Getting great guitar tone and recording it
March 17, 2014
There is a wide range of ways to record electric guitar, from plugging a guitar straight into a computer and using a free guitar amp simulator, to agonising over the impedance of guitar cables, using decades-old vintage stomp boxes, having the ‘right’ preamp valves, buffers, isolated power supplies, fiddling with microphone placement where an inch makes all the difference, the TYPE of mic, the mic preamps and convertors and THEN all the things you’re going to do it in the computer.
Just to be up front about this, I’m at the latter end of the scale for sure, though digital guitar amp sims have their place and there are a couple of high-end hardware options that sound great. For most electric guitar sessions I’ll go with a real amp and mics because I think it gives you the most interesting, sympathetic and detailed sound, but the digital options can be perfect for some material. I think if you’re making a record that real amps should at least be an option because authentic guitar tones are a great way to add soul and a human element – particularly when dealing with programmed music – and can really lift a recording.
That guitar tone is a result of a series of components doing different jobs and they’re all essential. Start with a great guitar with great pickups (we’ll assume a nice fresh set of strings and a suitably trained fleshy carbon-based lifeform able to manipulate them). Then it’s clean, not-crackly guitar cables. The best patch cables between pedals, and the funky old pedals completely bypassed so that they don’t have a negative impact on the tone. Seriously, there are pedals which when off, are not really off and still do something to the sound. Usually it’s not a nice something, and manifests itself in what you might summarise as loss of top end or brightness but is actually a bit more complicated than that. So during recording sessions you generally want to bypass them completely if they’re not on.
Next up is the amp, which is likely to contain valves. It’s a big subject and these little light-bulb thingies are key to most of the guitar tones that we all know and love. Guitar amps are usually divided into two sections – preamp and power amp, both with their respective sets of valves. The preamp is when the tone shaping happens – your bass, mids and treble controls and the amount of drive or distortion. The preamp valves play a big role in the sort of tone you’re working with. The power amp section is where this tone is, um, amplified so that it can drive the speakers to make it come out all loud and full of fun for your ears. The valves in the power amp section also play a role in the final tone and there are different ‘flavours’ of valves that are commonly associated with the resulting tone.
All of these valves need to be working properly, not making funny noises or ringing sounds, and not being excessively noisy.
Next – speakers and cab. These play a big role in the actual sound being made. To analogise it, if the amplifier is a singer’s larynx, the cab is their mouth! Yum. The type of speaker(s) and the physical construction of the box contribute significantly to our objective of recording a type of guitar tone.
At least one microphone will be used to capture the sound being made by the cab, and positioning is again key. It’s like a really cool EQ in a way; put it on the outer edge of the cone for a warm, wooly tone – put it right in the centre of the cone for a bright, spiky sound. Right up close gives an uncompromising, direct sound as you’d expect. Move it away and there’s a bit less low end, and a slightly rounder sound with a bit of the ‘room sound’ coming into the equation. Use two mics or more, and experiment with the phase relationships between them – VAST tonal options. Of course, there are a number of microphones to choose from, all of which sound different.
It sounds like there’s a lot to go wrong, but it’s all good news really because if everything is right, you’ll be hearing completely awesome, beautiful recorded guitar tones – comparable to the sounds on some of the best-known albums of all time. I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time recording guitar tracks and I still get excited hearing what I’m doing sometimes. I think of it as being a bit like a chef – if you ask me to make you a Bearnaise sauce, I know that I’ll need a Telecaster, a compressor, a tape-style delay and an SM57. You need a soufflé? Behold, my fuzz, Engl, Suhr and a Sennheiser 906! There’s plenty of scope for experimentation and that’s absolutely part of it but it’s also helpful to have a basic understanding of what ingredients always go well together, and how to achieve what you want.
If you’re thinking of getting some session guitar tracks recorded I’m happy to advise on any of this stuff. Alternatively just let me crack on with it – after all you’re if you’re a songwriter you probably don’t want to get bogged down in details. Hopefully most of the time the decisions I make are good, which is simply reflected in the guitar tracks I record. Feel free to show me the sort of thing you want on an existing record though – that’s extremely helpful. Hopefully at the end of the day you get some guitar tracks sent back to you that fit just perfectly with your production. For me, while I’m doing it, there is a series of technical decisions (quite boring stuff to normal people) that is really kind of ‘my thing’ – hopefully this is reflected in the quality and vibe of the tracks you get from me.