The Basics How to Record Quick & Easy Guitar Tones

March 1, 2005

Clean, undistorted guitar tones can be recorded using a very simple signal chain: Plug your guitar into a direct box, and then plug the direct box into a channel input on your mixer. For added sonic impact, plug a compressor into the channel’s insert jack, or put a stompbox compressor between your guitar and the direct box. Clean guitar sits fairly high in the frequency spectrum, and getting the highs to come through on the track is important. New guitar strings can go a long way toward attaining this goal, as can using a guitar with single-coil pickups rather than humbuckers, which tend to sound darker.

Sometimes, a direct-box guitar tone can sound flat and sterile, so if the sound isn’t doing it for you, consider miking an amp. A well chosen amp setting can add considerable bite to a clean tone, and the fact that the guitar signal is going through an acoustic stage between the speaker and the mic—exciting the air and interacting with the environment—can get rid of the flat quality of a direct clean signal. Of course, it takes more time and care to mic an amp, but it’s often worth it.

The only trick here is to listen to the amp in the room, and find a setting that gets the sound you want. Don’t be afraid to crank up the amp a little—as this tends to make a guitar amp sound livelier—but also play chords and make sure the sound is clean enough for what you want. As we’re looking to capture quality high frequencies here, a condenser mic is typically your best microphone choice because of its expanded frequency range and ability to document timbral nuances. Position the condenser one to three feet from the speaker, set the mic’s polar pattern to cardioid (if you’re using a multi-pattern mic), and point the mic directly at the center of the speaker cone. This position typically delivers a bright tone.

Now, route the mic signal to the board, and compress it as you would a direct clean signal. Take care not to squeeze the tone too much—meaning, go light on the compression—as allowing the signal to have some dynamic “pop” can make a clean guitar track sparkle more than a highly compressed one.

Fattening It Up

Clean guitar can sound thin in the context of a mix. This is why effects such as stereo chorus or flanging are sometimes added to fatten up the guitar tone. Another great approach is to double the performance exactly, and pan the overdub to the other side of the stereo spectrum. You can get a really nice clean guitar sound with two identical performances panned to, say, 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock. For an easier fix, run the guitar track through a delay set to a short repeat, and pan it to the opposite channel from the dry track (see Fig. 1).

The Loud
But Clean Approach

Sometimes you want a guitar tone that sounds loud, but that isn’t distorted—for instance, hard-strummed chords on a tune that’s big and rocking, but not necessarily heavy or punk rock. For this sound, you definitely need to mic an amp, because direct tones won’t cut it. Crank up the amp without letting it distort, and play hard. Your goal here is to create the sound of the speaker being stressed and breaking up a little. Look for a tone that’s muscular—you need a sound with a broader frequency range than the jangle of a straight clean guitar.

Now, record a little bit of the tone. If the guitar sounds “loud” on a medium-volume playback, you’ve nailed it. If it sounds thin, wimpy, or weak, try again. You may want to turn up the amp’s midrange knob to produce more impact and “cut,” and if the tone is too jangly, turn down the amp’s treble knob.

Rhythm Guitar

Perhaps no sound is more fun to record than a great distorted electric guitar. This sound has been keeping rock and roll alive for decades, and it’ll make your music rock, too.

A good crunch tone sounds big and complex. One way to get there is to play into three $2,000 guitar amps at once—each one double-miked in its own separate isolation booth with the six mics recorded to six different tracks. But that’s not feasible for the typical home recordist, so you’ll have to improvise. You can get a decent one-guitar sound with just one amp and one mic, but if you really want a sound that’s big and powerful, try layering sounds and spreading them around the stereo field a bit.

The key to layering crunch guitar is to put down slightly different tones with each pass. A modeling device such as the Line 6 Pod can really come in handy here. I usually start by recording two passes through one amp-model setting, using a different cabinet model for each (perhaps a 4x12 and a 1x12). I might also change my guitar’s pickup-selector switch or the pickup-blend knob’s setting between passes. When I’m finished, I again use the modeling device, but, this time, I bypass the cabinet models. I pan these tracks apart, as well, but not to the same positions as the other tracks—perhaps 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock. This can result in an enormous and powerful sound.

Don’t Forget
the Chunk

In most applications, distorted guitar needs to be heavy and chunky. This means you should make sure there’s plenty of low end—or, at least, low mids—getting to the multitrack. You might even need to tame the highs—excessive high end on a crunch tone can be buzzy and annoying, and undermine the sound’s power. Don’t let things get muddy. Just make sure you’re capturing the sonic equivalent of a brick house. If the tone you’re getting isn’t heavy enough, try beefing things up on the modeling device or amp, turning up those bass and midrange knobs before you reach for EQ at the board. If you go overboard, you can always bring down the guitar’s lows a little with EQ during mixdown.

Guerrilla Home Recording [Backbeat], by Bass Player consulting editor Karl Coryat, emphasizes getting the best possible sound out of inexpensive or obsolete equipment.

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