Electric guitar

How to record your electric guitar


Recording electric guitars is different from recording acoustics – you’ll probably be using an amp to start – but many of the same ideas can apply.

An electric guitar amp produces fairly high sound pressure levels (SPLs). Therefore, if you are using a proximity mic with your angled amp, you may want to consider using a dynamic mic or a condenser mic with a pad switch.

To get closer

Recording lesson

A typical “mic close” position using a Shure SM57 dynamic mic. (Image credit: Avenir)

Many engineers like to shut down amps and cabinets with a dynamic mic, and believe it or not, placing the mic at different points in front of your speaker has a huge effect on the sound you capture.

Start with the microphone 1cm to 3cm from the grid, pointing halfway between the center and the edge of the speaker. Moving the microphone just a few inches will change the sound.

Typically, the mic in the center gives you a bright sound, while moving the mic towards the edge of the cone makes things progressively darker. The distance of the microphone from the amp introduces an atmosphere into the sound.

No control room? no problem

Unless you live on Abbey Road, you are unlikely to have a separate control room in your house. Don’t panic, however, because John Leckie [producer of Radiohead’s The Bends among others] think you might be better off playing in the same room as your amp.

“You get better sound if you stand in front of the amp with an electric guitar,” he says, “because something’s going on. Not necessarily full feedback but there is an interaction between the guitar and the amp. If you have a brick wall between you and your amp and you’re in another room, you’re not going to get it.

Listen carefully

Start by ringing your amp directly into the room. Spend some time thinking about what kind of sound you want and listen objectively. Now is the time to experiment – getting it right in the first step will make micing a lot easier.

Try out your amp in different areas of your room at the volume you will be recording. Swipe your amp’s tone controls within their range as you play, and stop them when they sound right. Once you’ve set up your sound, it’s time to position the mic.

Leave your mark

TGR 336 recording lesson

Mark the position of your microphone with a piece of tape on the grid fabric. (Image credit: Avenir)

Once you’ve found the position you’re going to place the mic in, use duct tape (any type is good, as long as you can see it) to mark the exact spot on the speaker grille. It will save you time if your microphone is moved during recording. Obviously, if you are using a cab without a grille, it is advised to skip this step!

Two microphones

TGR 336 recording lesson

Mixing a condenser with a dynamic mic can create huge recorded sounds. (Image credit: Avenir)

It is common for engineers to use two mics on the same cabinet to achieve a balance between two different sounds. This can either be a pair of different dynamic mics that give different tonal characteristics, or a dynamic mic and a condenser mic.

Pro tip: microphones

CHOOSE THE BEST MICROPHONE
“If there is only one microphone I could have, it would be a Shure SM57. A ’57 is essential for recording electric guitars and, in fact, you could make an entire album with 57s if you had good mic pres. They are excellent workaholics… on my own, I’ll put a ’57 on the voice coil edge at a very close mic. It’s as good as it gets for me.
John Porter, producer [B.B. King, Ozzy Osbourne]

As with acoustic guitars, you’ll have to be careful with phase issues that ruin your sound, but – especially with overdriven guitars – you can use the phase relationship of each pickup to your advantage when creating your sound. Start with the dynamics in the “closed” position, then add a condenser two to three feet away.

From there, record short test portions and move the condenser mic around to hear the difference in each position until you’re happy with the sound.

Go straight

TGR 336 recording lesson

(Image credit: Avenir)

The DI box (or direct input) will allow you to split your guitar signal into two places. From the direct box, you can send one signal to your amp for the mic and another completely dry signal to another input on your audio interface.

Record them on separate tracks and you’ll have an unprocessed track straight from your guitar pickups, plus your amp’s sound for the price of one take. Why would you want to do this? Well, you could re-amplify the signal …

Re-amplification

TGR 336 recording lesson

(Image credit: Avenir)

Re-amping is the process of taking an already recorded guitar track and sending it back to a mic guitar amp for re-recording. This technique is particularly useful if you find that you are not happy with the original sound of your amp and want to correct it later.

Your audio interface will send the signal at a higher level than your guitar amp is designed to receive, so to effectively re-amplify you will need a re-amp box. Radial produces a range starting at around $ 99. The diagram above shows a reamplification setup.

Model behavior

So far we’ve focused on capturing the sounds of your guitar through your amp with a mic. Of course, this method will not be practical for everyone. If you record at unfriendly hours or can’t start an amp at home, then amp modeling could be your new best friend. You probably already have some models, in which case you can get started. Otherwise, you will need to choose a hardware or software solution.

Software:

One of the great things about software amp modelers is that they keep everything inside your computer, which means you can run multiple instances of it (if the power of the computer allows).

Pro tip: reduce distortion

“Less distortion can be more aggressive. Slayer never had tons of distortion on their guitars, Kerry just digs like a motherfucker when he plays. A lot of people tend to hide behind the distortion with their rhythm playing.

“You now have all of those amps with high gain overdrive, but you should take that punch out of your pick attack and dig hard. If you can lower the gain and play loudly, you will get better clarity in your sound.

“There is certainly something to be said for the old school guys who have learned to play through [Marshall] JCM 800 without any pedal.
Andy Sneap, producer [Slayer, Opeth]

And the best thing? You can change your settings after recording your guitar sounds. Most software will be configured to record audio coming from the interface as a dry track.

So even if you hear your guitar sound going through a virtual amp, it gets added as you play, rather than to the recorded file. This means that your sound remains totally flexible throughout – much like a re-amp. Be careful though, as it’s easy to get caught up in endless adjustments!

Equipment:

Using a dedicated amp modeler has its advantages over software. Tuning is (usually) easier and it won’t put extra strain on your computer. You have a choice of Line 6, Boss, Mooer, Headrush, and Fractal, and there are plenty of hardware units that double as an audio interface.

TGR 336 recording lesson

An outboard re-amplification device like the one from Radial can make the process a lot easier. (Image credit: Avenir)

Steal that sound

Have you ever heard a guitar sound and then spent centuries tweaking your EQ controls to match? By using an equalizer with an analyzer, it is possible to quickly achieve the right sound level. First, import the audio track of the guitar sound you like into your DAW.

Then select an equalizer with an analyzer or choose a spectrum analyzer plug-in (most DAWs have one included).

Play the song and take a good look at the equalizer curve. Then try to combine it with an EQ plug-in on your own guitar track. It won’t tell you things like mic type, tuning, or gain settings, but you should be able to get close.

TGR 336 recording lesson

(Image credit: Avenir)

Use free stuff

Many DAWs now come with guitar amp and effect models included. While these are often very good, there are also some free third-party amp modeling plugins available to experiment with.

The AmpliTube 4 from IK Multimedia comes with 24 models and allows you to try out the company’s paid models. Native Instruments Guitar Rig 5 Player has been around for a while but still sounds great. Both run on Mac or PC and include basic built-in recording features in their stand-alone versions, ideal for capturing those initial creative ideas.

Small amps, big sounds

Fender Princeton Reverb

(Image credit: Fender)

When playing you might need 100 watts and some 4x12s to silence the drummer. However, when you record, our experts agree that small is better …

Bruce botnick [The Doors, engineer]: “I like the little Marshalls, because they make such a big sound. A lot of the best guitar stuff I’ve ever recorded that really sounded loud and big has always been with small amps.

Mike Vernon [producer of Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton]: “Personally, I prefer to work with smaller amps because you can get more intensity from the amp and you get more focused direction. The bigger the cabinets the more confusing they will become and you look at eight of them [speaker] cones and thinking, “Which one do I mic?” They won’t all sound exactly the same. In fact, some will be designed not to sound the same.

Tony platt [AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, producer/engineer]: “For big sounding guitar tones, it’s best to use smaller amps. It’s also about not having overrated speakers for the amp. If you have a 50 watt amp in a 100 watt speaker, the speaker will be more than capable of handling it. But, in fact, what you really want is a 30 watt speaker. Then at reasonably low volumes you can get something that sounds like the whole thing is being pushed all the way up to 400 watts – or 11 as they call it! “