The electric guitar ("El Gtr" in engineer shorthand) is one of the easiest instruments to record. Even a modest rig-a good guitar coupled with a decent amplifier-makes the engineer's job a cinch, offering plenty of level, a variety of easily adjustable tones, and-with most modern amps, at least-an assortment of "flavor enhancers" such as tube saturation, overdrive, and compression. In addition, the limited bandwidth of a typical electric-guitar track is ideally suited to the frequency response of affordable dynamic microphones. But that doesn't mean that using the age-old standard of miking guitar amps-a Shure SM57 shoved up against the grille cloth-is the best way to get El Gtr to stand out in a mix.
Like many engineers, I learned the basics of recording guitars by doing live sound and occasional session work. But my "higher education" began when I was hired by a blues/R&B-oriented mail-order record company, and I "had" to listen all day long to recordings from the '40s, '50s, and '60s. No matter how primitive or poor the recording quality on those old discs, I was constantly amazed by the array of exciting sounds produced by electric guitar. Later, when I started recording blues sessions in my own studio, I learned firsthand about the key elements that contributed to the great tones that I'd heard on those classic recordings.
Tubes On 10
Nothing sounds as good as a tube amp turned up to 10. You can do this with some old amps, and they will sound fairly clean; others will explode. Use caution and keep an eye out for plumes of smoke. Newer tube amps generally have separate preamp and master-gain controls that can duplicate the gritty anarchy of yore, minus the lease-breaking SPLs. For jazz and other clean guitar styles, it's okay to turn the volume down a bit, as long as you don't "underdo" it.
But having hot tubes is only half the recipe for getting great tone. Room sound is the other ingredient necessary for obtaining a full-bodied guitar track. It didn't take me long to figure out that the guitarists on my formative blues sessions were slyly contributing to my "education" by nudging the mics away from their amps as soon as I left the room. Thanks to their clandestine efforts, my ears opened up to an entire new world of electric-guitar sounds.
I've since developed several recording techniques that are a sure cure for the El Gtr blahs. Try the following four tricks in their order of appearance, as they are progressively more complex.
Simple Does It
Once you have the essential elements in place-a great amp, guitar, and guitarist-you almost can't help but get a great guitar tone. Crank the amp up to the appropriate level and begin with some mic comparisons. It's especially telling to audition different types of mics: for example, dynamics, ribbons, and large-diaphragm condensers. (I rarely use small-diaphragm condensers for miking guitar amps; on the other hand, I've found that almost any microphone will strike gold once you find the right spot for it.)
My favorite dynamic mics for this application are the Sennheiser MD 421 and 441 and the Shure Beta 58 (which has a fuller sound than the SM57). My favorite ribbons are the Royer R-121 and Coles 4038. For large-diaphragm condensers, I lean toward tube models, in particular the Lawson L47MP and Neumann M147.
Start with all of the mics clustered together three to six inches from the grille cloth, pointed at the center of the speaker. On a multiple-speaker cabinet, don't assume that all the speakers sound the same. Rather, listen to each of them at a sensible volume, and then mic the one that sounds best. If the speakers sound alike, a miking position close to the floor will generally provide a little more low end.
Back in the control room, audition each mic, preferably as the guitarist plays along with the other instruments. Listen carefully to how each microphone sounds on its own and, more importantly, to how it works in the mix. Usually, one microphone will come up a winner on the first pass. Don't stop there, however. Instead, leave the "winning" microphone where it is and experiment with the placement of the other two mics. Time-and mic selection-permitting, you may also wish to do a second round of testing with other microphones.
The key elements of mic positioning are distance from the source and orientation to it. Moving the mic closer to the amp provides more definition, increased highs and lows, and less room sound. As you pull the mic back, the sound becomes less detailed, more "midrangey," and more blended with the ambience. Depending on the room you're in, a distant-miked amp may gain a natural presence and unique character in the mix, despite an apparent decrease in definition. On the other hand, placing the mic too far back will result in a washed-out, murky, or hard-to-control tone.
Mic orientation, or the angle of the mic in relation to the speaker, becomes more critical as the mic is moved closer to the amp. Pointing the mic at the center of the cone will yield more active highs and better transient detail but fewer lows. As you move the mic toward the outer rim of the speaker, maintaining a 90-degree angle with the grille cloth, the low frequencies gradually increase because of proximity effect and other factors, resulting in a sound that may be warmer, softer, or more powerful. Many engineers like to blend these complex characteristics by angling the mic between 30 and 60 degrees off-axis from the center of the speaker.
Of course, it is vital that you experiment and let your ears be your guide with all the techniques mentioned in this article. Don't hesitate to try a crazy placement or an unusual mic such as a PZM (pressure-zone mic). With persistence and a bit of luck, you will likely discover some tricks of your own. This is an excerpt from the following article: Electronic Musician Recording Electric Guitar.
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