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Pic 1: Mark the center and edge of your speaker with bits of painter’s tape.
Recording guitars is an awful lot like playing them: You can learn the basics in a ridiculously short time, but still feel like a dunce after decades of practice.
I’ve worn the studio dunce cap more often than I care to admit. But I’ve been privileged to record with some of the world’s greatest producers and engineers, and to interview hundreds more. In this new recording column I’ll be sharing techniques I’ve pilfered from them, plus some I’ve blundered into on my own. We’ll cover electric and acoustic … analog and digital … guitar-specific techniques and general studio skills.
But please help make this a conversation, not a lecture. Share your experiences, hurl comments and questions, request topics, and (pretty please!) divulge your secret tricks.
I like mic. Let’s start with guitar amp miking techniques. I recall a conversation with producer/guitarist/genius guy Daniel Lanois about analog sound vs. digital. At one point he stopped mid-sentence. “Look,” he said, indicating two very rare and expensive microphones hanging nearby. “The difference between analog and digital is only a fraction of the difference between that mic and that one.”
Yup, mic selection and placement are big deals. There are no “right” answers, no surefire formulas—solutions are always contextual. But it’s helpful to learn how microphones tend to behave around speakers.
Placement = EQ. You get the brightest, most present sound with the mic aimed directly into the speaker’s dust cap (the little dome at the center). The sound gets darker/warmer as you move toward the cone’s edge. It doesn’t matter whether you move right, left, up, or down—further from the center means less treble bite.
The distance between grille cloth and mic also matters. A very close mic provides more low-end thump. Want more oomph? Move the mic closer. Too dark and wooly? Back it off. Beyond eight inches or so you start to pick up a lot of room sound. That can be a great thing (and a future topic). But close-miking is more idiot-proof, and it permits the most options when mixing.
Between “center vs. edge” and “near vs. far,” you have a powerful 2-band tone control—and equalization of this type is invariably more organic-sounding than EQ applied after recording.
Mic check. Try this: Mark the center and edge of one of your speakers with bits of painters’ tape. (If you can’t discern the dust cap, shine a penlight into the grille.) Stick one tab dead center and another at the speaker’s edge. [Pic. 1.]
Pic 2: Position 1 yields a bright sound with some low-end thump. Positions 2 and 3 are progressively darker-sounding.
Record some guitar snippets, keeping the mic very close to the grille. Start with the mic at the center, then midway between tape marks, then at the speaker’s edge. (Let’s call these positions 1, 2, and 3, as shown in Pic 2.) Next, move the mic about eight inches from the speaker, and record center, middle, and edge examples (positions 4, 5, and 6, as seen in Pic 3).
(In multi-speaker cabinets, one speaker may sound superior, so listen up close. I don’t need to warn you about loud levels and ear damage, do I? Keep it quiet.)
Pic 3: If the tone is a bit too “woofy,” back the mic off eight inches or so. Again, closer to the center means more treble.
Listen back to your recordings. The drastic tone changes from position to position may astonish you. Small mic movements yield dramatic variations. Check out these examples, recorded with an old Strat, a Magnatone Super Fifty-Seven amp, and an SM57.