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How To Get Expensive Guitar Sounds From a Cheap Home Studio
By: Michael Laskow
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 2x4'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
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
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!
I agree with a lot of what was said, however the three michrophone set up to one track? What about phase
cancellation? What about the exsitence of room modes? I think this advice is very good but you
really have to understand the principals of recording, what are the rules regarding microphone placement.
When is it best to us m/s or Midside placement? I agree that microphone placement and selection is sometimes
more important than the microphone quality but if you are using a microphone with a narrow dynamic range
on guitar your are going to have a narrow dynamic range on your recording. If you want to learn more about
recording there are a couple of really good books out there.
The first is "Practical recording tecniques"
published by bantam press. The other is called "Tonemiester Technologies" by Micheal Diechrieter. This book
is somewhat difficult reading as it was written in German and then translated (although not very well) one
other point. I just dont think a 200 dollar tascam 4 track is going to give you the same quality as an Otari
MTR90. Just as I dont believe a Mackie is going to give you the same quality as A Neve console. There are
issues with noise here!!