From acoustic to electric guitars and everything in between, this tutorial will get you comfortable recording anything in the chordophone family.
SOUND BEFORE THE SOUND
Listening track: Kiss A Girl – Keith Urban
There’s no one way to record guitars. There are as many variations of guitar recording techniques as there are guitars. And when I say ‘guitars’, I’m not just referring to electric and acoustic guitars, but lumping in other chordophones like banjos, mandolins, resonators and ukuleles as well… which makes for a lot of techniques. The aim of this article is to get us thinking about the best ways to get the sounds we need, by focusing on our ideas and concepts first, then choosing our tools and techniques second, making the process as seamless and inspiring as possible.
Whenever you’re facing a situation with as many creative variables as guitar recording, the most important thing to do is not do anything. That’s right. Before you go plugging anything in, just stop! Spend a minute or two mapping out what you’re trying to achieve with the live take and any upcoming overdubs. Let’s take a country track as an example. Rather than just diving into the guitar tracks, stop and conceptualise them first, then make a detailed list that may read something like this:
• Double tracked acoustic guitars
• Twangy telecaster lead lines
• Long, timed, tremolo strums throughout
• Big grunty chords in the chorus; double tracked
• ‘Scene change’ Leslie guitar line in the bridge
• Guitar solo
• Imitation reverby ‘pedal steel’-type guitar throughout
• Banjo line in verses
• Mandolin in breakdown verse
By my count, that one song could involve up to 11 different instruments, a couple of capos and multiple recording approaches! It’s easy for the process to get convoluted. By laying it out, you have a clear sense of what you’d like to attempt. There’s no guarantee these overdubs will all work, but they will give you a pretty clear starting point, and certainly help you refine your vision as the overdubbing process evolves.
Top Tip: Make a guitar production plan first!
This applies to any guitar recording situation; whether you’re a solo singer/songwriter, or play an obscure form of Scandinavian metal. Even better; use sonic references to give the creative team a clearer understanding of when to use different recording techniques.
The most successful guitar sessions begin with a guitarist knowing where they want to go. I may play them a song once and they’ll say, “Telecaster for the main rhythm track with a ‘Mellencamp’ tone; Gretsch into the Vox, heavily compressed, as a secondary rhythm; the Strat into the Boogie with slight phaser for the solo; and 6- and 12-string acoustics, the latter with a capo on the 5th fret panned left and right to give that rhythmic shimmer.” Boom! They’ve basically given me a roadmap for the next two hours of work.
Listen to Keith Urban’s Kiss A Girl for an example of well-planned guitar tones that effectively build the track.
ACOUSTIC INSTRUMENT RECORDING TECHNIQUES & APPROACHES
As a producer, you’ve decided you want some acoustic guitar in your track. But what sort of acoustic sound are you after? Is it a nice and close James Taylor-esque vibe, or a ‘John Lennon-in-1964’ heavy strum, or the more ambientWar-era U2 acoustic guitar bashing? Behind these choices are three very different approaches but each starts with choosing the right instrument.
While electric guitars come in a variety of shapes and configurations that are easy to delineate from each other, acoustic guitars generally all have a similar configuration — body, sound hole, neck. And while a $200 acoustic may not look that dissimilar to a $50,000 acoustic, they’re often incredibly different beasts. Fortunately, as an engineer, there’s a few simple things you can get into the habit of doing to peel away the veneer and mother of pearl inlays and get at the sound.
The easiest is to just listen. If you have a general idea that your guitarist is going to gently finger-pick, get them to play something stylistically similar while they’re working parts out. Walk around in front of the guitarist — up close, pulled back a little further, near where the neck joins the body, down at the base of the instrument — and listen. If there’s a few different guitar options, get the guitarist to change them around every 20 seconds or so. I guarantee it will take you only about one minute, and in that time you’ll be able to make a decision about which guitar is the right one, where it sounds best and whether the part is working with your own ideas.
Conversely, if they’re playing a harder, heavier strumming part, step back even further and listen to how it’s exciting the room. You’ll also be able to work out quickly whether you want the sound to feel up close and tactile, or more ambient and enveloping.
A trap is thinking that just because a guitar is big with a commensurately big sound, it’ll sound ‘big’ under the mics. One of the most impressively loud and expensive-sounding acoustics I’ve owned came across as overly boomy, undefined in the mid range and hollow in the top end when recorded. Conversely, I have a moderately-priced acoustic that has a more closed and confined tone, and mics love it both up close and far away. Guitarists feel comfortable playing it too, because they can play hard into it without fear of the sound ‘running away’ from them.
Top Tip: First and foremost, find an acoustic that works for the part you have planned.
RIGHT POSITION & RIGHT MIC
Picking the right mic for the job requires even more listening. I generally prefer large diaphragm condenser microphones on acoustics, especially for a big bold tone. But small diaphragm condensers give a different sense of focus and sometimes a cleaner top end. I’m always wary of proximity effect particularly on closer finger-picking, but even on the big strummy stuff. Too much bottom end is going to over work your compressor before it hits tape. I’ll often put my condenser mic into omni and move it much closer to the guitar, eliminating proximity effect while keeping the tonal focus of the top end. For more robust-sounding tracks, I love dynamic microphones pushed hard into a compressor. And of course, one of my favourite acoustic sounds is multiple guitarists all playing the same chords around one mic in omni, triple tracked!
Top Tip: Pick a mic with the right focus, but try an omni pattern if proximity effect is bringing the boom.
So how do you find that sweet spot for the mic? When I’m playing an acoustic guitar track, I’ll put up an appropriate mic (which can change) in a general position. But then, while tuning, practicing an idea or talking to the artist about the part, I’ll find myself moving around the mic. If my chair has wheels (which it almost always does), I’ll be changing my angle, my distance, sometimes even the whole positional relationship to the mic while listening with headphones on. Somewhere in all this shuffling around, I’ll find the sweetspot where the combination of the instrument, the mic and the air sound as close as possible to the sound I’ve conceptualised. At that point I freeze, and make a mental note of the position.
If I had to spell out a starting position, it would be with the mic at a 45-degree angle to the point where the guitar neck meets the body. But I always move around from that position. Sometimes I end up close to the guitar with a more acute angle. Other times I end up 90 degrees on axis, but back a metre! This part of the process is critical for you to dial in the right sound.
Top Tip: Swivel on a chair around the mic until you find the right spot for your guitar.
ONE MIC OR TWO, OR MORE?
I’ve always found the more ‘strummy’ the part is, the less mics you need. Conversely I almost always use more than one mic for lighter finger-picked parts. Often it will be in a classic two-mic configuration, of one near the neck and the other behind the strumming hand, pointed at the lower bout of the instrument’s body. In this case, the second mic is supporting the first, and, because the sound will have a lot more bottom end, I may use a more ‘narrow’ mic, like a dynamic or a small diaphragm condenser. Generally I’ll pan the two mics hard left and right, resulting in a moderately narrow stereo image with a little stereo movement. Listening to James Taylor’s crystal clear finger-picking style on Carolina On My Mind, it sounds like the engineer used a two mic combination to capture the clarity of his articulation without sacrificing the body of the guitar tone. The guitar seems to have just enough width to indicate the two mics were probably panned hard left and right.
Another alternative might be to use a good mic/bad mic combination. Once you’ve found your sweet spot, put your good mic there, and supplement it with something weird, like a crusty dynamic, or ribbon mic or something really obtuse like the Copperphone. I’ve even put up a mic with a busted diaphragm and combined it with the original ‘good’ tone. You’ll be surprised at how much of this ‘bad mic’ you end up using. Seconds by U2 is an example of a guitar tone that has been chosen to feel grittier and tactile. Perhaps a combination of a smaller, boxy-sounding guitar and a dynamic mic.
I regularly mix sessions that come in with two tracks of acoustic guitar. I assume they’re two takes, but it’s actually one guitar with two mics playing big strummy parts intended to ‘lift’ the choruses. Panning these tracks hard left and right usually results in a big slab of mono, right where the vocals and bass are sitting in the mix. My recording approach is to double track the strummy acoustics to lift a section, rather than expecting a stereo configuration to do that job. Conversely, if you’re looking for intimacy in your finger-picking, double-tracking may not only depersonalise the part, but also be quite time consuming; stereo miking may be more appropriate.
Top Tip: Multiple mics can give width to a detailed finger-picking part, but try double-tracking heavy strumming if you want width.
Some people love them, other people not so much. I love them because they allow you to play chord progressions in easier to play positions with more open chords. These sorts of chords tend to ring out more fully, yielding a more substantial tone. Double-tracked guitars make a great case for slapping a capo on one side, showering you in rich harmonics and good overtones, and helping emphasise the size of your acoustic contribution.
COMPRESSING THE LIFE INTO IT
Compression can be vital for turning an unamplified acoustic guitar sound into something larger than life. There’s no rules for this. Some will favour transparency, while others want to hear the gain reduction. I’m firmly in the latter group. Ensure your attack times aren’t completely killing the front of your strumming or picking, and your ratios help determine how aggressive your compressor will sound. The acoustic guitar on Steve Earle’s Transcendental Bluesis being smashed with loads of gain reduction, effectively electrifying this acoustic tone.
Going even further back to John Lennon’s acoustic guitar tones on The Beatles’ records, what you’re generally hearing is a Neumann U47 into an Altec or Fairchild compressor, being hit pretty hard with a moderate attack, then adding the tape machine’s own saturation on top before hitting the master bus compressor again at mix time. These various layers of compression, in combination with a killer right-hand strumming technique, are a huge part of the sound of The Beatles’ records throughout their career.
Top Tip: Compression can make an acoustic sound larger than life, but watch those attack times if you want to hear that pick.
DRAWING THE LONGER STRING
These concepts are all applicable for the rest of the pack like High Strung/Nashville guitars (a 6-string with only the thinner strings from a 12-string pack), banjos, resonator guitars or mandolins. Listen to the instrument, place the right mic where it needs to be, and work out if it’s a single or double mic track, or a double-tracked overdub. Be wary that the sound may emanate from a different part of the instrument. For example, Resonator guitars and banjos seem to come across better with a mic closer to the bridge. Some open back banjos even sound better from the rear of the instrument. Mandolins may sound better with the mic nearer to the F hole. There’s no magic technique — just define the sound, and move around until you get close to it.
Conceptualisation is just as important with electrics as it is with an acoustic track. There’s simply a bigger arsenal: guitars, pedal boards and amplifiers, both real and virtual. The tonal combinations a good guitarist can access is astounding.
When I’m called in to do sessions, there are some default colours I need to have covered. For an album project, it wouldn’t be unusual to take at least six guitars. Remember, the actual guitar is your first physical point of creative connection with the part you’re about to play. If an instrument inspires you to play in a way that suits your production aesthetic, you are truly halfway there.
To cover the bases for an album recording project, I would usually take the following:
• A guitar with humbuckers for thicker tones — perhaps a Les Paul or SG.
• A guitar with single coil pickups — usually a Telecaster.
• Something in between — either a Grestch or something with P90 pickups.
• One or two ‘specialty guitars’ — a 12-string, or a guitar with a higher action for slide playing.
• A guitar with a weird combinations of pickups — my current favourites are Goldfoil pickups; or a specific tone — like a Rickenbacker.
• A B-Bender if I’m doing a country song that requires it.
Even though guitarists often agonise over their pedal boards, if you’re a producer/engineer it’s worth having a few trustworthy basics on hand. A couple of different overdrive/distortion options, and a delay and tremolo can regularly get you out of a bind. Do some research into the boxes that regularly appear on good guitarist’s boards, and invest in your own board. It can save a situation when the guitarist is struggling to nail his own combination.
It’s a similar story with amps. Once upon a time you needed to have a few amps around to cover as many bases as possible. These days, I have a couple of amps, but also know my way around amp simulators. If you’re struggling to get the tone you want from your amp, plug in a DI to stop the session from stagnating and get a ‘placeholder’ sound that you can refine within your DAW or re-amp when the pressure’s off. A lot of guitar players are still on the fence about the validity of amp simulators, but they’re pretty good these days, and rather than being in a situation where you have to choose between one or the other, embrace both worlds and make them work for you in the creative environment.
Top Tip: There’s a lot of electric guitar gear to choose from, so if you’re a producer, make sure you have the basics well covered, including handy virtual options.
GUITAR AMPS: IS SIZE EVERYTHING?
Once upon a time, it was assumed the only way to get a big sound in the studio was through a big amp turned uploud. But as guitar recording has evolved, so has our approach to amp size. The ‘secret’ to recording any guitar amp is to find its ‘sweetspot’ — the point where it is being pushed in its circuitry hard enough to sound big and full. Below this point volume-wise, the amp is being under worked, which is rarely the sound you want. Beyond the magic gain area, the amp goes in to a form of distress, which may be exactly what you want.
While I don’t have any issue with louder amps, an amp with a moderate output will generally do the trick in the studio. Getting a 30-50W amp into its sweet spot will usually give you what you need. A lot of guitarists and engineers find smaller amps more manageable in the studio; you can get the right gain level without ear-bleeding volume issues.
Not all amps sound the same. Here’s a small list of a few iconic examples of popular guitar amps and their users:
Vox AC30 – The Beatles, Brian May, The Edge.
Fender Dual Showman, Deluxe, Twin – Keith Richards, James Burton, Mike Bloomfield, Pete Townshend, Neil Young.
Marshall – Angus Young, Billy Joe Armstrong, Eddie Van Halen.
Top Tip: Get to know the level where your amp is happiest and record that!
MIC IT UP
Assuming we’re plugging into our amps and we have our first killer sound coming out of our cabinet, it’s time to put some mics up and get recording. I know one main thing; if it doesn’t sound great at the source, there’s nothing an engineer can do to fix it. And if it sounds great it’s hard to mess it up! I can’t stress how important it is to make sure the sound is the right sound coming out of the amp. Don’t be scared to get down to speaker level to listen. A lot of guitarists only ever hear their amp pointing at the back of their legs. When you put a mic on the speaker cone, they often complain about the sound being too bright. So before you put any mics up, it is essential to go and listen to the guitar amp every time!
Once you have listened and made any necessary adjustments, go back and think about what you had in mind for the sound of this particular guitar part. Think about not only the tonal aspects, but also ambient aspects. Does it need to feel fleshy and tactile and close, or a bit more roomy and ambient? These desired characteristics will have a huge influence on your mic selection and positioning. Not only that, go up moderately close to the amp and just move your head around and back a bit. You’ll soon find some spots where the sound seems to have a ‘purer’ voice. I usually recommend putting a mic there, wherever that might be, regardless of whatever else you do!
Top Tip: Get your ears down to the speaker level to find the sweet spot and put a mic there.
TUNE YOUR EARS
Having a reliable tuner plugged in and ready to go at all times is critical in a recording situation. Encourage your guitar players to check tuning regularly. Never assume that just because all strings are in tune at the open string that you’ll be in tune once you start playing chord shapes. It’s a much better idea to get used to being in tune at the open strings, then running through the combination of chords and shapes you’ll play during the song and see if they’re in tune, adjusting and ‘averaging’ your tuning so you can get through the song. You’ll soon start to find ways to shape their chord positions to sound more ‘in tune’.
There’s nothing worse than listening back to guitar parts where every time a D chord is played you realise the A note on the second fret of the G string is out of tune. Train your ears to be vigilant in spotting tuning issues, get used to the tricks to make guitars feel more in tune — like different chord shapes and positions — and don’t be scared to retune troublesome guitars and drop in every time there’s an out of tune D chord.
I’ve tried many different approaches to amp miking. For a long while, I would put a single mic back a metre or so, in the spot where the sound waves of the amp have developed a bit more. The mic is usually a dynamic, but not always — it’s not unusual to use a large diaphragm condenser in this spot. If the amp sounds good, it’s a simple way to capture a realistic representation. The other technique I’ve been using is to combine two very different tonal mics together reasonably close to the speaker cabinet. It always involves one ribbon mic, which is usually a little duller, pointed right at the centre of the speaker, in combination with another more ‘toppy’ mic. Usually that’s a Shure SM57, but it may also be a large diaphragm condenser, and this will be a little away from the centre of the speaker, to soften the tone a little. The critically important factor is that the diaphragms of both mics have to be at the samedistance from the speaker, to maintain the phase relationship between the mics. This way you’re getting the best of each mic representing the best bits of the amp sound.
The thing I love about this technique is that, if recorded on to two tracks on a DAW, they essentially act as ‘bass and treble’ representation of the guitar sound, that you can balance appropriately against the track as your production develops. In other words, if at some point the guitar sound is a bit too gnarly, reduce the 57 and favour the ribbon mic, and vice versa if the sound is too cloudy or thick. These slight 3-5dB changes when you’re balancing the guitars against each other in the production can go a long way, without you having to reach for an equaliser!
Top Tip: Try balancing the sound of two different mics to give you the right blend, rather than reaching for an EQ.
Lastly, you might want to consider a ‘room mic’. Often I record guitar amps in our vocal booth, so there’s usually some sort of vocal mic already plugged in, going to a preamp and compressor. When I need a guitar sound to have a little more ‘air’ I’ll open up that channel onto another track. Sometimes it can be left where it is. But other times I’ll go and point it away from the amp, put it into an omnidirectional pattern, or push it right up against the window or into a corner for some weird reflections. If you do this, always check the phase.
I use this a lot when I’m going for that Neil Young Alabama sound — often I’ll put a delay only on the ambient mic to separate it a little further from the close mics, and maybe even pan the close mics one way and the delayed room mic the other for maximum width. It can be a fun way to push your guitar sound beyond just a good sound into something really special.
Top Tip: Try adding a room mic for a bit more air. Get fancy with some delay to push it even further away.
LAYERING IS THE NEW DYNAMICS
Having an understanding of how guitars are layered is a critical component to producing better guitar tracks. The two examples by Green Day and Everclear are virtual masterclasses in guitar layering, with each layer having a slight tonal and drive variation, resulting in the dynamics of both songs changing, pushing and pulling, and building.
When you’re mapping out your guitar parts at the start of your session, discuss whether you’ll be building up the song with overdubs or going for a simpler ‘guitars and a solo’ approach like The Black Crowes’Remedy.
EQ & COMPRESSION
If everyone has done their job right, at this point you should barely have to do anything! Bring the mics into some good preamps that you know and trust. I don’t usually EQ these mics at all, beyond possibly a hi-pass filter at between 80-110Hz. In terms of compression, my own ‘rule’ is simple — the cleaner the guitar tone the more compression you need! So for those clean funky rhythm parts, don’t be scared to get the gain reduction knobs moving as you track, and play into the sound. But for the big rock things where you’re overdriving your amp, keep the sound big and open, and let the amp breathe.
Mr Tambourine Man by The Byrds is an early example of deliberately using studio compressors to influence a guitar tone, with the sound being run into several compressors to flatten the dynamics of the playing. The moderate attack and release time, and high ratio of compression provide maximum note articulation and sustain, unheard of before on the electric guitar. It’s a masterclass in guitar compression!
Top Tip: Electric guitar recording doesn’t require much post work. But sometimes compression can create a different sense of movement.
LAYING IT DOWN
At this point, you’re largely ready to roll. With preparation like this, not much can go wrong. Just keep checking your tuning, and sit back on the groove! A lot of musicians have a tendency to push the front of the beat pretty heavily. That’s fine if that’s the vibe you’re going for. But in general, make sure they’re hearing their overdub in a good balance with the rest of the track, and remind them to listen and sit in with the existing tracks. It’ll make your tracks feel like they have more authority and confidence, and make them easier to work with.
Whatever you do, just remember to think about what you’re doing first. Then make sure your sound is happening and your guitar in tune. After all that, recording the guitar is the easy part.