Guitars are one of the most abundant mix elements for many rock and metal tracks. It’s pretty common to find sessions loaded up with all kinds of guitar layers these days:
- Rhythm Guitars (Left & Right)
- Lead Guitars
- Double-Tracked Guitars
- Re-Amped Guitars
- Octave Guitars
- Guitar Effect Tracks
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but once you consider this as your starting point, it’s easy to see that there’s a lot going on sonically with so many variations fighting for the same frequencies in your mix.
With all of these guitars fighting each other for space, how do we manage to make them all clear and even in the final mix?
Start Cutting What You Don't Need
Sometimes, the recording will provide extra guitar tracks so you’ve got options when mixing. It’s not a bad problem to have, and saves you from using some guitar duplication trickery later on the fill out your mix.
The problem comes when we don’t want to make decisions. If you can’t commit to a sound, you’re going to end up struggling with your mixes. I’m not just talking about your guitar mix either – guys who cannot commit get stuck in an endless loop of revisions. For those that don’t have a deadline, this usually means your music never sees the light of day.
Instead, try making intentional decisions when narrowing down tracks. Start with muting/un-muting, but when you find something that cleans up the space when it’s removed, make it inactive or remove it from the session altogether. If you truly miss it later, you can get the original from your session folder and re-import it.
In addition to the work you’ll need to do to clean up unwanted tracks, you should be putting just as much effort into clean up unwanted frequency content in your guitars. Early on, we’re not as worried about EQing to boost the good stuff as we are about cutting out the unneeded extremes and frequencies masking other instruments. Guitars are notorious for covering up the meat of your vocals when not treated correctly.
By hi-passing your guitars, you free up a lot of low end for your bass and kick drum. Rolling off some of the top end can clean up a hissy guitar tone, and it frees up the space for your cymbals and other high-frequency sounds.
For the top end, I usually suggest a shelving filter as opposed to a low-pass filter. We don’t want to remove the highs completely since they tend to add some intelligibility to our sound. The shelf allows us to “duck” those frequencies instead of cutting them out completely.
With so much going on, the last thing we want to worry about as engineers is riding faders for every single guitar track. Sure, it looks cool seeing your faders move around as you play the mix, but your end listener isn’t going to see that and they’re not going to care. All they care about is that the song and mix sound good.
So if they don’t care, why should you go through the tedium of mixing that way?
Instead, set a generally leveled mix for your guitars, route them all to a bus, and let your compressor wrangle in the overly dynamic parts! It’s really that easy.
You might still want to reach for some fader automation between sections or to swell something in or out, but the hard part (getting your guitars to sound consistent) can be handled with ease by the right bus compressor.
Keep your compression levels low – any heavy compression should be done at an individual track level. In the video below, Fluff is barely compressing using Joel Wanasek’s signature BG-Guitars compressor:
See what a difference a few dB of compression can do to smooth out a dense guitar mix?
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