Recording & Mixing Guitars in the Studio

by | Oct 4, 2012 | Best Electric Guitars, Music Production

Part 1 of 2

What’s the best way to record and mix electric and acoustic guitars?  We have found that there is no “one way” to do anything in the studio, but here are some tried and true methods that are usually good places to start.  One thing we have learned over the years is that a cheap electric guitar can sound great but an acoustic guitar is an entirely different beast.  There’s no covering up for a crappy acoustic. No amount of processing and/or mic placement can make up for the lack of depth and soul that a well-crafted guitar like a Taylor or Martin exudes.

Miking the Cabinet

Usually, we record rhythm guitar as part of the rhythm section tracking, along with drums, bass and keys.  And even in a well-designed studio, mic leakage from other instruments is still usually an issue to consider.  Also, most guitarists will be stomping on their appropriately named stomp boxes during the take, so you’ll want to place the mic as close to the cabinet grill as possible, often within one inch.  Our favorite mics for this are dynamic mics (often the Sennheiser e609 or Shure SM57).  Because the mic is so close to the speaker cone, its location will color the sound.  The best way to find this sweet spot without losing your hearing is to place the mic about mid-cone, record a bit of a warm-up take with the full rhythm section and then play it back in the control room.  Is the guitar too dull?  Try moving the mic closer to the center of the speaker cone. 

That Phat Sound

If you have the time, energy and a condenser mic to spare, you can get an even “phatter” sound – but it takes more work and there will probably be more bleed from other instruments – so you may want to try this miking method on overdubs only.  Setup a large diaphragm condenser mic about 18” to 24” away from the amp.  In the control room, turn down the fader on your close dynamic mic (in case your skimming, see section above) all the way and listen to the guitarist play.  Do you hear a little more air and sizzle?  But probably not enough grit?  Now start turning up the dynamic mic fader and you will likely start to hear a funny, out-of-phase effect called “comb filtering.”  This is because the sound waves are hitting the two mics at different times and some of the frequencies are canceling out.  While the band is warming up, go back into the recording space with a set of headphones on and begin slowly moving the close mic until the phase cancellation miraculously disappears and you hear a perfect blend.  Now STOP and don’t let anyone move anything, EVEN A BIT.  Now you can see why recording sessions can take so long!

Blending the Two

After the take is recorded you should now have two separate electric guitar tracks, one airy and the other gritty.  They often sound great hard panned left and right.  You can send both these tracks to a single bus and apply compression (usually a 4:1 ratio, ~20ms attack and ~20ms release are good starting points).  Adjust the threshold until you get a crunchy sound, but don’t go too far and make it flat and lifeless.

High & Dry

If at all possible, record your guitar tracks without reverb.  If your guitarist whines, try dialing in some reverb from the effects send of your mixer into the headphone mix.  That way the band will hear reverb on the guitar during tracking but it will still get recorded dry.  Why do this?  Because you can always add reverb but you can’t dial it back later.   During mixdown, add reverb sparingly and try to use the smallest room size possible – distorted guitars usually sound “sexier” with small plate or room settings with short decays.  Clean guitar can usually take more reverb in slightly larger spaces.  Delays can also work on clean guitars (not distorted) in very small amounts – the formula to start with is BPM x 0.6 = milliseconds of delay time.  So for example, in a song at 120 BPM, a clean rhythm guitar part might benefit from a delay of 72ms.  Use EQ filters on the delay to hone in on frequencies that enhance the sound (start with dropping off below 500 Hz and cutting off above 5 kHz).  Limit the feedback to 2 or 3 taps so you don’t muddy things up and try spreading the delays out in the stereo field for a super sexy sound.

Double Tracking & Panning

Very often after we have tracked a killer rhythm take, we’ll have the guitarist track a second rhythm guitar part right away, while the rest of the band hangs out in the control room making fun of him (why do soundproof walls with windows bring out the worst in people?)  You should bring up the volume of the original guitar track in their headphone mix while s/he overdubs so that the two will be as close, rhythmically, as possible.  The two tracks have to be tight together or the effect becomes pointless. This second track may not get used, but it’s good to have and hard to get later when things have been moved and settings on amps and effects pedals have been changed.  This applies to all rhythm guitar tracks, so if there is a clean electric guitar part or an acoustic guitar track, you will want to double track those as well.  Now you can see why it’s important to have comfy couches in the control room for the rest of the band!

[editor’s note – Read “Part 2” in the November print issue of Performer.]

Zac Cataldo is a musician and owner/producer at Night Train Studios, a recording studio in Westford, MA.  He is also co-owner of Black Cloud Productions, a music publishing company. Reach him at [email protected].

Brent Godin is a bassist/guitarist and engineer/ producer at Night Train Studios and talent scout at Black Cloud Productions.  Reach him at [email protected].