How To Get A Great Guitar Sound In The Studio
Reading Time: 10-12 Minutes
Hey all, Brad Simons here again. As a guitar player, getting an awesome tone is very important to me, and also one of my favourite things to do. As with most things we do in the studio, there are a million and one ways to get an awesome sounding guitar tone. However, I’m going to go through my process, and I hope that it lays down some principles that you can use with your process. Let’s dive in.
Choosing The Right Guitar And Amp
As with anything in making music, the source has to sound great or you’re done before you even got started. And not only that, it has to be appropriate, although that part can be subjective. But let’s be honest, in general, a 5150 on hi-gain has no place in traditional country music. So picking the right equipment is essential.
So let’s start with the amp. In general, tube amps are going to do the job better than solid state. Yes, I know that solid state amps have come a long way, but based on my experience, tube amps, in general, do a better job when a microphone is in front of them. There’s something in the harmonic overtones that come across stronger, fuller and more vibrant. Some of my favourites include:
65 Amps Soho - good clean and low gain applications, class A tubes, 20-watt power section, very warm and spanky
Fender DeVille - Awesome go-to amp, great for country, jazz, blues, pop-rock, etc.
Mesa Dual Rectifier - Love it or hate, this amp gets high gain done well. There are specific models that do the job better than others, but this amp always delivers what it does it's intending to.
Bogner Ecstasy - Well rounded amp, but really pulls off the hi-gain stuff in a spectacular way.
There are a lot of amp simulators that are really getting close to convincing these days. BiasFX and BiasAmp, Fractal Audio’s AxeFx series, and even some of UAD Emulations are really making great headway. I can really only seem to make these work well in pre-production, as there just not quite there yet for me. But I’m sure it won’t be long before these software applications sound just as good. And to be fair, I think in some genres they already do! Djent seems to be primarily AxeFx, for instance.
How about the guitar? Well, this one is a lot more open to different options I would argue, as it really depends what you’re looking for. I’m going to generalize this by saying that you need something with quality craftsmanship, great pickups, and great wood. We’ll stop there. Here are some of my favourites to use in the studio:
Fender Telecaster - The classic Telecaster, great for country, pop rock, blues, jazz, very versatile. Depending on the pickups too, you can get some heavy tones out of it.
Gibson Les Paul - Another classic, provides a thicker and warmer tone than the Telecaster, great for rock, blues, some metal.
Suhr Classic S - This is a new one in our studio and man what an incredible guitar it is. Amazing for pop, blues, rock, jazz, and some heavier stuff.
Ibanez - I’m not gonna mention specific model here, but clients looking for heavier tones have been bringing some 6 and 7 string Ibanez guitars that are just incredible sounding for metal/djent genres.
Again, no hard fast rules, there’s obviously A LOT of options between those ones I mentioned, but those ones always deliver. Always make sure that you have the right equipment and that the rig is sounding great before you go any further.
Microphone Choice And Placement
Let’s start capturing the sound. Microphone choice is essential in getting the tone you have put together in the previous step. You’ll be surprised how much to the tone can change based on what microphones you use, how you’ve placed them, and how they blend together. Here are a few microphones that work great:
Shure SM57 - The standard. This should definitely be an option in your mic locker.
Shure SM7b - I find this is an awesome alternative to the 57, I find it a bit warmer in the mids, a little bit smoother and less “fizzy”.
Sennheiser MD421 - While I’m not overly fond of this mic on its own for guitars, it blends very well with both mics above
Sennheiser e609 - This mic was designed for guitar amps and brass instruments. Great for picking up the low mids, and has a super-cardioid pattern, making it a very tight sound.
Royer r121 - If you’re looking for a warm and creamy guitar tone, this is the one. The 121 is a ribbon mic but can handle a high SPL, making it the perfect ribbon mic for a loud guitar amp.
Now, where do you put the mics? And which ones do you choose? The latter is a more difficult answer to give. I’m going to provide a few ways I do it and some general principles, and then you can.
So first let’s talk about the placement of each microphone in reference to the speaker. So in general, the closer to the dust cap (centre of the speaker), the brighter the tone, the closer to the edge of the speaker, the darker the tone. In addition, each area of the speaker has different characteristics with each mic. For instance, I find the SM57 thin and harsh when directly on the dust cap, but great when positioned on the edge of the dust cap instead. In fact, I generally like starting at the edge of the dust cap. You can try angling the microphone on a 45-degree angle to the cabinet. I find this reduces some of the harshness of certain microphones as the sound is not coming in directly in front of the capsule (assuming cardioid pattern).
Another thing to consider is using multiple microphones. I would argue that generally, two mics are the way to go. I went through a phase (no pun intended) where I used three, and I found that I got a woofy, muddy sound as the low mids started to accumulate. I think in general, you’ll see the mid-range get thicker with multiple microphones, and you’ll get a bit of a thinner tone with a single microphone. Use this to your advantage in whatever context you need.
Also, whenever you’re using multiple microphones on a guitar amp, you’ll have to consider the phase. Note that position of the capsule in each microphone will be variable. Therefore just shoving each microphone up to the grill of the cabinet does not guarantee you’ll be in the best phase. For example, the capsule in the SM7b is much further back than the SM57. I typically have the SM7b right against the grill and the 57 back a half inch or so. Get to know each microphone and this will just become second nature.
You can do a null test when multi-miking to get the best phase possible. What is a null test? You’ll set the first microphone up where you like the tone. Then you’ll set up the second microphone, flip the phase on it, and move it around the cabinet until you find the quietest spot. This means that the waveform from each microphone is close to 180 degrees out of phase. So when you flip the phase back on the second mic, you’ll have an excellent phase relationship. You can do this by sending white noise to the amp or having the guitar player play full chords while testing. I have to admit, I don’t do null testing anymore, but it was an essential part of my guitar setup when I started. I do not think it’s a necessary step, but it’s a good tool to have in your toolbox.
After all that, here are some of the setups I use:
SM57 and MD421 - This is the classic standard two mic approach. These microphones really compliment each other, giving a nice round and full guitar sound. It is a tad on the brighter side of things. Note that the capsule on the 421 is slightly further back than the 57. So try putting it slightly ahead of 57 (hardly any) to get the phase right. I point both of these microphones at the edge of the dust cap for my taste. You can also try angling the 57 at 45 degrees.
SM57 on angle and e609 - These mics I wouldn’t normally pair together, but I like the sound of the 57 on 45-degree angle mixed with e609. There’s something meaty and barky about this tone that can really work nicely in a rock mix.
Single SM57 or SM7b - Sometimes you need the guitar to sound a little smaller in the mix, but still poke through in an effective way. I find that these two microphones work best when just using a single microphone. SM57 for something a bit more aggressive, SM7b for something a bit more midrange heavy. No phase issues here!
Well that concludes this post. I appreciate you reading into how I go about tracking guitars. As always at Velveteen, we really believe in a collaborative environment, sharing information helps all of us make better music. So, if you have any tips or techniques you’d like to share please comment below, email us, comment on our social, just let us know! Let’s get a conversation going.
Thanks for reading! Brad Simons