To record ‘the perfect’ electric guitar sound you need to know what you want to hear, what you can actually hear and how to bridge the chasm in the middle.
A lot of the tone and character that goes into a great guitar sound comes straight from the amp, so get into the studio and play around with the amp to see what different tones it can give you. Work with your guitarist, and keep adjusting the amp until you find a sound you like and get as close to ‘perfect’ as possible before you think about rigging mics. Beyond the usual high, mid and low tone controls, the amp you use may have reverb control – which is probably a spring reverb. Although spring reverb might sound low-tech it’s an effect instantly associated with lead guitar sounds thanks to the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Kurt Cobain, so before you throw a reverb plugin over everything, see what you can get from the amp as it might just work! Getting the sound right at the amp make choosing and positioning a microphone easier, as you will already have an idea of how you want it to sound, and will save you time and effort in the mix.
Using the built in reverb in an amp will often sound more natural than using additional reverb later, but bear in mind that it will limit the amount of control you have over the reverb balance once it has been recorded. I find that when I’m recording a whole band ‘as live’ in the studio, the extra control in the balance is really helpful so I add reverb in the mix rather than at the amp. Overdubbing guitarists individually from a guide track gives you a bit more time to tweak levels and adjust settings, so it usually makes sense to balance the reverb there and then, straight from the amp.
Some amps will have a drive control which you can use to givesome crunch to the guitar, but if you want to get a more authentic sound then cranking up the amp will start bringing in its own characteristic distortion. Each amp will sound different at high volumes so the effect will vary hugely between makes and models, this technique is something we will look at in more detail in an advanced techniques post.
The type of microphone you use will depend largely on the style you are going for. If you want a very crisp and clean sound then a large diaphragm condenser like a Rode NTK, or a C414 would be a good bet. For a punchier sound then dynamic mics will give you a thicker, compressed sound and they will tolerate high volumes so you can rig them up close to get some more low end from the proximity effect. The reliable SM57 has been a firm favourite on guitar amps for many engineers, as has the Sennheiser MD441. A more bluesy / retro tone comes naturally to ribbon mics, and will pick up a little reverb from the room as well because they all have a fig.8 response pattern. If you want to put a ribbon in front of an amp at high volume, or up close to an amp for a beefy low-end then be very careful as the diaphragm can be easily damaged at high SPLs. Choose something robust like the X1R which we reviewed recently and would work well.
You will find that when a mic is up close to the drive unit of an amp, moving it an inch or two in any direction will have a big effect. The closer the mic gets, the more low-end it will pick up due to the proximity effect. This can be a very useful technique, but be careful not to overload the capsule of the microphone.
A mic aimed right at the edge of a speaker cone will usually sound a little harsh and brittle, and aimed right at the centre will sound a bit dull and boomy. Midway out from the centre to the edge of the cone is the spot you probably want to be aiming for, it will sound clearer than either of the other two and you can always fine-tune the balance between edgey and boomy by moving the mic just a small amount one way or the other.
Please do share in the comments how you most like a guitar amp to sound, which ones you enjoy using most and how you like to mic them up!
[image via Jsome1]