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Audio [Issue #25]
: Guitar Micing
By Ronan Chris Murphy

In the last half century, the electric guitar has climbed to the top of the totem pole of most Western music styles, as well as popular music all around the globe. Despite the legend that one record label executive turned down a chance to sign The Beatles because “guitar music was on the way out,” the guitar, and primarily the electric guitar, has continued to be a mainstay of almost every big musical trend in the last 50 years; and, in fact, the electric guitar has defined and created many of the great musical movements of modern times.

In many ways the sound of the electric guitar on a recording can define the sound of an artist, and it’s not really a stretch to say the sound of the guitar can define the genre of music. Sometimes the difference between a “pop” band and a “rock” band is the amount of distortion on the guitars. Keeping this in mind when we record guitars - the sound we get in our recording will have a huge impact on how the listener will experience the music. The good news and the bad news is that recording guitars can be extremely simple, but at the same time, elusive.

As is the case with almost all things recording, it starts at the source, and getting things right at the source can not only make things easier, but also be downright critical to get the sound you are going for. Finding the right combination of guitar, amp, and pedals is crucial even before you start recording. One very important thing to remember is that what makes for the perfect live guitar sound does not always make for the perfect recorded guitar sound. Although there are many different types of guitar, amp, and recording technologies, the king of them all always has been (and still is) a guitar being played through a good quality tube guitar amp being recorded with a microphone. Certainly anyone that follows these sorts of things could find exceptions to this, where good sounding and successful records have been made and recorded with alternate methods (including a few I have made). But the fact is that if you flip through the stations on your car radio well over 90% of the guitars you will hear coming out of the speakers will have been recorded with a tube amp and at least one microphone. There are both technical reasons for this, which are beyond the scope of the article, as well as purely subjective taste issue reasons. As a guy that has mixed hundreds of records, I always find the guitar sounds that work best in the context of the mix, be it an old school country record or an extreme metal record, will be those recorded with tube amps and microphones. That being said, let’s focus on some techniques for capturing great guitar sounds.

There is more good news and bad news, and I am going to start with the bad news. The absolutely most important factor in a guitar sound is the player. Every other part of the guitar and the signal chain will affect the sound, but none will impact the sound as much as the player. This is the reason why you can hear a great guitarist like Carlos Santana or Eddie Van Halen over the years being recorded with a range of different amps and guitars and recording technologies and, despite small differences in tone, there is still some quality in the tone that makes it sound like Carlos or Eddie. The same can be said of guitarist with poor “tone.” There are some players that can play with the best guitars and best amps in the world and will still have poor tone; even a player with good music knowledge and taste may just not have it in his or her fingers. I have been lucky enough to work with lots of guitarists that have been on the cover of Guitar Player Magazine and every one of them has been a breeze to record when we put a mic on them playing through a tube amp.

Now, the good news is, the recording side of guitar recording does not have to be complicated or expensive. There a lots of different microphones that sound great on electric guitar amps but the single most popular mic for recording electric guitars is the Shure SM-57, a very common dynamic microphone that sells for just under $100 brand new. There are countless classic albums from small budget to huge budget where the electric guitars are recorded with one Shure SM-57. Probably the second most popular is the Sennheiser MD 421 (approximately $350 street) - another dynamic mic that is really good at handling loud guitar amps, but also has a frequency response that tends to sound excellent on electric guitars. As I said, there are many good options for recording guitars, but these two are staples that have made many classic albums and are both awesome choices to start your guitar mic collection with (both of these mics are also really good for many other things). When it comes to mic pre amps, there are many great choices and we could do a whole article about that, but almost any high quality mic pre amp will be at least a good to great match with these mics, and the better the mic pre amp the better the mics will sound.

Let’s jump back to the really important stuff: the things that happen before the mic. Getting the guitar, the pedals, the amps, and even the picks and cables right is going to be more important than the mic you choose. To begin your journey of learning how to record great guitars tones, spend some time listening to great guitar tones. I am sure that you have listened to the albums of all the guitarists you love tons of times, but you have probably never listened critically and analytically to the guitar sounds. Once you do, you may be in for some big surprises. The most common surprises are that hard rock guitar sounds are often less distorted than you thought and pop guitars are probably more distorted than you thought, and overall, most guitars probably have less low end than you thought, especially in hard rock and heavy metal. A couple of good examples would be to listen to any AC/DC album or Motley Crue’s Shout at the Devil album on the hard end of things, or records by Counting Crows or Kelly Clarkson on the pop end of things. This is because super saturated distortion tends to create guitars that lack presence and punch in a mix and super clean guitars will often not blend in well in a mix. The sweet spot on most records is somewhere in between, even though lots of fun, creative records have worked with the extremes; the important thing if you are going for an AC/DC style guitar sound is, if you have tons of distortion on the amp you will never end up with a Malcolm Young guitar sound.

The right guitar is vital to getting the guitar sound you are after, but this does not necessarily mean that it needs to be the most expensive guitar but one that has the right characteristics for the sound you are going for. There is a reason you see so many blues players with Fender Strats and Nashville country players with Fender Telecasters and heavy metal shredders with skinny necked Ibanez guitars with humbuckers. The combination of pick ups, design and building materials will have a defining impact on the guitar sound. Many guitars are flexible and will work in many genres, but if you are looking for Nashville twang, you will be hard pressed to get that recorded as well with anything other than a Tele.

Move the Mics!!!!!
Beyond the amp settings or pedals, the largest variable in the sound is the placement of the microphone on the guitar speaker. There are two variables that will give you a tremendous amount of control and I cannot overstress the importance of experimenting with these. The first is moving the mic from the center to the edge of the speaker. The edge of the speaker will be very warm, with lots of low end and not much high end at all. As you move the closer to the center of the speaker the sound will get brighter, edgier, and progressively lose low end. It will also increase in volume. It is very rare that the right placement is ever right in the center of the speaker, or right at the edge, but usually somewhere in between. The important thing to keep in mind is that if you have the microphone close to the speaker, then very small movements can make radical changes in the sound. Movements of half an inch closer or further from the center can completely transform the guitar sound.
The other variable is how far the mic is from the speaker. The closer you bring the mic to the speaker, the more direct and focused sound you will get as you start to shift the balance of sound to feature more of the sound directly from the speaker and less of the room’s sound. You may not think that a mic a foot or less a way from an extremely loud amp will also pick up the room, but unless you have put up baffles around the speaker this will definitely be a part of the sound. Another thing that changes when you move the mic closer is the addition of proximity effect. This is a phenomenon of directional microphones that when moving them closer to a sound source (such as a speaker) there is a build up of low end. So, you can move the mic closer or further from the speaker as a low end equalizer.

Little things make a difference
One great trick that is often overlooked is the value of switching guitar picks. I keep a large collection of picks of all shapes and sizes in the studio because they can really change the sound of the guitar. Generally, the thicker the pick the more low end in the guitar sound. Different types of plastic or metal will all sound different, too. While I try not to get too obsessed about it, cables also make a difference. Good cables will have more clarity and presence. There are lots of brands out there ranging from cheapo to insanely expensive, but I use a brand called George L’s that sound great and are not insanely expensive.

As with all things recording, it comes down to taking the time to experiment. Take the time to move the mics around, try different pick up settings, try rearranging the order of your FX pedals, or try different picks. All these simple experiments can open up a really wide palette of options. Keep the recording end of things simple and you should be able to find your way to great guitar tones on tape (or computer, of course). Keep it simple and have fun!

Guitar Micing

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