How to record electric guitar

Part three in 'how to' the series

How to record electric guitar - Part three in 'how to' the series - by Simon Campbell

This article is all about recording guitar and obviously, as a guitar player, very important to me! There are many that try and make the process more complicated than it actually needs to be, with festoons of microphones and other general gumpf, so hang on and get ready for a big dollop of simplicity.

I love guitar, I love guitar sounds, I love stacking parts up to add texture to a track, but when it comes to recording the parts I really try and stick to using one microphone, in the right place. To me it's far more effective using three different amps on the same part than multiple mics on the same amp / speaker.

If you take a look at my article on how to record a drum kit, you will see that I try to stick with a 24 track mix down with an absolute maximum of 32. It's a pretty old school way of doing things, but does force you to make choices about what you record. Obviously there are exceptions, but this is where we start.

If you just want to see the video, skip to the bottom of the page.

So, what are the most important element when recording an electric guitar?

Speaker cabs and cones

When using cabinets or combos with multiple speakers, it's always good the check each speaker before recording, especially on vintage amps where the speakers have had a good seeing to over the years. You will be amazed by the variation in sound between two speakers of the same make, age and model.

Microphone positioning is absolutely vital in all recording, but non more so than on electric guitars, especially in the one mic scenario and I do spend time getting it totally right. Moving the microphone just a few millimeters can dramatically change the tone.

With ribbons, I set them between 20/40cms from the grill cloth, off centre from the cone. Guitar speakers are very 'beamy' and the closer you get to the centre the toppier they are.

If I end up using a dynamic mic (very unusual for me), I always try and align the diaphragm at 90 degrees to the cone which in my opinion gives a cleaner sound.

In an album/big session I always try and leave amps setup and miked to save time. In the headline picture you will see our 1963 Vox AC30 and Speed Shop Tweed Deluxe taken during the overdubbing stage of our new album 'Blueberry Pie'.

This of course is not always possible but we do our best.


Phase

Well using one microphone eliminates any phase problems that would occur with a 'multi-mic' setup, but of course if you are really desperate to use two mics, you must listen and check that they are in phase by toggling the phase button on the console with both channels in mono and set to the same level. Rather than then just hit the phase button, I listen, then move the worst sounding mic until it sounds right in combination.

Ribbon Microphones

I love ribbon microphones and use them on a variety of instruments. So why on guitar?

Well, they have a very fast transient response due to the low mass of the element (the ribbon) which is perfect for pretty clean attacking guitar. The more distortion used of course, compresses the sound and smooths out transient, but for the styles we specialise in at Supertone, the ribbon is perfect.

Virtually every interview or picture you see in a studio where a guitar amp is being miked, a Shure SM57 is in there somewhere. I have honestly tried these over and over again and I have to say a ribbon mic works better, sounding more musical and sophisticated.

At Supertone we are blessed with three pairs of ribbon microphones: Coles 4038, AEA R84 and a pair of Royer R-122's (this is the phantom powered version of the R-121, but more on phantom later) but love the Royer on electric guitar.


Most ribbon mic exhibit a 'figure of eight' polar pattern and therefore you need to watch what sound sources, if any, are facing the amp. This pattern also displays a very high sound rejection from the side (90 degrees to the business side of the mic), so judicious placement in a room with a pile of other sound sources will eliminate much of the bleed.

Be careful with them, they are pretty robust but some are not good with high SPL's that can be generated right in front of a guitar amp. I have used all of ours successfully on electric guitar but it's always good to look at the manufacturer's specifications before sticking one in front of an EVM12L with a 100W head on full :)

One important thing about ribbons is that due to the very strong magnetic fields you shouldnt put the m down anywhere unless they are safely in their felt bags. There are bit of iron fillings everywhere which can seriously affect the performance of the mic.

Also, be very careful when plugging up these mics, especially is there's is a bantam patchbay involved as accidentally applied phantom power will destroy the ribbon element - a very expensive mistake :)

I get round this by using outboard preamps for the ribbons mics as on many consoles, the phase/48V are dangerously close together.

Take a listen to one of the tracks from the record featuring the Vox and Tweed Deluxe.

Recording in the control room

We generally try and record the basic tracks of any band at the same time, but for overdubs working in the control room is great and have two methods depending upon the amp setup.

Using a separate head and cabinet is the best method as you can have the amp in the control room and then run the speaker cable into the studio and then mic the cabinet. You must ensure the speaker cable is thick enough (circa 2 x 2.5mm) so it won't cause issues due to cable length.

Combos are more of an issue and means either having a very long guitar cable, which is bad, as the longer the cable, the more high end attenuation you experience - (see my article on guitar tone), or using a buffer/fx pedal. This using modern pedals, converts the high impedance signal to low impedance and negates the long cable problem. Alternatively a dedicated system such as the Radial Engineering JX44/SGI44 can be employed, which is primarily designed for live use but works fine in the studio.

The second option to me always changes the actual sound of the guitar and the only way you can do it properly is record it in the studio with cans and a nice cable straight from the guitar into the amp :)

Recording several amplifiers at the same time

It's often a good idea to record the same part with a number of different amps, but if you connect the inputs of two valve amps together you will almost certainly hear a bad 50Hz hum known as an earth loop (sorry if I am teaching grandma to suck eggs here).

The only way to solve this is by having a specially designed isolation transformer between the two amps (such as the Lehle P-Split II) or use a device such as the Radial JX44 where you can have up four amps simultaneously driven, all with individual earth lifts. Fantastic!!!


Direct Inject (DI)

What, on guitar?? Well yes. If you have a guitarist that has a large pedal board and insists on using it when recording, taking a direct signal allows you to reamp it later if required.

Recording with effects, certainly time based ones such as reverbs and echoes, is fraught with danger as once it's committed to 'tape', it is there stuck there in the mix and impossible to change.

One think most people neglect is the input impedance of the DI. A non active guitar has a high impedance output and really needs to see an input impedance of at least 1MΩ (megaohm) or you will load the pickup and the sound will be muddy.

I tend to use the Avalon U5 which has an input impedance of 3MΩ and sounds great for guitar and bass. The Little Labs MultiZ PIP is also great in this application.

A cautionary note here that even the top line rack and 500 series modules available from Rupert Neve, Neve and API etc usually have an input impedance of around 500KΩ (kiloohm) which will certainly load the pickup (rolling off a lot of the high end) and should only be used with Active Basses and Keyboards. This same problem will occur with non preamped piezo pickups and standard magnetic bass pickups.

OK, thats it! Why not take a look at the lighthearted video on how we do it at Supertone!

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