Updated: Nov 10, 2022
A great electric guitar recording is based on guitar playing technique, a good ear for tone, amp choices, microphone positioning, and finding the right combination of tools that work for you. Every combination is different depending on a musician's preferred sound. That being said, it's essential to have in-depth knowledge of the gear you're using and how they work together. Knowing how a guitar matches with different kinds of amps and microphones will help you achieve your desired guitar tone.
First, you'll need some basic tools:
Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
A DAW is used for recording, editing, and mixing your performances. A few options are Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase, Ableton Live, and FL Studio.
An audio interface is used to convert the analog sound of your guitar into digital data.
An Electric Guitar
Finding the right guitar for your recording is essential. We'll discuss how a guitar's build affects its tone in the rest of the article.
An amplifier (or amp) is an electronic device that strengthens the electric signal from a pickup on an electric guitar, bass guitar, or acoustic guitar. It helps produce sound through one or more loudspeakers.
A microphone converts sound waves into electrical energy so that they may be amplified, transmitted, and recorded. Later in the article, we'll go over different types of microphones and positioning techniques.
Now that we've gone over the basic tools, it's time to explore the techniques for recording electric guitars in detail.
The Foundation: Developing a Good Ear for Guitar Tone
Before delving into the technical aspect of recording, it's important to develop a good ear for guitar tone. This foundational skill involves studying the guitar sounds you love and learning about how they were recorded.
When deciphering guitar tone, it's vital to think about it in the context of the mix. When analyzing your track, take note of the lead guitar parts and supporting guitar parts. Use this knowledge to decide if you want a brighter or darker tone for each section.
Something that may help is using a reference track. Play along with a song you like and try to match the guitar tone. Ask yourself: "Is this tone clean, bright, warm, or distorted?" From there, determine if you want to replicate this tone and how you plan to do it.
Once we develop our ears, we can use tools like microphones and amps to further sculpt the tone.
Choose a Guitar and Pickup That Works for Your Sound
An electric guitar's build and pickup influences the sound it emits. Here is a breakdown of the different kinds of pickups below:
Single Coil Pickups
Single-coil pickups tend to have a brighter sound.
Humbucking pickups produce a thicker tone and can mask mid-range sounds. These pickups capture tones close to the original source while omitting added noise.
Choose the Right Amp
Knowing the anatomy of guitar amps is helpful in deciphering which one to use for recordings. Guitar amps can be either sealed or open-back. Open-back cabinets have lower frequencies than closed ones, which is something to consider based on your preferences.
The main kinds of guitar amps are tube, solid-state, and hybrids.
Tube amps use vacuum tubes to amplify the signal. They tend to have a warm sound.
Solid-state amps use 'solid state' electronics (diodes, triodes, and capacitors) to amplify the signal.
Hybrid amps are a mix of tube and solid-state amps. They usually have a tube preamp stage but use solid-state circuitry. Hybrid amps are closer to tube amps in tonal warmth.
To find out which amp works best for your recording, you can try a few out at a local music shop and rent/purchase one based on what you like. If you want to sculpt your sound even more, you can also adjust the tone knobs.
Traditionally, electric guitars were recorded by miking up a good amp. Today, there are many more options: physical modeling guitar preamplifiers, guitar/pickup/amp modeling systems, analog guitar recording preamps, and plugging the guitar directly into the computer.
Microphone Types and Positions
Even if there are many technologies for recording available, the traditional method of miking the amp is still a reliable option. With good mixing techniques, any decent microphone can be used to produce good results. Common microphones used in traditional recording are dynamic and capacitor microphones. Each has its own characteristics and pickup patterns.
Dynamic microphones tend to capture mid-range and omit extreme high and low frequencies.
Capacitor microphones are known for producing brighter sounds.
When choosing which microphone to use, keep in mind that amps emit sound from the speakers, back, and side panels. Open-back cabinets produce sound from both the front and back. That being said, the microphone's position affects what kind of sound you'll get.
Finding the Right Microphone Position
With microphone positioning, it's common to test different positions and see which distance from the amp is best. Below are several positioning techniques that produce different kinds of sounds.
'Live' Miking Position
In this technique, you'll place the microphone several feet away from your amp. This is a good method if you're in a room with good acoustics and/or want the recording to sound live.
For close-miking, place the microphone close to the amp's speaker cone. If the amp has more than one speaker, move the microphone around until you find a sound you like.
Positioning Two Microphones
Before setting up a second microphone, make sure you're happy with your fundamental tone. The second microphone will embellish the sound of the first microphone and bring more dimension to the recording.
To use two microphones, set them up a few inches away from the speaker cone. It's important that the two microphones are close together. Experiment and see what makes the best sound.
Positioning Ambience/Room Microphones
Ambiance/room microphones capture the sound of the room. You can combine close microphones together with an ambiance microphone to capture more space. The ambiance/room microphone can be positioned a few feet away from the guitar amp.
Positioning Microphones Based on Amp Structure
If you're using an amp with an open back, position the microphone from the rear. This tends to achieve a warmer tone with fewer frequencies.
For those micing the amp's front and rear, you may need to experiment with adjusting the microphone's phase.
Positioning Three Microphones
To use three microphones, position two close together with one in front of the speaker cone. Place the third microphone in a different position; you can try out different placements and see what works best.
Tip: Change the Tone When Overdubbing
If you want to achieve more space, one option is to experiment with changing the guitar tone with each overdub. Experiment with switching to a different pickup, slightly changing microphone positions, and/or adjusting the tone knob.
Option: Using a Pedalboard in Recording Sessions
Before using a pedalboard, remember to start with a strong tone by adjusting your amp. The amount of signal you're pushing into an amp will influence your tone. Once you're happy with the tone, you can use a pedalboard to accompany it.
The Stronger the Performance, the Stronger the Recording
Regardless of how much gear is used, a strong performance is vital to an incredible recording. Great playing techniques contribute to the fluidity, groove, and feeling of the recording. Clean strumming, picking, and timing will make for a more pleasant listening experience.
Be Creative and True to Your Sound
While there are so many ways to record guitar, remember that finding what works for you is most important. At the end of the day, finding the right combination of tools and methods is a matter of trial and error. So be creative, experiment, and have fun!
If you need further assistance in mixing and mastering your recording, contact us today and we'll be happy to help you polish your song to its absolute best.