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Recording Guitar
Mic Placement—The Key to Great Tone

Recording Electric Guitar

One of the most difficult things I’ve ever tackled is getting good guitar tone onto recorded tracks. It’s taken me years of trial and error to get to the point of being satisfied with the tone I get on my recordings. Recording guitar is truly an art in and of itself. I could write an entire book just on this one subject. But I’m not going to do that. Most of you just want to know the important aspects—cutting through all the other stuff. So, here we go. Good recorded guitar tracks start with good technique. I can’t teach you good technique. I can point you in the right direction, but good technique is something that comes with hours of dedicated practice. Most of my tone is in my hands and in my technique. When you possess good technique—your body, instrument, and amp become one. When I play in the zone (that magical place we all strive for) I don’t have to think about what I am playing. I literally become one with my instrument and it becomes an extension of me.

The zone is an otherworldly place that exists as a synergy between one’s spirit, mind and body. There have been times when I have been swept away in the moment and enter into what seems like another dimension. Music, to me, is a very spiritual thing. It reaches deep into the emotions of a person. It can cause you to laugh, to cry, and some argue it can even cause you to kill. Undoubtedly, music is a very powerful force. Capturing this essence on recorder tracks can be challenging. Sometimes the performance is there but there are issues that prevent that from translating onto your recordings. Once you cover all your bases, capturing a great performance becomes much easier. Today’s recording tools offer us a wide variety of choices for getting our muse onto recorded tracks. Let’s cover the signal path as it travels to the amp through the mic (or DI) to the computer or other recording device.

We’re going to assume you have a properly setup instrument and that you are using good quality cabling. Don’t scrimp on the links in your recording chain such as strings, cabling, etc. One bad link in the chain will have an affect on the recording in a negative way. Let’s start with a good recording mic. I’ve tried several mics for recording electric guitar over the years and I always come back to my trusty Shure SM57. It’s a tried and true workhorse that will take a lot of abuse, and the greatest thing about them is they can be had for less than $100.

Mic Placement—The Key to Great Tone

I’m always amused by some of the recordings I hear splashed all over the Internet. I can instantly tell whether good recording techniques were used. Most feel having a guitar, amp, mic, preamp and a computer make them a producer and a recording artist. Well, all I can say is, I’ve seen and heard some pretty bad art in my day. Seriously, good tone is not that hard to achieve. Great tone—well, that’s altogether another story. Great tone takes time. The more I record, the better I get. Don’t expect miracles at first. Learn to use your ears and to trust them. They are pretty good at telling you the truth. Mic placement is one of the most important factors in achieving good guitar tone on your tracks. Most rooms are not going to be an optimum recording environment, but there are a few things you can do to help make the room a better recording space. Try and deaden the room as much as you can. Reflections can give a false listening space and cause issues when recording.

If your room isn’t perfect, don’t sweat it too much. A little room ambience isn’t bad. Just do the best with what you’ve got to work with. Good monitoring speakers are very important. Don’t use common stereo speakers to mix or monitor your recordings. Common stereo speakers are hyped in the lows and highs and will give you a false sense of balance frequency-wise. Use monitor speakers that are designed for recording. These speakers have a flat frequency response and will give you a truer representation of what you are recording. I also suggest investing in a decent sub-woofer. Most of the monitors I see being sold as recording monitors are deficient in the lower bass frequencies. If you are to mix yours recordings correctly, you must be able to hear well-balanced frequency content from within your recordings. If the lows are deficient in the speaker you use, you will not be able to correctly mix your lower frequencies properly. If you can’t hear the lows you will over compensate and your recordings will sound boomy. 

Once you have a good set of monitoring speakers, a sub-woofer and all the other components in place, you’re ready to begin. First, I like to find the sweet spot on the guitar amp that I’m going to be recording. Every amp I have ever played has what I call a sweet spot. The sweet spot is simply the volume and settings at which that particular amp performs its best. On my Fender Super Reverb its sweet spot is:

Volume – 3 to 4
Bright Switch – On
Treble – 5
Middle – 5.5 to 6
Bass – 5.5 to 6
Reverb – Off to 2.5

At these settings the amp is right on the edge, volume-wise, where the tubes are working just enough to saturate and give me a great reaction between the guitar and amp—but not too loud that it makes my ears bleed. If I push the amp too hard it has a tendency to get flabby and mushy. I want my notes to be articulate and clear. So it’s important that I find that happy medium between volume and clarity. All amps have an optimum volume level. Take the time to find your amps sweet spot. Once you have achieved the tone and volume levels and are happy with what you are hearing, you are ready to make a few tracks. Take your headphones and make sure you’ve got good recording levels throughout your recording chain. Not too hot that you distort and not too low that you get excess noise. Find a happy medium. Once your signal levels are set—with your headphones on and guitar in hand, play a few passages and move the mic around in relation to your amp. See Fig. XXX. Notice how the placement of the mic affects your tone.

I like to start with a clean amp setting and add my overdrive or distortion with effects pedals. Switch the overdrive pedals off and monitor the clean setting first—then monitor a distorted high gain setting to get a point of reference. A clean signal will react differently than one with gain or overdrive. Notice how your tone changes as you move the mic around. Mic placement is extremely critical. Move the mic from side to side, back and forth, up and down and angle it. Place the mic on different areas of the speaker. Notice how the placement of the mic affects the frequencies and tone. Moving the mic closer to the speaker cone will increase the highs and moving the mic toward the outer rim of the speaker will increase the lows. It’s always better to use mic placement to shape your tone rather than using EQ after the track has been recorded. I always try to make what I am hearing through the headphones match what I am hearing without the headphones. In other words, try and make what you are hearing in the headphones sound as natural as possible. Not hyped in any frequency. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Try moving your amp to another room such as the bathroom. The tile in bathrooms make an excellent recording space. Be creative. There’s one rule I like to use in recording—if it sounds good, it is good.

Once you like what you are hearing in your headphones go ahead and record a track and listen to it back through your monitors. If you like what you are hearing then by all means start recording. If you still are not happy with your tone try moving the mic around or maybe even change a few settings on you amp or pedals. Remember, there are many elements that affect your recorded tone. Amp settings, pedal settings and guitar settings all affect tone. Don’t be afraid to change something. Usually less is more. Try backing off your gain settings a bit. Too much gain can muddy up a track. There’s a tendency to over-saturate guitar tracks when recording. I like to always compress my guitar tracks at the amp. In fact, I use a modded Boss CS-3 compressor as the first effects pedal in my signal chain. A compressor helps to fatten up the tracks and keep them from peaking and distorting at the computer or recording console.

Compressors also help smooth out peaks and allow instruments to sit better in overalls mix. Compressors or limiters should always be used when recording. Just be careful to not over use them. Temperance is the key when using any effect. Less is usually more when it comes to effects. Remember, if you max out your recording headroom by recording your levels too hot your recorded signal will be distorted. Digital distortion sounds really bad and should be avoided. It’s better to record your signal too low than to record too hot and distort. The extra headroom will come in handy later when mixing, but distortion cannot be edited out. If it’s there you’re stuck with it. Once you learn proper mic technique and how to properly set your recording levels you will be well on your way to recording great guitar tracks.

Keep in mind that these same techniques will also work when playing live. Good mic placement when playing live is very important also.

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