If your guitar tone sounds like an absolute dumpster fire, don’t be too quick to blame the guitarist for the issue. There’s a chance the problem can be fixed with a bit of engineering on your part. From time to time, it might even be your fault (but don’t shoot the messenger).
There are certain things every single guitarist should be doing to bring their A-game into the studio. New strings are an absolute must on a session. There are things you can do to pump some life into old strings after they’ve been recorded, but nothing beats the real thing. The same goes for bass strings – no matter how pricey, new strings are going to sound better on the recording than old ones.
Outside of strings, you’ll want to make sure your musician knows their part and they’ve rehearsed it enough to deliver a consistent performance. You’ll need clean power for amps and pedals or fresh batteries for pedals that require them. Keeping some extra picks and 9V batteries around the studio can be helpful in a pinch too.
But if all of these requirements and you’re still not able to record a sound you’re happy with, maybe it’s time to look in the mirror and see what you’re doing to mess things up.
Practice Your Recording Technique
If you’re recording live amps, make sure you’ve done your homework on what works and what doesn’t. There’s a reason that an SM57 is the most commonly used dynamic mic on guitars – it gets a useable tone 99.9% of the time. If you don’t have access to one, you should at least understand the techniques behind how it’s used.
Placing a mic close to your speaker is going to help reduce the amount of the room that finds its way into your recording, giving you that “straight from the amp” sound. If you’re still struggling with reflections bleeding in, throwing a heavy blanket or curtain over your amp & mic setup can also reduce bleed. Packing blankets are often used in major studios to achieve separation.
Get familiar with how on-axis and off-axis placements alter your sound. Because an off-axis placement turns the diaphragm away from the speaker, it can cut down on some of harsher dynamics. Similar tonal changes occur when moving your mic from the center of the cone toward the edge. Placing your mic in the center will likely sound shrill and harsh, but too close to the edge can sound dull and dark.
Many engineers find a balance somewhere between the two, or they record with two microphones and blend them to taste in their DAW.
Record A DI
Recording guitars with a DI box is one of the greatest insurance policies modern engineers can give themselves. Even if you’re confident in a live amp’s sound, having a clean DI signal leaves you room to reamp or recall the raw performance later. This comes in especially handy if you’re looking to thicken up a track with additional guitar tracks. Simply run the guitar into your favorite virtual guitar rig or run it out through a re-amping box to record live with some different amp settings.
DIs are easier to work with in-the-box that live amped guitars when it comes to cleaning up your audio too. By making edits to your raw DI track to remove mistakes and timing errors, you can literally craft a better performance to run into your amp, which in turn becomes a more usable track in the mix.
I’m not saying you should go through tweaking a performance note by note until it’s perfect – that’s what your guitarist should be practicing for before recording. But if they happen to hit a note a split second too early in an otherwise amazing performance, you’ve got an easy way to clean it up in-the-box. The same goes for things like open fret buzz, string noise and other small tweaks.
For more on recording guitars with DI boxes, check out our guide on Crafting Clean DIs for the Final Mix.
Practice With Plugins
When it comes to practicing good guitar tone and mixing, many people don’t realize the amount you can do with a single session. Dialing in a great guitar tone can happen using a virtual guitar rig like Toneforge Misha Mansoor and a well-recorded DI track. Plugins give you the flexibility of trying out different amps, speaker cabinets, and microphone combinations right in your DAW. The same process can be applied to practicing with your bass tone by using a virtual bass rig.
For this reason, it can be useful to have a practice session available for new amps (virtual or physical) as you add them to your collection. By eliminating any type of performance variation, you can effectively evaluate any new piece of gear in an instant. Things like setting the EQ on an amp & microphone placement in this control environment will help you make more effective decisions the next time you’re in a recording session.
JST VIP members get access to all kinds of resources that provide a deeper understanding of good guitar tracking and mixing techniques and how they can be applied in a way that best fits their workflow. They even get access to some of my personal guitar presets for reference.
Head on over to the VIP section of the site to see how you can improve your guitar mixes today.