Recording Electric Guitar in the Studio or at Home
When the electric guitar was invented in 1931, no-one knew it would grow into the staple of many types of music like it is today. Many innovations and techniques have come along the way. Learning how all of the different factors affect the sound an electric guitar and how the recording process affects it, is important to creating a sound that you will like.
It starts with the player.
Guitar starts with the player, and the most important factor is you. Its not the thousand dollar axe that makes the latest guitar god, its a lot of practice and skill that really makes the melodies wail and precision and mastery of the guitar itself is the biggest factor of all. Even the pros practice, and you should too! An instrument thats tuned and properly setup with newish strings is important too, but none of that will matter if you don’t tune often and practice even more.
Fine tuning your tone.
The guitar amp and pedal-board is the next thing after the guitar, and everyone knows the settings on the amplifier, and pedal-boards can make a huge change in the sound too. So whats the difference between the $50 Walmart special, and the $4000 rock rig besides power? Tones and frequency response can vary at any stage within the circuit as the electricity travels from the pickups into the amp and is increased in power many times with transistors and/or tubes to ear splitting volumes. The character of the tube, and the circuitry the signal passes through is imparted on the sound. Tubes tend to have a more mellow sound than solid-state, but pleasing sounds can be made with both. Many amplifiers like Fender, Marshall, Orange, VOX, Dr Z etc, use tubes. Usually at least one pre-amp tube, then a power amp tube stage to bring it up loud enough to rock the house. Its important to note however, that the player, knobs, and pedals make a hell of a lot more difference than tube vs. solid state so don’t be discouraged if you don’t have the latest greatest rig. You can always use one of ours.
The speaker cabinet also makes a difference. Every speaker has a slightly different character, some with more lows, others with more mid or high end, and the enclosure the speaker is housed inside makes a difference too. Closed back cabinets tend to have a tighter sound, whereas open back cabinets have a more open sound in the low end because the speaker can move freely without a cushion of air trapped inside the cabinet. In general, electric guitar lacks the very upper frequencies (we’re talking 10k and beyond) because most speaker cabinets cannot reproduce these ultra high frequencies without a tweeter.
Microphone placement techniques.
Recording guitar usually involves micing the cabinet somehow. This also can greatly effect the tone. A close mic, and a mic that is backed off the cabinet will sound totally different in the mix. Likewise, a condenser mic and a dynamic mic will sound different as well. Typically a dynamic mic will have a more rounded sound, where a condenser mic will have a more sharply defined edge. My preferred microphone for electric guitar is an AKG C414 EB, but if you’ve just got a regular old sm57 thats cool too, just point it at the speaker cone, and move it around until it sounds good. A closer mic will tend to be bassier the closer it gets (its called proximity effect for those of you in lab coats). Experiment with using a room mic, or micing the back of the cab and flipping the phase, or using multiple mics to get even more interesting tonal options.
Virtual Audio Tools
Amp simulators ain’t what they used to be, and even a seasoned ear can no longer differentiate 100% between digital cabinet emulation and a regular dusty old guitar amp. Think thats not true? Try out some of the new amplifier modelling software, or a modelling amplifier. This new digital option means players plugging into a DI box. DI guitar is becoming more and more common. This gives you the flexibility to change the speaker and amplifier combination afterwards, and even put the signal back through the amp later with different settings. Wow. Now we can waste even more time messing around with guitar tones (:
My suggestion would be to pick a few songs to use as reference material, or just mess with the knobs and buttons on the amp until it sounds good. Record a test recording, then listen back. The sound wont be exactly how you heard it coming out of the cabinet, but it should be comparable to your reference material, or sound all right with the other instruments playing back. The engineers job is not necessarily to capture the sound in the most accurate way possible, but to capture the character of the sound and the feeling as close to what the artist intended as possible.
Some of the engineering or producer’s job, is to EQ the guitar to improve the sound. There is usually at least 2 areas of frequencies to consider. The “bite” or presence, and the lower body of tone below. A boost at around 3k will add bite and volume to the tone. If the tone seems underwater you need to boost this area between 2k and 8k. Variation in this range can add fizzle, sparkle, or outright annoyance. The lower frequencies make up the main part of the guitar tone, and sometimes too much low frequency energy can eat up a mix. Having trouble hearing the bass and kick drum? Dump some of the low frequencies and the mix is suddenly discernible! And while were on the subject of clarity, lets talk about gain.
Gain Stage Control
Gain is the term that guitar players and engineers use to describe the distortion that occurs when you increase the volume of a signal. Tubes, amplifiers, pedals, microphone preamps and almost any other gain stage add character to the sound as they pass it through from the guitar to the microphone. A very gainy or overdriven sound is very distorted. Gain control is important to understand when crafting your tone. Usually, there is a stage at low volumes with a cleaner tone, then as the signal is pushed over the threshold of the “breakup point” as some may say. Even microphone preamps and compressors in the control room can add gain, but once distortion has been added, its difficult to get rid of it. Solo sounding like garbage? Can’t hear what the rhythm guitar is doing? Maybe the gain is too high on amp and some of the knobs need turned down. The engineer can bring up the sound in your headphones, or increase the volume master, while bringing down the input gain or preamp gain. It is fairly easy to ADD distortion and gain later in the process to make the tone more gnarly, so its almost better to air on the safe side.
Compression and Mixing
A word about compression: Most electric guitar signals are already extremely compressed from the amplifier gain, so adding compression to electric guitar signal can make little difference sometimes. Visually looking at your (digital) files can give you an idea how much compression has already been added to your signal. If you see spots with low signal, maybe some compression or automation is in order. On the other side of the chain, a compressor pedal can make a big difference in getting a consistent signal level into the amp for more even breakup along the distortion threshold. I like to use LA-2A or LA-3A for increased sustain on guitars, but however you record, do it with passion, and your emotion will truly shine through your work and make it more memorable to listeners.