I get asked about this all the time. From the very beginning of my years as a player I have always been a tone chaser and the information below helped me more then any other info I have ever gotten from anyone. Some of the techniques below are from world renowned producer Andy Sneap, and some of his proteges. They have been a wealth of information over the course of many many years. Andy has done hundreds of albums by some of the best bands in metal. Most notably the last 3 Testament albums, Nevermore's Dead Heart In A Dead World and This Godless Endeavor and Megadeth's United Abominations and Endgame. These techniques are not just related to "metal" and rock. All of these can be applied to any genre of music.
Please feel free to ask me any questions you may have regarding any of this information, and without any further delay ......
The following Tutorial will help you understand how to get good guitar tones to tape using Mics as well as Direct Recording Preamp like the Pod and AxeFX. There are additional topics not yet covered such as re-amping and things of that nature I will save for a separate post.
Nowadays you can get decent tone out of running direct but noting beats putting a microphone in front of a speaker imho. For about $150 you can get pro quality guitar tracks with minimal effort.
Nowadays with eBay and other auction sites you can pick up PRO QUALITY used gear for about 1/3 what you would pay retail. As most of you know the Microphone of choice for the past 20 or so years has been the Sure SM-57. This microphone was originally designed as a vocal mic to give singers a bit more presence and warmth in their vocal without a lot of high end. The same type of mic EQ is what you want to go for with your guitar tracks. You want a nice smooth tone without any harsh high end or muddy lows.
Recently the AKG 421 has been popular among the metal community. Similar to the SM-57 the AKG 421 is more pricey but it does have a crisper sound. I you have the cash id say go with the 421 but the 57 will do perfectly for most scenarios.
Another honorable mention is in the Audix i5. This has been my GO TO mic for the last 3 years. It has all the great characteristics of both the mics quoted above with a little better bass response and its only $99!
Sennheiser e609 is another great choice for guitars. Its extremely close to the SM57 in terms of its sound. Its benefit is being able to "hang" over the guitar cabinet without a stand. This was why it was designed as a square mic with a flat face to lay against the cab.
Direct Recording Preamps
The Line 6 Pod and The Behringer V-Amp have become very popular with guitarists pro and non-pro alike. With their amazing flexibility they are perfect for demo recording or getting near professional results on a budget. Also if you have the cash the AxeFX is an AMAZING preamp with a slew of GREAT tone right out of the box. The only down side is the cost (about 2k)
Putting a mic on a cab is cheaper, but its more hassle. The Pod, AxeFX and V-Amp have presets for Mic placement so you dont have to fumble around with a mic and a stand which is pretty convenient if your strapped for time, or are just recording some demos. Personally I prefer the real deal tube amps but everyones budget is different.
Tubes Amps Vs Solid State Vs Digital Modeling
Digital modeling has come a long long way in the last 2 or 3 years. Things like the AxeFX have really pushed the boundaries of DRP's (Digital Recording Preamp's) in recent years. DRP's have been used on thousands of albums at this point in time and most people cant tell the difference, but those of us who are purists like myself can tell from a mile away (usually..lol). Unless its the AxeFx this thing sounds amazing. I have been fooled a few times from it and I cant say enough good things about it.
Tube amps have been the source for great tone for 50+ years, to me personally nothing sounds better than a tube amp and a cabinet mice'd properly. There is just this presence and depth that it has that most digital preamps dont have (Yet). I am sure in the years to come DRP's will surely be able to capture it, but at the moment, at least in my opinion its not quite there yet. A good thing to keep in mind is to try and avoid the 1.5khz - 2Khz frequency when using DRP's. This is where that digital "buzzy" frequency sits. After recording your parts try and EQ it out in the mix.
Solid state amps have their place as well. Dimebag Darrell got his amazing guitar tone from a Randall RG 100 all solid state amp. I like them for clean tones. Distorted toned to me are just too thin and buzzy. This is another place to try and avoid that buzzy 1.5khz- 2kHz frequency.
No matter what type of amp you are using you should be able to get a good usable tone out of it. Just remember none of these amps sound the same. They all have advantages and disadvantages. Use what you can afford, and most important what you like.
Guitar Amps vs Sims
Another topic that is always being debated is the use of Tube amps vs Sim's. Things like Pod Farm, Revalver, Amplitube all emulate the sound of tube amps in the digital environment. Units like the AxeFX have gained HUGE popularity with their ability to replicate tube amps and cabinets.
So what's the best way to go?
There really is not one answer to this. Reason being is cost. If you are young its tough to come up with the hundreds or thousands of dollars to buy a high end tube amp. On the flip side you may not have the 2k to spend on an AxeFX either.
So what are some alternatives?
Line 6 Pod Farm: Does a good job of emulating tube amps but can be harsh for high gain tones. Great clean, medium gain and Bass tones.
Revalver: Probably the best of the HIGH GAIN sims available in a commercial product. Solid and all around pretty good. Not as flexible as Pod Farm but has good high gain tones.
Free VST Plugins: There are TONS of them. The top of the mark right now being plugins by "LePou" his 5150 sims are the best around. Match them up with some great cabinet impulses and you can get great tones for almost no cost.
But what if you dont want to do simulated tone and want a good tube tone for low cost? Here are some great little amps that can get you AMAZING tone for very little cash.
Peavey 5150 (Used) they usually run in the $400 to $600 range and they are the epitome of the sound of modern metal. Every band from Carcass to Machine Head to As I Lay Dying have use the 5150.
Krank Rev Jr brand new you can pick one up for around $500 this thing is the king of that 80s thrash metal tone. Anthrax, Slayer, Megadeth, Pantera ... yup its all in there!
Jet City 333 The jet city JCA20 is an AMAZING amp for the price. This single channel wonder can get everyting from pristine clean to full on Metal shred when used with a boost in front of the amp. For $400 they are tough to beat.
Bugera (6260 / 333 / 333XL) These are probaly the best bang for the buck out there right now. Bugera has taken 3 of the most popular metal amps (Peavey 5150, XXX, and JSX) and cloned them with cheaper chinese parts. The results are really impressive. While they dont sound EXACTLY like their more expensive counterparts they do get amazing tones. I perosonally own a 333XL and I sold my JSX cause I prefer the Bugera. These amps run between $650 and $800 which is really impressive.
Plain and simple it comes down to what can you afford. Go with what you have and do the best you can to get the best tones you can out of it. From that point upgrade!
Also remember that if you record DI's while tracking you can have your guitars re-recorded in a separate studio or through multiple amps. People like me and quite a few other guys all around the world offer re-amping services. (See more on re-amping below)
Getting a good tone
The 1st priority when recording your tunes is getting a good tone either using DRP's or by micing a cab or amp. The better the tone going into the software the less work you will have to do later on when mixing. I go by the saying SHIT IN SHIT OUT, No matter what you do to a crappy guitar tone after recording it will still be crap! Even the cheapest amps can get a good sound. Bands like Carcass recorded using a Marshall 1x12 combo for some guitar tracks along with 4x12 cabs and a Peavey 5150. SRV used Dumble, Marshall and Fender combos. Hell on the album Family Style, SRV recorded a solo on a PIG NOSE with a 5" speaker! So just cause an amp is small doesn't mean it cant get a good tone. Proper mic placement can make the smallest amp sound huge if done properly. More on proper mic placement later.
Guitars are a big part of your tone aswell (duh!!). The pickups, electronics, picks, and strings all attribute to our tone as well as your technique. The best advice I can give is find something that works for you! Dont try to copy someone elses tone. Its nearly impossible, you can get close but not exact. 90% of a guitar players tone comes from his hands and technique, and no one can ever replicate that perfectly.
One thing for starters that most guitarists fail to realize is there is usually more than 1 guitar track recorded on any given song. For rhythm guitars in metal and rock theirs usually a minimum of 2. One panned right and one panned left (see more info on panning below). By doing this it leaves the stereo spectrum open in the center for things like vocals, bass guitar, kick drum, and snare drum. Remember to pan your guitars around in the mix till you find a good spot for them to sit. This is probably the most invaluable piece of experience I ever learned. PANNING IS KING!
Use as little effects and EQ as possible. Try and record your guitars using no effects other then distortion or a WhaWha pedal. Over EQing something will kill you mix faster than an anything. Get as much tone as you can out of the AMP before recording your tracks. If you find yourself boostin or cutting frequencies more than 2 or 3db then you know the sound going in wasnt good at all. This means you should go back and re-record all of your parts with a better tone. Also keep in mind that moving the mic around the speaker will provide different frequency enhancements. On a Celestion v30 speaker moving the mic 2 or 3 cm up, down, left, or right can yeild completely amazing changes in tone. Experiment and move the mic around to try and find the Sweet spot. Same goes for different speakers. 4 v30s of the same design will all sound slightly different.
What makes a good guitar tone?
This subject is purely subjective! Its all about your preferences, and what YOU and your ears find pleasing. Things you want to strive for when getting a good tone are:
1. Clarity - make sure the sound doesn't have to much bass or to much treble. Do any of the frequencies hurt your ears? Do any of the frequencies compete with any other instruments in the mix?
2. Cleanliness - This is probably the single most important aspect. Good technique = Good tone. Is the playing tight? Are there any mistakes? String noise? Trem spring vibration? All of those aspects affect the over all guitar tone.
These are things you should think about when choosing a guitar tone.
What settings should I use on my amp?
This one is another subjective topic. What sounds good to you? My biggest advice for this in particular is dial in a tone on the amp you like. Then test the tone with your mix and see how it sits. I tend to always get guitar tones LAST when doing a mix. Its easier to find a guitar tone that fits your mix then try and EQ everything else around your guitars.
Here is something to try. Dial in what you think is the perfect guitar tone for your amp. Stick a microphone in front of it. Get a mag light, and point the microphone directly at the center of the cone, straight on, about an inch back from the amp. Record it then go listen back.
Now lets take the same test and lets move the microphone an inch to the left. Record your part again. OMG ITS DIFFERENT!!
Lesson number 2 my friend! Microphone Placement! (see below)
Lets do it one more time. this time put the microphone back in the center and just tilt it at a 45 degree angle to the front of the speaker.
OH MY GOD IT CHANGED AGAIN!!!
Lesson #2 again.
Proper Microphone Placement:
Yet another subjective concept when it comes to recording. The above examples should have shown you that this is just as an important part of your guitar tone as your amp and guitar.
The technique most often used when recording guitars is referred to as CLOSE MICING. The term comes from the proximity to the amplifier of the microphone to the speaker. This technique produces a very present sound that is perfect for Rock / Metal type of playing.
Technique 1: ON THE CONE
This technique refers to the placement of the microphone to the center "cone" of the speaker. if you look at a speaker there is a place in the center of the speaker where there is usually a beveled disk looking thing. This is the speaker cone.This is the place where you can pick up the best frequencies of your tone, but if you are not careful there could be some pretty horrid ones too.
Technique 2: Off The Cone
This technique refers to the placement of the microphone away from the center of the speaker. This technique can be any place on the speaker not right on the center with the microphone at a 90 degree angle to the front of the speaker.
By placing the microphone in this spot it is possible to pick up additional bass frequencies as this is where the speaker does most of its movement. The closer you get to the center of the speaker the tighter the sound will be with more definition. The further you move out the less definition there will be. This may be the sound you like, it may not be. Like I said previously this is purely subjective. Find a good place between the cone and the edge of the speaker that sounds best to YOU, and sounds best for your mix!
Technique 3: Angled (off axis)
This technique is similar to technique 2 but it is at an angle to the front of the speaker. This technique give a more "mid scooped" sound that may be useful in some circumstances. This technique I find also reduces some of the high end buzzy frequencies that can be annoying with some speakers.
Experiment with these techniques till you find what you prefer! Always check every speaker as they all sound different!
Putting it all together:
Ok so now you have an idea of how to get a good tone. Here are some additonal pointers that you should keep in mind when recording.
1. Don't try and replicate what you hear on a CD in a "mix" - Keep in mind that what you are hearing from your speakers is a MIXED guitar sound. All of the other instruments in the mix are helping to drive that guitar tone into what you are hearing. Especially the Bass Guitar! in addition to that there are normally anywhere from 2 to 4 guitar tracks on any given song in the rock / metal genre, sometimes even more! you cant replicate this sound from a single amp and guitar so don't try! once your guitars are multi-tracked the sound will fill itself out. There is also the "mastering" process which tweaks guitar tone.
2. Back off on the gain - Most guys into rock and metal usually crank the gain. This is ok in a live setting when the amp doesn't have a mic in front of it, but not when recording. Too much gain just adds mud to the mix. It kills the definition of the guitars and cuts down on its dynamic response. If you find yourself reaching for the gain knob for more distortion DONT DO IT. Once you multi track your guitars the amount of gain you want will be there. A good area to start is cutting your gain about 25% of what you normally use live. Start there and once you multi track listen to the clarity and definition. The guitars will be clear and defined yet the gain will still be there.
3. The Performance Is Everything! - Keep your tracks as free from noise as possible. Try to lift your fingers cleanly to reduce unwanted string scraping or open string ringing. When multi-tracking guitars make sure all the tracks are in perfect sync timing wise, unless of course thats the "technique" you are going for. But in rock and metal tighter rhythm guitar tracks mean a better over all guitar tone. Alot of the time, I'll end up taping up strings that arent getting played, dampening springs on a tremolo system, put hairband around the headstock, everything I can do to reduce string noise.
Getting the sound "on tape": The term on tape refers to the actual process of recording the guitar either on your 4 track, PC, or recording system. Whatever way you are recording, be it a 4 track, PC based software, or a big all in one unit the techniques above are the same for all of them.
Multi-Tracking Guitars: The term Multi-Tracking refers to the technique of recording the same guitar part or variant there of multiple times. This is probably THE most useful technique when recording rock and metal. This technique has been used by everyone from Jimi and Eddie to Metallica and (insert new flavor of the week band here). The idea behind this is to give yourself a BIG guitar sound without having the guitars too loud in the mix. By separating out the performance into 2 parts you can leave the center channel of the mix open for the instruments that should be there.
How many tracks should I record?
This is another subjective decision. usually I tend to do no more then 2 per guitarist in any recording situation. I find that doing more than 2 per guitarist clouds up the mix. If both guitar players are on their game 1 per guitarist may be enough to make it sound great!
This is the most important thing when it comes to mixing and recording. Panning is a technique used to make instruments louder or quieter on a given "side" of a stereo mix.
For those of you that are not familiar with how "stereo" works here is a quick bit of info. Sterophonic sound or "stereo" is a technique by which 2 "tracks" are played simultaneously in sync one being considered the LEFT side and the other being considered the RIGHT side. This technique was founded in the 1920's Using 2 speakers and sending 1 signal out the left speaker and another signal out the right speaker we achieve stereo sound.
Stereophonic sound was the precursor to Multi-Track recording. It is what actually makes it possible.The Multi-Track technique was founded in the 1940's and its origins are debateable, but most notable use of this technique was by Les Paul and Mary Ford in the late 1940's.
Having 2 tracks playing simultaneously give you a "stereo" sound. One signal is panned hard left and the other is panned hard right. by turning the volume up or down in either speaker you can move an instrument or sound around in "the mix". A pan knob or adjustment changes the volume of the sound in question to be louder or quieter in either speaker. By turning a pan knob to the left you are decreasing the volume of that sound in the right speaker thus putting that sound on the "left" side of the mix. by doing the opposite it is being moved to the right side of the mix. in all honestly its much more indepth and complicated but this is a generic introduction to all of this. So a basic knowledge of the technique is all that is needed.
So how does "panning" relate to my guitar tone?
This is how you can turn a thin basic tone into a stereo monster / wall of guitars! By recording your rhytm guitar parts twice then panning each performance left and right it makes your guitar sound fuller.