Tone To Tape: Tips For Recording Electric Guitar

A common complaint among guitarists is that the sound of their guitar on tape never seems to compare favorably to the sound they are used to hearing out of their amp. Similarly, I have heard complaints that the guitar doesn't sound 'big' enough, or that it sounds 'cheesy'. There are several ways to improve the sound of your electric guitar on tape; what's important to remember is that every tip will work some of the time. In other words, a lot of experimentation is sometimes necessary when trying to get the right sound to match the guitar part you are recording. Guitarists are sometimes guilty of trying to find THE guitar sound or THE ultimate tone, when truthfully a great sound is great when it fits within the context of the song or musical phrase.

An example of this is when you take the output of a multi-effects guitar processor straight into the mixing board, using the distortion or overdrive on the unit. Since the output is designed to be fed into a preamp, direct box, or amplifier, the direct sound can sound overly buzzy and harsh. However, this may be just the shock effect you're looking for in a section of a song, even if you wouldn't consider using such a sound for the entire song. 'Bad' sounds can really sound great when used sparingly and deliberately for maximum impact. So for every 'rule' you might learn as a way to improve your tone, there exists exceptions that make that crummy sound you can't stand into a perfect compliment to the tracks already recorded.

For the purposes of this article however, let's assume you have an intense dislike for the guitar sound you are hearing when playing back your rough mixes, and that you need some ideas that will get you closer to the great sound you hear in your head.

Going Direct

If you've always close-miked your Marshall stack or Fender Twin and recorded the result, you may be surprised at the flexibility and control you can have over your sound by bypassing the amplifier and going directly into the mixing board.

My favorite way to record today is to take the output of a guitar preamp or guitar multi-effects box and plug it into a guitar cabinet emulator, such as the ADA MicroCAB or the SansAmp. The output of the cabinet emulator is then connected to the mixing board. Cabinet emulators don't cost much more than simple direct boxes, but they typically allow you to select the type and size of guitar cabinet, tune the low end and adjust cabinet brightness while preserving your guitar's tone. They even have a bypass switch, for those times when you absolutely have to have that buzzy distortion. The end result is a great simulation of difficult and time-consuming miking techniques that can be changed by the press of a button!

Even when recording clean guitar sounds, using a cabinet emulator will provide clarity and definition to your sound without a loss of tone, while providing a repeatability and consistency to your recorded sound.

If you're hooked on the Marshall or Fender sound you can still connect the preamp outputs from your guitar amp into most cabinet emulators and have the best of both worlds; consistent sound and an end to concerns about the acoustical properties of the room you're recording in, complaints from neighbors, leakage from the drums, etc.

Miking: When Going Direct is Not an Option

In addition to blowing your inheritance on several Neumann mikes (U87s, SM-57s, 421s, KM-84s) or an AKG 414 (you do have all these mikes, don't you?) there are several techniques for mike placement that will help you get a great sound from your favorite amp.

Some producers and engineers favor a single mike for recording guitars. Start out by placing the mike close to (an inch or two) the center of the speaker cone. You may want to get someone to move the mike as you play; moving the mike an inch or two can really make a big difference in the sound. Keep moving it until you find the position that yields the best sound. You can also keep the mike where it is and angle it differently, and that will also change the sound. Once you get the mike where you like it, be very careful not to move it; one quarter-inch from where the mike is positioned can destroy the magical tone you've locked into.

If you are in a good sounding room, you may want to experiment with putting the mike across the room, a technique called ambient, or distant miking. The main disadvantage of this approach is that you have effectively painted yourself into a corner; the room appears in the mix whether you like it or not. In addition, your sound may lack presence and detail, compared to a close-miking situation.

If you use two mikes, you can try placing one close to the speaker, and one farther away to capture the sound the amplifier makes with the room. Then you can blend the two sounds together at mix down, or, if you decide the room sound doesn't add anything to the mix, remove it completely. Keep in mind, with two mikes you may encounter coloration and phase cancellation as you experiment with the actual mike placement. This can work to your advantage; sometimes the harsh frequencies can be canceled out. If too many frequencies are canceled out however, the result will sound strange and lifeless -- you'll have to move one of the mikes until the sound is acceptable.

Another combination you can try is close-miking with two mikes. Place one microphone at the edge of the speaker cone, and one mike dead-center. Again, experiment with the angles and the actual distance from the cone, until you find the sound you like.

There are obviously a lot of variables associated with getting a great sound using these miking techniques. Just keep in mind what you're after. Do you want to reduce the high-end screech? Are you interested in a rhythm sound with lots of low-end? Are you looking at phase cancellation as a way to knock out some of the midrange? Just be patient, and if you have to put the amp in the bathtub and the mike in the toilet bowl to get a sound, then do it! I wanna hear what that sounds like!

Doubling: Twice the Tone or Twice the Muck?

When you play back your recorded tracks and find yourself wishing you could 'thicken' a thin-sounding guitar part, steal a trick from the orchestra. In order to thicken orchestral parts, arrangers usually use three or more instruments to 'double' a part. There are several techniques you can use to double your parts, all of which have their advantages in certain musical situations.

You can use this idea when you've recorded a decent sounding, fairly involved rhythm guitar part and you want to quickly add some thickness. Copy the tape track to an open track, and on playback, pan one track hard left and one track hard right. With some recording systems you can delay the second track between 1 and 20 milliseconds so that it sounds a bit more like two different guitar parts. To accomplish this with a traditional analog multi-track, play the original track back through a digital delay line first and record the output of the delayed signal only. Since the two parts are on separate tracks, you can apply different amounts of reverb or other effects to further distinguish the two parts from each other.

If you've got the available tracks you can repeat the above idea with a manually doubled guitar part, yielding a total of four tracks of kickin' rhythms when you only played two. Simply play the part again but do your best to maintain the same inflections and phrasing as the original part. Manually doubling a part can range from being very easy (in the case of a simple rhythm part) or very difficult (perhaps requiring many takes, punch-ins and punch-outs). Even if the second part is a far cry from an exact double, you may find that the differences make the overall sound more interesting than the auto-doubling method described above.

Some guitarists (can you say Steve Vai?) favor doubling with a pitch shifter. Set the pitch shifter to a slight detuning; you don't necessarily want to start off with an extreme setting. You can pitch shift up or down, but if you've never tried this before, try a downward detuning first. Record the unshifted sound and the shifted sound to different tracks and pan 'em, level 'em and process 'em to taste.

Mixing Options: Compression and EQ

Using compression on your guitar tracks ensures the tracks are 'forward' in the mix. Start with a 3:1 ratio at a threshold of -10 dB, and use more drastic compression when you feel the part demands it.

Excessive midrange- and high-frequency boosts can really turn a mix into a harsh, brittle mess. One option you have is to cut the bass frequencies to improve the articulation, instead of cranking the midrange and high-end. If you want somewhat warmer tones, try boosting bass frequencies within the 120 Hz to 720 Hz range. If you insist your sound still lacks attack, you might try a boost in the 3.5 kHz to 7.5 kHz range.

And In Conclusion...

Mix and match these techniques until you find a sound you are really happy with for the specific guitar part you are working on. Don't be afraid to experiment and try something extreme; it just may fit beautifully into the mix at the end of the day. Thou shalt have 'big guitar'...

Dan McAvinchey is a guitarist and composer living in Raleigh, NC.

He believes every musician or composer has the power to write, record and release their own music.

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