The electrical guitar

electric guitar
Let’s face it, 95% of you will be mainly recording electric guitar, so let’s look at how to get that key component recorded correctly. Although we’re talking about recording the electric guitar, what we’re actually doing is recording the amplifier and speaker. Your choice of amp and speaker is as important as your choice of guitar. And, as with any instrument, the room does come into effect – even if you’re close-miking a cab. So don’t expect to get a good guitar recording from miking a cheap practise amp (even if you’re using an expensive guitar), and be as thoughtful to the environment your amp is in as you would be with any acoustic instrument.

Microphone choice
Since we’ve talked at length in other posts about how important your tracking room is in terms of acoustics, let’s assume the room you’re recording in doesn’t have any major problems (and that we’re not stood looking at an amp in a wardrobe). So, the next thing to consider, as always, is your microphone choice.
Usually for electric guitar, dynamic mics come out on top. Their tight and focused response ensures that the source is captured without much ambient sound. This is useful when placing instruments in the mix as they don’t have a halo of ambient frequencies surrounding them and interfering with other instruments in the mix.
A few dynamic microphones of note are the Shure SM57Sennheiser e906Sennheiser MD421EV RE20, and EV RE320. Dynamic microphones are passive, so they rely on the strength of the signal to move their diaphragm. Therefore, they are generally always used for close-miking and on louder sources such as drums, guitar cabs, and rock vocals.

Condenser microphones will give you more high-frequency and a much more open sound than dynamics. While it’s not as common to use condenser mics as dynamic mics, they can produce a pleasing result – especially on larger cabinets that physically produce a lot of low and low-mid frequencies.
Ribbon microphones are the secret weapons of recording engineers. They are used on guitar amps/cabs, cymbals, strings, and even vocals. Passive ribbon mics have rolled-off high frequency responses and can be useful for eliminating harshness – especially from classic UK and US valve amps like Fender and Vox. Active ribbon mics do pick up high frequencies well, but you get a much smoother, silkier high-end than you would with a standard diaphragm. I find that mix between a standard passive ribbon microphone and a more aggressive sounding dynamic mic like theShure SM57 works very well. So, if you need to tame harshness or smooth out the high frequencies, ribbon mics work really well.
*I particularly like the sE Voodoo VR1 passive and VR2 active for electric guitar.
If you’ve been reading these posts (and hopefully someone has), you’ll know that after microphone choice comes microphone placement – the two main factors in recording. At this stage, you’ll be focussing on the speaker itself. Even though you’re close-miking the speaker, the size and shape of the speaker cabinet makes a significant difference – kind of in the same way that the box/body of an acoustic guitar does. A large cabinet, like a 4×12, will always give you a big sound with plenty of low-end weight – even though you’re only miking one speaker (no, we don’t mic all four speakers!). It’s the cabinet itself that gives this big sound. Put the exact same speaker in a smaller 1×12 size cabinet, and you’ll get a smaller, thinner sound. That said, you will also get a much tighter sound with a smaller cabinet as there is less space for air to move inside the cabinet.
There are four aspects of microphone placement on a speaker:
  1. Cap – that dome in the middle of the speaker
  2. Cone – the rest of the speaker
  3. Axis – on or off axis
  4. Distance from the speaker

OK. The cap is where the high frequencies are. The outside edge of the cone is where the lower frequencies are. Therefore, moving the mic from the cap to the outside edge of the cone is a sliding scale from high to low frequencies – that’s why it’s important to move the mic from the cap out towards the edge of the cone until you find the sound you want. Then, you can have the mic pointing straight at the speaker (on-axis) for a thinner sound, or at an angle (off-axis) to get a thicker sound. I’d always recommend having the mic almost touching the grill/cloth – if it’s touching the grill/cloth, no big deal. I personally don’t like the mic touching the grill/cloth as I fear that a slight movement of the cloth (a speaker at volume can move stuff – believe me) will make a scraping noise in my recording. Maybe I’m a little bit mad. If you move the mic further away, you’ll get a tiny bit more body, but the signal will decrease significantly. I have never used a dynamic mic on a cab more than a few millimeters from the cloth.
Don’t be afraid to use more than one mic on a speaker. We’re not interested in sound getting past the microphone capsule. If I’m not familiar with the amp or if we’re experimenting, I’ll cover the speaker in mics to record.

Direct/amp modelling
Amp modelling software is commonplace in recording these days and it’s come a long way in the few years it’s been available. I have used a lot of amp modelling software and it always works well. Hardware amp modelling units such as the AVID 11 Rack and the Fractal Axe FX are also becoming more and more common in studios due to their accuracy and their ability to re-amp (sending the recorded guitar back out to an amp for miking up later on). In my opinion, there’s no substitute for the sound of a real amp miked up, but it’s certainly easier and less costly to use software or hardware amp modelling.
A technique I have adopted is using a DI box to split the signal to give me a dry, direct recording from the guitar and the amp recording at the same time. I run the guitar to the input of the DI, send the output straight to my interface to record dry, and the link or thru to the amp. This way, I can blend the miked amp recording with an amp modelling plugin, or re-amp later on if there are any issues with the guitars without having to get the musician back in to record.

You should always strive to capture the sound of a real instrument/amp before resigning to using virtual instruments and plugins as taking the easy way out can leave you with a flat, unexciting mix or a stand-out phony guitar sound. Plus, it’s fun…Isn’t it?

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