Tuesday Wisdom: Tips For Recording Guitars

Recording guitars is one of the most satisfying parts of the recording process, and there are endless tonal possibilities.

Tuesday Wisdom: Tips For Recording Guitars
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Recording guitars is one of the most satisfying parts of the recording process, and there are endless tonal possibilities. Factor in different guitars, amplifiers, stompboxes and effects, the fascinating world of modeling, and the options of microphone choice and placement and the possibilities are literally endless! I've written this cursory guide to help you get the best sonic results you can. I want to stress that this is an art form, and while there are certainly principles to follow, the best part is breaking the mold and being creative.

Tracking

Set It Up

Make sure that all equipment to be used for the recording is serviced and working efficiently. Set up all the guitars, tune and intonate. Fresh strings, fresh tubes, whatever your gear needs, listen to it!

Microphone Choice

This will vary depending upon the tone desired, the guitarists' rig design, the player, and the equipment available. The most tried-and-true mic to use for electric guitars is the Shure SM57, and it has been the tone of COUNTLESS records. Other similar dynamic mics, and also good choices, are the Sennheiser e906 or 421, the Audix i5, or the Shure SM7. Many are fine with a single dynamic for electric guitar, and some like condenser mics for recording cleaner tones, and/or when paired with a dynamic. The two different mics can complement one another sonically. Ribbon microphones are quite at home recording electric guitars, but due to their high cost and fragility they are rarely found outside of professional studios. Many also prefer the combination of a dynamic and a ribbon.

Get It Right At The Source

Getting tone right at the source will make the mix fall together perfectly. Most of the time all that's needed to record a great guitar track is proper microphone choice and placement (and of course a good guitarist!). Various microphone positions lend themselves to different sounds, and experimenting with them variously and often will result in a variety of choices for the sonic palette.

Amplifier Gain

Recorded guitar tracks with too much gain will sound thin and mushy in the mix. Even for heavy guitar parts, dialing in a lot less gain on the amp will lead to the huge-sounding wall of guitars everyone is looking for.

Check Your Levels!

This applies not only to guitar but everything that's going into your recorder (or DAW). Proper gain-staging is critical to good recorded tracks, and distortion (the bad kind) can ruin an otherwise glorious take.

Get A DI Track

It's good practice to record a clean DI track along with the amplifiers. This allows options for re-amping later, or a simulation plug-in can be instantiated.

Reverb

I prefer to track amps with no reverb. Some prefer to record guitar amplifiers in a very confined space, such as an isolation booth or something similar, but I prefer to just close mic them in a good room. The close micing won't really pick up any room sound anyway, and it tends to not sound as "boxy". Reverb can always be added in to taste during mixdown, as the balance of the song may have changed. This is a stylistic choice.

Mixdown

This is when the real fun begins. Throw those faders up and have at it! One thing I always find when mixing guitars is that they can be pulled fairly low in fader position and still be as clear and present as ever. This again comes back to the vocal/guitar/snare balance that is critical to modern recordings.

Use The MONO Button!

I feel like this should be said first. The mono button is vital to a good, balanced mix. Equalization, level imbalances, and phase issues are very obvious in mono. Mixing and referencing your mix in mono and back to stereo will lead to a much better-sounding mix overall, not to mention that many public playback systems still operate in mono.

Guitar/Vocal/Snare Balance

These are three of the most important elements to the mix, and they all compete for space and frequency. Getting this balance is crucial to a good mix. Many times I find that the guitars can be pulled farther down than one would think, and they will still be powerful and present while not overpowering the vocals.

Panning

This can be one of the biggest stylistic options, but generally guitars sound better on the outer edges of the stereo spectrum. Much creativity can be had by manipulating panning positions during different parts of the song. This can lend an openness or expansive feeling to the track and really make the rocking parts hit home.

Hi-Pass Filter

It's important to cut the bottom out of electric guitar tracks. Most microphones used to record guitars don't get much below 100Hz anyway (nor do guitar speakers), but in the mix it's good practice to just take this out anyway. There can be rumble, room noise, etc. The result will be more articulate tracks and increased headroom on the master buss.

Low-Pass Filter

Just as important is the low-pass filter, which will cut out everything that's not needed on the high frequency part of the spectrum. Although some harmonics do reside here, mostly it is just harshness and "fizz" that is detrimental to the overall mix. Again, most guitar speakers don't put out anything above 5-6kHz but it's still good practice to use the shelving filters.

Remove Mud

Most of the time, low-mids really smear a recording. There are no magic frequencies, but removing some around 200-350Hz in guitars really takes away the mud. Sweep around to find it specifically. This is also true for most instruments.

Automation/Side-Chaining

Another tool is the option of automation or side-chaining your guitars to your vocal track. For automation, you can pull the guitars by maybe -1.5/3.0dB when vocals are present and push them back up when not. This makes the vocals more clear and the mix better overall. As for side-chaining, you just set a compressor from the vocal to control your guitars. The same concept as above but you don't have to automate the envelope.

Conclusion

I'm a lifelong guitarist, so of course recording guitars is one of my favorite parts of the process. As mentioned this is a cursory overview of some of the important concepts of recording guitar. Learn the rules, break every one of them, and go lay down some great guitar tracks! About the author: Brandon Stoner runs Audio Ecstasy Productions out of Los Angeles, CA specializing in guitar and backline tech for touring, custom stompbox and cable design for stage and studio, audio engineering, and many other audio and guitar-related services.

30 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    shredder3386
    With a lot of young bands/musicians starting to run digital interfaces directly in to DAW software, I feel like using mics to record is becoming a lost art. I personally prefer the sound of raw amp recording and I would love to learn more about it. Good starting tips in this article!
    RndyW0
    Gotta be a mic in my opinion as well, easier to mix a mic'ed guitar amp than it is routing the guitar directly into an audio interface. Also the sound quality is as this article said, truly a lot better. I have recorded through an audio interface into ProTools directly before but it was nowhere near as crisp, clean and beautiful as the "proper" recording method.
    Kueller917
    I don't know, I still see most recording methods done with microphones. Nothing beats the sound of an amp. However, seeing as I'm going to uni in a few weeks I'm definitely glad for some of those amp simulators for when I have spare time to record since amps aren't allowed.
    Elderer
    I take special care about mic setup. If its done well the rest is cake.
    fastlanestoner
    Thanks for the love guys! It's an honor and a privilege to contribute here. If anyone has any comments or questions please feel free to contact me!
    bevski208
    This is great. Could you possibly do one of these for DI recording bass guitar?
    godisasniper
    Really nice article. Great explanations and some stuff in there that even after years of recording my own guitar parts I had never thought about.
    bevski208
    This is great. Could you possibly do one of these for DI recording bass guitar?
    axeslinger0u812
    I remember the good ol days of grabbing a tape recorder, setting up in an awkwardly shaped kind of oblong circle, and trying to figure out where to hang it to get everyone on a similar level. Lol. Nothing quite like the joy of hitting it on the 8th take.
    )v(egaFan90
    Interesting article man. Unfortunately, it seems to take a bit of cash to be able to gather all the necessary materials to record a good tone with mics and amps. Being a broke college student, this is why I use a digital audio interface but I would definitely like to get into mic-amp recording.
    dudebud
    This is true. Money is unfortunately necessary to getting the sounds we desire.
    ne14t
    Shure SM57 and an Audio Technica AT4040 are the only two mics I ever use, however after purchasing a Tubemeister I have been using it way more to record because of the balanced out I can just crank the amp and really lower the studio monitors or use headphones and never worry about my local strata coming knocking to shut me down. They joys of a home studio in an apartment.
    Miniprize
    practicing whatever you are going to record alot so it is super tight/clean is also useful
    jfitch832
    Great article. When you mention using less gain on your amp for a better sound, even for heavier parts..I've just started recording direct through an interface, so would that mean dialing down the interface's gain? Would that make a heavily distorted part sort of dull or flat?
    GhostPlayground
    I've never liked micing guitar amps, so i'll usually use cables and record the guitar directly to my computer or my portable mixing board. It's a lot simpler, a lot more convenient and i've used it to get some pretty great guitar tones. Of course, sometimes when I record a live band perform it's nice to know about mic placement and amp tones.
    todd6138
    Great advice; I appreciated the article. This website has increased my guitar IQ tenfold.
    Damian Nopulos
    Great tips, the only thing overlooked is between the tracking and mixing process: phase correction. When using multiple microphones on a single source, you must correct any phase cancellation that will no doubt occur. With a DAW, it is as easy as zooming in super close on the multiple tracks and making sure the peaks of the waveforms match. This will result in a much tighter, truer(is that a word?) and full sound, and will save you from pulling your hair out trying to EQ back in all the frequencies lost from phase cancellation. The best way to do it is to shift the furthest mic's waveform back in time to match the closest. It will be small shifts, sometimes down to a few samples, but you will absolutely hear the difference as you shift things into phase.
    ijackson57
    You should specify in your article title that this is for electric not acoustic guitars. Although some of the same things would apply, it's a very different process for acoustic.
    Keitaq
    Step 1: Buy an AxeFx Step 2: Drink a beer Step 3: Record an album
    BlackDeath92
    In case you didn't notice, the article is geared toward beginners, most of whom can't even begin to afford AxeFX.
    theshadow180
    With my Roland Cube 80X I can just plug my amp into my laptop and record using the webcam. Takes a bit of work to iron out the kinks to do with cues and the video's hardly HD but so long as the audio's ok it doesn't matter that much.
    fastlanestoner
    @ jfitch832 - turn down the gain on your modeler, and then gain stage that with the preamp on your interface.
    mastergon
    I'm a beginner and found this article nice. Although some terms I can't relate to like DAW, Mud, DI track etc.