Secret Tips to Recording Guitars
Your drum tracks are all laid out with a booming bass guitar filling in the low end, moving the listener out of their seat, and its finally time to record the almighty guitar. You have two expert guitar players at your disposal in your studio and want to make sure you capture the best performances to truly create a compelling song. What do you need to focus on first? How do translate what they can do into your DAW and maintain the balance of the frequency range of the song.
Following and understanding certain key elements of what makes a guitar so versatile will take your recordings to the next level. Obtaining that radio ready rock guitar is not that hard if you know where to start. From knowing what properly tuned and intonated guitar should sound like to using multiple takes of the same riff to really fill out the song, you can take your recordings from amateur to professional in no time. Learning what frequencies truly make up the heart of the guitar tone too is also part of this journey to amazing guitar tone. Let’s get started!
Properly tuned and intonated guitars
Learning to tune a guitar is probably the first thing most guitar players learn how to do in their journey with the instrument. It’s also the thing most guitarist don’t know how to do effectively. Most guitarist are very inconsistent when it comes to tuning. I would highly recommend tin investing in a very accurate tuner. Whether it be a digital or analog tuner. This tool will take your guitar recordings to another level. The accuracy that a professional tuner can give a guitarist in the studio will allow for a more unified tone.
Chords will ring out in harmony within themselves and multiple takes will sound almost identical with a well-tuned guitar.
Your studio should own one for multiple reasons:
- Professional tuners offer more accuracy when tuning
- If there are more than one guitarist, they will all tune identically
- Tuning between takes will be effortless for the musicians
- Layering guitars will sound smooth and concise
- It makes your studio look more professional
An advance technique is learning how to intonate a guitar. I will admit that this practice can be very intimidating especially when handling someone else’s guitar. In concept it is a very easy process but in practice it involves way more than simply tuning a guitar. Believe me when I say though, learning advanced techniques like this one and putting them into practice in your studio will make you appear professional and reliable and will result in a high return rate for your clients.
Practice intonating your own guitars first before you work with someone else’s equipment.
Check out these Youtube videos on intonation to get a better idea on what and how to do it
Relax on the low end
Next up is understanding that the guitar is not a bass heavy instrument. A common misconception to making a guitar sound beefier is to add low end on the amplifier side. Sure, it sounds big and heavy standing right in front of the amp cabinet but when translated though a microphone, you are going to have a hard time when comes to mixing the guitars against the rest of the instruments. You will actually find yourself cutting most of the low end anyways during the mixing process.
Instead of focusing on the low end so much, try techniques like layering guitars or panning to add that beef you want. There are so many other ways to add natural, healthy low end to your guitar tracks rather than turning that low know all the way to 10.
Let’s look at one of the methods in the next section with layering guitars.
Quad tracking rhythm guitars
Layering guitars is a time-honored technique that has been around since the early days of recording. Simply put, layering is the recording process of recreating the same track more than once. This is why your guitars need to be in tuned throughout the whole recording process. After recording their part, the guitarist will re-record the same part again trying his best to play it exactly the same way he did the first time on a new track.
When we were in the studio and looking for that heavy guitar sound, we often recorded the same guitar part 4 times then panned them hard left and hard right. What resulted was an onslaught of loud and powerful guitars that cut through the mix and held their own against the drums and bass guitar.
A good rule of thumb is to always record the same guitar part at least twice in a session. Whether you use the additional take or not will be decided when mixing but at least you will have it as an option. Better to have it and not need it then to be left thinking “Man, I should have recorded another take!”
Compression can be confusing for the beginner especially when dealing with guitar. Adding compression at the very beginning of the guitar chain can add attack and punch to the guitar output through the amplifier.
You need to understand that compression is already a big part of the guitar sound. An amplifier pushing 100 watts of pure distortion is going to already be naturally compressed. Look at the picture below. There are really no true peaks and valleys in the waveform.
This is why compression at the very beginning of the guitar signal is so important. It will make the initial signal being sent to the guitar cab clean, crisp and punchy. This will then be translated through the guitar cab as a powerful signal which will sound loud and proud when coming out of the speaker then into your mics.
Be sure to experiment with the compressor settings to find the unique settings that will work for your particular situation. Review the signal chain below to see why it is so important to have the compression for the guitar happen early on.
Mid-Range is the key
As you will come to find out in your recording career, most guitarist, along with vocalists, can be very egotistical. It just is what it is. These musicians will often be the most nit peaky and analytical of their recorded parts. Many times, they will often look at what is happening in the mix and find holes in the frequency range that they believe need to be filled. Remind them that a guitar is a mid-range heavy instrument.
Understanding that a guitars job is to fill the mid-range area of the song is so important as an engineer and producer. When recording music, you will realize that there is often a big drop off of mid-range frequencies until the guitars arrive. Adding beef and heaviness for guitars is not found in the low end when recording guitar, it is found in the mid-range.
Boosting the mids on a guitar amplifier or amp simulator will allow the guitar signal to cut through the track. Remember that it is the job of the kick drum and bass guitar to fill out the low end not the guitars. The guitars will add depth and punch in the mid range between 100 khz – 4000 khz.
Remember this when tracking and mixing guitars. It will make life easier when you understand what you need to focus on during the recording process.
Multiple mics on your cab
Using multiple mics on the same source can offer a plethora of benefits from having the ability to capture various tones and emphasize different frequency ranges. Using more than one mic on a single sound source gives you more natural options when the mixing process begins.
All microphones offer something different when it comes to their transient capturing abilities. This can be particularly useful when recording guitars. A guitar amp is another dynamic instrument that can span the entirety of the frequency range. Even the room the guitar amp is being played in can offer what you may be looking for when recording guitars.
I would often use up to 3 mics on the guitar cabinet alone often experimenting with mic placement along the way. I would then place maybe one or two room mics out in the tracking room to capture the sonic information of what was happening in the room with the guitar cabinets. Having all this information at your disposal sonically and on different tracks of your DAW can make it easier to find that sound you are looking for when mixing.
No two guitar cabinets are the same and the tones that can be created by them need to be captured properly. Visit our “How to Mic up a guitar cabinet” blog to gain further insight on how using multiple mics can really enhance your production capabilities.
High End Amp Simulators
In the past you had to really save up and truly invest in your equipment to become a well-recognized and liked artist. Owning brand name guitar amplifiers and cabinets are still no exception. You still get what you pay for nowadays. Although prices have gone down significantly, you are still looking at around a thousand-dollar investment if you are planning on buying a high-end amplifier. Double that if you want a head and cabinet combo. Triple that if you want a full stack to really blow the audience out of the water during live performances.
Fortunately, we live an era where digital modeling sounds extremely close to the real thing. In fact, many of your favorite artist have navigated from lugging around heavy guitar rigs and instead have moved on to high end amp simulators while on tour. We truly live in a remarkable time where the sounds you want can be obtained for a fair price tag.
When most bands start out, their equipment isn’t the best quality or highest grade. This could be because of multiple reasons but the honest answer is, it doesn’t matter. If you own a studio or are planning on charging bands to record with you, one of the biggest investments you can make for yourself and studio is a high-end amp simulator. Brands like Fractal Audio, Kemper and Line 6 offer what most people couldn’t even dream of owning not but 20 years ago in a small form package. You get all kinds of extremely accurate recreations of the classics that have made up the modern music history.
Another great alternative is investing in some virtual plugins that offer the same sounds and recreations of the higher end counterparts. Because the amp simulation is happening in your DAW all you need is to feed it a guitar signal. No heavy amp to setup or guitar cabinet to mic up. Brands IK Multimedia with their virtual plugin Amplitube or Guitar Rig and Waves GTR3 can really fool the listener when it comes to believability.
I have been using amp simulators for years now and have loved every moment of them. Try testing one of these options out and see what inspiration will come of it. I promise you it will take your studio and mixing skills to the next level.
Capturing a great guitar sound in the studio can be intimidating if you don’t understand the basics of what was discussed above. Taking the time to learn why each of the strategies is so important will not only make your session run more smoothly, you’ll capture great sounding guitar tracks each and every time.