I’m always amazed by how many people working in home studios think you need a $750,000 console, a 48-track digital machine, an arsenal of $2,000 microphones, and tons of outboard gear to make your tapes sound “professional.” It’s just not true.
What you need is some basic knowledge about the physics of audio (most of which you can learn by dropping a pebble in a puddle of water), and some pretty basic and inexpensive equipment. This is especially true for recording the electric guitar. Trust me–if it were brain surgery, I would have become a brain surgeon and made my mother a much happier woman. And while I have the opportunity . . . for all you kids who want to grow up to be recording engineers–don’t do it. Become brain surgeons. They make a lot more money, drive nicer cars, and never have to worry about where their next gig is coming from.
The single most important factor in getting great electric guitar sounds (of course) is that the sound coming out of the amp should be great. That’s determined by the guitar, the amp, and the person playing it. In the interest of brevity, let’s assume that we have met those conditions and move forward.
A well-rounded complement of inexpensive microphones for recording an electric guitar would consist of a Shure 57 (a must have), an inexpensive condensor mic or two (I like some of the AKG models like the C-1000 and the C-3000), and an inexpensive compressor/limiter (dbx makes a few models that are a great value). If you have, or can borrow these mics, it almost doesn’t matter whether you’re recording on a 4-track Porta-Studio or using a Mackie 8-Bus with 24 tracks of adat, your guitar will sound great.
As a general rule, I’ll set up the 57 right against the amp’s grill cloth, pointing it directly in to the speaker (sometimes at a slight angle from the outer rim of the speaker pointing toward the center). I’ll usually place a condensor about two to three feet in front of the amp (at the same level as the amp) and point it at one of the speakers, and if I have another condensor available, I’ll place it about five or six feet away, in front of the amp. I’ll also raise the “far” mic to a height of approximately five or six feet off the ground.
Obviously, what I’ve done is to give myself a choice of three different sounds–a close, ballsy sound, a mid-range room sound, and a more distant room sound. By setting all three mics up at the same time, putting them each in a different input, and assigning them all to the same track on tape, I’ve given myself the option of having any one of those sounds immediately available to me, or a combination of them.
And now for that physics lesson. Imagine you are looking at the aforementioned puddle from a bird’s-eye view. Drop an imaginary pebble in to it. Little waves radiate out in all directions from the point of impact. Sound waves emanate from your amp in much the same way, but more so from the front because speakers are directional in nature.
Now imagine the puddle again, but this time imagine some wood blocks (12 inch long 2×4’s for those of you with rusty imaginations) that are placed on their sides in the puddle in the shape of a three-sided box with the open side facing the pebble’s point of impact. The radiating lines go in to the box and bounce back or reflect off the walls. Soon, there are so many lines radiating around in that imaginary box that they all collide with each other and become a random, jumbled mess. Eventually, the size of the lines and the number of them diminish. That my friends is reverb.
One line bouncing is an “echo.” Many lines bouncing randomly is “reverb.” If they bounce around for more than a second, it’s called reverb. If they bounce around for less than a second, it’s Kosher to call it “room ambiance.” If the radiating lines are in a room with no reflective walls, they wouldn’t bounce back at all, and the room would be called “anechoic.” By the way, my imaginary room is only two-dimensional. Real-life rooms are three dimensional.
Sound images are very similar to visual images. If you’re in a large auditorium, but standing on stage right next to an actor’s face, you will see every nuance of his face, pimples, pores and all. You will not see his whole body though, and you won’t see him in the context of the rest of the stage or the room. If you move back to the tenth row, you will lose some of the facial detail, but you will gain perspective. If you move to the rear of the auditorium you’ll lose all the detail of the actor’s face, but you see the whole enchilada in perspective.
The microphone set up I described earlier will give you a similar effect. The close mic gives you great detail (in audio terms, top-end, treble) and warmth. The mid-distance mic will give you the perspective that the amp is in a room, but without too much loss of detail. The far mic will tell you in no uncertain terms that you are definitely in a room, and with any luck, the listener’s brain will process that information and tell the listener what size the room is (I’m not talking exact measurements here–just rough approximations). There will be a fairly significant loss of detail though. The combination of any of the mics will give you varying degrees of perspective and detail.
Today’s modern rock guitar sounds tend to be “drier” (less room ambiance and reverb), and most often use the close mic technique. There’s really nothing to it. Simply use the close mic, run it through the compressor, set the compressor at a 3:1 ratio and adjust the threshold so that the compressor is usually working, but not squashing the signal too much. You will be able to make most of the tone adjustments you need at the amp or guitar, and chances are you won’t need to tweak the console’ s equalizer at all.
For a slightly more distant, but fuller sound, bring up the fader on the mid- distance mic. Slowly add that signal to the close sound described in the previous paragraph. You’ll have the detail of the close mic, but with the fullness that comes with adding some “room” sound to it (just like sitting in the tenth row). This is a pretty standard approach that will give you a pretty standard rock guitar sound.
The far mic will give you a bigger, more heavy-metal type of sound with a more pronounced bottom end on it. The reason for that is low end sound waves take much more distance to fully develop than high end waves. Someone once told me that a low E note on a bass guitar takes thirty-three feet to fully develop. Whether or not that is true will only be known by people who have enough time on their hands to calculate such things. I do know that if you take a tuning fork that’s vibrating with a high note and stick it in the imaginary puddle of water, it will generate waves that are small in comparison, and closer together than what a low note will make. Simple physics.
The key to getting a great guitar sound really is in the hands of the engineer, not his equipment. I’ve gotten great sounds in multi-million dollar rooms, and topped them in the smallest of home studios. You can do it too. The key is to constantly experiment and apply some basic physics. Try different mics, try moving them closer and farther, try different angles, try putting the amp in a corner, try putting the amp on a concrete floor, try it on a wood floor, try it on a floor with green shag carpeting, just try anything!
During Michael Laskow‘s 20-year tenure as an engineer/producer, he worked with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Eric Clapton, Cheap Trick and countless others. He continues to write articles for magazines like Recording and Electronic Musician. He’s also the founder of TAXI, an independent A&R company that links record labels with unsigned artists and songwriters.