Marc Noel-Johnson "Recording electric guitar can be a tricky business, especially for those who are either completely new to the recording process or those who make music using sampled instruments and loops, and who want to add guitar to tracks already recorded. The purpose of this article and the ones that follow on the same subject is to give anybody new to the technique of recording guitars a basic idea of what’s involved but without getting too technical. There are phrases you will come across in articles about this subject which will mention things like ‘phase cancellation’ and ‘comb filtering’. These are quite technical subjects and outside the scope of this article. We will talk about them another time, but for now we’ll concentrate on the basic concepts that a beginner has to grasp. There are four main elements to consider when it comes to miking an amplifier, either at home or in a studio – microphone placement, the type of microphone, the room acoustics and most importantly, the sound of the amp itself. Like all recorded sound, the source material must be good. The idea that a poor guitar sound can be fixed up later is erroneous, and time will be wasted at the mixing stage, leading to frustration and dissatisfaction with the result. Added to that, if you’re not happy with the guitar amp you have, or it’s too big to lug upstairs to your bedroom studio, or playing it at any usable volume will whip up the neighbours into a murderous frenzy, miking may not be the best way to go. If so, skip to some of our more recent articles about using pre amps and modeling devices. Many amplifiers have a DI (Direct Inject) output on the back. In my experience, connecting this output directly into a recording device is a waste of time and will yield poor results. What we want is the sound of the speaker moving some air. Modelling amps are an excellent option for recording, as signature tones can easily be dialled in. But my favourite recording tool has to be a low wattage valve amp, especially if the output can be stepped down (that is, retaining the tone but reducing the volume). Most speaker cabs and combos will yield better results if they are isolated from the floor, possibly on an acoustic isolation pad. This stops resonant bass frequencies or rumbling, which may not be audibly detectable but will certainly appear on the recorded track. With that, you’re ready to get started. Before you start recording electric guitar, it’s worth taking the time to individually consider the factors mentioned in part one of this guide and ask yourself some pertinent questions. Arguably the most important is: what are my room acoustics like and how are they affecting the sound I’m hearing? The general rule is that a dead space will yield better results than a live one – you can always add spacial effects like reverb and delay later. To get a true picture of your sound, get down in front of your amp and listen to the difference in tone as you move your head off the speaker axis. It’s also crucial that you find out where the centre of the speaker is and mark it with a piece of masking tape. Also mark the edge of the speaker. Place your microphone on axis (that is, directly pointing at the centre at 90 degrees) and make a recording. You will probably find that the sound is aggressive and harsh. Move it out to the edge and repeat the process. The sound will probably be less harsh and a little muddy. Try placing the microphone somewhere in between, at an angle. The result should be a more balanced tone altogether. As far as distance goes, a dynamic microphone will enhance the low frequencies as it is moved nearer to the sound source. This is called the proximity effect. If the microphone is too far away, the room acoustics or ambience will affect the sound by adding in unwanted reflections and unpleasantness that you will not be able to remove. Of course, these are only general guidelines and experimentation is necessary as there may be a few other factors involved. For example, if you are using a 4×12 cabinet, then there will be one speaker that sounds better than the others. A word about volume – if possible, record at the highest possible volume, but take care not to overload the input of your DAW or soundcard. A small amp turned up will sound better than a big one just barely running. The optimum power for a recording amplifier in my experience is between 15-20 Watts. I would try to avoid anything with a speaker smaller than 10 inches. Consideration should also be given to just where the particular guitar part I’m recording is going to fit in the track. If it’s a background rhythm chop or a single chord per bar accent I would back off any distortion otherwise it will just get lost in a busy mix. Clean, chorus or arpeggiated parts will need to be very clean at source with the bass rolled off. Solos, particularly those using distortion, will need the mids boosted to bring them to the front. Meanwhile, saturated rhythm is appropriate for hard rock and metal tones, which have ‘scooped’ or reduced mids with a full bottom end. A 4×12 cabinet would be ideal for this sound. Most people recording at home will not have the luxury of an isolation booth to mitigate the effects of room acoustics and volume considerations. But for a quick fix, try putting your combo in a wardrobe full of clothes, or an airing cupboard. If it’s in an adjacent room then so much the better – you can monitor through your speakers rather than headphones. So you’ve learned about microphone placement and how to use your amp, but which microphone should you reach for? The Shure SM57 is arguably the one microphone that most top producers and engineers can agree on when it comes to recording electric guitar. Generally considered to yeild optimum results, it’s a dynamic microphone, so doesn’t require phantom power, and is as tough as they come, not to mention cheap. If you spend a lot of time recording guitars, it’s an essential investment. Having said that, any decent dynamic will work and there are some very affordable options out there. Condenser microphones can be used to mic up amps as well, but care should be taken as the diaphragm is delicate and can be damaged by high sound pressure levels (SPL). If you use a condenser, you will have a choice of three settings – cardioid, figure of eight and omnidirectional. Set it to cardioid, otherwise you will pick up a lot of room noise, cars going past and dogs barking. If you use both a dynamic and a condenser, set the condenser back a little bit from the speaker grill but not too far away. The reason for this is that recording a single sound source into two microphones placed too far apart will produce tracks that are out-of-phase (out of sync) with one another. Phase cancellation is when the signals or soundwaves from the microphones are out of alignment causing the ear to get confused. Here’s how it works: imagine two identical dogs in front of you, both barking constantly but not in sync with each other. The resulting sound is not easy to listen to and in audio terms translates into an unpleasant, unfocused noise. Anyone embarking on this path of double miking should be aware of the possible problems and do some in-depth research on the subject. Elsewhere, ribbon microphones should be avoided. They are quite delicate and will simply not stand up to the SPLs emitting from a guitar amp speaker. If possible, try to record the guitar dry, unless the effect is so relevant to the part that it simply won’t work. Most DAWs, whether software based or a hard disc recorder, will have excellent guitar effects built in. Alternately, these effects can be bought or may be included as plug-ins. You will have more of a chance making your guitar sound fit with your track if you leave the effects off until you are nearing the mixdown stage. At the mix, you can add effects, probably compression first. Used properly, this will make your guitar ‘sit’ in the track. Reverb should be avoided for as long as possible, as it will give a false sense of where the guitar track is in the mix. A useful trick is to simply duplicate the track once recorded, and then delay one of the tracks by the smallest amount possible. Pan the two tracks left and right and your recording should start to sound big. Another technique is to position a microphone in front of an unamplified electric guitar and play the song through again on another track. When mixed in, this will add top end sparkle if you use a high pass filter and roll off the low end. Also, make sure that all of your solos are recorded as hot as possible. If they get lost, you can lift them out of a busy mix by boosting the upper mids – use a parametric EQ with a narrow ‘Q’ and move it around until the part is distinct. It’s better to use EQ like this rather than just boosting the level, which will simply detach the part from the mix."