If you have followed my series of articles on guitar recording techniques, hopefully you have captured some killer electric guitar tracks, and now you want to fit them into your song at mix down. Well, to make it all gel you need to get them to relate to all the elements in the mix, and how you treat it them is going to depend on the type of music, how many other elements such as instruments and vocals there are to have to blend in with, and whether they are lead parts or rhythm tracks. Often times I have two rhythm guitar parts each recorded with three microphones, a lead guitar part also recorded using three microphones, and maybe a harmony guitar recorded the same way, and all on seperate tracks. That's twelve tracks to find a home for! So what is on the palette we have to work with to paint this musical picture? Follow me and I will show you.
Sometimes the subtle use of a compressor can help bring a guitar to the fore front of a mix. This is an especially helpful tool when used on a lead guitar that is getting a bit lost. Choosing the right ratio is important here. You may decide to go for a light ratio such as 2.5:1 and a lowish threshold, maybe set to kick in at 60-70 percent of the volume, or a higher ratio of maybe 8:1 and a high threhold of 80-90 percent so it acts more like a limiter for peaks. You can then use your makeup gain to bring the level up a bit to compensate for any loss in overall volume. As with anything, let your ears be the final judge. Listen for degradation of the sound such as a muffling or pumping, and adjust as necessary. The attack time may be the parameter to adjust here. You might think that instant response would be ideal, but in practice a slight delay in time between the signal increase and the onset of compression often results in a more musical and less muffled sound. If you get distortion in the audio... back off on the attack time a little, or set the threshold higher, and the ratio lower. If your audio starts sounding muffled, then slow down the attack time and lower the ratio to let some of the transients pass through before the "squashing" occurs. Set your release time to acheive a smooth result without pumping affects unless you think they are desireable.
I usually roll off or cut the very low frequences from the guitar so they don't interfere with the bass instruments. In a rock mix I may take everything out below 80 or 90 hz on a rhythm track, and below 150 hz on a lead track. Then we get to the overall equalization to get the guitar to find it's place in the frequency cluttered world of the mix. Personally, if I have to boost any frequency by more than 5-6 db I start looking for answers elsewhere. In fact, I prefer to use subtractive EQ rather than boosting where possible.By this I mean if the guitar is getting buried in the mix, I look for a frequency to cut by a small amount in one or more of the other instruments, to create a nice hole for the guitar to punch through. I think a slight boost at a specific frequency for one instrument, with a corresponding small cut at around the same frequency in another instrument occupying the same range, often works better than cranking the heck out of the EQ to get it to "poke out" in a cluttered mix. Having said that I often add a boost to an electric guitar somewhere between 2 khz and 4 khz to get a bit more bite. Maybe a little boost a bit higher as well between 5-6 khz might work too. If the guitar sounds muddy, look to knock a tad off in the 200-400 hz range. The setting of equalization is always going to have to be tailored to suit all the elements present in a mix.
Where you sit your guitars in the mix can play a really large part in how big or small they will sound in the end. Often I have two electric guitar rhythm tracks and will pan them left and right. I might have a bit of space between the the two close mics I usually have on a cabinet. Maybe one mic at 7 o'clock and one at 8 o'clock for one amp, and with any room mic panned hard to the right. On the other amp I might pan the mics at 4 o'clock and 5 o'clock, with the room mic panned hard left. This technique gives a huge 'wall of guitar' sound. It may not work so well if you have keyboards and an acoustic guitar to fit in with. In that case you may need to have one of the rhythm tracks turned down in volume considerably, and panned closer in the spectrum to the other track so it is only there to add a hint of extra body.
With a lead guitar I usually avoid spreading the mics far apart in the stereo field unless I have a good reason to do otherwise, so I place them together at the center, or only a little way off center at 10 o'clock or 2 o'clock, with any room mic perhaps panned a few degrees away from them.You may choose not to use the room mic at all . This should bring the lead to the fore front, and help it bite through without getting mushed into the rhythm tracks. Generally you don't want a wall of sound in a lead guitar, but more for it to cut through the other instruments. If you have recorded directly through an effects box with no amp mics used at all, then still follow these basic panning ideas: Seperate the keyboards to one side of the mix and your guitar to the other side, maybe not hard-panned but partially to one side. Seperate any acoustic guitar from the electric guitar in the same way to avoid clutter. The main point to remember is to try and give each instrument it's own bit of air space.
You may have recorded with effects on the guitar from the beginning, or maybe you have a dry sound recorded and want to add some effects now. Reverbs can be used to help blend a guitar into a mix. Maybe start with a shortish reverb with about 1.2 secs or so, with just a little in the mix and then add a plate or large hall reverb to thicken and smoothen the sound up a bit. Don't overdo the amount of reverb as the guitar will sound too far away and indistinct. You can even try panning the reverb a bit away from the main guitar sound if you want. A delay timed to the track can work really nicely, especially on a lead guitar part in combination with a good reverb. Timing the delay to the track is important for it to sound smooth but unobtrusive. The delay can be panned a bit away from the main track for effect as well as to keep it from becoming a mush of sound. There are numerous other effects you can use, and I won't go into them here. Experiment a bit and you may find some good combinations. The use of amp and speaker modelling can add color to your tracks if you want to change the character of what you have captured. There are some pretty good ones around available as plugins or in outboard units.
This is just a brief overview on mixing with regards to electric guitar. It is largely a matter of experimenting, and there are many other ideas to try out besides these, but hopefully I have armed you with enough ammo to have a good shot at firing out a good mix. We should all be learning as we go, and our mixes should improve the more we do it. I hope this all helps give you a few clues on the tools you have at your disposal... now go grab a fader, twist a knob, or throttle a mouse and see what you can come up with!
Tony Koretz is a musician, singer, songwriter and audio engineer, based in New Zealand. He is involved in all aspects of music production, from writing and playing music to recording, mixing and mastering.
He runs Rocksure Soundz Ltd, a recording and production company.