total sound you are trying to capture with different mics or amps. Look for these different facets of the guitar sound and be sure you are handling each of them well.

Cable capacitance

It is common to wind up using a longer guitar cable in the studio than one normally does at home or on stage. If something seems to be a bit different about your guitar tone, consider that cable capacitance may be the variable culprit here. Different cables have their own capacitance based on the materials they are made from. When the lengths of these cables get long to accommodate different recording setups, the result can be a slightly different sound from the amp that you know so well. In general, more capacitance equals slightly less highs. You will find that this effect is not so common in guitars equipped with active circuitry.

Dry up your guitar

It is usually best to record electric guitar with no spatial effects such as reverb or delay. These effects should be added in during the mix instead. This allows layering and overdubs without those spatial effects interfering or becoming overwhelming.

There are times when spatial effects are an integral part of a guitarist’s sound. If this is the case, don’t start a verbal arm wrestling match with the guitar player over drying up his sound. In this situation, there are two main choices:

  • Mke up two amps: one with spatial effects and the other without. Be sure the guitar player is listening to the one with the effects. This allows you the luxury of capturing dry overdubs but also the delicate balance of the guitarist’s particular reverbs and delays.
  • Go ahead and record the effect with the guitar. See if the guitarist will agree to bump the effect down just a bit from his normal live level.

Keep it analogously untroublesome

I am sure you have heard the sayings “keep it simple” or “less is more”. These sayings do carry some wisdom in them. They are also a great way to shame other studio engineers when they want to try unique ideas. The underlying concept is to not get so enveloped in bells and whistles that the process becomes a tail chasing exercise. Heed the wisdom, but keep in mind: what is complex for one person may be simple for another. Don’t hold fast to a concept just because it makes a great saying and makes you sound like a recording veteran when you recite it in front of the mirror. If what you are doing is interfering with the art you are trying to create, then stop and simplify. I personally believe that less is less, more is more and just right is even better.



 

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