Recording distorted or overdriven electric guitar is a very tricky business. There are a lot of different approaches and a lot to go wrong.
The first important thing to say is that the problem may well not be your equipment, software or setup – it may be your crappy playing! Check that your playing is tight and consistent, and practice recording as you would practice any other guitar skill.
But assuming that your playing is fine, but the sound coming out is still bad, there’s a lot of different possible solutions to the problem depending on how you are recording and what the symptoms are. So let’s go through two of the more common problems, followed by a brief guide to how to fit guitar into a mix.
Problem 1 - Fizzy or buzzy sounds - The guitar sounds like bees arguing in a tin lunch box. The sound is very trebly and saturated and often sounds more like fret squeak than music.
This is a very common problem in line-recorded guitar. Plugging your distortion or multi-fx pedals straight into your input will cause this, and it is the number 1 problem encountered by people recording for the first time. The problem is that distortion pedals and overdrives are designed to go through an amp and a big speaker, and the power stage and speaker cone of the amp have a big effect on the tone – softening the sound and adding the harmonic spread that gives amps their character. Take the amp out of the equation and you are left with an ugly square or saw-toothed signal that causes the characteristic tinny buzzing sound.
You will need an amp emulator in your signal chain. There are hardware emulators (Line 6’s POD and the like) and software emulators (such as Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig, Amplitube, or the excellent free Simulanalog). These electronically simulate the way a head, cab, mic and the connections between them affect the signal, giving you a warmer, more realistic tone.
Without due care being taken, these can still cause buzzy sounds. Where a lot of software amps fall down is in dealing with signals that come into the system already distorted (such as through a pedal) and the result can be fizz. If this is happening, consider using the v-amp’s built-in distortion, or mic’ing up the amp instead.
If you are mic’ing up an amp and you get this problem, there are two places to look for a solution:
1 – Your amp settings. Remember that you rarely play with your amp at ear-height – it’s usually somewhere around your knees. Walk around your amp as you play, listen to it while lying on the floor and getting up, notice how the sound, in particular the amount of bass and treble, vary according to where your head is positioned. No wonder the sound from your mic doesn’t sound like the sound in your ear, they’re six feet apart! So lie on the floor and set your amp settings so that it sounds good down there rather than up high. You’re a rock guitarist, right? – so you should be used to lying on the floor tweaking your knobs.
2 – Your mic positioning. Up close to an amp, those tone differences become quite extreme as you move around, and a couple of inches of movement can make a big difference to the sound. And remember that moving the mic towards or away from the amp can have just as significant an effect on what it records as moving it up and down or from side to side. Where your amp’s “sweet spot” is will depend on a lot of things, but it will usually sound best towards the corners of the amp rather than in the middle of the speaker cone. Other than that, the only way to find it is through trial and error. Once you have it, mark it with correction fluid or something similar, so that you don’t have to go hunting for it again.
Problem 2 - Ugly bassy thumps - There are huge bassy wallops that cause your chair to vibrate, particularly when palm-muting and/or using a lot of distortion.
This is usually more of a problem with mic’d up amps, but can arise in line recordings as well. The physics of muting a string dictate that higher frequency harmonics are killed off better than bass harmonics, and a feedback-type effect can exaggerate them even further, particularly under heavy overdrive or distortion. The result is a huge “whump” whenever the strings are muted.
Fortunately, the solution to this is fairly simple. This bassy whump is usually at or around 100Hz, which, in most recordings, you don’t want the guitar to be outputting anyway. So cut the bass in the mix, from about 110Hz downward – you could even use a high-pass filter to kill off all the bass, because those frequencies don’t do much for the character of the guitar, but do get in the way of the kick and the bass guitar.
Settling guitar into your mix
No matter how sweet the sound coming from your amp, your guitar sound will often sound bad if you put it into a mix unaltered. A guitar, especially an overdriven or distorted guitar, is going to put out a vast range of frequencies, more than most other instruments which put out a narrower frequency range. Worse still, the key frequencies for determining the character of a guitar, the middle-to-upper mids (about 2-6KHz), are also crucial to other key instruments – vocals and piano (and many synths or classical instruments if they’re in your recording too).
So you’re going to have to work very carefully to make sure that the guitar isn’t clashing with other instruments without ruining its tone. Often, it will be a case of shifting the EQ of the other instruments to get them out of the guitar’s way, or altering the EQ of the guitar sound itself.
One more advanced technique (that only certain DAWs can handle) is to arrange affairs so that either the guitar or the clashing instrument have their eq in the crucial range cut, but only when the clashing instrument is making a sound (or a sound above a certain level). So for example, you could cut the key frequencies that the lead vocals need out of the guitar, but only when the singer is singing. You can get away with mangling the guitar like this as the listener’s attention will be on the vox, not the guitar, and because the vocals will be filling the frequency gap, making it much less noticeable in the context of the whole mix. Listen to Green Day’s “American Idiot” single – if you listen very carefully, you can hear some upper mids drop out of the guitar (making it sound less "cutting") whenever Billy Joe is singing.
There are 2 ways to do this. If your DAW supports it, you can use the vocal level as a sidechain input for an EQ plugin that cuts the relevant frequencies. Failing that, you can use the envelope controls to do it manually, but that’s really boring and doesn’t make you feel like a mad scientist the way that linking all your tracks together with crazy sidechains does.
That’s only necessary if you can’t find room for everything without it sounding weird, so try a few blanket eq cuts first before you get fancy. Also, for less busy mixes, try using the panning controls to separate the guitar from the clashing instrument. Obviously it’s no good if you’ve got an octuple-tracked wall of metal doom, but if you have a single overdriven guitar track in an indie, blues or jazz recording, you could try putting it on the other side of the stereo spread. This works better if the clash is with another instrument rather than with the vocals, which often shouldn’t be anywhere other than the centre, but I have seen this used with vox as well to good effect in lo-fi recordings.
About The Author:
James Scott is a London music producer, writer and session musician. Sign up to his newsletter for more recording, songwriting and production tips and exclusive free recording resources that you can’t get anywhere else.