The recording engineers big challenge: Recording the electric guitar
You would not think it would be so hard and complicated but to record a good electric guitar track seems to be one of the biggest challenges that a recording engineer can face.
The reality seems to be that an electric guitar always seems to sound decent and correct when used live on stage but when that same guitar sound needs to be re-created in the recording studio, it seems to be a bit of a challenge.
The guitar player rolls his rig into the studio, uses the exact same guitar and amp combination but the sound is just not coming out the way he expects it.
One main reason for this is the “ambiance” of a live performance. It’s not just the acoustics of the hall where the concert is taking place but also the acoustic interaction of all instruments on stage, the pure power of having everything cranked to the max and even the response of the audience that often psychologically makes your guitar sound a lot better to you than when you try to re-create that sound in the recording studio.
So, let’s examine the different ways you could record an electric guitar in the studio.
The first way is what sort of always was the “standard” way of recording a guitar in the studio (if there’s such a thing as a standard way).
You set up the guitar amp, stick a Shure SM 57 microphone about 2 inches away from the speaker at a slight angle and hit record. That is usually also the preferred setup when mic’ing an amp on stage and it has been proven to work pretty good for decades.
So yes, why not start there, with that setup. The SM57 is often the preferred microphone for recording electric guitar but a microphone like the SM58 and the classic Sennheiser 906 or his cheaper counterpart, the 609.
Also, mics usually preferred for kick drums like the Electro Voice, SM20 or the AKD D12 are popular for recording electric guitars.
What you don’t see very often is that an expensive Neumann or AKG mics used for miking electric guitar. Cheaper mics seem to work better with the electric guitar because in many cases, you actually want your sound to be somewhat “colored” by the mike.
Let’s face it, the electric guitar is all about mid range. There’s really not any strong bass or treble in the spectrum of the electric guitar.
The action is happening in the mid range. And it can make an enormous difference if your mid range is peaking around 800hz or if it is peaking around 1,000hz.
The sound may be completely different in flavor. If you are recording a voice with a little boost at 800hz, it may not sound much different than if you would boost that voice at 1,000hz.
On an electric guitar, the difference can be much more extreme. It’s just the nature of the guitar.
So, “cheap” mics like an SM57 do quite a good job to capture the “essence” of the electric guitar. Who needs a microphone with a 20hz-20,000hz response to record an electric guitar?
So, yes, you can record a nice electric guitar sound with an amp and a relatively cheap mike. But there are many variations possible when mic’ing a guitar amp. Sticking the mike right in front of the speaker may do the trick but you would surely not be capturing any “ambiance” or room sound with this method.
And we talked about that before, the influence of the ambiance.
So, many engineers add a second mic at the other end of the room, to capture that room ambiance. Put it on a separate track and you can dial it into your overall sound at will. But remember, if you have an acoustically dead room covered with foam tiles, you do not really have a room sound to capture. Stick the amp into a tiled bathroom, that’s a whole different story.
Some people prefer the sound of the guitar when recorded with the mike in the back of the speaker (in an open cabinet or combo amp), some like one mike up front, one in the back.
Let’s move on to the exact opposite of the “standard” recording method: Recording the guitar direct.
You can plug the guitar straight into the mixer or use an amp with a line output or a stomp box, a guitar processor like the POD to dial in the sound you want.
That gives you tons of possibilities as you can simulate the exact amp/speaker combination for just the right sound.
Of course, a room ambiance will not exist in this case so you could record into a POD and a miked amp simultaneously. That gives you quite a wide range of possible sounds.
Some people take things even further and record the guitar straight into the mixer and then add the amp virtualizations, distortion and effects later via plug ins.
To me, that rarely works out very well as a distorted and amped electric guitar just reacts differently due to sustaining and feedback than a guitar recorded dry into a board.
And adding distortion and amp models later….well, it just does not work very well in my opinion.
However, what can work is to record your electric guitar with on of the two first methods and then fine tune your sound with amp modeling plug-ins.
So, you are recording your guitar sound as accurately as you can into the track and then add plug-ins to take the sound to the next level.
That’s would be my favorite way of working when recording electric guitar.
You may also like to read: 3 Steps For A Wider Guitar In The Mix[author image=”https://www.producerspot.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/alan-steward-avatar.jpg” ]Alan Steward is a Producer, Engineer and Musician with over 30 years experience in the music business. He worked with Grammy winning artists from the Temptations to the Baha Men. His music has been used in TV shows and feature films. He is also well-known as a producer of loops for music production and owns a recording studio in Germany.[/author]