Recording Studio 101: The Electric Guitar

This month we tackle recording electric guitar. I’ve been fortunate enough to record guitars in many different studios with many different engineers. Each engineer or producer has a certain way they like to mic an amplifier (or speaker cabinet). Let’s discuss some of the most common ways.

Going direct

It use to be that going direct was normally reserved for getting super clean guitar tones. I’ve read where Billy Gibbons recorded a lot of his great guitar tones going straight to the board. Additionally I heard that Jimmy Page recorded “Black Dog” straight to the board (albeit with tons of compressors). Now does that mean you can get “that sound” just by plugging in your guitar to your recording machine? Probably not – keep in mind that the pre-amps and EQ’s on the multi-million dollar mixing boards’ sound pristine. Additionally, they have very expensive compressors that they run the signal through to fatten it up – but don’t let me discourage you – plug in that guitar and see what happens!

Fortunately they have some great products at a reasonable cost to help you out when running direct today. Companies such as BOSS, Line 6, Korg and Zoom are just some of the companies that make some decent direct boxes. I personally have an older Line 6 POD that I’ve used for years. Depending on how you set the sound I’ve found that sometimes you can get pretty convincing tones out of these boxes and with out having to go to the trouble of setting up amps and mics. It’s been my experience that if I’m using the POD with a clean or semi dirty guitar tone I can get a decent tone. If you’re looking for a guitar tone that is heavy distorted I find that the POD tends to not sound as real.

Mix it up

One thing you can do is mix “real” amp sounds with the direct sounds. Keep your “real” amp sounds as the “up front” guitar sound in the mix and on a different track use the direct sound as a background mix sound.

An additional cool thing is when recording a distorted guitar you can split the signal from the guitar so that one line goes to the amp and one goes straight to the board. Now you have a distorted signal and a clean signal. You can blend both together as is or you can affect the clean tone with different effects and experiment while keeping your original performance. I’ve heard of a lot producers doing this and getting good results.

Setting up mics on a cabinet

Getting a good sound when setting up a mic and an amp can be easiest thing in the world or the hardest. At any rate it should be not glossed over and time should be taking to make sure you have the best sound going. I’ve used all different types of mics including Neumann, AKG and Sennheiser. However for a good and relatively cheap mic you can’t be the Shure SM57. It’s the standard workhorse and I’ve had great results with it. Take time to experiment with placing the mic in front of the amp straight on and also at a slight angel (perpendicular to the angle of the cone). Also try different distances as all these factors affect the sound sometimes for the good and sometimes for the not so good.

Additional tips:

  • If you’re recording a 4×12 cabinet then you can experiment with different mics on different speakers. Record all (at the same time) and compare the sounds.
  • Try using a condenser mic about three feet away from the speaker for a cool sound to mix in with the close mic.
  • Also you can mic the back of the speaker cabinet however you might have phase problems so be sure to hit the phase reversal switch on your pre-amp or mixing board
  • Remember that when using a dynamic mic (such as a Shure SM57) the closer you put the mic the more bass response you will get. Conversely when the mic is farther away you will get more treble less bass.
  • Distance=depth is the old Jimmy Page adage. Place a condenser mic at the other end of the room and blend that signal with the up close mic. You can get some natural reverb effects and the overall sound should sound bigger.
  • Notice in the picture I have the amp on the Auralex GRAMMA (Gig and Recording, Amp and Monitor, Modulation Attenuator). It’s a device that’s used to float an amp or loudspeaker that yields nearly total acoustic isolation, resulting in a purity of tone. I believe it helps out when recording.