I've been asked quite a bit about my tone and the recording techniques
used on my debut album. Of course, tone itself is subjective, and people are going
to have their own opinions on what "good" tone is all about. The focus of this article is not to discuss various effects that color your sound. It is more of a guide for the instrumental guitarist so thathe/she can produce recordings that sound great and are easy on the ears. It will also touch on a few pointers that may not be
so obvious for some people, particularly those new to digital recording.
There are so many options, so how do you know what to buy? When I first got
into recording, I asked myself the same question. I managed to figure it out through
a lot of trial and error, so I'm hoping this will save you some time.
First, it's important to realize that you can achieve great sound without spending thousands of dollars. The important thing is that you buy a recording interface with good preamps. PreSonus makes some killer gear in that respect, and the price is very reasonable.
You can also go the DigiDesign/Pro Tools route, but it is more expensive. I've used both the PreSonus FirePod and the DigiDesign 002r to record my album and
there is no audible difference between the two. Of course, I'm talking about DigiDesign LE systems here. HD systems are entirely different and beyond the scope of this article.
Second, the cables. Cables play a huge role in quality. If you're going
to spend a lot of money, spend it on good cables, preferably balanced ones. Mogami
makes some of the best cable you can buy, but they're also very expensive. Monster offers a less expensive alternative that will also get the job done. This is a very important point - don't skimp on cables!
Third, if you're micing your amp, make sure you use a quality microphone. Just like cables, microphones have a big impact on sound quality. You generally get what you pay for with microphones, so I would recommend a good large diaphragm condenser in the ballpark of $500. Blue and Rode make some excellent microphones in
that price range. If you're looking to spend less money, you should pick up a Shure SM-57 dynamic mic - they are considered the "old reliable" multipurpose mics by many professional recording engineers. You can get one for under $100, and it's one of the better $100 mics you can buy.
So what software should you use? Does it even matter? Some extremists say that
the host application can dramatically affect sound quality, but I personally disagree. The host application's job is to control the digital information going to and from the AD/DA (analog-to-digital/digital-to-analog) converters of the hardware unit. You control the sampling and bit rates, which are the main factors that influence the sound quality from a host application standpoint. Plugins are a different story, since they are purposely designed to alter a digital signal.
Basically, you want a host application that offers a lot of practical features and doesn't crash every ten minutes. Sonar is very stable on the Windows XP platform, just as
Pro Tools is very stable on the Mac platform. It really comes down to what
you're most comfortable using.
When was the last time you changed those strings? Are the pickups in top-notch shape? How about the action and truss rod adjustments? All these things, among others, affect your tone both directly and indirectly, so it's important to pay attention to them.
Always use new strings before recording. People have come to me asking why
their guitars won't stay in tune, and the first thing I ask them is, "How long has it been since you changed the strings?" Old strings become like worn out rubber bands and don't stay in tune very well. They also lose their crispness from being coated with grime. Make sure you change them before you start recording anything.
Pickups are also important. Consider changing them if they're too noisy. Also make sure they are adjusted to be as close to the strings as possible (obviously, without contacting the strings while you're playing).
While action and truss adjustments may not affect your tone as directly as old,
worn out strings, they can affect your playing, which indirectly has an effect on
your tone. For example, if the action is too high, you might not get the attack
you're shooting for on those long legato runs. If the truss rod is misaligned, you might
lose some sustain or encounter buzzing. It's a good idea to have a professional look at your axe before you start recording with it. The last thing you want is to record half an album and then decide to make a change for the better, leaving the stuff you've already recorded to sound inferior. Do yourself a favor by minimizing mistakes
and saving time.
Now it's time to make some decisions. Do you want to preserve your "live" sound by micing your amp, or do you plan on going direct? This is totally up to you. Personally,
I like going direct because it eliminates noises from bleeding into the microphone,
but that's just me. If you decide you want to mic your amp, there are a few things that will affect your tone on the recording, like choice of microphone, microphone placement, and room acoustics. There is no "right" way to do this stuff because there are so many variables involved. You ultimately have to experiment and see what combination gives you the sound you want.
One thing you should definitely consider when recording is limiting your use of
outboard effects. As a general rule, only use what you absolutely must in order to
achieve the core sound you want. This usually doesn't go much further in your chain than your gain-based effects, like overdrive and compression. These effects, along with certain wah sounds, define your core sound. Other modulation and ambient effects can be added digitally with plugins. Some of you might be thinking, "but it just won't sound the same." All I'm going to say is that most quality software plugins, like those from Waves, can produce some amazing results. You can most likely reproduce, or at least come pretty damn close, to any outboard mod or ambient effect through a quality digital plugin.
Now with that said, consider the following:You record everything outboard,
including that untouchable analog delay unit that you've sworn by for all those years. After you finally nail the lead lines down, you decide that the delay is a bit off from the tempo of the song. How can you fix it?
You can't. Now, if you had just recorded your "core" sound and added a strikingly similar digital delay through a plugin, all you'd have to do is tweak the settings in the plugin. Done. It's just something to think about in terms of saving time and minimizing mistakes. Digital recording offers a lot of flexibility, so it makes more sense to
take advantage of what it offers, at least to me.
The way you pan guitar parts and EQ certain parts can really make a recording
shine. I like to double up all of my rhythm parts and pan them hard left and hard
right to give the backing tracks a natural chorus-like fullness. Sometimes I'll also add in a third guitar dead center and tweak it even more with that. I also try to use different
guitars to give each instrument its own space in the mix. Layering guitar parts is
the best way to get a full sounding rhythm section. Some people suggest cloning a
part and shifting it slightly ahead or behind in time so that the two waves forms
don't sound like a single guitar panned dead center. This just doesn't
sound right, but some people do it because they don't feel like recording a
rhythm track over again. Don't be lazy, just do it - it will sound a thousand times better if you do it that way.
In terms of EQ, it's another one of those things where there's no right or wrong way to go about it. As a general rule, always try cutting frequencies rather than boosting them. For example, if a guitar track sounds muddy, try cutting around 200hz instead of boosting at 3khz. Cutting sounds much more natural. Also bear in mind that most of an electric guitar's output is in the midrange. In some situations, especially where the same guitar is used on multiple tracks, the midrange can build up to levels that really become unpleasant to listen to after a few minutes. What I like to do is take a
wide, 3dB cut out of the midrange on the rhythm guitars. This will give them more of
a crunchy metal-like sound and leave a lot more headroom in the midrange for the
lead guitar parts. It also allows the lead to cut through the mix more.
Once you have your tracks positioned in the stereo field and EQ'd to a
point where your ears aren't fighting off certain frequencies, you can start
adding mod and ambient effects like chorus, flange and delay. This is one of the cooler parts of mixing, for me personally. I love using stereo panning delay on my leads, so much that it has become a trademark of my sound. The thing to remember here is to use these effects sparingly. You can easily kill a great groove with too much ambience or some cheesy phase effect that just doesn't belong. Don't use effects just because you can - make sure the music calls for it. It's really an art, so let your ears be the ultimate judges.
I've tried to highlight some important points related to hardware, software, guitar
maintenance, recording basics, tracking tips, equalization ideas, and the use of
effects. The important thing to understand is that all of these things contribute to the final mix. In the near future, I will cover some mastering techniques that I use on my own recordings, and explain how to save yourself a lot of money by mastering your own projects. I will also attempt to demystify the mastering process and talk about the tools and concepts necessary for creating a master that slams! Until then, rock on!