If I said getting the perfect tone wasn’t rocket science, I’d be right about the rocket part – but there actually is some science behind it (hear me out).
As audio engineers, mixers, and producers, we’re tasked with finding the perfect sound on each and every session. Everything needs to blend together seamlessly, and for metal, this means finding the perfect tonal qualities for your metal guitar parts. We’ve done deep dives into soaring leads and guitar bus compression in the past, but today, we’re going to take a laser-focused look at the perfect chug.
What makes a perfect guitar chug?
There are many parts of a chug that can be dialed in for maximum tonal perfection, but there’s one thing we can’t control as music production professionals: the player. So much of a chugs bite and aggression comes from the player themselves. How hard they play, what kind of pick/strings they use, how consistent their technique is… This all adds up to a HUGE part of the sound that’s outside of our control unless we’re recording ourselves (even then, a self-recording guitarist can hit the limit of their technical ability as well).
While you might not be able to immediately improve a guitarist’s technique overnight, you do have some control over things like the newness of his strings. A fresh set of strings can immediately improve tone, adding clarity and bite instead of the dull lifelessness that comes with old, crud-covered strings. If you’ve already tracked and you have no other option, you can always digitally restring your guitar as well.
Tight, Responsive Bass
This one is twofold. First and foremost, you need to get your bass guitar under control if you want your guitar chugs to ever have a chance to get through the mix. You can have a flabby, full-spectrum bass clouding up the low-end of your rhythm guitars. This overlap can result in masking that really doesn’t make a good situation for either instrument. It’s a lose-lose scenario.
Likewise, your guitars need to have tight and responsive lows and low-mids. Multi-band processors like Transify allow you to tighten up this problematic area while leaving the majority of your tone unaffected.
Starting with the Source
A great DI is a must for almost every session these days, but in heavier genres it holds special significance. Because you’re working with extended range and drop tuned guitars a lot of the time, a live guitar cab isn’t always going to be the best thing to reproduce those frequencies.
Smaller speakers just can’t handle these super low frequencies and larger speakers can be sensitive and inconsistent in how they reproduce them. By opting for a DI signal, you have more control in-the-box, and can use virtual guitar rigs that offer the solution you need in one package. Toneforge bundles like Toneforge Jason Richardson and the newly released Toneforge Misha Mansoor were built to accommodate lower-tuned guitars, and have all of the responsiveness you could hope to get out of a good metal amp.
Compression is Still King
Compressors will always be one of the best solutions for inconsistency in a performance. They level out the loud parts to sit better with the softer ones. They provide a vacuum-sealed approach to tight, responsive rhythm guitar chugs.
By using compressors along the way as you mix, you can really achieve some great result without doing too much heavy lifting at any single stage of the mix. Start by compressing at the start of your signal chain (the guitar track), then at the guitar bus (group compression), and finally on your mix bus. By applying compression at these three stages, you can achieve a gradual smoothing of your sound – going for most to least compression as you work more tracks in.
Once you’ve got a handle there, you can experiment with compressor stacking and using compressors before/after other processors to see how your tone changes.
Practice, Practice, Practice
This goes for players and engineers. The more you work with metal guitar parts, the more you will learn along the way of honing your skills with them. Too many guitarists scoff at “chugs” as something that isn’t as masterful as a technique like sweep picking, but I assure you that an expert player has put just as many hours into both styles of playing.
It’s not just about the speed or the gear you use – it’s about perfecting what you’re doing so that it “just sounds right”.
What are you doing to improve your workflow? Come share with us over on the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum on Facebook & happy mixing!