Recording Electric Guitar by Dan Williams, The Guitar Stool designer and former engineer at Wellesley Sound, Toronto.
Every engineer has their own routine for capturing an electric guitar through an amp to tape. This is how I do it, but you should take these concepts and figure out a way that works for you.
Getting the Sound You Want
It all starts with a great sound coming out of the amp. What you hear in the room needs to match what you’re trying to capture on tape. It seems like common sense, but you’d be surprised how often that’s not the case. A nice tube amp is the best place to start, as it does a lot of the work of compression and EQ for you. Making sure your guitar is in tune is also key. Start by placing the amp on a riser to cut down on the increased bass response from the vibration of the floor. Next, you want to move the amp around the room, listening as you go, to find the best spot. There is a great story about Robert Johnson insisting on playing in the corner of a hotel room while facing the wall during the recording of several tracks in the 1930’s. The reflective sound gave an extra presence to his acoustic guitar on the recordings.
Setting Up the Mics
Once you’ve found the best spot in the room, start setting up mics. I’ll typically use a Sure SM57 as a close mic and position it about 2-3” off of the grille cloth. I usually place it at the edge of the cone pointing slightly toward the center, but this is where it helps to have an assistant, so you can experiment with mic placement to see how it changes the tone. To get that big guitar sound, recording in stereo is the way to go. If you have a cabinet with more than one speaker you can simply mic the other speaker in the same way as the first, and pan each mic left and right. I always like to bring some of the room sound into the mix, so my second mic is a condenser placed a foot or two away from the amp. This will bring some life into the sound and help it find its place in the mix later.
Equalization and Compression
The last step is EQ and compression. If you have a great sound coming from the amp, and use the placement of the mics to your advantage, then you shouldn’t have too much to do in the way of EQ. I prefer to record flat without any equalization and then leave any final tweaks for the mixing process. Compression is a tricky effect to learn to use properly. It can be hard to hear how the compression is affecting the sound. Basically, compression takes the quietest and loudest parts of the performance and brings them closer together in volume. The best way to start is to experiment with adding compression to a recorded guitar track with some extreme settings to see the effect it has. I use relatively small amounts of compression on distorted guitars and more compression on clean guitars, as the distortion adds its own compression.
After that all you have to do is make sure you have a good level going down to tape and you’re ready to rock! Remember, there are lots of ways to record guitars. Start here and experiment until you find your sound.
Do you have any questions or tips for recording guitars? Share them in the comments!
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