From The Recording Guitarist © 2010 by Jon Chappell. Published by Hal Leonard Books, an imprint of Hal Leonard Publishing. Reprinted with permission.
Electric guitars are far and away the most popular kind of guitar that gets recorded, and the principles you learn here will apply to other electronic instruments and sources that you may record, including keyboards, sound modules, virtual instruments from your hard disk, and even external devices such as an MP3 player. Learning to treat the guitar as a signal source, rather than a performing instrument, is the first step in making the transition from player to recordist. But the objective is always the same: to produce the best sound possible for the listener.
Diversify Your Sounds
Your favorite amp might be a non-master-volume 100-watt Marshall cranked to 10, but if you’re sharing the studio with a string section, you’ll have to keep your sound way below that, even with heavy baffling. Thus, you’ll probably have to employ a distortion box, power soak, or other method to achieve the same distortion quality at a lower volume. Be aware that your amp will now respond differently and so might your playing, if it’s not what you’re used to hearing.
Just as you wouldn’t play at the same volume level and intensity for an entire performance, so should you avoid using the same pickup setting throughout. A mistake many beginning guitarists make is to play using only one pickup setting. Worse, they develop a sound for only that one setting—usually the bridge pickup if they’re a rock player, the neck if they lean toward pop and jazz. To be musically interesting and compelling, you must have good sounds for most, if not all, the pickup settings on your guitar, whether it’s a two-humbucker, three-single-coil, or hybrid configuration.
While most guitarists will have one setting as their secret weapon—let’s say it’s the bridge pickup with their favorite distortion pedal tweaked for that pickup—you must, if only for the sake of variety, have alternate pickup configurations and sounds that complement that setting. This might involve having multiple distortion pedals in the same chain, but never used together. It’s a matter of logistics as well as sonic ideals. You can’t be constantly twisting the knobs on your Turbo Distortion pedal to fit both the neck and bridge pickups, but you should be switching between those pickups fairly often in a typical song that has varying levels of dynamics and drama. If you need to have distortion on each of those pickups, you may have to use two identical pedals, or two distortion pedals (or a single pedal with dual-mode distortion), each optimized for a certain sound.
Having a multi-effects processor, or at least a programmable preamp, can solve the headache and redundancy of stompbox logistics. Then you need to plan your program switching by means of a foot pedal that acts solely as a switcher, and have that action coordinated with your pickup switching. However you solve the problem, though, you should cultivate a wide sonic palette of sounds—clean, crunch, and distorted—for a variety of pickup settings.
Single-Coil vs. Humbucker Pickups
Guitarists using single-coil pickups need to be aware of noise and brittleness, the two primary pitfalls of single-coil technology. If any single pickup is making too much noise (using two pickups together doesn’t result in as much noise), there are several things you can do (though not necessarily on the spot): You can adjust your “attitude” (position) toward the amp, turning toward and away from it to find the lowest noise position; you can replace your stock single-coils with a “stacked” version, which will cut the noise but keep the original routing of your guitar body intact; you can switch to active pickups, such as those made by EMG; or you can employ a gate, which will keep the guitar from buzzing, except when you’re playing.
Lastly, volume attenuation—like rolling off the volume pot with your right-hand pinky or working your volume pedal—is a way to reduce pickup noise when you’re not playing, which keeps the irritation level low in producers and fellow session-mates. A gate will do this for you automatically, freeing up your hands and feet, but you have to experiment with the threshold and release times to ensure a natural performance. If your amp is loud and your pickups are vintage, get used to noise; it’s an inextricable part of the rock ’n’ roll sound.
Brittle tone can obviously be handled by EQ, but a better way is to use a tube preamp or even slight compression to take the edge off, but not enough to take away the natural highs. EQ acts indiscriminately across all types of sounds and doesn’t behave dynamically, as a tube compressor does. Fortunately, brittleness is usually only a problem when the bridge-only pickup position is used and in relatively undistorted situations. Other single-coil combinations don’t seem to suffer from the brittleness problem.
Humbucker pickups, like those found on well-known Gibson models such as the Les Paul, SG, and ES-335, don’t suffer from noise or as much brittleness as single-coils (in fact, the impetus for their invention was noise elimination), but can sound mushy, especially in the middle range (this is their most common weakness). Usually EQ solves this problem, and graphic equalizers have been used to good effect to brighten up an otherwise dull-sounding humbucker performance. With heavy distortion, it’s the top end that usually needs a little help, so you can judiciously apply some EQ here as well.
Humbuckers are less bright than single-coils because the very act of “bucking hum” cuts some of the high-frequency response. But the bridge position in a humbucker guitar tends to be more usable than the bridge position in a single-coil guitar, all things being equal. That’s why the most common hybrid (mixing single- and double-coil) pickup configuration is single-single-double (neck to bridge), with an optional “coil tap” (a switch that splits a humbucker into a single-coil) on the bridge-position humbucker. Compression and distortion throw all of these general guidelines out the window, as most of the tone then comes from the boxes and not the inherent response of the pickups. But in getting a core tone, start with the pickups through the amp, and then dress up the basic tone with effects.
Miking vs. Recording Direct
Regardless of how you get your pickup tone, your approach must be influenced by your method of recording. If you mic your amp, you’ll create a completely different sound than if you record directly into the board. Direct recording was at one time something only done in emergencies, but that attitude is rapidly fading. Though it’s generally considered to be inferior to miking an amp, direct recording can, in some situations, be the preferred method of capturing guitar sounds, for a variety of reasons. These days, direct recording isn’t limited to plugging into a box that goes into the board. As we’ll see, there are many ways to record without miking a speaker, many of them involving the preamp and power amp of your favorite vintage amplifier.
When you record your electric guitar, the room may or may not play a part in it. If you’re on a jingle or movie session, the chances are nil that the room will play any role. You’ll be in the studio playing with all the other instruments, like strings and horns, because it’s cheapest to have all the musicians together for one studio call. As the guitarist, you’ll be off in one section, usually against a wall, with a gobo or baffle that severely restricts the sound from traveling out into the studio. In those cases, you don’t have to worry about anything except getting a good amp sound, preferably at a low level. This means you should be accustomed to getting good sounds—distorted as well as clean—at low levels.
But if you’re on a record date, or recording your own demo, you’ll likely have access to a large room that has some character, and you’d be wise to capture it via the microphones. The advantage of using the room is that it’s a natural setting and you can use your ears. What sounds good to you—the guitarist standing six feet back from your cooking Marshall—will sound good to the mic as well.
Studios are not just big rooms, or people would just go down to the local elementary school gymnasium to get ambient sound. Studios are acoustically engineered with care and analysis in their construction to avoid flutter echoes, standing waves, resonant frequencies, and other nasty artifacts that plague non-acoustically designed rooms. Learn to appreciate the times when it’s just you and your amp in the live room of a commercial studio. It’ll get you through the times when you’re at home stuffing your amp in a closet or bathroom and surrounding it with a mattress.
Getting the Right Sound Through the Monitors
When you record at home and act as your own engineer, you have a lot more opportunities to hear what’s really going to disk—and it may or may not be what you hear in the room. The act of listening to what’s on the disk or tape is called “tape monitoring.” Standing in the room and listening to your amp as you play through it is not tape monitoring. Even listening to the sound through headphones is not tape monitoring. Technically, that’s called “source monitoring.” What you want to listen to is what the tape actually recorded—sometimes available only on playback on certain machines.
So getting a good monitor sound is a three-step process. You must produce a good source sound using your ear and a natural environment, and then switch to “tape” monitoring to see that nothing is lost in the translation. (By the way, whether you’re actually using tape is immaterial; more than likely, you’ll be monitoring off a hard disk.)
It’s extremely important not to rush the first step of source monitoring, first in the room, then in your monitors. Get the sound early in the session while you’re fresh, while you have the most time, and while other people (if any are present) still have patience. Then stick a mic in front of the speaker, or take the amp’s Line Out to the board, or perform whatever process gets the amped sound to the recording machine. After you’ve done that, put on headphones and see if what you’re hearing is what you thought you had in the room. If not, go back to square one and tweak. Check your levels to make sure it’s not some gain-stage problem going to the board.
What you’re doing is adjusting the sound so that your headphones or monitor speakers deliver what you ultimately want to hear on the recording itself. If you’re amping the guitar, you’ll obviously need to isolate the live sound from the monitor sound, whether that’s in a set of headphones or over near-field monitors. That means you can’t stand two feet from your amp with headphones on to get an accurate reading. It may feel better to you because the amp is thumping you in the chest and you feel the interaction of the air pressure on your strings, but it won’t sound the same on playback.
Near-field monitors are so named because they deliver sound to your ears between the point where you perceive the tweeter and woofer as one source and the point where the reflected sound starts to dominate the direct signal. In other words, if you put your ear directly in front of the tweeter and then moved it to the woofer, you’d hear two different sources. Moving a little bit away, you’d still be able to hear the speakers’ directionality. But a few feet back, you can’t perceive the bass and treble as coming from two different sources. This is the beginning of the near- field range. As you move slowly back even more, though, the character of the room starts to contribute to the sound, and eventually the ambient sound begins to contribute more to what you’re hearing than just the direct sound. This is the limit of the near-field range. (Some manufacturers prefer the term “direct field” over “near field” to describe monitor speakers that are designed to work this way.)
Headphones are great for isolation and allow you to hear stereo separation, but they lack a true bass-frequency response and are not the natural way people listen to music, which is through the air. If you must mix via headphones, be careful not to put too much bass in, as bass that sounds good in the headphones may be unduly prominent when played over speakers. If you must spend the bulk of your time monitoring with headphones, leave yourself time to check your mixes over near-field monitors.
Miking a guitar is surprisingly simple, but not so simple that there’s not infinite variation within a fairly defined set of guidelines. The mic basically stands in for your ear, so use your ear to find the optimal listening position and sweet spot, then place the mic there, listen, adjust the mic position slightly, listen again, and repeat ad infinitum until you’ve got it. Just because you find the perfect mic position one day does not mean you can duplicate it the next. No one knows why this is so, but everyone acknowledges that you must start from zero every time you set up a mic, because no two situations—musically or acoustically—are alike. You can certainly use shortcuts by avoiding setups that won’t work, but what does work must be newly discovered each time.
There are hundreds of mics available, all with a vast history of uses, associated mythology, and ardent champions who argue for one brand over another, or feel that one model represents the sonic ideal. For the serious recordist, mics should be treated almost like another musical instrument, so sensitive and varied are their different qualities. But you can limit your search to the “instruments” that are particularly suited to recording guitars.
Dynamic vs. Condenser
The two most popular types of mics these days are dynamic and condenser. Although there are other types, notably ribbon, tube, and PZM (or “pressure zone microphone,” which you affix to a solid surface, such as a reflecting wall), most recording applications for guitars involve either a dynamic or a condenser mic. The world of microphones for recording guitars is almost as rich and diverse as that of the guitars themselves, and it takes a lifetime of experience to appreciate the qualities and nuances of them all. But for now, let’s concentrate on some of the standard- bearers, both for acoustic and electric recording.
A dynamic is the most widely used and economical type of mic, found on performing stages everywhere. The Shure SM57 and SM58 are two popular dynamic microphones for instruments and vocals. The Sennheiser MD 421 is a higher-quality dynamic mic that is also very popular in recording applications. Dynamic mics are rugged, can handle a high SPL (sound pressure level), and are generally flattering to a human voice. “Flattering” meaning that the mic adds a certain character or color, rather than being “flat” (adding no frequency “bumps” and so delivering an accurate or graphically flat response curve) or “transparent,” two other words to describe mic qualities. Because humans expend large amounts of air when they sing, vocal soundwaves exhibit high SPLs, as do kick drums and the speakers of cranked-up guitar amplifiers.
Although there are no strict rules, dynamic mics are usually used on amps in close-miking situations. Again, a dynamic mic can tolerate high SPLs and yields great results when placed 1–3 inches from a speaker at a volume too loud for a human ear to endure comfortably. Since they tend to reject frequencies at the top end, dynamics are very forgiving of the subtle rattles and other artifacts that more sensitive mics would pick up.
Condenser mics, such as the Neumann U 87, use a different method for producing signals than dynamic mics, one that requires a constant electrical charge in the pickup element. For this the mic must draw power from an external source, such as a battery, the phantom power supply in your mixer, or an outboard mic preamp with built-in phantom-power circuitry.
Condenser mics need voltage to operate; if you plug in your mic and forget to turn on the phantom power switch (or if you plug into a board with no phantom power supply), no sound will result.
Condenser mics are generally higher quality than dynamics, and more sensitive. This is usually a good thing in microphones, as sensitive mics yield better results in aspects such as high-frequency detail and transient response. Transients are the initial attack noises of a note, which on the guitar are percussive in nature, meaning they yield no pitch information. Although transients are quite short, they are often the loudest part of the signal. Since the transient has to overcome the inertia of the mic element (that is, it has to stimulate the metal plate enough to vibrate), the more sensitive condenser mic will respond more quickly and accurately, reproducing the attack sound with better integrity. You will hear words like “transparency” and “clarity” used to describe condenser mics.
The diaphragm is the surface that the source sound collides with to get the element moving, which creates the current. A small diaphragm has less mass and therefore takes less energy to move. This is why you’ll often see long, thin, cylindrically shaped mics on acoustic guitars (such as the AKG C 451 or C 1000, the Audio-Technica AT4041, or the Shure SM81). These diaphragms are very responsive to the small, high-energy frequencies produced by the plucked string. For the same reason, small-diaphragm condensers work well as overhead cymbal mics.
What small-diaphragm mics are not good for is capturing warmth, receiving high SPLs, and responding to complex or pronounced low-end frequencies. For sounds with those qualities, you’d enlist a large-diaphragm condenser.
The large-diaphragm condenser family includes the best and most well-known mics in the world, such as the Neumann U 87. Other well-known mics in this category include the AKG C 414 and the Audio-Technica AT4050. Large-diaphragm mics are extremely versatile, able to record acoustic guitars from any position, and amps in both close and ambient positions. Because they are condensers, they provide high-end detail and transparency, and their large diaphragms make them good full-frequency choices as well.
If you’re a home studio owner with a good mixer and a high-quality outboard preamp, you should consider spending between $700 and $1,000 for a good, multipurpose large-diaphragm condenser mic. Many mics in this range will feature selectable pickup patterns, which also come in handy. The two most common pickup patterns guitarists will encounter are cardioid and omnidirectional (or “omni” for short). There are other patterns, but these are the two most widely used for guitar applications.
Get 25% off and free shipping when you buy The Recording Guitarist by Jon Chappell at HalLeonardBooks.com. Just use the code DM9 when checking out!
Echoes readers get 25% off and free shipping for selected titles purchased at HalLeonardBooks.com. Click here to see a list of all eligible titles, and use code DM9 at check out.