Music Production and Sound Quality: Electric Guitars!

The thought of trying to condense some thoughts on getting the best possible guitar tracks into a single blog entry seemed almost overwhelming! So, I’m covering a few highlights on electric guitars in this installment and will hit on acoustics later. As with past articles, I’ll assume that many of the people reading this are involved in the recording and production of their own albums, and additionally, I’ll assume that there are non-guitarists and beginners reading, so I’ll build this from a  basic starting point.

Picking the Right Guitar for the Job – Different types of guitars create different types of sounds. This should be no surprise! Whether you are the musician, engineer, or producer, you may be expected to work with a single guitar, but hopefully you will have a couple of options to choose from. The types of wood and manner of construction, the type of finish on the guitar, the string type and thickness, the types of pickups, and many other factors will have an impact on the sound of the guitar. We will just hit briefly on a couple of factors to help you choose the right instrument and set up for the sound and style you desire.

Rule #1 – IF IT SOUNDS GOOD, IT IS GOOD! But, if you do want a little guidance, here you go:

Pickups: Good selection of pickup type and position will make getting the “right” sound much easier. Humbucking pickups often have a fuller, “thicker”, and less defined sound to them. Rich overtones are often better amplified.   Single coil pickups generally offer a more clearly defined fundamental note, bringing great clarity to the sound.  Single coils are often thought of as “bright, twangy, or jangly”, but this is a stereotype and not necessarily always true.    Both pickup types can be used in any style with proper settings.   Eric Clapton is an artist to use as an example – in his early days (Cream, Blind Faith, etc) he used humbuckers and the result was a huge, thick sound.  Later in his career he converted to single coil pickups, which helped define the sound of much of his solo career  including the classic sounds of “Wonderful Tonight” and “Layla” .   The pickup position (Bridge, Middle, Neck) is equally important. The neck pickup is often thought of as the “rhythm” pickup and the bridge as the “lead” pickup, but again – this is a stereotype.  The neck pickup generally has a full, natural sound with balanced tone.  The bridge pickup generally has a thinner sound with more edge to it that cuts through the mix.  I like to say that the neck pickup brings out the “wood” sound and the bridge pickup brings out the string sound (including the metallic sound of the guitar’s bridge).  On some guitars, there is a middle pickup that offers an “in between” sound and the ability to blend the sound of multiple pickups.   I personally tend to favor the neck pickup, but have used my bridge pickup much more since having an inexpensive modification done to my tone pot which has made my bridge pickup much more versatile . (check out www.reactortone.com)  I typically use the neck pickup for jazz leads, many of my blues licks, funk jams, strumming, and lots of the solos on slower tempo songs. I find myself mostly using the bridge pickup for searing hard rock and metal leads, heavy/edgy rock riffs and power chords, country leads, and upbeat blues riffs.

Body Types: The shape of an electric guitar isn’t nearly as important as the wood and construction types.  Alder and Ash bodies are popular as they are light, and offer a nice bright, clear tone.  Mahogany wood gives a little more warmth and darkness to the sound. Not as bright, and with more overtones.  It is more dense and sustains well.  Is it any wonder that “Strat” style guitars are quite often built with Alder or Ash bodies and employ single coil pickups, or that “Les Paul” style guitars quite often utilize a mahogany body and humbucking pickups?   Bolt-on necks typically have less sustain, and “neck-through” types generally have excellent sustain.  A glued joint neck is somewhere inbetween, but also lends itself to good sustain.   The most popular electric guitars have a solid body, but some will have a semi-hollow or hollow body.   Solid body guitars are (in my opinion) a little more versatile, but with careful use, other body types can hold their own in any style of music. With that said, some styles – such as jazz and rockabilly – can really come to life using a semi-hollow or hollow body guitar.

If you are serious about making a dynamic, compelling album project, having access to multiple guitars can be a way to expand your palette of options – defining new sounds or refining old ones.  Also, layering a variety of sounds in your mix or simply even varying your guitar sounds some from track to track will help make your project more engaging to the listener.

Strings make a huge impact on sound. Flatwound strings are not that common, but offer a warm, pure tone without a lot of harmonic overtones and without the “bite” that most strings have.  They are popular for jazz but are also versatile.  Most likely, you’re using round-wound strings – which are typically cheaper, a little brighter, and may have more overtones.    String material has an impact also –  nickel strings tend to be more mellow and warm (vintage sounding if you will) while steel will be brighter.   String gauge is important also – heavier guages will typically produce more volume, and arguably a more full and rich tone.  Lighter strings will be just the opposite – with some people saying that they are a little to “thin” or “bright” sounding. The advantage with lighter strings though is that bends and other subtle nuances come easier (and frankly, I can play for hours longer on a light guage string).

If you are about ready to go into the studio, changing your type or guage of strings may be more of a distraction than a help.  However, if you are in pre-production and are working to dial in just the right sound, you may want to consider your string choices as part of your overall tone setup.

I highly recommend a fresh set of strings on your guitars before hitting the studio. I like to have the strings on at least 1-2 days before playing a gig or recording tracks, in order to break the strings in a bit. But, some people really like the shiny sound of completely fresh strings – just be aware that you’ll need to tune more often during the break-in period of the strings.

Before Hitting the Studio make sure your guitar has been properly set up.  In addition to fresh strings,  this means being properly intonated and tuned.  Pots, jacks, and switches all clean and with good connections.  I’ve heard way to many takes ruined by the crackle from a loose wire or a dirty pot.  Checking intonation is really important as it will help the guitar sound in tune no matter where you are playing.  One note about tuning – before each song you record, consider tuning your guitar to that key…  When you play the guitar, there will always be some chords that are more in tune than others – this is just the nature of the intstrument. Fine-tuning your guitar while playing chord shapes will help ensure that your dominant chords are as in-tune as possible.

Amps, Simulators, and Pedals. Whether you are playing a handwired custom tube amp or playing through a $99 pedal or simulator, it really doesn’t matter. What is important is to define YOUR sound.  If you want a quality production, quit trying to sound just like someone else! Too many guitarists are obsessed with recreating the sound of a particular artist.  If you want to STAND OUT you have to find ways to make your sound your own.  Rather than COPY a sound, be INFLUENCED by a sound. There is a difference!  Many amps, simulators, and pedals offer presets that mimic the sound from famous artists or songs.  Usually, they are all a little over the top, with too many effects. They are fun to play with, and can be a great place to start, but to create a memorable production, PLEASE step away from the presets!

Don’t get me wrong… I love these simulators.   The quality of simulated/modeled amps has gotten so good it’s insane.  Lightweight, inexpensive, extremely flexible, and the ability to record without upsetting the neighbors.  Don’t let the guitar snobs make you feel ashamed for using these devices.  I’ve embarrassed plenty of guitar snobs by fooling them on a shootout comparing the real amp and a modeled version.   Besides, we can’t all afford to drop $2,000 on an 80lb beast that can be heard a block away with the volume on 1.   I’ll give some specific suggestions later on how to get the best sound from these devices.

As good as the POD and other similar devices are – there is nothing like a real, quality tube amp. Its unbelievable. I’m so fortunate to own one of the most amazing production tube amps ever – the Matchless Chieftain.  Like any good tube amp, it has rich harmonic overtones that really bring a track to life. The tube reverb on the amp is amazing – light years better than the digital or spring reverb on a cheap amp.   The drawbacks – its loud as heck, and weighs a ton.   You can usually get a good range of sounds out of a tube amp, but you do have limitations.   I’ve recorded projects before using a cheap amp or a simulator and gone back later with a real tube amp to replace the original track, and its amazing how it can often bring the track to life.  Even if you are a die-hard fan of the POD or some other simulator, if you can get your hands on a good amp or two for tracking, you may find some depth and richness in the track that simply wasn’t there before – especially if you are working in a studio with good mics and good acoustics.

When working in the studio, keep in mind that you are after TONE, not volume.  You really don’t need to drag in your full marshall stack, or the extension speakers for your combo amp.    If working with a solid state amp, the volume should have minimal impact on the tone but its worth experimenting , as speaker cones may change tonality a little as they are driven harder . With a tube amp  how hard you drive the amp is directly related to the tone – in other words, crank it up and you’ll get more harmonic content!   You may want to consider investing into some of the smaller, low-wattage tube amps for use in the studio.  You can fully saturate the tube circuit to get the tone you want, but without as much volume.   Many great tracks have been recorded in the studio on a smaller, lower wattage amp, and then played live on a bigger, more powerful amp.  Layla is a great example – recorded on a Fender Champ with an 8″ speaker and only 15 watts of power.  So, considering leaving that big beast home, and save it for your live show.

Recording without an Amp? Sure the presets and plugging your outputs straight into your recording system sounds good. Let’s make it better though!  Start by tweaking the presets, or creating your own sound from scratch.  Most of the time, I’ll disable the effects, particularly the reverb.  This is “icing” that can be better done in the mix. Sometimes though, you’ll find that an effect is crucial to the performance of the track, and in those cases, I leave it alone.   Rather than plug straight into the recording system, I will usually run the signal through a high quality preamp, compressor, EQ, etc on the way into the recording system. Even with conservative settings, this can often be the difference between a slightly sterile and digital sounding track, and something that feels a little more organic.  If your simulator has a line input, you can also try plugging your guitar into a nice preamp and then run from that into the simulator.  I once recorded an electric guitar plugged directly into a GT VIPRE preamp, saturated it with tube tone, and then went into the line input on my POD Pro.  It was absolutely stunning. I tried the same part direct through the POD  as an experiment, and it paled in comparison.

Quite often, I will only record the mono output – again, I can make the track bigger, wider, and fatter during mixing.

Even if you plan to use a simulator, you still may want to consider borrowing or renting a good quality tube amp for your session…put the amp on a clean setting, and then run your normal settings on the simulator and feed that into the amp. You may need to tweak the EQ and compression settings a little, as the amp will alter both.  You may want to reduce the compression on your simulator and then try tweaking the EQ a bit at the amp.  If doing this, definitely turn off the simulated reverb, and use the amp reverb instead. This will give you the best of both worlds – a great sound that you can reproduce live, but with the extra richness and depth that will come from the tube amp.   Now that you have that great sounding setup, lets talk about how to record the amp…

Recording an Amp. Yes, an SM57 right up next to the grill of the amp can give you a good sound. It’s a  widely accepted standard.  But in the spirit of getting the most out of your production, don’t just settle for what everyone else does.  Here are a few other suggestions for Microphone Choices…. SM57’s are not the only dynamic mics that work well.   I’m a big fan of others including the Audix i5, and the Sennheiser e906 and e609.  Quite often, I find these mics provide an upgraded version of the  “classic”  SM57 sound.   Ribbon mics have had a resurgance in popularity, and can do amazing things for your guitar amps.  Whether you are forking out the dough for one of the amazing Royer lineup, picking up a Cascade FatHeadII at a bargin price,  or looking at any other number of great products – adding a ribbon mic to your arsenal can help bring some new richness to your collection.  They can help tame a harsh sounding amp, and provide a sweet and meaty sound that works well in a number of applications.  Condensor mics offer a crisp, clear reproduction of the amp, and are often used to help pick up the room sounds also.  There is an endless supply of great quality condensor microphones available.  Mid to Large diaphram condensors work well, but even a “pencil” mic can add definition to your sound.  There is a lot of great stuff available from Mojave, Neumann, Shure,  Audio Technica, and many more.  For the money, I really enjoy working with the Audio Technica AT4050 for a clean, clear, natural sound, and the AT4047 for a slightly more “vintage” sound with a bit of color to it.  Tube mics offer some additional warmth and harmonic richness, coloring the sound in a pleasing way.

I have no set rules for what types of outboard gear to run through prior to hitting the hard drive, but I do like the sound that a transformer based preamp has on a lead guitar track.  A good transformer circuit seems to give a little more “meat” and “edge” to the track which helps it sit in the mix nicely.

Mic placement plays a key role in the sound you’ll obtain.  When mic’ing the amp close to the speaker cone, you will cut out much of the room interaction.  This can give you a tight, dry  sound.   For an edgy sound, put the mic near the edge of the speaker, and for a thicker sound, put the mic near the center.

Placing the mic a foot or more back from the amp will begin to increase the room sound. The farther back you go, obviously the more room sound you have.  Unless you have a desirable sounding room – such as in any decent studio, you may want to use caution with how much room sound you allow.

Great sounds can be obtained by blending a close mic with a room mic. I typically am 3 to 6 ft back with the room mic depending on the room.

Be aware of phasing issues – a problem where the same soundwave is being picked up at different times by different microphones.  You will usually notice this in the form of a thin sound or comb filtering.

Also be aware of recording multiple speakers on your amp at the same time. While you can sometimes get an interesting sound by using different mics, preamps, etc and blending the sounds in the mix, you may also find that unless you pan your signals hard left and right (or have pretty drastic differences in how each channel is processed), you may have some signal cancellation, making your “big” sound actually small and thin.

Putting the back of your open-back amp within a foot or so of a rigid wall may increase the bass response, so be aware of where you have the amp.  If your amp is on a hard floor, you may want to try decoupling the amp from the floor using a riser, foam board product, thick carpet square, etc under the amp. This will help tighten up the sound of the amp and improve clarity.

For more on mic placement, I suggest you reference some of the millions of articles available online for further suggestions, rather than re-hash it all here.

Layering multiple takes with variations on the guitar and amp settings can help create a larger than life sound and give you a lot of options at mixdown.  Blending the sound of multiple amps is a way to also create a huge, unique sound.  Unlike layering, which uses multiple takes, when blending sounds, I would literally be running the same guitar signal into multiple amps.  Mic’ing each amp individually can give you plenty of control during mixdown, but if you really want a huge, truely blended sound – position a room mic that will capture the sound of both amps simultaneously.  Then, you can just use the individual mics for fine tuning in the mix.  If you don’t know what sound you want in the mix then there are a couple of options.  One is to record straight from the guitar into a high quality DI or preamp, and then into your system without going through an amp or processor. Using a software amp emulator, you can dial in a reasonable sound to work with while tracking, and then during mixdown you can tweak the sounds or completely change amp style if you’d like.   Or, you can even run that signal out to an outboard processor or amplifier instead.  Many processors, and even some amps, have an unprocessed output.  Another option would be to dial in the sound as best as you can with the amp or processor, and while recording that, simultaneously record the unprocessed signal as well. That unprocessed signal can then be used to re-amp the guitar via software or hardware at a later date, either to replace or blend with the original track.

Keep in mind that the sound that works well live, might not quite be the best sound in the studio.  Occassionally, I have asked a guitarist to give me a couple of variations – for example, one take with the normal live settings, one take with a little more drive, and one with a little less.  You can always use amp simulating software to add a little more drive during the mix if you need to, but you can’t take drive out, so you could in theory just do the extra take with a little less drive.  This is going to be overkill in some situations, but can sometimes be a lifesaver in getting just the right sound dialed in.  I’ve used this method against the guitarists will on a couple of occassions, only to have them be thankful later.  Also, alternating between the various takes can also be a way to increase the intensity and dynamics in a mix…using the lower drive parts of the track perhaps in a verse, switching to the higher drive parts in a chorus, or even just to accent certain notes or licks.

In the Mix there are literally no limits on your ability to shape your sound, or create completely new sounds.  I have talked about a lot of ways to ensure you have lots of options at mixdown, and now I’ll play devil’s advocate and say TOO MANY options at mixdown can be counterproductive.  I like to have options, but keep in mind if you have too many options, you may get so hung up on the fine details that you lose focus on the big picture.  As you nail down your final tracks, here are some things to keep in mind during the mix:

Panning  – Hard panning one guitar left and the other right is rarely that interesting. Left and Right panning may certainly be appropriate, but hard panning to the extremes usually comes off sounding less professional.  If your guitar is already hard panned all the way one direction, the reverb/delay/chorus/etc has nowhere to go except on top of the sound and to the one side of the sound. If you truly want the effects to surround your signal, give it a little space.  Instead of panning to 9:00, try panning to 10 and then let the reverb or other effects fill out the edges of the sound spectrum. Trust me  – 99% of the time, you’ll actually get a bigger sound this way.   If the lead guitar is simply filling holes between vocal parts then panning the same as the vocal is fine.  However, if the leads are overlapping the vocals, I suggest you pan them apart slightly.  Don’t be afraid to push your solo’s out farther to the sides also – the best sounding albums are often the ones where you can visualize the instruments on a stage.

EQ – I typically use very little EQ on a guitar track to define the sound of the track, and prefer to use the amp’s EQ and mic placement to get as close to the desired sound as possible.    So my EQ focus during  mixing is not so much to define the sound of the guitar,  but to help the tracks all settle into the mix with each other.  I typically start with subtractive EQ, as it typically leads to a purer tone.  In a busy mix, I may make significant cuts – narrow frequency bands but with deep cuts, to clear out space in the mix but with minimal impact on the individual tracks.   Typically I’ll roll off all bass frequencies somewhere between 75-100hz depending on the arrangement.   Frequencies in the low mids impact the warmth and fatness of your sound – too much and your guitar gets dull and muddy, not enough and it sounds thin and weak.  Frequencies in the high mids control the amount of “bite” or edge on a signal. Keep in mind that you may be able to increase your warmth by cutting the higher frequencies instead of boosting the lower ones.  Likewise, you can increase your clarity and “bite” sometimes by cutting in the low mids rather than boosting the highs.   If you have the option to obtain the sound you are after by cutting rather than boosting, I would typically recommend that when using digital EQ.

Compression – my use of compression varies wildly from one job to the next.  Many guitarists will have a compressor in their signal path already, and it is a key component of their sound.  In these cases, you want to be careful to not overcompress the signal in the recording and mixing process.  When recording to a 24 bit system, there is enough headroom typically that compression and limiting may not even be necessary when tracking. I do generally use analog compression and/or limiting to smooth out any spikes in the top few decibals when tracking though. I tend to keep this minimal and do most of my fine-tuning inside the mix.  Be aware that overcompression may over-accentuate string squeaks, pick attack, harmonics, and nuances in your playing.  For searing sustain, moderate compression with a slow release time is a good starting point. For “pad style” backing guitars, trying setting the attack at the fastest setting possible, set a fairly low threshold, and allow moderate to heavy compression, with a slow release.  With a little tweaking you can create smooth pad-like sounds.

Delay my favorite effect.   When a high quality or unique sounding delay pedal is part of the guitarists pedalboard, I’ll be more likely to consider recording the track with delay engaged.  Most of the time though, I prefer to do the delay in the mix, as I have an infinite amount of control over parameters. This control allows me to accentuate or downplay the delay as appopriate throughout the mix, adjust the timing of the delay as necessary to match the tempo, etc.

Delay is the “secret weapon” for many a recording engineer, as it adds space and energy to the track, while avoiding some of the pitfalls of using reverb.   To add energy and excitement to a track, try setting a super fast delay – fast enough that you don’t really hear an echo, but that there is an obvious difference when the effect is muted or bypassed.  If using a mono delay try putting it directly behind/beneath the original, and for a stereo delay try panning just very slightly left and right of the original signal with a couple of milliseconds difference between delay times. Again, this shouldn’t create a noticeable echo or ping-pong effect, but should add a little energy and space when compared to the original, dry track.   To make a lead guitar jump out of the mix nothing beats (in my mind) a analog style delay that is tempo matched with the track.  Depending on the style and tempo, a 1/4 note delay is often a great place to start, and a 1/4 note triplet feel delay is also very cool in many situations.  Spice it up a little more by using a stereo delay with the echo’s panned left and right as appropriate.  A difference of 1/8th to 1/16th between the two echos can really sound great.  For a “classic/vintage” sound a quick single slapback delay is a great tool.  Feeling creative? Take a multi-tap delay (like the Waves Supertap) and place 4-6 tempo synched echos around the soundfield both left to right (panning) and front to back (volume).  For a slowly picked, ambiant piece, this can create a lush soundscape with a little tweaking. For more creatively, try dropping the original signal and using just the echos, or run the echos through additional processing (reverb, chorus, phasers, etc)

Reverb – Including some of the Amp Reverb can help keep your sound more organic, but I generally suggest you use sparingly.  If  using an amp with a cheap sounding reverb, I’ll usually just opt to record dry and do all the reverb in the mix. If, on the other hand, I have a nice reverb on the amp – such as the tube reverb on my Matchless Chieftain – I prefer to include a small amount of reverb at the amp. Just enough to accentuate the sound of the amp, and then  I still will typically add additional reverb in the mix to place the amp into a shared acoustic space with the rest of the band.  If you record the amp without reverb, a good trick is to use a little reverb on the guitar track in the mix to replicate an amp reverb (this is in addition to the overall reverb in the mix used to put everything in a common space!) . A Plate reverb seems to work well for this.  I may even do this as an insert instead of as an aux send, as this then lets it go through the signal path as if you had recorded it from the amp to begin with.

There is so much more that I could have covered, I haven’t even started to really scratch the surface. But – I hope that whether you are a guitarist, producer, or engineer, you have picked up at least one point of new info, a good tip, or a trick that will help you in your next session.

Matt Mylroie is an independent musician, engineer, and producer who balances his love for music with a “real” job and his family.  Against his better judgement he survives largly on sugar and caffeine.  You can visit him online at http://recordingpro.blogspot.com http://reverbnation.com/mattmylroie , or at http://facebook.com/recordingpro

Music Production and Sound Quality: Electric Guitars!

3 thoughts on “Music Production and Sound Quality: Electric Guitars!

  1. Jake says:

    Awesome article.

    I have done recording with and without an amp and it is really cool what sound you can get without dropping the big bucks for a tube amp. That being said, I still don’t think it is perfect and love the punch that comes from a DSL or something like that.

    I saw something cool for the iPad that I was thinking about getting to do home recording with. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rZa1QOcCptA
    The total set up cost like $60 but it seem pretty versatile for how much you pay. I just wish you could to guitar center and play with it before you buy it.

    Like

  2. Jake, unfortunately I have never found any software that was able to accurately reproduce the sound of an overdriven tube amp, layered maybe 4-6 times, especially for the hard rock guitar that I prefer. You just can’t beat it. I had an amp tech build me a power section with 12AT7s, and then I built two 2×10 cabinets with Eminence Governors in it… and the thing blows my head off. I LOVE it. It’s perfect. Unfortunately, I’m not in a band anymore so I can’t use it. Darn it all to…

    Like

  3. Matt says:

    there is nothing, NOTHING like a high quality tube amp dialed into the sweet spot. It’s instant mojo. With that said, its hard to beat a good simulator/modeler for the overall value and convenience. I have some pretty picky friends and I’ve fooled them in both side-by-side shootouts and with various recordings i’ve made. I like both – they each have their time and place where they serve my purposes well.

    Like

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