Amazing guitar tones start with the player. Recording a great song with a good player is always key, but there are other elements that contribute to amazing guitars tones.
1. Set up your guitar
Beyond the player, the instrument must be in top shape as well. Sending your guitar to be professionally set up is a great way to ensure your guitar tracks are properly in tune and there are no buzzes, squeaks, or hums coming from the instrument. A professional set up will also allow the guitar to play easier and feel better, which will help to create a better performance.
2. Isolate the amp from the floor
When recording guitars in small spaces, such as a bedroom or a project studio, the physical connection between the amp and the floor can cause the amp to sympathetically vibrate with the floor. This creates an artificial sense of low end that is often hard to equalize out and can make your recording sound muddy. By isolating the amp from the floor with dense insulation or a product such as the Auralex Gamma Pad, the amp can accurately reproduce the low end without vibrating with the room. This can be very useful with dense guitar arrangements where layered guitars can stack up to create a muddy mess in the mix.
3. Understand the room
The sound of the amp is largely impacted by the room that is exists in. Standing waves are created when a loud guitar amp is played in a small space. To minimize the impact of standing waves, angle the guitar amp at 45 degrees to parallel walls. This will help to keep prominent frequencies from building up in the room.
For more control of the room sound, try draping a heavy blanket over the speaker cabinet. This will eliminate the room sound for microphones close to the cabinet. A second room mic can then be added for control of the room sound in the mix. This creates the possibility for all types of sonic experimentation when it comes time for mix. For example, the room mic can be panned opposite of the close mic. A delay can be added to the room mic for even more spatial distinction.
4. EQ with mic placement
There are tone knobs on a guitar, and often EQ and tone knobs on a guitar amp. Although these knobs are easy to use and tempting to play with, drastic EQing on an amp can sound harsh or push the amp to distortion in unpleasant ways. A less conventional, but equally as effective method of EQ can be accomplished through microphone placement at the speaker cone.
The closer the microphone is to the center of the speaker, the more low end and high end will be picked up. As the microphone is moved to the outside of the cone, the midrange becomes clearer in comparison. In conjunction with this, the angle of the microphone in relation to the cone can also change the tone of the guitar sound. Angling the microphone 45 degrees outward will reduce the upper midrange frequencies. Angling the microphone 45 degrees inward will increase low midrange frequencies.
5. Pick a pick
Although you probably have a favorite guitar pick that works well with your playing style, there are guitar pick options that can drastically alter the tone of your guitar. For more attack on leads and solos, a metal pick can brighten up the guitar tone without having to resort to EQ at the amp. In contrast, a felt pick can be the perfect choice for soft rhythm guitar that needs to sit well with keyboards and piano. Before spending lots of money on a new amp or effects pedal, a trip to the music store for a new guitar pick might be all you need.
6. Types of guitar doubles
A straight double of rhythm guitar might be all a song needs to thicken up the guitars, but often doubling guitars in a dense arrangement leads to trouble when it comes time to mix. Doubling just the root note of a chord progression is a great way to thicken a guitar track without adding too much information. A second double an octave above the root can also work well if it is panned in opposition to the original root note double.
For a lift in the chorus of a song, whole note doubles work well to emphasize the chord changes. On a heavy rock song, whole note doubles with less distortion often work really well to add clarity and harmonic distinction to the chord progression. On less heavy pop or country songs, whole note doubles with different chord voicings can add a sense of spaciousness and fullness to a chorus without adding another part to distract from the vocal.
7. To EQ at the amp or in the mix
It is often a studio rule of thumb that great sounds should be achieved at the source as opposed to fixing things in the mix. As true as this is, there are always exceptions to the rule. One exception is when to EQ a guitar amp. If EQ is added on the amp itself, the resulting guitar sound usually changes the way the guitar part relates to the rest of the mix. EQing at the amp can be thought of as adding an effect and changing the purpose of the guitar part. EQing in mix can be much more subtle. I often save EQing the low end of guitars for mix, but add boosts to the high end of guitars at the amp while tracking. This ensures that I don’t over EQ the low end and muddy up the track before mixing, but still allows me to subtly distort the top end at the amp while tracking.
8. Easy on the reverb
Generally, less reverb on guitars is a smart choice while tracking. Unless you are striving for a Dick Dale drenched guitar sound, most reverb can be added in mix. The reverb might sound great on the first rhythm guitar while tracking, but once three or four guitars are stacked on top of the initial rhythm guitar, that reverb sounds distracting and amateur.
9. Linking effects
The pedal board you use for live shows might be efficient and stocked with cool noise makers, but that doesn’t make it the best idea for recording. Generally using the least amount of effects to achieve the desired guitar tone is the best plan. If there are effects pedals in the signal chain that aren’t being used, they may be degrading the signal and causing excess noise. Take any pedal out of the chain that is not being used. It is common sense, but try to use the highest quality and shortest cables between guitar pedals.
Think critically and creatively about which pedals you use and in what order. Although a heavy distortion pedal might sound fun on its own, it might not be the best choice for the song. Using a gain boost pedal to push the amp harder might be the most natural and best distortion sound for the song. A more creative use for that wild distortion pedal might be after your delay and reverb pedal. Crazy spaced out sounds from delay and reverb can become even more psychedelic with a distortion and an EQ pedal after them.
10. Take a DI
When recording guitars, I always record a DI signal directly from the guitar before it hits any effects or an amp. I do this for two reasons. If the performance was perfect, but I want to change the guitar sound in the mix, I can use the DI signal to re record through different amps later. This is a good practice, but can also lead to creative uses of amplifiers that would not be possible while tracking the original guitar. One example is swinging a microphone around a vertically placed speaker as the prerecorded signal plays through the amp. This creates a swirling phaser sound that is unlike any phaser pedal.
Secondly, the DI signal can occasionally be used in the mix as a way to beef up the low end of a guitar take without doubling the part. This is specifically useful with heavy detuned guitars. The DI adds clarity to the low end, but does not alter the rhythmic tightness of the original performance.
Shane O’Connor is a producer and recording engineer from New York City. Shane has worked with artists such as Madi Diaz, Tab The Band, and Blackbutton. Currently, he worked out of Skyline Recording Studio. You can find more information on Shane O’Connor as well as more recording tips at www.shaneoconnorrecording.com.
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