8+ Tips for Recording Guitar So It Sits Well In the Mix
by Henri Rapp
Guitar can be one of the easiest instruments to record, and provided you steer clear of a few pitfalls, you should have no problems at all. After about 10 years of recording you pick up a few techniques, these are a few tips that have worked well for me when recording guitar. Hopefully they will help you improve your guitar recordings. You can always create your own creative tricks too!
1. Guitar Pickups, Amp EQ & Gain
Except for very rare occasions, I recommend sticking for the most part to bridge pickups. Most times when people use neck pickups, it ends up sounding somewhat dull to me with excess low end that clogs up the bottom of the mix. Humbuckers work great for thick chunky guitars, and single coils for more jangle. When setting the amp I try to not to cut the midrange much, since that’s where guitars tend to be at within the frequency spectrum. If it has too much low end, turn down the bass, if it’s too bright turn down the highs, pretty straightforward stuff. Same thing with gain, just dial in the tone you want. The worlds most expensive mic won’t sound good if the amp doesn’t. Part of what makes amps sound big is the harmonic content from power tube saturation, so don’t be afraid to crank up the volume.
Of course, all of these settings knobs and gains settings are a matter of taste and style. Think about what your favorite guitar sounds are and pick 5 songs and ask the engineer what he or she thinks is the best way to capture that sort of feel. We can use amp modeling software, real tube amps, from vintage to modern, with 11 cabinets and endless amplifier options.
2. Mic Choice & Placement
It’s always interesting to try different mic options and changing placement. Sometimes I will make an adjustment or change the mic if i feel the character of the mic isn’t quite right for the tone we want. I tend to use only one microphone, since there are no phase cancellations; It’s just about finding the right mic that gives you everything you want in context with the rest of the mix. Like all things, sometimes I make exceptions and use two or three mics, especially for heavier higher gain rhythm guitars. When combining two mics I will set levels, flip the phase on one and route them to headphones; then, go out a move the mics around till you get the most cancelation, and flip the phase back for a massive tone.
If you have a great sounding live room take a room mic, and pan it opposite to the main guitar for a very natural sounding room sound.
(Recorded with guitar room mics)
I often see people put mics right up on the grill, but in my experience proximity effect of cardioid pickup patterns has a tendency to get the better of most mics when so close. I generally pull my mics back anywhere from 6” at the minimum to 1.5-2 ft. Not only does this tame the edge of upper mids & highs, but gives you a better overall picture of the whole speaker. It also allows the sound to develop after leaving the speaker giving you a more consistent low frequency response and more natural tonal balance. If you want the really upfront sound of being right on the speaker; I like using omni or figure 8 microphone pickup patterns since there is no proximity effect.
I tend to prefer condenser mics on guitars for a more detailed sound, I believe due to their faster transient response. My all time favorite mic for guitar is my AKG C414 EB! It handles high signal incredibly well with a -10 & -20 db pad, has 4 polar patterns (Cardioid, Omni, Hyper, & Figure 8), as well as having one of the flattest responses for mics that I have ever seen. Because of its unparalleled accuracy, it takes EQ incredibly well. Additionally it has a 75 hz and 150 hz high pass filter to remove any unnecessary low rumble. For true to life acoustic guitars it doesn’t get much better than this mic about 2 feet away in omni!
3. Mic Preamps for Guitar
Having a quality mic preamp in the chain has made a big difference in my guitar recordings. My two favorite guitar preamps are the API 312 (JE990 Op Amps) & Hairball Audio Lola (GAR2520 Op Amps). They both impart their own sonic characteristics from the op amps and transformers. Typically giving a little bump to the bottom/midrange with silky highs. I very often saturate the preamps on guitars to add a little extra harmonic content that helps guitars sit in the mix better and sound larger than life.
4. Use Pedals & Commit To A Sound
In my opinion, one of the biggest mistakes you can make while recording is not committing to a sound. People always say, let’s record it dry and we can effect it later, but this is only setting you up for trouble down the line. You should be choosing & sculpting a tone appropriate to the part and making sure it works with other instruments rather than trying to put together the pieces after the fact; that aren’t necessarily working together.
I love pedals, and I fully encourage people to use anything and everything from Fuzz, Reverb, Modulation, Delay, Overdrive, Synths, or anything else to get a unique & interesting tone that supports the music. There’s something to having these effects running through the amp, saturating it in the power stage, and running through a cabinet.
One thing I cannot stress enough that has made a huge impact in the recordings I do is to use reverb & delay through the amp. If a guitar part is supposed to be a little wet, make it wet, use just a little bit less then you would normally use when playing live. I can always add more when mixing, and there are very few times I won’t add some just to put it in the same space with the drums & vocals but it always sounds right to me when part of the verb is being colored by the amp. If you are after stereo delay, best to do it in mixing but otherwise, I like it through a pedal and amp. To set delay time, tap out the tempo, set up a metronome, scratch the guitar to the ¼ or ½ notes, and adjust the timing till the repeats fall on the metronome.
5. Use A Good Quality Cabinet
Cabinets are something people somehow often think this is one of the least important factors to a good tone, but if everything you hear is coming through those speakers it’s going to strongly affect your tone. Every speaker driver will colour the sound of what it’s reproducing. Open back cabinets will give you a looser and more open sound, while sealed cabinets will have a more controlled and punchy sound. If you use lower tunings, make sure you are playing through a cabinet designed to reproduce down as low as your lowest fundamental frequency.
6. Cabinet Placement In The Room
While acoustics don’t play nearly as big a factor when close micing amplifiers then they would with drums, vocals, or acoustic instruments, they are still important, especially for having a good low end. Studio recording room acoustics even affect the way the speaker drivers themselves perform. Best practices are to keep it from pointing directly 90° to a flat wall, and having it ⅓ the way into the room. Avoid walls & corners as they will cause drastic low end build up.
7. Record a DI If You Are Doing Anything High Gain
If you are recording high gain guitars I recommend recording a DI for two reasons. First of all editing, it will make it so much easier to see where notes start and end instead of scratching your head looking at essentially a square wave. Secondly, since you are saturating the amp so much, it loses almost all its transient info and punch. By mixing a little bit of the DI signal back in under the high gain mic’d source, you can regain a little bit of transient info and punch while still having a monstrous high gain sound. Make sure you record the DI after any pedals but before the amp.
8. Set Up Your Guitar
This seems like a no brainer but you’d be surprised how often I see people with improperly set up guitars. How can you sound good if your instrument doesn’t? Get it set up and properly intonated for the tuning you play in (especially if you play lower tunings). This will make sure that your instrument is in tune both open and when playing farther down the neck, as well as hold the tuning longer. Change the strings prior to recording, this is a must. Some people take this way too far and change them for every song, this is just going to make you likely to slip tuning during the middle of a take.
9. Be A Tuning Maniac
Tuning is last but not least. Many guitarists really underestimate how poorly their guitars are set up and in tune. It’s the nature of the instrument, and even the best guitars are slightly out of tune. It usually comes down to tuning very frequently and changing your technique as well.
Some engineers will even tune every chord separately and punch in every part. If a capo is used expect even more tuning difficulties. So far, there isn’t a plugin or post production technique in the world that can fix your out of tune chords.
It may seem like a no brainer but it’s extremely important…but you have to tune before every take….I’ll just leave it at that. I’ve had to redo all the guitars before because they didn’t tune enough or thier technique was so poor it was throwing everything out of whack and sounding really bad.
Thanks for reading, hope this helps improve your understanding of the guitar recording process, and check out this next article about how to spice up your guitar recordings!