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more... GearHow-TosGear BlogRecording TipsGuitar TracksFebruary 2009

The Little Things

Preparing to write this column, I thought back to the many recording sessions I’ve engineered and made a list of the things that helped me achieve great guitar sounds. As I looked over the list I saw the usual suspects: microphones, preamps, a great guitar and great amp (and needless to say, a great musician to play them). Then I realized that there were some things missing—things that too often get overlooked or taken for granted. It’s surprising what a difference the “little things” can make in the final results: add them up and they have the effect of a “big thing.”

Your Friend, the Tuner
Many years ago I read an article by Steve Vai that stuck with me. He suggested that sitting with your guitar and “feeling” the tuning would bring you closer to your instrument, making you able to speak through it more convincingly. Whether you “feel” it or not, it’s worth investing some time perfecting the art of tuning; it’s not a chore but a chance to “connect” with your instrument.

For recording, there are few things more important than being perfectly in tune. You might be able to get away with a little drift or imperfection for live performance, but under the recording microscope, forget it! Tuning after absolutely every pass on a recording is vital, especially when layering guitars. Tiny variations in tuning will also show up when it’s time to track the vocals. A singer will be distracted and have to fight to pitch phrases correctly if your guitar is out by even the smallest amount.

Needless to say, invest in a good tuner—not just for recording, but because in-tune guitars sound good! The most used and relied upon tool I ever owned was a Korg Toneworks rackmounted tuner, like the one shown in Figure 1.

Pick Your Poison
When recording, try to think of ways to add subtle nuances, a little “something” that makes a mix move or breathe a little, and brings more expression into your playing. Something as simple as using a different gauge pick for different parts can open the part up or give a passage the extra attack it needs. I always carry a huge selection of picks in my session bag. Try using a lighter pick in the verse and introduce a heavier gauge in the chorus for just a touch more attack. This may produce a huge difference or a subtle one, depending on the part and how you play, but it is especially dramatic with an acoustic guitar.

Playing the Right Cords
So, you have all of the cool pedals, the latest gadgets and the best toys for defining your sound. What’s connecting all those boxes? After all the time we spend obsessing over overdrives and delays, the connecting cords are often given little thought. I’ve seen so many rigs where any old wire is used!

High-quality cables are vital to maintaining tone and passing signal without degradation. (See Figure 2.) Spend some time and listen for yourself. Unplug everything and start from scratch. Really listen to what happens with each added processor and connecting cord. The difference between a cheap instrument cable and a high-quality cable can be astounding. And when you have all of these shiny new cords, wind them up properly and secure them with a cable organizer, like the simple hook-and-loop type shown in Figure 3. They will last you a long time and ensure that your tone stays true!

Take Care
Maintain your guitar to ensure it’s intonated properly and performs at its peak. Grime, dirt, sweat and beer all work against the natural ability of your prized axe to resonate and sing. Before you enter the recording studio, go through your guitar with a fine-toothed comb to make sure it’s in perfect operating condition, so there are no hums, buzzes, rattles, scratchy pots, noisy switches or other problems.

It’s all the little things that add up to a great guitar tone or performance. While it’s easy to overlook them, they can sometimes be more vital to your recordings than the choice of microphone or preamp.
Stuart Niven
Stuart recorded bands in Australia for nearly ten years, including projects for major labels. He graduated from the Conservatorium of Music in Queensland Australia. Niven plays guitar, bass, and drums. He is currently a Sales Engineer at Sweetwater.
stuart_niven@sweetwater.com