Crafting Clean DI Guitars For The Final Mix

Electric guitars recorded directly into the computer are more commonplace in the studio than ever before - and for good reason. It’s easier to make edits to a DI track and you can tweak their sound as much as you want (at any point in the mix process).

When you’re adding overdrive or a distortion to a DI, it can be easy to mask a lot of mistakes. Things like string noise and softer ghost notes disappear under the heavier, processed tone.

There’s the other side of the dynamic that comes into play though. The nuances of a well-played clean guitar have their place in music too. With clean guitars, there is no “burying” of mistakes. Each little noise can ring out, and the softest of notes can create an unmatched intimacy with your listener.

Too many guitarists give up their clean tones when recording DIs, because the resulting track with no processing can sound boring, bland, and even brittle when tracked with cheaper equipment. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to take your clean DIs and make them shine in the mix.

Start With a Clean Take

A good performance during guitar tracking is always important, but it may be even more so with clean guitars. You’re usually stripping away other parts of the mix to make room for clean instruments, and each layer that gets pulled back brings your guitar further into the spotlight.

Once it’s there, you don’t want to be dealing with fret buzz, string noise, and other issues. You want a well-rehearsed, well-performed take. It’s rarely going to sound amazing going direct into the computer, but at least you know your talent can’t be blamed if you put in the effort from the start.

Edit Before You Process

Don’t bother adding any effects to your guitar DIs until they’ve been scrubbed clean. Even if your take was flawless, there’s a good chance you’ll still need to be on the lookout for pickup noise.

A good gate can work wonders on a guitar tracks that have pauses in between playing.

You’ll also want to be sure you’re removing pops and clicks as necessary, especially if you’re doing a lot of punching-in and punching-out on a single track. In a lot of ways, clean and lead guitars should be treated a lot like lead vocals before ever reaching the mix stage.

Use An Amp Built For Clean Tones

You’re rarely going to find an amazing clean tone in an amp that’s built for mind-blowing leads.  The power structure behind an amp just isn’t set up that way. You wouldn’t order Chinese food from an Italian restaurant, would you?

We’re fortunate in the digital realm that we’re able to use plugins designed with multiple amp models. It solves our conflict while keeping our costs down.

Virtual guitar rigs are great at bringing high-gain amps into bedroom studios, but they’re changing the clean amp gain too.

Collections like Toneforge Jason Richardson were built for balance – including distorted lead & rhythm channels, but also soft cleans and the effects that work so well with them.

When you work with a rig that was built with clean tones in mind, you’re putting your DIs ahead of the competition (too many of which are struggling to get their stock plugins to make a DI usable).

Effects Build Space

The reason a lot of clean guitars sound rough when tracked DI has to do with the time-based effects (or lack thereof). Double tracking a clean can add some space, but you’re sacrificing the tightness of a single performance. Rather than going through the hassle of tracking and cleaning two takes, using delay and reverb to achieve your ideal space can be a great solution.

When using effects like delay and reverb, it’s easy to make a noticeable difference in your sound. Depending on how they’re applied, delay can create width from a narrow, mono source and reverb can add depth to it.

Creating a 3D space around your clean guitar, you can take full advantage of softer sections in a song without feeling burdened with a need for more instrumentation. Check out how Fluff goes about doing exactly that around the five-minute mark:

Clean Post-Processing

Your post-process should be pretty transparent for most clean guitar parts. Pumping, breathing & harmonic distortion can be effective techniques when used correctly, but for a shimmery, ethereal tone, you’re probably not going to want to use them.

Instead, use lighter compression with a softer knee and slower attack and release. You want your clean DIs to develop their own space, but they’re usually not trying to cut through a dense mix.

Tip: In instances where clean guitars are fighting for space, try using your DI as a side-chain input for another track. Too much reduction will be apparent, but done right, side-chaining should pull down other elements just enough for your clean guitar to peek through.

Apply EQ as needed, and beware of boosting too much of any one frequency. DI tracks are notorious for being very dynamic, so a strong attack on a note can cause a large spike when coupled with EQ. Your post-processing and guitar rig go hand-in-hand which is why we usually prefer to keep them together whenever possible.

Have any of your own tips on capturing the best clean tones?

Drop us a note or share it in the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum if you do - we’re dying to see if anyone else is finding the same clean guitar tricks we are when mixing with Toneforge Jason Richardson!