Making the Most of... (Part 3)
Recording Electric Guitar
How to get the best in your studio from an electric guitar.
This month we look at various ways of getting a good electric guitar sound onto tape and how to treat it once it's there.
If you want to record the electric guitar successfully, then the first thing to examine is the instrument itself. Unlike keyboards, sequencers, computers, and this sort of equipment, the guitar is rather an antique in terms of hardware - relying as it does on the vibration of bits of wire strung to a wooden frame via mechanical pegs, and that engineering marvel, the bridge! In other words, it's far more susceptible to things like general wear and tear, going out of tune and warping (especially if it belongs to a heavy metal guitarist). So you need to make sure it's regularly serviced.
To get your guitar ready for action, a new set of strings is needed for that extra brightness and ringing sustain. The dull 'flub' of an old string coated in the months old grime of a sweaty-fingered guitarist is just not satisfactory I'm afraid! Having said that, some guitarists find new strings too bright and prefer to play them in for an hour or so before recording, but do clean them after use.
Intonation is the next aspect to check and is pretty simple to adjust. Pluck the harmonic of a string above the 12th fret, then fret the note of the same string at the 12th fret - they should sound the same in pitch. If the note is sharp then you lengthen the string by moving the bridge saddle away from the pick-ups; if flat, shorten the string by, moving the saddle towards the pick-ups. Check the note against the harmonic again and keep adjusting it until the intonation is correct on all the strings. If the intonation is out you'll find that the guitar will be in tune with itself when playing near the nut, but out of tune when playing further up the neck.
If notes are buzzing horribly at certain places on the neck the chances are that your frets are worn and need stoning or even replacing if the problem is really bad. Most guitars buzz a bit and it shouldn't be noticeable in a recording situation, but if your guitar sounds more like a sitar, then it needs an overhaul!
Making sure that your guitar is properly set up will save you time, money (if you're paying to go into a studio), and the fact that you have a good sound at source will help achieve a good sound on tape. This may seem obvious but I have worked on sessions where the guitarist has turned up with a virtually unusable instrument.
Another essential for the recording guitarist is a tuner. Tuning problems are the death of creativity in the studio as well as being a waste of time, and an instigator of arguments as to who has the best ear for tuning etc. Having a properly set up guitar helps here too - in fact anything that avoids hassle in the studio is a worthy investment!
Now that your guitar is ready to play, what do you need to record it? Nowadays there are quite a few options.
If you record yourself, or if you've recorded another guitarist you'll know that most people feel comfortable with an amplifier set-up they're used to - and usually play better because of that. DI'ing an amp never seems to work out as well as miking up because the sound one sets up is usually achieved through the interaction of amplifier and speaker or speakers. Generally, a DI taken from the amp will sound pretty thin and spineless when compared to the sound emanating from a much abused guitar speaker.
When miking up which mic is the best? Well, it really depends upon how much money you've got to spend. You can either go for a second-hand mic from the pro selection, usually found in the classified ads in studio magazines (Wolfgang Staribacher's series of articles on using microphones in HSR could prove useful here), or if you have a tight budget then go for the best all-purpose mike you can afford. Fortunately electric guitar is fairly forgiving when it comes to microphone quality.
I'm not a fan of close miking in an acoustically dead studio, but it does give you a lot of control over the sound. Once recorded, however, it generally sounds pretty dull until you start adding effects like reverb and echo to give it some life.
These days a lot more producers have been experimenting with ambience. After all, you don't set up a sound with your head stuck right next to the speaker! Usually you go for the best sound you can achieve in the room. So why not put a mic up in the room? Better still, if you have two mics, use one close up and place the other either on a stand in the room, or even try what Colin Thurston suggested in his recent HSR interview - a mic at the opposite end of the room. Experimentation with a mix of the two mics can yield surprisingly good results and put back that 'live' feel to the sound when listened to in the context of the track. You could also try finding a really live area - a room where there is a lot of natural reverb, such as a hall. Even if you close mike in such an area it's surprising how much of the room you can still hear. With an extra mic used for ambience you can try treatments like a touch of reverb to give presence to the overall sound, which can sometimes be a bit middly. A graphic equaliser can also come in handy here if your live room has unpleasant frequency characteristics.
Experimentation with microphone positioning and amp/cab siting is always a good idea. Jeff Beck once recorded an album using a cab miked up in a cupboard! The standard close miking position is with the microphone pointing at the centre of the speaker from a distance of a few inches. However, if it sounds better in a different place, record it!
Of the two main types of amp (transistor and valve) used by guitarists, the valve amps tend to sound noisiest, but for a lot of people they still give that beautiful warm sound which is impossible to achieve any other way. I'll deal with noise when we get to the effects section. If the amp only sounds good at antisocially high volumes,try using a power soak on the output; a suitable design was published in the April 85 issue of our sister magazine GUITARIST.
DI'd clean guitar can sound really good with the sort of EQ available on today's mixing desks, however it really does bring out any fret buzz you have, so be careful. Many people prefer to record clean guitar this way because it is so easy to add treatments like compression, which will smooth out the peaks, and can be set up to give a clean guitar a pokier sound. Apart from speed, another advantage if you've only got one room in which to record, is that you won't have to use headphones for monitoring. One common problem is that the line input of the mixer often loads the guitar pickups resulting in a dull tone so try to put a pre amp or an effect in line with the guitar in order to match things up. DI'ing distorted guitar is something I really do have reservations about, however. For lead work running a distortion box into the desk, or taking a DI from an amp set to distortion results in a thin, fizzy tone. It can only just sound passable with a lot of work on the EQ, or if it's multitracked. As for DI'ing distorted rhythm guitar-well if you can help it, don't. Overdriven guitar of any sort is usually meant to sound gutsy and aggressive, and to be honest, you really need an amp for this application. Try and borrow one off a friend in exchange for some recording time if you don't have one.
By far one of the most popular, quick and efficient ways of recording guitar over the last couple of years has been via a Rockman or one of its excellent competitors. These devices are about the size of a personal stereo and have on-board selectable distortion, compression, stereo chorus, and delay. You plug the guitar into the unit which in turn plugs into the line input of the desk, usually in stereo. Most such devices have a stereo output and they vary in quality and performance quite a bit. The Tom Scholz Rockman, which started it all probably still sounds the most classy, but products offered by Aria and JHS in particular represent excellent value for money as well as sounding quite different from each other.
In my experience these units tend to sound better when used on a guitar with humbucking pick-ups, as single coil can sound very thin. However, if you want a thin, clear sound for something like a funk rhythm track or a Dire Straits sound, then single coils come into their own. If you've got a distortion box you can also try running this between your guitar and the unit to get a fatter lead sound for single coils but at the expense of more noise. If I had one of these units I must confess that I'd probably use it all the time for demos because of the ease and speed with which you can get a good sound together. Also you won't need to wear headphones and you can play in the control room listening to the actual sound going on to tape which makes communication simpler. These useful little boxes can sometimes cause noise problems and a dynamic noise filter such as the one sold in kit form by Tantek is probably the most elegant solution. Failing that, you can use a noise gate but take care not to chop off the reverb by using too short a release time setting.
If you know what you want then it's often a good idea to record your effects onto tape so that they're left free for such things as vocals at the mixdown stage. You can run them before the amp if you want - again, if effects are an important part of your guitar sound then you must have them set up in the way you will feel most comfortable playing and which will enable you to give the best performance. In January's issue of HSR Hugh Padgham explained that for the Police's Synchronicity album, 'Any effects that we did have on guitar, Andy Summers would get at point source, in other words, out in the studio'. This is possible now because pedals are a lot quieter than they used to be. It is unwise to turn pedals on and off during recording unless they have silent FET switching, and it is advisable to record clean and distorted guitar onto separate tracks because they invariably need different treatments - quite apart from the fact that a distortion pedal will usually increase any crackling, hum, or buzz that you may have. You can always bounce them onto one track later if you have to.
On the subject of noise, single coil pick-ups are the worst offenders. This buzzing usually increases, the closer you are to anything with a power supply, and dimmers are fatal for the single coil guitar. Screening will help, but usually not cure the problem, and the best thing is to find a position in the room where you get least interference. An alternative is to fit something like EMG pickups which have excellent noise immunity and are active so they can be plugged directly into the desk without incurring any matching problems.
Noise gates as you must now be aware, can help you combat unwanted noise on the guitar by attenuating all signals below a certain level or 'threshold' as it is usually called. When the gate is open, the noise content is still actually present but it will tend to remain unnoticed when the guitar is played back in context with the track, and when you are not playing, the threshold should be set so that no noise can be heard. Noise gates and their applications have been covered extensively in HSR and so I won't dwell on the subject. Unfortunately on an instrument like the guitar, problems can arise with a sustained sound that dies away very gradually, because as the signal gets quieter, noise becomes more evident. The best policy is always to get the source sound as noise free as you can, but with a cranked up Marshall stack I'm afraid you're asking for the impossible! Again a dynamic noise filter may help here.
There are a number of reasonably-priced pedal gates on the market, such as the Boss or MXR series, some of which also have 'Release' controls which will determine the time taken for the gate to close after the signal has fallen to below the threshold level, so allowing long sustained notes to die away naturally.
You should ideally run your gate after your amp so tha you eliminate unwanted noise from that source as well as from the guitar in order to produce as clean a signal as possible on to tape, and then your gate won't be tied up for mixdown. This can be done by patching your gate into the mixer, though some gates will accept a high Z mic input directly.
These are also a useful recording tool - especially on clean guitar which can often be hard to record because of nasty peaks at certain frequencies or may simply fluctuate in level due to uneven playing. A carefully set up compressor (fairly fast attack with a slowish release time) will even out the dynamics in the playing and can increase sustain. Unfortunately it will also bring up any noise like bad fretting, or the sound of fingers sliding across strings. You have to exercise more control on your playing when using a lot of compression, but you'll be rewarded with a clean, tight sound which suits something like DI'd clean guitar very well. Extreme limiting, using a fast release and attack can give a guitar track a lot of presence in the mix.
Because it is such a useful tool for adding sustain, many guitarists use compressors for soloing. Again, it will stop any nasty peaks, but if you've got a noisy source sound then it's worth running it after a noise gate so that only the gated guitar is compressed, otherwise you'll just be bringing up the level of the noise in breaks between playing.
Delays are capable of a number of useful effects, and with the current availability of many budget priced DDLs on the market ADT, flange, chorus, and repeat echo of a good quality are within the reach of the Home Recordist.
ADT is great on guitar if you're going for an American type sound as it really fattens things up. Use 20-40ms delay, with or without modulation, and with the repeat/feedback set to minimum. You should ideally run the DDL return back through a spare channel on the desk for better control of the EQ, and then mix in enough effect to fatten up the sound without being able to make out the single repeat. This technique works well on both rhythm and lead guitar.
Flange on guitar is only really useful as a special effect saved for suitable points in the song and you must beware of overusing it. Sometimes a light flange set up to give a long, slow sweep can be effective.
Chorus is a sound you can use all the way through a track without getting tired of the effect and is a particularly effective way of achieving a clean, jangly guitar sound without multitracking the guitars.
Practice and experimentation with effects usually lead you to develop a certain method of getting what you want from a guitar sound. For instance, if you've recorded your guitar track ambiently, you may find that you don't need to use reverb or echo on it. Another trick is to treat your 'room' sound with a bit of reverb as this can add presence to what can often be a middly sort of sound. Again, if you know what you're after, record it on to tape. A lot of producers will record the reverberated signal on the tape because at mixdown you end up with different types of effect with regard to length an EQ, thus making the whole sound a lot more interesting. If you have only one reverb, it also means that all your instruments don't have to have the same treatment at mixdown.
If you've DI'd or close miked, then a short reverb or delay can simulate a 'room' sound with attention to the EQ. Expensive units like the AMS and Quantec Room Simulator have settings to create ambience, but it's surprising what you can achieve with a humble reverb and a bit of experimentation (see 'The Art of Toys' article this month).
When you do eventually get to this stage and you wish that the guitar had been recorded in stereo, but you've run out of tracks, then it is possible to create a stereo effect with a DDL. Pan your untreated signal hard to one side, feed it to a DDL and bring back only the ADT'd signal through a free channel of the desk which should then be panned to the opposite side. This will give you a nice stereo spread if you can't afford the luxury of double tracking. Alternatively try a real double track if you have a spare track left to use up.
Another method of stereo spreading guitar is to have the reverb signal panned hard to one side, and the guitar itself to the opposite side. This gives an indefinable sense of movement to the mix when the guitar is in context with the track and has been used by Trevor Horn among others.
If they're available for use on guitar at mixdown, any of the effects mentioned can be useful to clean up, fatten up, or brighten up the sound. However, they're no compensation for poor playing techniques. If you're paying to go into a studio, then make sure you know the part well. If you've got all the time in the world to do it at home then you can afford to be a bit more lazy, but pay great attention to things like timing. Many guitarists are guilty of poor timing and it's worth getting this aspect of your playing together rather than being able to play billions of notes in a bar of 4/4. However, you could always have fun trying!
Feature by John Harris
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