Archives For Recording Techniques

Techniques for producing the best audio recordings.

electric guitar

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.

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acoustic gtr

Acoustic guitars are fairly simple to record as just a supporting instrument in a band, but can be very difficult to get just right as a solo instrument. If you just want a ‘nice’ guitar sound to beef up an existing mix, then a guitar with a naturally pleasant tone a decent condenser mic will probably get you there. However, if you are going for a particular sound, style or tone for a solo or lead part then it can get tricky. Each different guitar has its own distinct tone, and on top of that the subtle differences between microphones, and effect of changing their position are even more noticeable than on most other instruments. This is down to how the guitar actually transmits sound into the air, which isn’t very linear or consistent, and so the effect of moving a microphone a few inches in one direction can be surprisingly large, which is why acoustics can be difficult to mic up.

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bass guitar

Recording bass guitar is done by either mic’ing up the bass amp cabinet, or by taking a split of the signal directly after the guitar using a DI box. It’s also becoming increasingly popular to use a mixture of both, as it gives you more options and control over the bass tone in the mix. We will look at this in more detail when it comes to the mixing stage.

One good thing about using a microphone is that the bass amp provides a lot of colour and defines the actual tone of the bass. It’s arguable that the amp is actually vital to recording bass, because you only ever hear bass played live through one. The amplifier will probably have some eq and maybe compression built into it, and the speaker and the cabinet will add their own characteristic sound too. Without a mic, you are likely to have to work harder to get a nice full sounding bass. However, if you’re trying to isolate the bass from a kick drum or any other spill or room noise, then using a DI box can be a good solution as it will give you a very clean and dry sound.

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drum booth

The drum kit is probably one of the first instruments to overdub once you have a guide track down, but unfortunately it’s also one of the trickiest instruments to get sounding exactly how you want it to. It contains so many individual drums, chimes, cymbals and bells which are all different tones and timbres but all so physically close together that you are constantly trying to contain spill. Getting a solid stereo image of such a large collection of different elements can be hard, and getting the right sound from each component is even harder.

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Putting a mic on the hi-hat is something that seems to be a knee-jerk reflex a lot of the time when recording drums, but actually the hi-hat might work just as well without one if you get the right drum overhead position, which is useful if you are short on channels. You might have seen the top snare mic angled to double as a hi-hat mic to save channels, but this is more of a live-sound trick because in a stereo mix the snare is almost always dead centre and will pull the hi-hat to the middle with it. There isn’t really a huge downside to putting a hi-hat mic up, as you can always choose to not use it if the mix works without it. The big advantage of having a dedicated hi-hat mic is that it gives you much more control over four areas; tone, volume, closeness and localisation.

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tom tom

The three major components that you should concentrate on and prioritize when recording a drum kit are; the kick drum sound, the snare drum sound and the choice and placement of overhead mics. In some situations, you may not want anything more complex than that, for example when recording a simple three piece kit or a jazz band then the overheads will provide enough definition on the toms without making them sound too close. Even pop or rock tracks might not need close mic’d toms if you are going for an open drum sound, or if it’s mostly acoustic anyway then slightly ambient toms probably work better.

You might be surprised at how decent the toms sound on just overheads, and it’s something that you should make the time to double check. If you don’t make the effort to get the toms sounding ok before putting close mics up, then you will have to battle against the tone that the overheads pick up, which will probably be up in the mix for the whole track. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can just fix them in the mix, because it will take a lot more time and hard work then, especially considering how little they are actually hit in the average song.

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drum kit

Overhead mics are hugely important in creating a great drum sound, and a lot of the time they are massively under valued. Unfortunately it’s common to just focus on all the close mics and having them really high in the mix, whereas you could be getting half the sound of the kit from just these two mics.

They certainly play a very large part in the tone and sustain of the snare drum, as well as providing most of the cymbal and toms sound. The low end tends to be their downside, and this is partly due to the kind of mic chosen but mostly because the kick drum isn’t very close and directs most of its sound horizontally, away from the overheads. With just the overheads, a snare mic and a kick mic, you should be able to get a complete drum sound working well.

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Recording the kick and snare drum properly are absolutely fundamental to getting a good kit sound, and will make mixing so much easier. Having a crisp sounding snare drum right from the microphone means you don’t have to work so hard eq’ing and compressing it later on, and chances are it will sit in the mix much better for it.

If you have a few different snare drums, then it’s definitely worth bringing two or three to the recording session. It will give you more choice on the drum sound, and you may find that some snare drums work with a particular style of song than others. The best way to check, is through the microphone(s) on the kit so record a bit of the sound check and then have a listen to the snare sound. Experiment and swap them around until you find one that works.

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kick mic

Recording the drums is probably the first stage in a recording where you finally get to start building the ‘final’ sound. Hopefully you should already have a plan as to how to overdub the entire band, and probably have some sort of guide track to work from.

There are many different ways to record a complete drum kit, and it will depend on what recording equipment you have available. The next few posts in this series will focus on the key areas of the kit; the kick drum, the snare drum, overheads and toms. We will revisit this area later on with some more advanced tips and techniques for you to try out.

So let’s get stuck straight in with the kick drum:

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guitar tracking

So, where do you start when it comes to making a multitrack recording? Well, it helps to have at least a vague plan of how to organize the recording session first, and unless you are recording entirely live, this usually starts with some kind of guide track. The guide is to help the musicians get a feel for the song, and to know where it’s going when it comes to overdubbing their parts.

The recording of a guide track allows the band to finalise in their minds exactly how they work together in the song, and what they need to do individually. It also means that you only have to have enough microphones and interface inputs to cover one instrument at a time. It gives you the opportunity to capture some of the feel of a live performance and still keep that all important separation between instruments, which is so valuable when it comes to mixing.

So, what makes a useful guide track, and how do you go about recording it?

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