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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.
In Part 1, we covered mic placement, fattening up your tone, recording dry and with reverb, double tracking rhythm parts and panning guitars in the mix. Part 2 continues below.
Opening the Mix
When layering acoustic and electric guitar parts, it’s important for each to reside in their own space: usually expressed as depth (reverb/delay), panning and frequency (EQ). Often we’ll try hard panning (70 – 100%) the two guitar parts (one left, one right) to see if they create a nice stereo spread. Remember to also pan any effects sends like reverb that you have on the guitar, as well. If it just starts sounding like mud, then we’ll try something else. If it works though, this stereo spread can open up the mix for the lead vocal, bass, kick and snare, which usually reside in the middle and share many of the same frequencies. You can also try reversing the phase of the doubled tracks, which can often create a neat stereo phase effect, also leaving room for vocals in the middle of the mix. We’ll almost always do a low frequency roll-off (starting around 80Hz) to the guitar tracks because there isn’t any useful information down there anyway. When the vocals are cut, we’ll start to do some subtractive EQ on the guitars, as well (usually starting our search around 500Hz with a fairly wide Q) to make room for the vocals. All of these adjustments are best done while listening to the full mix, NOT the guitar soloed.
Guitar Amp Plug-ins
If during your rough mix session you still aren’t pleased with your guitar sounds, try using a guitar amp plug-in (we like Native Instruments Guitar Rig). It’s like having every possible pedal board and amp combination at your fingertips (take that 9-volts!) Remember when we urged you to record your guitar tracks dry? Amp simulator plug-ins generally don’t sound very good when the input track is already wet. In fact, they tend to get muddied up pretty quickly. It’s fun to scroll through the presets and then fine tune once you’ve found something that fits. Feel free to run your signal through all those vintage Fender, Vox and Marshall simulators, but be sure to choose a final plug-in that’s still appropriate for the track you’re cutting.
Anti-Intuitive Knob Turning
What if the guitars just aren’t doing it for you in the mix? It’s not about science. It’s about what sounds good. Try to mix with the levels as low in the control room monitors as you can. We know it’s not as sexy as blasting it, but loud monitoring usually creates mixes that fight themselves, not to mention create severe ear fatigue. Get a good rough mix going and then throw out some of the “rules” and start turning some knobs (or dragging your mouse around) and try not to watch the screen or think too much while you’re doing it. Just listen and take notes. You can always “undo” what you did (ah, my friend ⌘+Z), so let your creative brain have fun and tell your rational brain to chill out for a while. Some of the best mixes have come about through “mistakes,” so don’t be afraid to push the envelope.
[editor’s note – catch up on what you missed in “Part 1” by heading here.]
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].