One of the most important parts of recording a guitar is dialing in your tone before you spend time recording. Otherwise, it will be very difficult to get a nice sounding mix, even after a lot of time is spent processing the guitar track. Your guitar tone should sound basically how you want it as soon as the signal is captured by the audio interface.
Finding Your ToneAs with many instruments, the first step to recording an electric guitar is getting a good tone. This means experimenting with different guitar and amp settings until you find something well suited to your song.
Your first consideration should be the type of guitar tone you plan on using. The pickups in a guitar can drastically change its tone. Both single coil and humbucker pickups have their place in a wide variety of music. Along with the type of pickup you're using, pickup position and tone settings will also affect your sound.
After deciding on a guitar, the amp must be set up to your desired settings. First, you must decide whether you plan on using a solid state amp or a tube amp. Solid state amps have come a long way in recent years and are inexpensive compared to tube amps. Tube amps on the other hand are still praised for their classic tone and warm sound. We covered tube amps for recording in a separate article that can be found here.
After selecting an amp, the first setting to consider is the gain. This will be the difference between a clean and distorted guitar sound. Guitar amps also have an option to control the level of low, mid, and high frequencies. Avoid using reverb with the guitar amp, since you can't remove it after.
Recording Electric Guitar
Once a good guitar tone has been set in the room, it's time to capture that perfect sound. Guitar amps can be recorded using a good dynamic microphone, such as a Shure SM57. The microphone should be placed a few inches from the center of the speaker. If you are unsure about the exact location of the speaker in a cabinet, a good trick is to shine a flashlight through the front grill. Placing the microphone close to the center of the speaker will give a bright sound with a lot of high frequencies, whereas moving towards the edge of the speaker creates a warmer sound. You can also place the microphone off-axis to change the tone.
Choosing a microphone position will require a bit of patience. It’s really important to get this right before recording, otherwise the only way to fix it is will a lot of EQ and compression. Don’t bother recording the track if you’re not happy with it, make sure you have a good tone first.
Another trick that can be used to record a guitar amp is placing a condenser microphone further back in the room to pick up more ambience. The farther the condenser microphone from the amp, the more ambience is picked up. This microphone can be blended with the dynamic microphone to create a larger sound. It also gives more flexibility when mixing later on. You can use as little or as much as the condenser microphone as you want since it's on a separate track.
One fantastic option when recording an electric guitar amp is to record the amp itself and a direct guitar signal. You can do this with a direct box, such as the BEHRINGER ULTRA-DI DI100. This device will send a line level guitar signal to your audio interface, and also send the guitar signal out to an amp. This acts as a backup plan, in case your performance is really good but the guitar recording is not. You can then send the direct signal back to the guitar amp and try recording it again.
Direct guitar signals also work great for people who are unable to record a guitar amp. If you’re in an apartment and don’t want to make too much noise, or you’re trying to record late at night, you can just make a direct recording. This allows you to re-amp the signal and record at another time or use a guitar amp simulator such as Guitar Rig 5.
Amp SimulationGuitar Rig 5 is a great option for recording guitar. The software provides many amp simulations for direct guitar. It makes a guitar sound like it were recorded with a real amp. Then, you can capture the processed signal onto a track and mix it as if it were recorded normally. There’s also a lot of different effects such as reverb, phasers, flangers, delays, and choruses.
If you’re hesitant towards using software amp simulators, there are also hardware options available. Though these options are typically more expensive, they can also be used live. The whole concept of the rack amp simulator is similar to Guitar Rig 5. If you’re looking for a good rack amp simulator option, the Line 6 POD HD PRO X is worth considering. However, when using hardware amp simulators, the settings can’t be changed after if you record the processed signal. For this reason, we recommend recording the direct guitar signal and looping the outputs of your audio interface back into the signal processor after, allowing you more options to change the tone during mixing.
Equalization and CompressionOnce the final signal is recorded, you need to tweak the EQ and compression during mixing to get the electric guitar to fit. These fixes should be fairly subtle, otherwise there were problems that should have been fixed during the recording process. In general, we recommend a slight amount of compression to level out the volume. Be careful at this stage, it’s a fine line between leveling an uneven track, and destroying all your dynamic range.
As for equalization, your guitar tone itself should sound pretty close what you’re looking for. If you’re planning on recording other instruments with a lot low end, we recommend a high pass filter. This will cut off some of the low frequencies and allow the other instruments to be heard. Without using one, you could easily end up with a cluttered low end, as well as a guitar and bass that are indistinguishable.
When recording electric guitar, getting a good tone that fits your mix can be difficult at first, but experimentation and practice will allow you to record professional sounding guitar tracks at home. Just remember to be patient, and always make sure you have the tone you want BEFORE hitting that record button.