Capturing great guitar sounds is easier said than done. This is especially true for people working with amps in small-to-medium-size home studios or personal-producer rooms. Still, when you're plugging in an electric guitar, you don't always need a big room to get a big sound. With a little creative use of space, a few choice pieces of gear, and some solid fundamental recording techniques, you can turn out killer tracks.
It all boils down to the amp, the microphone, and the sound of the guitarist. In my experience as a player and from recording countless guitar sessions as an engineer, the rest of the variables (including preamps, pickups, cables, picks, speakers, strings, and ambient room tone) are important but not primary.
These days, many guitarists solve the problem of getting big sounds in small places by using amp modelers (software or hardware based), bypassing actual amps altogether. This technique can be very effective, and I frequently use amp modelers for some sounds. What's more, if you have noise restrictions in your studio, using an amp modeler may be the only way to go. But this article will focus mainly on getting your tone the old-fashioned way: by miking an amp.
With the huge range of amps on the market, there is no right or wrong make or model for the job. From vintage classics to small cheapies, there's something out there for every budget. That said, the amp is a crucial part of your overall tone. There's a reason why great guitarists use great amps. That's not to say you can't get creative sounds from less expensive models — you certainly can. But by choosing an amp that outputs a high-quality sound that inspires you, you're starting with the right ingredients before cooking.
Many amps, especially tube models, need a little extra love in order for you to coax out a sound worthy of recording. In my studio, I have a small but effective collection of amps that need to be maintained, just like my car. Because amp maintenance is not my forte, I have an amp technician keep them updated with such things as tubes, capacitors, and resistors (see the online bonus material “Amp Tune-up” at emusician.com).
Other small touches, such as making sure your amps are grounded properly, will pay dividends when the red light is on and it's tracking time. For example, on my old '62 Gibson Falcon, I had an amp technician change the AC cord from the original 2-prong to a 3-prong, which helped dramatically with buzz and grounding issues.
Also, don't forget to listen to the amp's speaker. Doing so serves two purposes. The first is to check for cracks or tears — you don't want your session to come to a halt after you find out that a rip is causing unwanted crackling. If you can, have someone else play through the amp so you can focus on just listening. Make sure to give the speaker a visual inspection as well.
The second purpose is to enable you to find the best speaker (or speakers) to place the mics on. Most often in 2 × 12 or 4 × 12 cabinets, each speaker will sound different. Be careful when exposing your ears to loud volumes, but at least have a listen to each speaker (this time just for the tone). Then choose the one or two that sound best and work from there.
I Like Mics
As with amps, countless brands and types of mics are available, at prices ranging from $50 to $5,000. A great mic to use for starting out any amped-guitar session is the Shure SM57 (see the online bonus material “Manufacturer Contacts”). Many engineers would say it's their “desert island” mic. This dependable, inexpensive dynamic cardioid-pattern mic has a frequency response from 40 Hz to 15 kHz and has recorded innumerable classic guitar tones through the years. It can be placed quite close to the cabinet and can handle extremely high sound-pressure levels. Of course, placing the mic on-axis (directly facing the speaker) or off-axis (slightly angled) will each yield different tonal results. The only way to find out what works for your session is to try both and use your ears.
A variety of modifications can be made to the standard SM57 to alter its sound. Engineer-producer Pete Moshay, whose multi-Platinum work includes the likes of Hall & Oates, Ian Hunter, and the Average White Band, has three different kinds of 57s in his collection. “The stock 57 is like your mama,” says Moshay. “It's such a familiar sound, you have to love it.
“However,” he continues, “if you pull the transformer from the 57, it will have at least 10 dB less gain. But the trannyless model also has more balls to the sound, with more bottom pushing out. It's a bit more muffled, but in a good way.”
The last model Moshay uses has a different transformer (T58), made by Tab-Funkenwerk. “It's the same guts and glory as our old friend, but with a more inviting mid quality. It's like a 57 just got a more hi-fi sound without losing the classic character. The word open seems the best way to describe it.” Moshay notes that he sometimes uses his three different 57s together (held with a rubber band) and adjusts their levels as needed.
The Shure SM58, also in many people's mic drawers, has a similar sound to the SM57. A major physical difference is the grille, which is smaller on the SM57. That allows you to place it closer to the source, therefore increasing the output and bass response of the mic. But if you have a 58 rather than a 57, it's worth trying it on your cabinet — you may be able to get similar results. Shure also has Beta 57s and 58s available, which have a slightly modified frequency response and hotter output than their cousins.
There are many other good dynamic mic choices for capturing amp sounds. The Sennheiser E609 and MD 421 are quite popular, as are the Electro-Voice RE20 and Audix i5. I've used the 421 and RE20 on many sessions, and they provide a nice warm sound with a lot of extended bottom end.
While a dynamic mic is a good one to start with for guitar recording, other effective options are available. Ribbon mics, which have bidirectional (or figure-8) polar patterns, are a favorite of mine. (For more on mic patterns, see “Square One: Mic Specs Demystified” in the February 2007 issue of EM, available at emusician.com.) Though pricier than a typical dynamic, ribbon mics have a unique sound that's often described as “smooth,” “realistic,” and “creamy” — great words to live by when seeking a nice guitar tone. You've certainly heard and seen the classic models (such as the RCA 44) used on some amazing Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Brian Wilson vocal tracks. Today's ribbons, made by companies such as AEA, beyerdynamic, Blue, Groove Tubes, Royer, and sE Electronics, are solid, reliable mics that can easily withstand high guitar volumes — unlike some of their predecessors.
For much of my work, I use a Royer 121, which can handle up to 135 dB. Because of its figure-8 pattern, the back of the microphone is responsible for quite a bit of the sound. This is useful because while the front records the direct sound of the speaker, the rear captures the sound of the amp reflecting in the room. The size and type of the room will affect the tone, but the figure-8 pattern adds a nice sense of space to a guitar recording (see Web Clip 1).
FIG. 1: If you want the tone of your ribbon mic but don''t want to pick up as much room sound, try putting a portable absorber like the sE Reflexion Filter or a gobo about a foot or two behind the mic.
Photo: Chuck Dahmer
Also interesting is that at distances closer than 2 feet, the back of the Royer 121 is slightly brighter than the front. With that in mind, you can experiment recording with the rear side (the one without the label) of the microphone facing forward. Just make sure to flip the phase if you try this, because the front side is inherently in phase and the back is phase reversed.
Time to Reflect
One technique that I've used effectively in a small space when using my Royer (or any figure-8 mic) is to place an sE Reflexion Filter or other portable absorber (even a thick packing blanket suspended on mic stands) about 1 to 2 feet behind the mic at about the height of the speaker. That minimizes the room ambience and reflection and provides more isolation (see Fig. 1).
This tighter sound can also be more effective when the space you're recording in isn't complimentary to the overall tone. Moving the absorber in even closer to the mic will change the bass response by minimizing the acoustic energy reflecting around the amp. This can then be used to provide more low end in your guitar track without the need for additional EQ.
Two for One
When recording myself or many of the artists I work with, I often use a combination of a dynamic mic and a ribbon — captured onto separate tracks. The dynamic provides the aggressive midrange grit, while the ribbon delivers a smoother, warmer sound. By recording an amp with two mics, you have more tonal options at mixdown and can create a blend that works in the context of each song. This 2-mic technique is especially useful when recording heavy, distorted sounds.
FIG. 2: Using two mics, each captured to its own track, can open up a host of sonic possibilities.
photo: Chuck Dahmer
A tried-and-true technique for using a dual-mic combination is to place a dynamic slightly off-axis, just outside the center of the speaker cone, about an inch or two from the grille. Then place a ribbon mic at the tip of the dynamic, directly on-axis to the speaker (see Fig. 2). Experiment with both the left/right positioning and the distance from the grille cloth; each minor movement will change the tone. Closer in will yield a tighter sound, and farther out will add more air.
Try moving the ribbon mic back a few feet (you could also try replacing it with a large-diaphragm condenser mic like an AKG C 414, an Audio-Technica 4050, and so on), while leaving the dynamic tight on the amp. Or use a combination of all three: the dynamic and ribbon tight on the amp, and a large-diaphragm condenser room mic. You'll then have an ambient room mic to add depth to your close-in, tight guitar sound.
In addition to using more than one mic to get a great guitar sound, using more than one amp increases your sonic options (see Web Clip 2). But if you do so, try not to simply use a Y-cable to split your signal. That will degrade your signal path and drop the level going to each amp by 3 dB. A better solution is to use a quality guitar DI splitter.
A box like the Radial JDV Mk3 not only is a DI, but also has three instrument amplifier outputs. Taking it a step further, Radial's JD7 Injector is a high-impedance, unity-gain guitar-signal distribution amplifier that can drive up to seven amps at the same time from a single input signal. Little Labs makes a product called the PCP Instrument Distro for a similar purpose.
For multiple-amp recording, I use the Creation Audio Labs MW1, which was designed as a studio tool for guitarists. Like the JD7, it can output to a number of amps from a single input source. It can also be used as a high-quality DI and a reamping unit. Of course, you'll need to use more mics with several amps, but the end result can be powerful.
While not cheap — the JD7, the PCP Instrument Distro, and the MW1 all sell for more than $1,000 — these units use high-quality components to keep the guitar signal pristine. They also have the ability to switch grounds, which is critical when you get hum using multiple amps. Not every amp reacts the same way to an input signal, and I'm constantly playing with the grounds (called the Chassis Ground Lift on the MW1) to keep the recording clean. There are also less expensive options for simply multing your guitar signal, such as Morley's MOR ABC Switch Box and ART's ABY Cool Switch Pedal.
But Wait, There's More
Units like the MW1, the JD7, and the PCP Instrument Distro also offer the ability to output a clean DI sound (through balanced XLR outputs) to your recording device. This comes in handy because besides capturing the amps, you get a clean guitar track that can be used in many creative ways.
First, you can place any of the excellent guitar-amp software plug-ins available onto the clean DI track, for even more tonal options. Second, you can reamp the signal at any time by sending it out to an amplifier and re-recording it. (For more on reamping, see “Better Tone Through Reamping” in the October 2008 issue.) Note that you'll need to turn a balanced +4 dB signal from your recorder into the high-impedance signal that guitar amps like to see. In addition to the previously mentioned boxes, many other products are available for such purposes, like the Reamp V.2 box, the Little Labs Red Eye, and the Radial X-Amp.
Direct to You
FIG. 3: This screen shot shows Digidesign Eleven, with the amp model bypassed but the cabinet model engaged. Such a configuration works well when used with the signal from the direct output of an actual amp, such as the Mesa/Boogie MKIV.
Some amp heads also have a direct out, which can be used to record the output without the cabinet. I have a Mesa/Boogie MKIV head, which I often use for heavy distortion. By using the direct out (which in this case is not clean — it's the saturated sound from the amp), I can record anytime, day or night, without cranking up my 4 × 12 cabinet.
For extra kick, I use a software plug-in such as Digidesign Eleven (see Fig. 3), which has the option to bypass the modeled amplifier and use only the cabinet. When it's configured as such, I then apply any assortment of cabinets from the software to the hardware tube output from the Mesa/Boogie. Most of the time, I will create two instances of Eleven panned hard left and right — each with a separate type of cabinet (see Web Clip 3). I'll also add a few milliseconds of delay to one (usually around 40 ms) and a nice spring sound from an impulse response reverb.
Far, Far Away
I live in a corner-unit condo, up on the third floor. Directly next to my second bedroom, which I've turned into a production studio, is a giant master closet. After drilling through the wall, I ran a series of XLR, ¼-inch, and headphone cables into the closet, where I lined up my amp collection. The clothes in the closet act as a great buffer of sound, and I can still record my amps in isolation, adjust the mic levels from the preamps, and monitor them live through the speakers in my control room.
But sometimes I like to record standing directly in front of my amp, for both the overall feel and the sustain (and feedback) it can deliver. In order to do so, I picked up a Frontier Design TranzPort, which is a remote DAW controller. Mounted atop a mic stand, this $199 wireless unit controls my Pro Tools HD right through the walls (it works with most popular DAWs), letting me keep my cable run to the amp supershort. It's an excellent, inexpensive solution for those who want to get away from the computer screen when recording. Just make sure your headphones give you enough level to hear your tracks over the amp sound.
If you don't have the luxury of using an amp closet, an amp room across the hall or in the basement would work. Radial and Little Labs offer products designed for such situations. Costing around $250, Radial's SGI Studio Guitar Interface features transmitter and receiver modules that you connect using a standard balanced XLR cable. This system lets you record amps more than 300 feet away, so you can easily turn any distant room into an amp den for a few hours of tracking. The Little Labs STD ($150) uses a single base unit and offers two outputs. As an alternative, you could also plug your guitar into a DI, run an XLR cable out of it, plug that into a reamping device, and connect its output into the amp.
In or Out
By experimenting with the phase of the mics coming from a multiamp or a multimic-with-1-amp setup, as well as that of your clean DI signal, you can create some unique guitar sounds. By mixing in phase-altered tracks, the tone and character will change considerably. You can alter the phase at either the preamp source while recording or later during mixdown — something easily accomplished using any software plug-in that offers phase reversal. When altering the phase relationships of your various sources, you'll need to experiment. As with other techniques, sometimes it will work for your track and sometimes it won't.
When mixing guitars, I rely on a good metering plug-in such as Waves PAZ Analyzer or Roger Nichols Digital Inspector to check for phase and overall frequency response. I recommend downloading the free copy of Inspector at rndigital.org/authorizeinspector.html. Last but not least, close your eyes and use your ears. They will rarely steer you wrong.
Rich Tozzoli is a producer, engineer, and surround mixer who has worked with artists ranging from Al Di Meola to David Bowie. A lifelong guitarist, his music can be heard on Fox NFL, the Discovery Channel, and Nickelodeon.