Guitar tones in modern music are louder and heavier than ever. The big, crushing riffs so prevalent in modern rock and metal would doubtless scare the pants off the progenitors of years past. If you record at home, you may have experienced a lot of frustration getting these tones to work with your recordings.
I’ve been on both sides of the glass, as a touring guitar player and recording engineer for nearly 15 years, with most of my experience being in hard rock and heavier genres. In this article, I’ll lay out some of the techniques I’ve learned for getting an “in-your-face” heavy guitar tone recorded well, and getting it to sit in the rock mix.
Amp settings are not the same in a recording.
Just because the amp sounds right in front of you doesn’t mean it’ll translate that way in the recording. You must take into account the response of the mics in front of the amp. For example, a Shure SM57 (a common choice as an amp mic) has noticeable top-end “bite” to it. Your ear doesn’t. Compensate the amp’s tone settings to balance.
Ease up on the distortion, cowboy!
The saturation associated with a ton of gain sounds great when you’re sitting in front of the amp, but it takes away from the string attacks when recording. There’s a twist to this one: you perceive the string attacks when you’re playing because you feel them. But the listener may not perceive the same attack. Exercise moderation, and your sound will be stronger.
Double up. Double up.
Nothing thickens up a rhythm track like doubling it. The rub is that sometimes it’s darn hard to play the exact same thing, the exact same way, twice. Thankfully, there’s a workaround. On your recorder, simply copy the finished track, and use delay to offset it slightly. When you do this, set your delay (in milliseconds) to a prime number to alleviate phase issues associated with offsetting two identical waveforms. I’ve found 53 milliseconds of delay, with the two tracks panned pretty hard left and right, works quite nicely.
Go mic crazy.
I typically employ an SM57 at 45 degrees very close to the speaker, with a Royer R121 ribbon mic faced directly at the speaker up close as well. In addition, a large-diaphragm condenser mic (I use a Rode NT2000) placed a few feet back from the amp to grab some of the room ambience will add dimensionality. Sometimes a second SM57 will serve very well in front of the guitar (yes, I suggest mic’ing your electric guitar) to grab the pick attacks.
Be direct... and be thankful later.
Use a direct box as your first connection from the guitar. I favor the Countryman Type 85, as it sounds right for me. This will give you a split that you can run directly to its own recording input. Now you have a dry track that you can process with guitar amp software, such as IK Multimedia’s Amplitube, or Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig or that you can re-amp later. If you have a re-amp box (my favorite being the Radial X-Amp), you can run the recorded dry track back out, and record it though an amp again. This is nice if the feel of the take was great the first time, but the amp wasn’t sounding right.
Don’t step on anyone’s toes.
Today’s heavy music seems to keep pushing the gain up and the tunings down. The low B string on a baritone or 7-string guitar sounds absolutely huge, but it also lives in the same frequency range as the bass guitar, and the lower toms and kick drum. To keep your guitar tracks from stepping on the drums and bass, get creative with EQ. My approach is to prioritize the frequencies according to which instrument is in control of the downbeats. An example of when the guitar would be the priority would be a percussive metal riff like the verse of Pantera’s “Revolution Is My Name,” where the root notes control the groove.
Now smile... not too much!
A trend in heavy guitar is to suck out the mids. This “smiley-face” EQ has gotten so popular some amps have mid-scoop switches. Fizzy top and fat bottom sound big and authoritative, but when it comes to being percussive and maintaining definition, midrange is your friend. I like my lows at about 60-70%, highs at about 70-80% and mids at 40-50%.
In summary, use everything in moderation. With a little practice and tweaking, these principles will help pave the road to monster guitar tracks. Now go and create something truly frightening!