Recording Electric Guitars

Difficulty: Spectrum

Quick note from me, Justin - I know lots of you record your guitars at home and I was super impressed by the guitar sounds Cesar got out of my gear when we were recording the electric parts for my album, so I asked him to share some of his secrets with you! He agreed and below you'll find his advice on recording electric guitars, hope you enjoy it. He's got some cool projects on the go and you'll find info about them on his web site at www.cesargimenolavin.com

Recording Electric Guitars with Cesar

Hello all, good old Justin asked me to briefly write down a few ways to mic up a guitar amp for all those interested in recording electric guitar, which giving the nature of this website I imagine that will be a lot of you!

There are many ways to record an electric guitar, and every engineer finds his/her own way to do it. I have purposely kept this overview brief so there is little room for confusion, all the techniques below are just the way I normally record guitar, and should serve as a good starting point for those of you that are new to the world of recording. Remember, the methods below are not rules, just guidelines, you should try to develop your own style once you feel more comfortable with the subject. Don't forget there is no right or wrong, and I would encourage you all to experiment as much as you can, since you might find your very own techniques, which for you, may work better than anything else.  Finally, as my intention is to keep this article as brief as possible I am not going to explain any of the technical terminology like Phase, Compression, EQ, etc, or the characteristics of different types of mics. There is plenty of free, easy to find information online about all of these subjects should you require it.

The guitar and amplifier used obviously play a major role in achieving a good sound. In a professional environment different amps and guitars are normally used to obtain different sounds, but as a home recordist I understand that this might not be possible, so just use whatever is available to you. If you are about to spend any money on equipment and your budget is limited, I recommend that you invest in good quality instruments rather than expensive recording gear. A crappy sounding guitar is always going to sound crappy regardless of whatever expensive recording equipment you might be using!

The room used to record is also something to keep in mind, try to place the amp in a relatively dead room and put the amp on a rug, which will take care of the more immediate reflections coming from the floor.

The microphones used are also an important factor, the ones I mention below are my usual choices, but take this just as a reference, as I understand that some of them might be out of budget for most of you. Don't worry though, you can still achieve a good sound with less expensive microphones.

As for mic preamps, use what you have and try to get the best sound that you can with it!

EQ and compression are also a factor to keep in mind, sometimes adding or subtracting a bit of EQ can solve a problem. Personally I try not to rely on it too much, do your best to get a good sound with your amp and the techniques below. As for compression, sometimes I use it when a part is very dynamic, so I can keep better control over it, but be careful with over compressing as it will kill the dynamic of your guitar.

Recording with one microphone

In a home recording situation many of you probably won't have a wide choice of microphones, preamps etc. This is nothing to worry about, since it is still possible to achieve a good sound with just one microphone. There are two obvious choices to mic up a guitar amp; close micing or distant micing.

Close Micing

A Dynamic mic is a good starting point, for electric guitars. The most popular microphone is the Shure SM57, this is a very versatile and inexpensive mic. In my opinion, every home recordist should own one of them, however if you are not ready to invest in one don't worry, just use any (semi-decent) dynamic that you might have.  You can also try a ribbon microphone, but please be careful, putting it in front of a hi SPL source (SPL is short for sound pressure level, in other words, volume) might damage it, especially old ribbon mics. Modern ribbons such as Royer, Shure, etc are built to take high SPL and should be ok.

The first step is to find the center of the cone, if you can't see it due to the grill cloth put a bright torch right against the cloth, this usually helps in seeing the cone and therefore placing the mic correctly. A good starting point is to place your dynamic microphone pointing perpendicularly on a 90º at the very center of the cone, about 1” to 2” from the grill, this will give you the brightest sound.

Start moving the mic to the side, off-center,  you will find that the sound will become less bright and with more body, just keep moving the mic until you get the right sound.

Sometimes moving the mic off center might get rid of those aggressive hi-mid frequencies but at the same time make the sound a little dull. In this case try pointing the mic at the center of the cone, between 20º to a 45º angle. This should help loosing that harshness on the sound yet retain the right brightness. This is not an exact science and you will have to experiment with all the techniques explained until you get the sound you want.

If using a ribbon, put it a bit further away from the cone than you would do with a dynamic, about 4” to 5”, and tilt it slightly so it is on an angle. By doing this you will minimize the effect of air movement from the speaker hitting the ribbon and (in the long term) damaging it.

Sometimes, for clean (not overdriven) sounds you might want to try a condenser mic, since the amp will generally not be very loud and a dynamic mic might not collect a sound as bright as you might want it to be. Just put a condenser mic in front of the amp and exercise any of the above techniques.  

Distance Micing

This technique can provide an interesting sound. Mic up the amp further away, this includes micing from several inches to several meters, I recommend a condenser mic like a Neumann U87 or cheaper equivalent, since you will be losing a lot of top end as you move the mic away from the amp (but by all means do try any other type of mic you fancy). As a starting point I put the mic about a foot away from the amp, pointing at the center of the cone on an angle (maybe 20º to 30º), this should give you a pretty direct and bright sound with a decent amount of body. As you move the mic away it will start sounding roomier and duller, which can create a very interesting sound. To increase roominess you can point the mic away from the amp, you could also change the pattern to omnidirectional and even stick a compressor on. There is a lot of room to experiment, so feel free to have fun with it. You can also combine a distant mic with a close one, getting a very detailed sound with a nice roominess to it. 

Recording with two microphones

This is the technique that I normally use, you can choose different combinations of mics as explained below. 
Boost both signals on your preamps so they are roughly the same level, making sure that both mics are on phase, otherwise the resulting sound could be very thin and not very desirable (unless that is what you are looking for). There is a quick and easy way to roughly test the phase. Once you have placed your mics play something through the amp and press the phase reverse switch on one of your preamps, if the sound suddenly thins out considerably it means that the positioning of the mics, in relation to each other, is right. Finally, I generally mix both sounds before going to tape (or computer, via a mixer) so I end up with just one track. If you prefer you can record both signals and play with the levels in more depth at the mixing stage, however, making that kind of decision at an earlier stage will make your job easier at the mix. 

Two Dynamic microphones

If using two dynamics, my usual choice would be a Shure SM57 and a Senheisser MD421. There are several ways to mic up a cab; I would start by pointing both mics perpendicularly to the speaker, about 1” to 2” from the grill, having the 57 pointing at the very center of the speaker and the 421 off-center. The 57 will collect higher frequencies or “bite” while the 421 will be picking up more body.

Another way worth trying is to put one of the microphones on an angle, for instance, having the 57 pointing to the speaker on a 90º angle and the 421 on a 45º, this time both pointing at the very center of the cone, with the result of having a brighter output from the 421 without loss of the body.

Finally, you can have both mics pointing at the center on a 45º to the speaker (so they are on a 90º to each other), this is a good way to smooth the sound out when what is coming out of the amp is too harsh (ear piercing!). I would normally start by trying to change the sound on the actual amp, but sometimes if you do that you loose too much of the tone you had, so it is better to tweak the mic positioning.

 

One Dynamic and one Ribbon Mic

This combination has been my favourite for the last year, I normally use a 57 and a Royer121, both pointing at the very center of the cone about 2” to 4” from the grill, again both at a 90º to the cone and as close to each other as possible. The 57 will collect the “bite” of the sound while the 121, being a ribbon, and therefore “thicker” and smoother sounding, will add the body.

One Dynamic and one Condenser mic

You can apply the same techniques used with two dynamic mics, the difference being and you should keep this in mind, that the condenser mic will have a better response on the higher frequencies. I would stick to the SM57 for the dynamic and maybe try a Neumann U87, U47 or an AKG414 (shown below) for the condenser. If the volume coming out of the amp is distorting the condenser, just flick the level pad switch on the microphone (if it has one…hopefully) to either -10 or -20 as needed.

 

Others

There is one more trick, which can come handy on some occasions. If you feel like you can't get enough low end with any of the techniques described above, micing up the back of your cab can be the solution.  This should be combined with any of the other techniques above (except for the distant micing), and can only be done with an open back cab. Just point the mic (any type, although I would personally use a dynamic) at the back of the cone at the same distance as the one at the front. So if your front mic is 2” from the cone, the mic at the back should also be 2” from the back of the cone. Then use the phase reverse switch on your preamp/desk and combine it with the signal of the other mic/mics. This should give you the body that you are missing, but before you do this please keep in mind that while it might sound great when you are listening to the guitar by itself, an over bodied guitar can be more of a nuisance once you are trying to mix it with the rest of the instruments and you might have to end up filtering that low end out. Just try to think ahead!

Remember, that all of the techniques explained above are MY preferred way to record electric guitars, they are all tried and tested and work well, but experiment, make it work for yourself and try to have lots of fun on the way!

About Cesar...

Cesar started his engineering career back in his hometown in the south of Spain, where he worked in different small studios recording local bands. He moved to London in 1999, and after getting some formal audio training he got a job at Stanley House Studios in West London. Starting as an assistant engineer and quickly progressing to become the Studio's main engineer. There he worked with a number of artists and producers, including the Legendary Rod Temperton (Heatwave, Michael Jackson), Quincy Jones, Geoff Barrow (Portishead) and many more (some of whom he refuses to talk about due to the musical torture he went through…) In 2004 he left Stanley House to pursue a freelance career, and has since been involved in a number of great records, one of them being Small Town Eyes!! For more information about Cesar go to:

www.cesargimenolavin.com

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