It seems as if recording electric guitar should be so easy: just crank up your amp, stick a mic in front of it, and hit the record button. Sometimes it works out that way, but often, it’s not so simple to capture the thick, punchy, sparkling tone your amp creates. Here are easy tips for improving your electric guitar recordings, none of which require any additional gear (which means more dollars left over for buying guitars, pedals and amps).
Watch Out for Resonance
Even if you’re using a close mic on your amp, the room it’s in will influence the final sound, especially if the microphone you have isn’t strictly directional. Rooms have all sorts of resonances that result from sound bouncing around. Take the time to move the amp around the room to find the best spot to record. Consider surrounding the amp with acoustic foam or panels to cut down on room reflections. Lift the amp or cabinet up on a chair or stand to cut down on floor reflections.
Go the Distance
Many people record guitar amps by jamming the microphone as tight up against the speaker as possible—and that can work for many situations. But I’ve been pulling the mic back just a bit, from a few inches to a foot or so, to let the sound develop and breathe. After all, we don’t usually hear an amp with our ear crammed into the speaker.
Use the Room
In addition to mic’ing the amp with a microphone that’s up close, I’ll also record a mic that’s back in the room five or six feet, set up at ear level. You have to watch out for phase problems, and it helps to have a nice sounding room, but real room ambience blended into the mix can bring an otherwise dry, brittle track to life.
Record it Direct
Though I prefer to track guitars mic’d up through an amp, I’ll also record a dry output from the guitar through a direct box that can be reamped later if necessary. This way, I’ve got a “safety” I can fall back on if, for some reason, the amp tone just isn’t working out. Likewise, I’ll take a direct feed off the amp if it offers one. Though a direct amp feed generally won’t sound as “real” as a mic’d amp, it does provide a complementary color that can be blended with the mic’d track.
Small = Big
I was digging back through my archived recordings and came across recordings I made back in college using a little amp that had a 6” speaker. I was stunned to hear that they were some of the biggest tones I’ve ever captured! Tracks made with a small amp often come through the recording process sounding much bigger than they were in real life, and they generally sit well in a finished mix. Another bonus is that the volume level is more controllable during tracking.
With or Without Effects?
Should electric guitar be recorded with or without stompboxes or other effects? The answer depends on the situation. First of all, remember, if you record a track with effects, there’s no way to change those effects later— so if you’re using a delay, make sure you have the parameters set well, because you can’t modify them later.
Ultimately, it depends on the function of the effects. If the effects are integral to the performance, then record with them. For example, if you’re using a particular rhythmic delay that’s essential to playing a part, then record with the delay. Likewise, if the effects are part of the tone, then record with them. An example might be a modulation effect, such as tremolo, that affects how the amp distorts during a passage—putting tremolo on the recorded track after the fact just won’t sound the same.
However, where the effects are used to enhance the guitar part, such as a subtle delay used to enhance the stereo spread of the guitar, add the processing after the track is recorded, during mixdown.
In the end, the one thing you can do to make your guitar recordings sound great is to listen. But the listening required to make a great recording is not the same sort of listening required of a player. Above all, objectivity is required—it’s easy to get so caught up in what you’re playing that you miss how the sound works in the overall mix. Tune your ears in on the overall project, record great basic tracks, assemble and mix them with care, and your projects will come out sounding spectacular!
Mitch Gallagher is the former Editor in Chief of EQ magazine, and is the author of six books and over 1,000 articles on recording and music technology. He has played guitar—from metal to country to big band to classical—for more years than he cares to remember. He is the Editorial Director for Sweetwater in Fort Wayne, Indiana. You can reach him at mitch_gallagher@ sweetwater.com or at mitchgallagher.com