Heavy fretting (Part 1)
Tricks and tips for getting your twanging on tape
Guitars are still a vital part of contemporary music, but they're not the easiest things to record. In a comprehensive new series, ace recording engineer Brian O'Shaughnessy explains everything you need to know, and reveals some trade secrets along the way...
Imagine: You're a 19 year old guitar player in a hopeful 'indie' band. You've scrimped and saved enough for two days in a 16-track studio, to record the demo that is going to get you your deal with a record company. You're hopeful, nervous and excited all at once. Then you meet the engineer. He/she is supercilious, bored, and plainly wants to work on something much better, like getting his own ambient project signed to a major. Your two days, which should have been fun, turn into a struggle, with nothing sounding quite right, and you end up with a lacklustre finished product which you don't feel like playing to anyone.
It shouldn't be like this, but it all too often is. The most important element in music-making is people. If you're working with your band this won't apply, but if you're the engineer in the 16-track, try to remember that your young hopefuls are nervous and excited. Take the time to chat to them, find out what they're into musically, or failing that, which football team they support. Whatever it takes to promote a friendly relaxed atmosphere and a 'good creative vibe'.
When The Mix asked me to do an article about recording guitars, I soon realised it was going to be a pretty long piece: recording acoustic guitar is a different discipline from electric, bass and so on. But before we get bogged down in details, a preliminary piece; Zen and the art of creative recording.
No amount of polishing will redeem a lousy song, but the engineer can enhance good raw material by making sure its musical parts are well executed. For the purposes of these articles, I'm going to assume that pressing the Record button of a tape deck is the limit of your abilities. You've been through the 4-track cassette - everything sounding a bit woolly, even first generation - but you understand setting levels, dropping in. and other basic recording principles. You've probably got a sequencer, drum machine, synth and a sampler, the electronic stuff is sounding good, but now you need to record some guitars. So, where to start?
There is no substitute for a good source sound. Over-processing can make a good sounding instrument poor, but no amount of studio backing can get a poor source to sound good. Try to make sure that whatever guitar you're using is of good quality, well set-up and goes into tune properly. With the possible exception of bass, all guitars sound brighter and more interesting with new strings, but make sure they're played-in enough, to stay in tune properly.
Choice of amplifier is also important. If you need a big distorted valve sound, use a Marshall or Mesa Boogie, rather than trying to process a transistor practice amp. On the hardware side, you'll need a basic selection of microphones and a few processors.
First, the mikes. For a detailed technical explanation of how different types work, I'll refer you to the excellent article on vocal recording by Paul Freudenberg in The Mix, issue 1. You're going to want a couple reasonable quality studio dynamic mics, such as a Shure SM57, SM58, Beyer M201 or Sennheiser MD421 (You should be able to pick these up secondhand for £100 or so). A high quality dynamic, such as a Shure SM7, Electrovoice RE20, Sennheiser MD441 will set you back about three times as much, but will be very useful.
Also, particularly for acoustics, you'll need to use condenser mikes. The small diaphragm AKG451 series (now superceded by the 460) is easily the most popular, and probably (at around £200 secondhand) the most affordable. Other similar types include the Neumann KM84 and the Calrec CM 1851C. If you can afford it, a large twin diaphragm condenser is an unbeatable sound, putting the small diaphragm 'pencil' mics in the shade. Examples of this type of mike include Neumann U47, U67, U87, AKG C414, Beyer MC740, Sennheiser MK440, Sony C48.
Unfortunately, the price you have to pay for this kind of quality is very high. Typical secondhand prices are at least £500. Most condenser mics need 48 watt phantom powering - if your mixer doesn't provide this you can get a 48v phantom power supply quite cheaply.
There are two main types of gadgets used to process sounds in the studio. Firstly, dynamics processors and equalisation (EQ) units, and secondly, effects units such as delay, reverberation, chorus and phasing. Some or all of the original signal is sent through the effects unit, and the processed result is added back in varying proportions to the original. Most of you will be familiar with multi-effects boxes (such as the Yamaha SPX90, REX50, Alesis MIDIverb, Quadraverb, Roland SDD3000 etc), so I won't go into any more detail on these yet.
Normally, dynamic and EQ processors are applied to the whole signal to modify it in a more or less subtle, but very important way. Dynamic processors comprise compressors and limiters, expanders and noise gate. I reckon you will need at least a good compressor and an expander/gate. To fully explain how compressors work and what they do would take too long, but take it from me they're very important. Best get hold of one. use it as I will explain in further articles, and experiment with extreme settings and you will start to appreciate its usefulness. Gates and expanders are simpler to understand, and less subtle in their effect. Some manufacturers provide models which perform compressor/limiting and gating/expanding simultaneously - look out for Drawmer, Behringer, Symetrix and expect to spend £250-£500 for a good secondhand unit. Avoid guitar-pedal types and also the compressors in multi effect units - this is usually digital, and compression works better in the analogue domain.
We will also need some powerful and flexible EQ. If your mixer has two swept midrange EQ bands, and treble boost and cut at 10khz - 16khz say, and bass boost and cut at 60-120 khz, that will be sufficient. Bass, middle and treble won't really do. Parametric EQ lets you find a frequency you like (or don't like) and boost (or cut) it as appropriate. A new Drawmer parametric EQ will cost about £330 and will be fine; a Symetrix 528 will compress/expand, gate and apply parametric EQ for about £450. Digital parametrics (as found in multi-effects units) will also do the job. but are harder to use, as only one parametric can be adjusted at a time. Parametric effects tend to be more user-friendly than graphics, which I wouldn't recommend to novices.
Sorry to leave you with a £2,000 shopping list, but it's important to prepare the ground properly, and in most cases you'll already have at least some of the kit. In the next few issues I'll go into more detail and offer some practical tips - honest. See you then!
This is the only part of this series active so far.
Feature by Brian O'Shaughnessy
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