Balancing Distorted and Clean Guitars In A Mix

If there were ever a yin and yang for music production, clean and distorted guitars might just be it. They’re prevalent throughout most modern rock and metal productions, and they’re possibly the biggest contributors when it comes to creating larger than life sounding mixes.

A well-balanced mix finds a way to keep the rhythms and leads balanced throughout the song. From a tonal perspective, this also means taking all of the different sounding varieties of rhythms and leads and getting them to play nice as well. You’ve got to find a way to keep raw and aggressive chugs upfront without burying ambient guitar parts and clean tones. It can be a lot to take on for many engineers – especially those who aren’t familiar with double or even quad tracked guitar parts.

So what can you do to find balance in your guitar mix?

Break Them Up

To find balance between clean and overdriven guitars, you really need to break them up first. The dynamics of both guitar types are going to vary widely between each other. Distorted guitars are naturally compressed due to the processing they’ve undergone (either from the pedals or the amp itself). Cleans are much less likely to have that same level of compression applied unless it’s done through a compression pedal.

For this reason alone, I recommend making early mix decisions independently of the other group. Get your clean guitars sounding good together first, and add compression if needed. There’s no need to go so extreme that it becomes a noticeable effect – just enough to gain control over your transients and give you a good starting point for volume automation.

Tools like BG-Guitars can work on individual tracks as well as grouped tracks if you’re bussing them down to a stereo aux track. By stacking the compression in this way, you can apply slightly more compression as you mix without a noticeable impact to your clean guitar tone.

Use What You Need

If a guitar track isn’t adding anything useful to your mix, why would you keep it there?

We often do multiple takes of guitars during tracking to cover our bases and “fill out” a thin mix, but just because you captured it in tracking doesn’t mean your mix needs it. Tracking more than you need to can be useful in a pinch, but before you mix you should really consider parsing your guitars down to only what you need.

I know many engineers that eliminate multiple tracks right in the recording session for this exact reason. Engineers might mic up a guitar cab with two microphones, but once they find the balance between them, they’ll print them down to a single track. Trust your instincts here – if it sounds good in tracking: commit.

If you’re able to toggle a guitar track’s mute on and off (or play with it’s panning) and you can immediately tell what it’s adding to your sound, consider ditching it. You’ve got enough mix decisions to worry about without a cluttered mess of guitars.

Bring Them Back Together

Once you’ve narrowed your guitar tracks down to the best of the best and mixed the cleans and distorted guitars, you can really start to fine tune them and transform them into a single cohesive instrument. If this approach sounds familiar, it should. It’s the same kind of thing you might do when bringing your individual drum tracks together.

In that same vein, a single stereo guitar bus can be a great place to add a bit of glue or reverb to place them all in the same space together. For a real-world walkthrough on getting both types of guitars to sit right with each other, check out part two of Nick’s Mixing Modern Djent series on YouTube:

In Nick’s example, he makes great use of both compression and spatial widening to create a full guitar mix. His cleans and distorted guitars intertwine with each other in a way that locks them into the rest of the song perfectly.

Want To Know How Your Guitar Mix REALLY Sounds?

If you’re looking for honest feedback about your guitar mix, come try out our JST VIP program where I offer mix crits for our members. You can send me your mix as a high quality MP3 as well as any note about it, I’ll give it a listen and tell you what I think!

Mix crits are just the tip of the iceberg though. Members get access to exclusive plugins, eBooks & discounts that we don’t offer anywhere else.

Check It Out Today!