Bone crushing to pure, to a sound akin to a washing machine filled with hub caps. The glory that is the electric guitar
Nothing good can follow if the guitar isn’t “set up” properly – it relates to string height and implies string noise – “fretting out”. It also refers to intonation, which means that the guitar is in tune regardless of string or position on the fret board.
New strings! Change them the day before or even a couple. They’ll be stretched and ready to stay rock steady for the session. Tip for stretching your strings: Put the new strings on, wind them up to pitch and then pull up on the string by the pickups, one string at a time, and with your fretting had push down on the string starting at the bottom of the neck and move up. Tune and repeat until after a stretch the tuning stays in. So many guitars do not know how to properly stretch a string – and that slows creativity.
So now you’re ready to track. First, get in the room with the amp and take a listen. Make settings changes from what you hear.
If you’re doing a live band tracking and the guitarist goes back and forth from clean to distorted, make sure the volumes are even between a distorted and cleaner sound. You won’t need the boost for recording (because you can turn it up or down in the mix later) that the players generally wants live. It’s also better to try backing off on the amount of distortion. Again, what sounds good during a live show is generally not the best setting when recording. Back down or turn off the reverb on the amp, unless it’s intricle to the sound. Some choices later are a good thing to have – reverb would be one of those things. Not too much low end. You want frequencies that can be boosted or cut but you don’t wanna have a monstrous spongy low end nor the lack of low end to deal with later in the mix. When in life is monstrous spongy low end ever a good thing? Same goes for shrill. Top end yes, ear slicing lazar is a no. Clarity, sparkle, and impact is the goal. Lots of people say not to track with any effects. It just depends on what you want. I don’t mind tracking with pedals on – delay, chorus, etc. You are committed to that sound once you track it so just make sure it’s cool. I want the player to have the feel they need – without a performance and soul what’s the point of even tracking. Balance the needs and vibe of the player against what’s best for the engineer. When push comes to shove, the players needs should win most of those battles.
Try not to turn the amp up to 11. A moderate volume can do wonders when recording – you’d be amazed how good things can sound with moderate amp volume and good mic placement. It’s well know that many of the rawest, biggest amp sounds on your favorite records were done with smaller rigs. Stacks look cool onstage – same in the studio but that’s why recording is not a visual medium. Scale it down to its essentials.
Stick a mic in front of it. There are loads of mics to choose from and endless ways to mic. The old standard of a Shure 57 (a dynamic mic) off center (right or left , the mic 3 to 6 inches from the center of the cone) and an inch or so off the grill cloth or the mic placed off axis (the mic tuned 20 to 45 degrees away from the speaker). Some people like Senhieser 421’s in the dynamic mic category. Others use large diaphragm condenser mic’s, like the a Neumann U87, and others prefer a ribbon mic. Condensers are used in a similar way to dynamic mics but ribbon I place a little differently. I’ll place a ribbon mic a foot or or even two off the grill and centered with the speaker. I prefer ribbon mic’s for guitar but that’s my taste and maybe not your cup of tea. Generally I try to baffle off around the speaker and mic when using a ribbon because it can get very roomy sounding in a hurry – and sometimes roomy is a great thing. Just depends and what you’re going for. Ribbons are a figure 8 patter which means they’ll pick sound up from the front and back – thus the baffling around the back of the mic.
More mics don’t always make it merrier. If using two mics make sure your phasing is correct. With both channels at equal levels and panned center, hit the phase button above one of the track. If it’s small it’s wrong, if it’s big it’s right. If things still don’t feel right you can enlarge your view of the two tracks and ever so slightly adjust the wave of one track to align perfectly with the other.
Some people don’t have the luxury of recording a guitar amp or a good enough sounding rig. This is where a D.I. box (direct injection box) is your BFF. A cable from the guitar to the “in” of a DI box – the mic line out of the DI to a channel on your mixing consol or audio interface. Many of you will have a ¼ inch input on your audio interface/mic pre – if you do, just take the cable from the guitar directly to that input.
If you’re recording a DI track you can throw one of the zillion amp simulators on it. Don’t record the simulators when tracking – just the DI signal itself. Just use the simulator to monitor as you’re tracking. Some of you might have Guitar Pods, or the like, and once the track is recorded with a simulator there is no way to change or redefine. You have my blessing to go on ahead and track it with amp simulation on if you don’t have a plug in amp simulator that can be used on the DI signal later. If you do, start flipping through amps and pick the one that sounds right for the track.
Some like micing the tubes on the back of a combo amp, some like room mics, some use multiple amps simultaneously with a mic, or even two, on each and then blend them together later in the mix, some like amp and DI. Cool. Go for it. Get what you want to hear but this will not necessarily mean “bigger”.
If you have the luxury of different mic pres, match the pre to the tone you want. If you have a compressor in the chain I suggest a lighter dip into compression – you can always smash the crap out of it later in the mix. Just enough compression to get a good hot level in but not enough to squeeze it to death.
Some use EQ as they are tracking. Unless there is something horrible happening that you know you’ll have to deal with later and moving a mics placement or a different kind of mic is not an option, I generally do not track with EQ – unless there is an incredibly musical sounding analogue EQ available. If it doesn’t sound good then move the mic before you move your finger to the EQ.