The variety of sounds you can get from an electric guitar is effectively infinite, and no one way can be claimed as The Way to record them.
There are countless ways to implement guitar parts on a song. Everything under the Sun is fair game, it seems, and that’s before we even consider adding any acoustic guitars.
Techniques that often appear on records featuring electric guitars include 6-strings, 12-strings, bottleneck slides, solos, chord arpeggiations, power chords, picking parts, rhythm parts, harmonies, riffs, whammy bars, tremolo, Leslie, distorted leads, overdrive, fuzz, echo, stereo, mono, different amps, different pedals, and so on.
FACTORS IN GUITAR SOUNDS
There are many factors at play in creating a guitar sound.
There’s the player, of course, which is first and foremost, and then there is the guitar itself. But wait! There’s also the amp, and the room the amp is in, to be taken into account, unless you’re using an amp simulation in a DAW.
Then, there are the type and age of strings on the guitar, and the choice of pickup(s) used, the construction method of the guitar and so forth.
There is also an interaction between the guitar pickups and the amplifier, which is missing when you record with amplifier emulations or when you’re miking up an unplugged electric instrument. The best players will feed off this responsiveness, this interplay between amp and pickups.
There are tone controls on both the amp and the guitar, and then there are the countless guitar pedals and effects units that can be interjected into the signal chain between player and amp. Delays, compressors, flangers, distortion flavours, and so forth.
An E-Bow is another fun gadget to play with, coaxing violin-like sustained tones from electric guitars that can sing out seemingly forever, reminiscent of Brian May’s sounds with the band Queen. Brian Eno also explored a lot of sonic territory with this handheld playing device.
The sound of an electric guitar can be sweet, angry, shimmering, beautiful or raging and ugly, and any stop in between.
It’s one of the most versatile of all instruments, mostly because there are so many ways to process the instrument, and so many elements can be used in the signal chain alongside the guitar.
This means there really is no standard way to record an electric guitar.
As you will readily see, electric guitar recordings are pretty much a free-for-all when it comes to techniques and tools. Imagine it and make it so.
RECORDING THE ELECTRIC GUITAR UNPLUGGED (USING A MICROPHONE)
The simplest scenario is to record an electric guitar unplugged, as if it were an acoustic guitar. Usually this is done simultaneously to recording through an amplifier, placed in a different room so it’s not going onto the microphone recording of the unplugged acoustic sound of the guitar playing.
It’s not a very practical sound, other than adding some light airy feeling to a guitar take (which is occasionally useful for lightly strummed parts). It would be very unlikely that you would use the sound by itself.
There is nothing to stop you recording the sound of the guitar when it is not plugged in, by miking up the unplugged guitar near the twelfth fret with a small pencil condenser mic such as a KM184 or Shure SM81.
This is typically mixed in with an amplified version of the sound, to add a light, bright and jangly edge to the guitar sound, and the take is recorded both ways at the same time.
It’s not that common, but it has been done a fair bit over the last forty years or so. It’s certainly another trick to bear in mind in your arsenal of recording techniques.
There is also the possibility of re-amping the guitar, and I’ll be talking about that later in this post. This is the process of playing a guitar part (you have already recorded as a clean DI signal) back through a real amplifier, and miking it up to record the result.
The clear advantage of re-amping is that you can opt for the sound in the mix rather than when recording, which is often highly desirable.
There are several disadvantages. A major one is that you won’t be playing to the right sound as you add other sounds to the song’s production prior to doing the re-amping. This affects the way the other performances, and the sound they will be captured with.
Another bad point is that there is no responsiveness between pickups and amp, in the way that there is in a real environment where the player is using an amp in real-time and reacting to the way it sounds. This feedback with the performer (sometimes, literally, featuring feedback) is missing using an amp simulation.
AMP EMULATIONS (a.k.a. Amp Sims)
Excellent, well-built re-amping boxes are available from Radial Electronics, such as the X-Amp and the Re-Amp. These boxes allow you to carry on with a Thru connection to a real amplifier, if you wish to, while sending a simultaneous clean, balanced DI signal to a recorder track for capture.
Players typically monitor a sound involving the amp sim, but its not applied to the recording – it is simply for monitoring purposes as they play, and the output of the sim is not necessary to record unless you’re convinced the sound is what you want.
It is worth recording all the same, since it acts as a reference, pointing to the result that was imagined at the time of the performance.
The downside here is the latency. It takes a few milliseconds in many DAWs to route the signal appropriately, apply the sound of the amp sim, and let you hear it as you play.
The time is hopefully sufficiently short to allow you to play along with a click track accurately, but there is usually a little springy feel, a very brief delay, between hitting a string and hearing the sound. It’s not enough to put you off, but it is definitely there in a subtle way.
Sims have been playable against a click for a few years now, but the presence of a small latency delay has been awkward to work with for some players.
The latest generation of DAWs such as ProTools 11 – once inevitable initial bugs and teething troubles are resolved satisfactorily – will make latency a non-issue.
These days, the use of an amp sim is fairly likely if you are recording at home.
The main reason to use an amp sim is the convenience of not having a loud amplifier at the point of breaking into distortion blaring away in your home, while the neighbours or kids are trying to get some peace and quiet. A great plus to this method is the ability to make your decision about the sound later in the process.
In some ways, the re-amping option is a Get out Of Jail Free card to play if things go differently than you were expecting.
You can simply select a nice sound from the available presets, or tweak the settings, using the preset as a starting point. There are choices for virtual amps, and virtual speakers to pair with them. This makes it easy to mix and match elements in a way that would be hugely expensive and time-consuming in the real world.
On many amp sims, you will also find the option to change virtual mics aimed at the virtual speaker cabinets, changing from a model of an dynamic mic to a model of a ribbon mic, for example. There may also be options for far microphones, to add a little (virtual) room ambience.
There are great emulations from AudioEase, Waves, Avid/Digidesign, IK, and many others. Digidesign Eleven seems well suited to heavier guitar sounds, to my mind, and Waves GTR (in conjunction with guitar designer Paul Reed Smith) sees the most use in my own home studio.
However, the most successful and popular means of recording an electric guitar still is to place a real mic in front of a real amp.
MIKING GUITAR AMPS
Miking up an amp at the time of the performance still can’t be beaten for sheer emotional power and harmonic complexity, in my view, even when re-amping is an option. There’s something visceral and authentic in the real take through a real amp, where air molecules are moving around and the sound is interacting with the room.
One might expect the monstrous amps used at big live gigs, amps of 100w or more, to be the studio workhorses, but in fact you can get exceptional, powerful sounds from smaller amps. They are also more controllable for achieving feedback while playing, and if you are at home, then the lower volume levels needed (to get to the point of subtle distortion from the amp) are welcomed by family and neighbours alike. Small amps are all over many of your favourite recordings, you can be sure of that.
For many decades, the Shure SM57 has ruled the roost as the King of microphones when it comes to miking a loud guitar amp, despite the low cost and simple technology of the design. Visually, it’s more or less the ubiquitous SM58 but with no windscreen.
The Shure SM57 mic is wel-built for the road, and is able to withstand the aggressively high SPLs (Sound Pressure Levels) that many guitar amps are capable of putting out. Being a dynamic mic, it is slower to react to the fast transients in the guitar signal than a condenser would typically be, but that is an advantage in this application since it works as a form of desirable compression on the signal.
Active ribbon mics have become very popular for recording electric guitars, but they are quite expensive, and remain relatively fragile. These types of mic do need phantom power, which is a modern twist on the original ribbons (which don’t like and don’t use phantom power).
Large-diaphragm condensers are excellent at guitar amps too, especially where mics are to be placed some distance from the amp in order to capture more room sound than close mics would.
Another thing you can do is aim the amp’s speaker by tilting the amp, but amps are heavy, so be careful how you do this. Aiming carefully can lessen or increase the room sound building up around the amp. Use common sense here.
Hard surfaces will reflect sounds, while your thick shag carpets (or denser masses like quilts and mattresses) tend to absorb sounds. Also, any irregular or coarse surfaces tends to diffuse sound by scattering the incoming soundwaves, such as happens with a stuffed bookshelf containing an assortment of books.
You can mic a speaker cabinet from behind, especially an open-backed type, for another sound again. If you combine it with a mic in front, you will probably need to invert the phase of the rear mic relative to the front mic.
Don’t forget to collect some guitar pedals over time, and experiment with sounds. Also, some folks swear that using a battery in a pedal can sound better than using mains power. Try this, and see what you think with your pedals.
Make sure you maintain a good noise floor with pedals, as it’s easy to build up a lot of hissing and crackling without meaning to. Good gain structure is the secret – see my earlier blogs on recording levels.
Keep a contact cleaner (a.k.a. switch cleaner) on hand for the electronics in your guitar’s signal chain, and you will be able to avoid crackly pots and switches on your amps and foot pedals.
Have fun, and enjoy your guitar recordings! Next post from me will be on recording bass instruments. See you then.