Learn what it takes to capture everything you, your guitar and your amp are putting out. It’s not as tough or mysterious as you think.
It’s actually pretty easy to record guitar tracks and get great results. Much easier than a drum set! Whether you’re recording with your band at a commercial studio or multitracking at home as a one-man studio band, capturing a good tone from the very beginning is essential for having a great end product. Read on as we talk about gear and player preparation, mics and mic placement, isolation, effects and more.
It starts with you and your gear
At the beginning of every signal chain is the player. An engineer friend once told me, “The performer is the most important part of the recording process, followed by their instrument, then the mics, outboard gear, mic pre’s etc…”
This is an essential concept to remember in the studio. It doesn’t matter how much your mic is worth if you can’t play a G chord, right? Take Eddie Van Halen for example. He pieced a guitar together from factory seconds and changed the world of electric guitar forever. In both cases the player is more important than the gear.
Get your recording session off on the right foot by preparing your parts and choosing the right guitars and amps for the session. At the very least, check the action and intonation on your guitars. If time permits, fresh strings are good too. But if they are too new you might have tuning issues at the session. I try to change my strings a few days ahead of a big session for tuning stability and a slightly warmer tone. Always have a guitar tuner. I obsessively tune during recording sessions. You can be slightly out of tune and not notice until playback. If you don’t already have a good tuner, the BOSS TU-3 pedal or TU-10 are solid choices.
Be sure to fire up your amps as well. Dial in a good tone then snap a quick picture or write down the settings. This will be a good starting point when you get to the session. While you're dialing your amp in, listen closely for any buzzes or rattles coming from the amp. These can ruin a guitar track and are usually easily fixed by tightening screws, removing debris, securing tubes etc. Also be sure you are not picking up hard drive noise or getting pickup noise from your monitor. Many of the mistakes made while tracking can easily be avoided with close listening, saving big mixdown hassles later.
Here is a nice slapback delay setting for the MXR Carbon Copy Delay pedal. Take snapshots of good amp and pedal settings so you can quickly dial them in later.
Why isolation’s good for you
If possible, I like to put my amps in a separate room from the console and monitors. This is fairly easy to do with a long guitar cable and some long XLR cables. Benefits include tracking headphone-free without the monitors bleeding into the guitar tracks as well as getting a more accurate sense of your tone, mic placement, etc. Without the amp in the room you are only hearing what the mics are capturing.
Many times it’s just not possible to have a separate space for the amp. But isolation is still the goal if anything else is being tracked in the room. Get creative. I keep blankets around and use them regularly to build temporary isolation areas in the studio.
Use blankets to isolate instruments that share the same tracking room.
Consider investing in a Morley ABY switcher or the Fulltone ABY if you’re recording a lot. They provide a nice clean split of your guitar signal for tracking two amps at once or recording a dry guitar signal for reamping later. (Reamping is when you record the guitar direct for future playback through the amp. This gives you and the engineer infinite control of the tone of your track). It’s important to realize that the effects you record with (including gain) cannot be changed or removed later. So choose them wisely!
Why track dry?
I nearly always record dry guitar parts. In addition to having greater control over reverb, delay and other effects, when they’re added in the mixing process your mono guitar track can be transformed into stereo complete with effects!
Adding effects to your guitar tracks during mixdown allows you to more precisely control their impact on the overall mix.
There are times when I want to track reverbs and delays for ambient uses and time-based stuff. A couple of examples include using tap-tempo delay for the tempo of a track or playing off your delay and/or long-trail reverb. When tracking these effects live, I still try for stereo. It takes creativity but most delay and reverb pedals are stereo, so it is possible. It’s also okay to use a little amp reverb or delay to feel more comfortable while tracking. You can still run it through the stereo effects later without issue. You may also want to track with effects if you won’t be involved in mixing the session and want greater control over the final guitar sound.
But remember, in the end, every great recording starts with a great performance!
Putting mics in their place
The Shure SM57 is a legendary microphone for capturing the sound of guitar amps, and the most beautiful thing is it’s totally affordable! One of these near the edge of the speaker cone and I’m good to go for a great jazz guitar sound. If I’m recording distorted guitars, I like two SM57s going to separate tracks—one right up on the grill near the edge of the speakers dust cover, and another SM57 six inches from the grill pointed at the middle of the cone. If your amp is in another room, you can solo each mic and fine-tune placement. The tonal difference you’ll hear between these two mic positions is incredible. Mixing these tracks later will give you some serious tone shaping possibilities!
By using one Shure SM57 on the grill and another six inches from the speaker, you get great, organic tone-shaping options in mixdown. Also pictured is the Morley ABY switch, which works well for splitting the guitar signal to feed two amps.
Another good microphone for guitar amps is the Sennheiser e906. We have one of these in the video studio and I’ve been really pleased with it. Its unique shape makes it easy to drape over the top of the amp, freeing up a mic stand.
When recording, I usually try and get a closeup, punchy guitar sound so it cuts through the other instruments without being too loud. There are other situations, such as shooting videos, where you might want some room or “air” in the sound. This can be done by using a room mic or ambient mic. Most are large-diaphragm condenser models. We use a Neumann U87 at the video studio, but there are many good mics that work well including the Rode NT1.
I learned the advantage of adding a room mic first-hand when we began making videos for Musician’s Friend Private Reserve. Our early videos have a close-up fizzy sound quality to them. I couldn’t figure out what the problem was—I was miking the amp the same way I do in the studio. I soon realized the difference was zero white noise! No cymbal wash, no breath of a vocal track.
My usual method of recording a tight guitar track did not work when it was the only thing in the mix. Adding a room mic has done wonders for the audio in our guitar demos. Instead of an electric guitar sounding like you’ve got your ear up to the amp speaker, the demo sound has air and a little natural reverb, plus we can play with the stereo spectrum a little. I position the ambient mic about six feet from the speaker and about five feet high. This adds the position of the player's ear for a more organic, lively sound.
Here is a look at the Neumann U87 mic we use as a room mic in the Musician’s Friend video studio. Notice that it’s proximity to the amp is about where the guitarist’s ear would be.
So there you have it. Lay down good quality guitar tracks by practicing and having your gear in shape. Capture your takes in as many ways as possible with multiple amps and mics, etc. If possible, leave room for stereo effects later and keep in mind that a recorded guitar tone that sounds good with the band might sound a bit harsh or sterile by itself.
Finding great guitar tone is a trial-and-error-process. Take the time to dial it in, and then, once you’ve nailed it, record like the wind!
Until next time, keep playing!
Read more Guitar Notes from Brian Baggett: Guitar Notes The HUB
Visit www.privatereserveguitars.com or contact Derek White directly at 866-926-1923. He can get you the absolute lowest price on your dream guitar. Connect with Private Reserve Guitars on Facebook and Instagram.
Brian Baggett is Video Presenter for Musician’s Friend Private Reserve Guitars. He curates the Private Reserve guitar collection on video, visits guitar factories and works closely with luthiers and signature artists to gain insight into the greatest guitars being built today. He is also a professional guitarist playing every Wednesday and Saturday night at The Green Lady Lounge in Kansas City. A former jazz guitar professor, Brian continues to teach guitar lessons and has a book and DVD titled Keys To Unlocking the Fretboard. Find Brian on Facebook and twitter.