Guitar tone is the Holy Grail for a lot of engineers – it’s something that some struggle with more than any other part of the mix. Give them stacks of vocals or a twenty-piece drum kit: they won’t bat an eyelash. Give them a dozen guitar tracks with different panning, dynamics & playing styles, and these same guys and gals might run for the hills.
Fortunately, you don’t need to live in fear of multi-track guitar sessions. While a standard left and right track with some double tracking thrown in is common, there are still those out there that can’t get the basics right for a good guitar mix.
For those that can handle the basics, are they able to apply the same mix techniques when you start introducing more and more tracks? They should be.
Basic Training - Your Guitar Bus
Regardless of your source material, most experienced engineers are going to recommend summing the tracks together somewhere. Whether it’s 2 tracks or 200, you can always work your way down to a single guitar bus.
This bus comes in handy in many ways. For starters, it gives you a place to monitor and adjust your guitars as a group. Think the guitars are just a hair too quiet in the mix? You can bring them all up together on a single fader.
To account for large amounts of tracks being routed to this bus, a compressor like BG-Guitars is a must-have too. You don’t want the hassle of going down the line one-by-one to find a guitar track that’s poking out of the mix. By taming the transients with a good compressor, you’re taking control of your guitars’ dynamics.
Too Hot to Handle (Beware!)
Monitoring shouldn’t start at your guitar bus. By the time a single clipped signal reaches it, it’s too late.
Your guitar bus can monitor your summed levels, and acts as the perfect indicator if you’re worried about your guitars clipping as a whole. If you do notice a single track jumping out of line in front of the rest, you’ll still want to treat that earlier in the chain (before it ever reaches the bus).
A lightly clipped signal, while not ideal, is not a lost cause. Using a guitar-focused compressor or even a clipper can mask the effects of an accidentally clipped signal. The key is to turn it into something interesting and useable before it gets grouped in with the rest of the guitars.
Much like camouflage hides soldiers in nature, your plugins can disguise less-than-ideal guitars in the sea of good ones.
Account for Variation
Not all guitar tones are equal. A picked string has a completely different sonic imprint than a strummed guitar. The same goes for bass when you compare a player who fingerpicks to one that uses a plastic pick.
Sometimes the best thing you can do to your bus is to clamp down on the dynamics to standardize the levels across the board. See how Nick balances palm mutes with his other rhythm guitars using BG-Bass below:
As you can hear, his compression technique tightens the sound of his palm mutes, giving them a better pocket to sit in within the mix. More importantly, he’s achieved a balanced guitar mix throughout the track.
How Are You Mixing Guitars?
The types of guitars you work within a track are really going to dictate how you approach mixing them. If you’re someone using just a left and right guitar track, you might only need a single bus with some light compression.
For others with denser sessions, there’s nothing wrong with grouping your rhythms, leads & octaves into their own busses before summing them.
Do you have an approach to mixing guitars that works best for you? Come let us know over in the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum.