It is imperative when recording any type of fretted instrument that it is well set-up, has a nice playable action, and is tuned. Recording with old strings will give you a very dead and dull sound, that is hard to compensate for when mixing. Newish strings that have not been replaced on the day you are recording will be ideal. Re- stringing the instrument a day or two before recording will allow the strings time to settle.
Fretted instruments, by nature of the scale length of the frets, will create slight variances in pitch of an identical note played at different positions on the fingerboard. This is different to stringed instruments such as violins and cellos, as the player can compensate by slightly adjusting the position of their left hand. Guitarists can always bend the strings, although this is not always practical when playing chords or finger-style pieces. For recording sessions, fine-tuning the instrument to where you will mostly be playing can be a good idea. When using a capo, be sure to tune the instrument before you place the capo on the fretboard, and then tweak it slightly once the capo is fixed.
When recording any performance, the two most critical elements will be to make sure that the recording is in- time and in-tune. In a live context non-perfections often go unnoticed by the listener, as once the music has been played it no longer exists in time. Recordings, however are permanent, so attention to detail with these two basic elements of the performance will take you a long way to capturing a recording that you will want to listen to over and over. There are some great tools for refining the tuning of a single melodic line, and most DAW’s now have audio quantising features. These are great tools, but they can drastically destroy the feel and mood of the performance in the recording in no time at all!
Once the instrument is set-up, the next consideration should be the room that you are recording in. Our previous blog Room Acoustics and Speaker Placement Explained, outlines several practical and relatively in- expensive solutions for treating your recording space, should a professional recording studio not be an option. A treated room that has a live-feel will be best for recording acoustic instruments. In a great sounding room multiple-microphone techniques will allow you to capture the atmosphere of the space, and the sound of the instrument. If you are recording in a space that has little to no acoustic treatment, then generally the best option will be to record in mono and to spot-mic the instrument. This reduces the effect that the room will have on the recording. The closer a microphone is to the instrument, then the sound of the instrument will become more dominating in the recording. Distance between the instrument and microphone increases the likelihood that reflections and resonances in the room will become louder, and therefore more noticeable in the recording.
Microphone choice for recording an acoustic guitar will usually be a large or small diaphragm condenser, or a ribbon microphone. Generally, dynamic microphones are not the most desired microphones for recording acoustic instruments, as they will lack the detail and warmth that a condenser or ribbon can capture. This is not to say that dynamic microphones should not be used, and in fact there are countless examples of microphones designed for specific applications that have since developed a reputation for something else entirely based purely on the success of various recording engineers with good imagination and a desire to experiment! The Beyerdynamic M-88 for example was originally designed as a live vocal microphone for female singers. However most commercial studios that have an M-88 or two, use them as their go-to-mic for bass amp’s and kick drums.
When close miking choosing a microphone that has a narrow polar pattern, such as cardioid or hyper- cardioid. This will concentrate the sound of the instrument in the recording further. Great options for spot miking are the DPA 4099-G, a tiny clip-on condenser microphone also designed for live use; The AKG C451 or Neumann KM184 (cardioid) or KM185 (hyper-cardioid) are also excellent options. Any small diaphragm condenser, or “pencil mic”, would be a good choice to maximize the sound of the instrument in the recording. There are hundreds of options. Most reputable microphone companies will have their own version of small- diaphragm or pencil microphone, each with a slightly different characteristic that comes down to personal preference. Generally the only position that is least desirable for an acoustic guitar will be right in front of the sound hole as this will be too boomy. Two common locations would be in front of the neck/body join, or in front of the sound-board near the bridge. It’s a good idea to experiment with the position of the microphone on the instrument with a good set of headphones and moving the microphone to different locations in front of the instrument. The sound will change quite drastically, and this will enable you to easily find the sweet-spot of the instrument too.
Using a combination of a small and large diaphragm condenser on these two key areas is great way to get a stereo recording of the guitar. By panning these two microphones left and right, replicating their physical location in the room, is an easy way to make the guitar sound bigger, and more accurate to how the instrument sounds acoustically; higher frequencies prominent in the neck/body join microphone and lower frequencies being more predominant from the body microphone. When using two or more microphones, phase becomes an issue, so make sure that the two microphones are an equal distance from the sound source. If there is only one guitar track in the piece, this is a good way to make the instrument sound bigger in the mix.
Another option would be to use a combination of the guitar’s internal pick-up (if it has one) and a microphone. Whilst this alone won’t create a stereo image, it can be a useful way to create a guitar sound from two contrasting sources. The pick-up will have a much harsher sound than a condenser, which is much rounder and sweeter, as condenser microphones capture higher frequencies with better clarity. Piezo style pick-ups will have much more prominence in the mid-range frequency bands. If you can only record in mono, you can create the illusion of a stereo image using a very short stereo delay across a mono track. Your ear perceives a stereo image of a sound, by the time difference between your left and right ear hearing the same signal. Try placing a stereo delay on a mono track, and delaying one side by 5-15ms. You could also achieve the same effect by duplicating the track and changing the start time of one region 5-15ms along the timeline. Mid Side recording (M/S), is a great way to have control of the width and presence of a stereo image in a recording. There is plenty of information out there on how to correctly set-up an M/S microphone configuration and decoding it in your DAW. The advantage is you can automate the figure-8 (side, L & R) tracks to add depth when necessary, whilst retaining a mono spot mic of the same recording. There are many other techniques for multiple microphones such as XY, ORTF, a Deca Tree set up, or even various room microphones. All could be viable options. Bear in mind these techniques will always sound better in an acoustically treated recording studio. A combination of a large diaphragm tube condenser for the centre mic, and a ribbon microphone for the sides can offer pleasing results. Nearly all ribbon microphones capture in a figure-8 polar pattern. Most will be tonally slightly different on each side which could create some exciting character to your recording. The Royer R121 is great for guitars and amps. If you are after a clean and detailed stereo image for your recording, perhaps the Sennheiser MKH microphones will be more appropriate. Sennheiser also make dedicated clamps and mounts for M/S recording too.
One of the most difficult aspects of recording a guitar amp, is capturing the dynamic range, loudness and energy from a live performance within a recording studio environment. There have been many innovations with regards to software and amplifier modeling which will be discussed in detail later in this blog. However, there are some tried and tested techniques for recording guitar amps we will discuss now. The most obvious and noticeable timbral change can be created by where you position the microphone in relation to the speaker cone, which is usually hidden from view by the protective mesh covering the cabinet. For the clearest, detailed and brightest sound possible, point the microphone as accurately as you can towards the centre of the speaker cone. Classic microphone choices include the Shure SM57, Sennheiser MD421 and the ElectroVoice RE20 - all dynamic, and capable of handling very high sound pressure levels at close proximity. Similar to the range of pencil microphones, most dynamic microphones will be appropriate for this purpose, and different brands will offer slightly different tonal characteristics.
To hear the tonal differences that you can capture in your recording by using a microphone on a guitar amp, experiment by moving the microphone off-axis to the centre of the speaker cone to see just how varied the timbre and overall dynamics can be.
Some cabinets, such as a Marshall stack, will have 4 speaker cones in the one cabinet. Usually you will find one sounds better, different more warm etc. than the others. It’s not a necessity to mic up each and every speaker cone, in-fact it is often more desirable to just choose one, and sculpt your sound by experimenting with the proximity of the microphone from the centre point. Sometimes simplicity can give you the best results!
Microphone Techniques & Configurations for Guitar Amps:
Your choice of microphone when recording the sound of an amplifier will obviously impact greatly on the sound you will be able to create. A combination of different types of microphones will quite often be employed, especially in professional recording spaces. Generally, large diaphragm condensers - solid state or tube, and ribbon microphones (be careful of how loud your amp is - especially if you own an older style Ribbon that doesn’t require phantom power), along with a Shure SM57 or Sennheiser MD421 are amongst the most popular for guitar amps. Other commonly used microphones include any of AKG’s 414 family, Neumann U87 or U47 (Tube), Royer R121, and Golden Age R1 MKIII (both ribbon).
1 TIP: A torch is always a handy tool in the studio. Use a torch to peer through the mesh and accurately locate the centre- point of the speaker cone, and then mark that on the mesh itself. If you can’t see through the mesh, then just press down on it to locate the cone.
This Video really demonstrates the different tonal characteristics you can get by a slight change in microphone placement, and combinations of different sounds. The microphone used in this video is an Audio-Technica ATM650.
In recent years recording directly into your DAW has become an excellent way to capture electric guitar tones. With many companies investing in amplifier profiling and emulations, software equivalents of known stomp boxes and FX units, plus the added advantage of being able to tailor your tone in post-production, has meant that direct injection boxes (DI), have become pertinent to DAW based musicians.
Most audio-interfaces currently on the market will have at least one of it’s inputs either dedicated or switchable to a higher impedance - Hi Z. This means that your input will now be matched to your instrument’s output. This impedance matching creates better signal-to-noise ratio when capturing guitars. If you were to plug directly into a line-level input, the immediate result would be a much softer recorded signal, meaning you would introduce more noise by recording at higher levels to compensate. Another way to further experiment with guitar tones from plugging directly into your computer, is to use a DI box and a dedicated mic pre-amp. DI boxes convert an instruments input signal to a mic-level output. If you own a nice preamp, especially one that has control over the input and output gain, there are many different types of tones you can create. This is especially useful when tracking and double tracking rhythm parts, as you can achieve similar results to varying the mic placement on a guitar amp, simply by using a combination of pre-amp settings or even different pre-amps altogether. Whilst one is not a substitute for the other, in general subtle variations created in the recording process will in most cases create more interesting recordings when layering guitar parts.
Another interesting use of DI boxes is re-amping. Re-amping is the process of sending a recorded signal from your DAW back to your guitar amplifier. In short, it is the opposite function of a DI used in recording. Radial, and other manufactures have a dedicated re-amping box, designed specifically for this purpose. ________________________________________________________________________
The obvious advantage of software over it’s hardware equivalent in a studio environment is the infinite possibilities with automation and real-time control. Many live performances will incorporate software into their show, with the help of program’s such as Apple’s MainStage, along with a range of MIDI foot-controllers available, and the increasing processing power of consumer computers, all making it easier to bring some of the advantages of software to live performance. There are some great options around for software these days, and most major DAW’s will include a range of FX and plug-ins designed for guitar production. A few that stand out - definitely have a closer look at Native Instruments Guitar Rig. This ships as part of NI Komplete Ultimate and Komplete. Some great preset sounds, and the FX are just as great for using on lots of different sound sources too.
2 TIP: By cranking up the input gain stage, and lowering or balancing the output on your pre-amp, you can create some interesting overdriven textures.
Universal Audio’s online plug-in collection is simply stunning, and for all types of production. Keep in mind however, that you will need to own or purchase their DSP based hardware such as the Apollo audio- interfaces or UAD-2 Satellite or PCIe cards to run them. There are plenty of guitar specific plug-ins, such as the Ibanez Tube Screamer, Roland RE-201 and versions of all the Softube amp-simulators to name a few. IK Multimedia, Softube and Waves all have some pretty nifty guitar software too. If you are after a simple and interesting plug-in for metal sounds and textures. Check out some video demos of Softube’s “Metal Room”. Easy to use and pull a great sound quickly.
Amp simulators have been around for a few years with models from Line 6 and the Axe FX and Digitech. Line 6 pioneered the technology and were very successful providing guitarist with a choice over a traditional guitar amp. As much as these units were convenient the sound was never great. The latest addition to this technology is the Kemper Profiling Amp. The Kemper uses a different approach to simulating the traditional amp by sampling that amps sound characteristics and it works incredibly well. No longer do you get that hollow digital sound when the sound crosses from being clean to driven. When you drive the input of the Kemper it acts exactly like a traditional amp and just gets creamier without any digital sounding artefacts.
All Kempers ship with a collection of amplifier and cabinet sounds that have been sampled via the amp’s “profiling” section. They have a collection of in-built effects, which can be used to build “stacks’, which can be recalled in performance mode. Every parameter from the amplifier section to the cabinet itself and all of the effects can be adjusted to precision. The A/D and D/A are very high quality, with a range of options for outputting your signal either to an amplifier, speaker cabinet, mixer or other line-level device. For recording, you can internally send the dry (direct signal), FX, amplifier section and cabinet section discreetly into your DAW. The real power, however is the ability to sample or profile your own collection of amplifiers, and to engage with the Kemper community sharing your amp profiles online. The Kemper Profiler is equally useful live, as you can quickly recall any amplifier you like to suit the gig. There is also a dedicated foot controller available, along with MIDI ports too.
We hope this article helps you achieve the ideal tone when recording your guitar. Remember there is no one techniques, you just have to find the best one to suit you're style.
What's your favourite guitar tracking technique?
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