Recording Tips For Guitarists

in Sound

Recording music is a totally different beast from playing live. And whether you're going into a big studio or doing it on your own with a laptop and a DAW, there's a few guitar-specific things you can do to make the whole process go faster and sound better.

1. Use new strings - You want your guitar to sound it's best even if you're working with a off-brand copy of Korean knockoff of a Strat.  And new strings are the easiest way to improve things.  They'll give the engineer a good bright sound to work with.  Make sure they're good and stretched out so they don't go out of tune in the middle of the song.  I usually put my new ones on the day before recording.  If you're doing a lot of recording on a regular basis, make sure to change them every one to two weeks.  Otherwise you can end up with different sounding strings on different takes of a song, making it more difficult to edit later.

2. Tune before every take - On a similar note, you should tune your guitar before every take.  I'll admit I'm they guy the engineer is always yelling at tune before takes.  Extra weird when I'm recording at home.  Your guitar probably won't be that out of tune, but keeping it fine tuned will, again, make editing takes much easier later on in the mixing process.

3. Pre-Production - Pre-production is a fancy word for "practice before you get there".  You have some leeway here if you're working in a home studio.  But if you're paying for studio time, you want to get in and get out as fast as possible.  That means having your parts totally down before you step foot in the place.  And that means making sure your bandmates have their act together too.  And I always recommend playing the song live a lot before recording it, if possible.  It will make the arrangement tighter and let any natural changes happen so you can get the best performance possible on tape.  It's like letting the song marinate before cooking it.

I made the mistake once of recording a whole song in the key of G.  Then finding out that I couldn't sing it in the key of G.  We had to record all the pitched instruments again in the key of F.  You can bet that cost me a few extra bucks.  Learn from my boo-boos young padawan.

What about guitar solos?  If you're the type that likes to compose your solos, make sure it's done before getting in the studio.  If you like to let 'er rip of the fly, that's cool too.  But be sure that you've improvised your solo on that song at least 100 times before recording.  If you have to do more than 3 or 4 takes to get a solo you like, you're blowing cash.

4. Leave off non-essential effects until mixing - The cleaner the signal going into the board, the more leeway you have to make changes later during editing and mixing.  You want to have a good basic sound recorded and you can add all the gooey reverb and delay you want later on. 

So, what's considered essential?  Maybe your overdrive or distortion if you're working with a good amp and you want to capture that amp's sound.  A real Marshall still sounds better than any Marshall-style plugin.  If you're using a wah pedal, that should probably be in the original signal as well since it's a real time effect.  In fact, anything that you have to control in real time should be used during tracking.  But ditch the reverb, delays, phaser, flanger, and other such things. That all gets layered on later. 

Though I will say if you've got a particular pedal that you don't have a matching plugin for, you'll have to record it on the original signal.  But, also record a totally clean version of the take with no pedal in case you don't like it later.  You can do that either by splitting the signal before the pedal to two tracks.  Or you can just play it again.

5. Keep the overdrive/distortion down - Crunchy is good.  But when you've got your distortion jacked up too high it will sound like white noise when you record it.  It will also sound thin and get lost in the mix.  Drop your distortion to half of what you use for live performance.  Start there and record some sample takes to see how it sounds.  A corollary to this is, let the engineer guide you.  Especially if you're new to recording and you can afford an experience engineer, use his expertise and let him help focus your guitar tone.

6. Small amps can sound great too - You don't need a wall of Mesa Boogie stacks to get a great guitar sound when recording.  Some of the greatest sounds on tape have been done with tiny amps.  Giant amps are used for giant volume.  And you don't need that in the studio since you're mic'ing and mixing.  If the amp sound good by itself you can work from there and still get a huge sound.

If you are using a larger amp, like a 4x12, mic only the best sounding speaker.  Placing the mic closer to the center of the speaker cone gives you a brighter sound.  Moving the mic towards the edge mellows it.

7. Use two mics - One close, one far - If you're in a good sounding room or studio, this will give you a nice natural reverb you can mix with the dry signal.  Place the second mic about 5 feet from the amp.  If your room doesn't sound so hot or you just don't like the sound of it, you can always trash that extra reverb track later.

8. Double track to thicken - This is the studio equivalent of a wall of Marshalls.  If you want a big thick sound, double track your guitar parts.  While you could just cut and paste the track, it's the tiny variations in performance of multiple takes that really work nicely to beef it up.  Do at least two tracks.  Or go whole hog with the old Metallica trick of layering 30-40 tracks of the same guitar part. Just make sure the rest of the instruments don't get lost in the mix.  You and I both know the guitar is the most important but sometimes your bandmates thing they deserve to be there too.

Learning to perform in a recording studio has a learning curve just like learning to play live.  These tips will give you a good start to getting your hit song recorded so the whole world can hear it.

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Phil Johnson has 1 articles online

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Recording Tips For Guitarists

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This article was published on 2011/04/09