Recording Guitar: Department of Corrections

Guitarists are notorious tone snobs, although that’s not
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Guitarists are notorious tone snobs, although that’s not

GUITARISTS ARE notorious tone snobs, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Axe slingers are usually more than happy to find the right sound for the verse, chorus, or lead line; they will also be the first to tell you if a recording of their setup doesn’t match what they hear in the room while playing. Yet, when it comes to recording and mixing, their tone becomes the domain of the recording engineer, whose job it is to make it work within a given project.
The initial EQ stage comes from the microphone: It determines, by its design and physical placement, the timbre that gets recorded. So the first job is selecting the transducer and signal path that capture the sound as accurately as possible or as needed for the song. Remember that low frequencies provide a lot of energy. If the guitar sound has too much low end, it will increase the gain of the recorded track without providing as much usable tone. Mic choice and placement can help alleviate this issue.

It’s common to use more than one mic on an amp, because it gives an engineer greater flexibility with the guitar tone when it comes time to mix. The trick for the engineer is to find a sound that the guitarist approves of and then fit it into the mix without compromising the original tone too much.

EQ To make it fit, the guitar tone might require corrective equalization. Sometimes you have to sweep the frequency control in a particular area to find the exact spot that needs attention. The boosts and cuts required will likely be subtle; 1 or 2 dB in either direction can work wonders. When applying EQ, be sure to listen to how the processing affects the entire mix.

Low End The situation is simplest when only one electric guitar is involved, say, in a trio with bass and drums. If the low-end needs help, subtly boost between 100 and 160Hz, being careful not to create a conflict with the frequencies of the bass. If there is competition in that frequency range, cutting a dB or two will often work. Got Mud? A slight reduction around 200Hz can help clear things up. Overdo it, and the sound will become wimpy.

Punch and Body There’s a wide range of tonal shaping available between 500 and 800Hz, which translates to a range of about a minor 6th. Add body to the guitar tone by accentuating the lower part of this frequency range. Depending on the sound you’re going for, a rise between 700 and 800Hz can make a track punchier.

This is also part of the frequency range where wah-wah pedals are focused, although wah frequencies can reach above 2kHz. So if you’re looking to add a little of that cocked-wah sound, you’re in the right neighborhood. Just make sure that the frequency boost doesn’t cover or mask other instruments.

Upper Mids The range from 1 to 3kHz is a critical one for the electric guitar. A mix with too much energy in this area will sound harsh and is fatiguing to listen to. The guitar can be the culprit, potentially masking the sharp transient of the snare drum or the definition in the vocals. This is a good place to cut frequencies if your guitar tracks are overpowering. But don’t cut too much or you’ll hollow out the tone

Sparkle vs. Noise Small boosts in the upper registers can accentuate the chimelike timbre of an instrument (8kHz and above) as well as add definition (4 to 5kHz). Sometimes you want to add a bit of “air” for a more modern sound, and this can be found around 10kHz and above. Listen carefully to boosts you make in the upper register, however, because you might increase noise created by effects processors.