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Learn Guitar | Recording Heavy Guitar Sounds

June 1, 2011

Despite the latest in digital modeling technology, it''s hellishly difficult—and some would say, impossible—to create a preset that captures the essence of a tube amp ripped to the max like a top fuel dragster coming off the line. So if you want the sound of a big tube amp dimed and pushing enough air to part your hair at 100 yards, you can''t go wrong with . . . well, a big tube amp, and the following tips on old-school miking techniques for the Real Deal.

Sometimes we can get so focused on having the latest technical-poot, simple things like keeping guitars and amps in good working order can escape us. If your guitar strings have six months of mung and drool stuck to them, change the grody suckers for a new, shiny set. While you''re at it, have that plank set up and properly intonated or risk painful facial contortions from those who have good ears. Ditto for the amp and cab. We''re gonna push the thing to redline, and if its tubes are spanked and the bias is off, you''ll wind up with limp plastic instead of heavy metal. Check the cab for buzzes and rattles; the main culprits are loose back panels, rattling speaker baffles, and loose or blown speakers.

I know that that Marshall, MESA, Bogner, etc., you mowed lawns for six years to afford has a bitchin'' cascading-gain preamp allowing you to get crunch when practicing in your bedroom, and the temptation to crank the preamp gain to 11 and chunk away is natural. Unfortunately, it''s actually counterproductive to our mission of conjuring a heavy guitar sound. Preamp distortion takes on a nasally, fizzed-out sound—especially when cranking the amp to the deadly volumes we are about to create. No, the tone which we seek is not found by torturing preamp tubes, but by cranking the output section of the amp till the tubes are on the verge of meltdown. Keep the amp''s preamp gain between 50% and 60% and twist the volume till the speakers really start moving air and your ears squirt blood.

The nice thing about recording heavy guitar is that you don''t need a bunch of expensive mics. A Shure SM57 dynamic will work just fine—as a matter of fact, it''s recommended by four-out-of-five big-time producers. Here are a few mic strategies to try:
1) Start by placing the mic close to the grillecloth, straight on, where the dustcap joins the speaker cone.
2) Back the mic up an inch and turn the capsule at a 45-degree angle, pointed halfway between the dust cap and the edge of the speaker cone.
3) If you want to get tricky and attempt a high-zoot dual-mic technique, here is one that has worked well for me. Use two SM57s, one super close to the grille, the other as close to the first as possible, but backed up about an inch. This provides a less-than-scientific comb-filter-type of configuration, and with some experimentation can add a gnarly punch to the sound. Experiment with the second mic by angling the capsule 45 degrees from the speaker cone. Sometimes this sounds great, sometimes it sounds like ass; but hey, sometimes Evel Knievel stuck the landing and sometimes he crashed and burned.

But wait, you ain''t done with the mics yet! The aforementioned mic setups are a mere starting point. Now we must tweak their positions to find the sweet spot where the speaker is pumping out the most delicious mids and optimum fundamental frequencies so those chunking power chords don''t mush out. For this task, you need some poor slob to go out there and move the mic in small increments between the speaker''s dust cover and cone, all while the guitarist grinds at inhuman volume. Good manners suggest you provide the mic-mover proper ear protection when performing this critical task. You, on the other hand, are safely monitoring the procedure through headphones, listening for that moment when things sound glorious. Tell the mic-mover to stop right there; that''s the proverbial sweet spot. It''s a good idea to keep the amp head next to you while performing this crucial operation, so you can make minor tweaks to its EQ. That way, your poor studio chimp doesn''t have to spend nine hours on his knees while you try to dial it all in. It''s a good idea to record this process, making notes on the mic''s movements.

Now''s the time to get that lazy guitar player off his/her duff and get to work. You see, the key to awesome metal guitar sound is multiple precise takes of the same part over and over. We''re talking a minimum of four perfectly-executed rhythm tracks of the same part without variation. These perfectly-executed multitracks will sound absolutely huge when panned left, right, and center. Sure, the player is gonna bitch and whine; tell him if he can''t play the same thing more than once, he has no place in metal.

Another great feature of Shure''s SM57 is its ability to hype the mids in a really pleasing way when slammed with high-decibel rawk—so you may get away with little or no EQ. However, a multiband compressor can work wonders on troublesome frequencies produced by guitar. If the low end is rumbly, cut 80–100Hz by a couple of dB. Another way to avoid rumble is to use a clean boost or Tube Screamer-type of stompbox with a mild boost on the front end of the amp. Cut the 250–500Hz range if you are getting too much “thunk” from speaker movement. Put a narrow notch around 2.5kHz if your ear feels like it is being assaulted by an ice pick, while slashing 10–12kHz will kill the sizzle if it''s coming on too strong.

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