Make Tracks: Recording Electric Guitar
When you get down to it, there are three things a guitarist can do: play alone, play for an audience, or record. Of those three, recording is perhaps the least intuitive. Practice and performance are both simple and natural aspects of music – you plug in, turn up, and make magic happen. Recording is not so simple. The recording process itself is at once a part of, and completely separate from, playing guitar. Many musicians get intimidated and frustrated by recording, and who can blame them? The technical requirements, the repetition of multiple takes, and the demands of getting a perfect performance in a strange environment can make even the best guitarists clam up in a phenomenon known as “red light syndrome.”
The good news is that recording electric guitar is easier than ever nowadays. We have many tools at our disposal to put our playing to “tape”, and the cost of doing so is well within the reach of the average guitarist. There’s also the fact that our species has been recording guitar for many decades now, and there’s lots of wisdom out there for newbies to absorb. When technical concerns are minimized, we can focus on what’s important: nailing that guitar part!
In this article, I’m going to go over the two major methods of recording electric guitar: using mics on an amp (aka the “old school” method), and using a modeller with a direct out. Each method has pros and cons. The important thing is to pick what works best for your needs, and what gives you the best results.
Recording With Mics on an Amp
A guitar, an amp, and a microphone: this is how most recordings have been done since the dawn of electric guitar. Even though recording tech has come a very, very long way since then, this is still the method preferred by most guitarists, engineers, and producers. The reason is simple: if you know what you’re doing, it sounds great.
The key part of that last sentence is: “If you know what you’re doing.” Micing up a guitar amp, although not as complex as many sound engineering tasks, is far from foolproof. There are plenty of ways to screw up: improperly placing the mic, overloading the input of your mixer/preamp, and using a mic inappropriate to the task are just a few of the problems you might encounter. That’s to say nothing of the issues with using multiple mics!
The simplest, most common way to mic an electric guitar amp is to get a good solid dynamic mic with a cardioid pattern and put it about an inch away from the grill cloth of your cab between the center and rim of the speaker cone. The venerable, affordable, and virtually indestructible Shure SM57 is the industry standard mic for electric guitar, and you would certainly not be making a mistake in choosing it. That said, there are a few other dynamic mics worth checking out, such as the equally strong Audix i5, and my personal favourite: the Sennheiser e609. Any of these would be great choices, and none of them cost much, especially on the used market.
Mic placement is always a tricky issue, and the key here is to experiment. Generally, you will get stronger treble close to the center of the speaker, and stronger bass closer to the rim. My recommendation is to start somewhere in between the center and the rim, record a sample of that, and listen back. If you don’t like what you hear, move the mic an inch at most and try again. You might also try switching between on-axis and off-axis placement. On-axis means the front of the mic is directly facing the front of the amp; off-axis means the mic is at a bit of an angle. On-axis placement tends to produce a clearer, more biting sound, while off-axis usually sounds warmer and more resonant. The style you choose depends on what you’re trying to achieve.
If the sound of a single mic just isn’t cutting it for you, and you’re feeling adventurous, you could try putting a second mic on your amp. A common technique is to use a different kind of mic that fills in the frequency gaps. A Sennheiser MD421 is a very popular choice to pair with an SM57 because it fills in the low frequencies while the 57 handles the upper mids. You could also try two of the same mic with one on-axis and one off, or use a rugged condenser like the Audio Technica AT2020 a few feet back to capture some of the room sound (be careful of the two mics being out of phase if you try this though). The possibilities are only limited by time and your imagination.
It may go without saying, but for any of this to work you will need something with mic preamps (pres) in it: either a mixer, a computer audio interface, or dedicated external mic pres. You will need one for each mic. If any of your mics require phantom power, your pre of choice has to be able to provide it.
As you likely have gathered by now, this is not a recording technique that’s easy to implement on a day-to-day basis. Fortunately, our second, more modern technique is much, much simpler for the average guitarist…
Recording With a Modeller
Recently, a new type of guitar rig has appeared: the modelling amp, or modeller. These technological marvels use computing power to simulate what an amp and effects do to a guitar’s signal. You plug a guitar in, dial up the settings you like, and play. No mics or preamps are required – the modeller’s output can be plugged directly into a mixer or computer recording interface. In some cases, the modeller will even have a USB port to send your signal directly into your DAW software. Modelling amps come in many shapes, sizes, brands, and budget levels; there is no shortage of choice.
The advantages to this technique are obvious: no mics, no mic placement issues, and none of the other complications involved with mic-ing up a guitar amp. There’s also the major benefit of being able to record at low volume, or even silently via headphones. For that reason alone, recording through a modeller is the preferred choice of most home recordists. Modellers are also a great choice for recording novices, because they take all the techy complexity out of recording. They’re literally plug-and-play. The downside to that, of course, is that you won’t learn anything about mic selection and placement by using a modeller.
There are other pitfalls with this method as well. Some people believe that modellers just aren’t quite as good as a real tube amp when it comes to feel and responsiveness. Truth be told, I have done plenty of recording with both methods, and given a choice I will always pick mics on an amp. I love my amp, and I do my best playing through it, which translates into the best performance on record. That said, it is clearly far more convenient to record with a modeller, and my tone is still very good that way.
At the end of the day, it all depends on your situation, and what you’re most comfortable with. As I like to say on this blog, there are no right or wrong answers here, only what sounds and feels best to you.
Let me know in the comments what your experiences with recording electric guitar have been like. Talk to me about mics, mic placement, preamps, modellers, and anything else you do when recording this awesome instrument of ours.