Should You Treat Lead Guitars The Same As Vocals?

This week, I want to make a case for why your lead guitars deserve the same amount of attention, and (usually) similar processing to your lead vocals. For some this might already seem commonplace, while to others, it’s going to sound absolutely crazy and unrealistic.

Whatever camp your currently fall in, I think there are points for both sides of the coin. Hopefully, I’ll be able to show you both sides of it.

Why Is This Relevant?

If your not sure why we even need to have this conversation, let me shed some light on the topic for you. I recently heard a mix with insane vocal production. We’re talking stacks on stacks of harmonies and doubles, and a session that I imagine scrolled on for days.

The problem was, with all of the effort the engineer and producer took to nail those vocals; it was obvious to me that they hadn’t taken the same amount of care with the rest of the song.

The production wasn’t bad; it just hadn’t reached the professional shine that their vocals deserved. And all of that might have been “passable” to my ears if it wasn’t for the guitar solo…

When the solo came in, it lacked some characteristics that every rockstar solo should have. It ramped up just right musically, and the solo was actually performed pretty well, but sandwiched between two massive vocal stacks the solo sounded dull and wimpy. It all could have been avoided if they treated their lead guitar more like their lead vocals.

Reverb/Delay on Lead Guitars

A guitar solo is one of the few times that your can douse an instrument in copious amounts of delay and reverb without being judged. A luscious guitar solo can be dripping in delay. You can set your reverb to sound like a massive arena with a huge decay, and it just sounds right.

To tie it closer to home though, you might consider trading in (or supplementing) some of those massive time-based effects with something already in use on your session: your lead vocal’s effect chain.

Since your listener is used to the space surrounding your lead vocal before the guitar kicks into overdrive most of the time, the sense of familiarity a matched delay or reverb can have is tremendously beneficial. Your listener won’t actively notice the link, but by placing that lead guitar in the same headspace as the vocal, their subconscious will make them think everything is being played together in the same room.

Guitar Doubles & Harmonies

From a production standpoint, you’re already likely double or triple tracking rhythm guitars, but are you giving the same level of attention to your solos, or just picking one and sticking with it?

Solos are hard enough to nail without worrying about doubling, but those slight tonal and timing variations you’ll get out of a doubled solo might be just what you need to stand out from the rest of the song. Even if you can’t get a double just right, there are a few tricks out there that achieve similar results.

The same can be said for harmonies, where you’re adding the same type of complexity and production you do when harmonizing a lead vocal. A harmony is a great way of backing up a lead part without doing anything at all to the original track. Just mix them together, get them glued with some bus compression, and you’ll be well on your way to copying your vocal production techniques.

Where The Process Should Differ

Your lead guitars can’t be treated exactly the same as your vocals, and I get that. They have different sonic characteristics – dynamics, frequency ranges, formants… the list goes on for days. So if you’re trying to match your vocal mix as closely as possible, where can you stray from the path?

I’d say the biggest difference between the two comes down to some of the fundamentals: panning, compression & EQ.

Panning lead vocals has always been tricky, since the “main voice” in most songs is straight down the center. Even mixes with large vocal track counts have a handful of leads in the middle with everything else panned to support that center.

With guitars, it’s different. They can be panned any which way with clarity and presence. They can move around a mix without being overly distracting (a luxury lead vocals can rarely afford).

Similarly, guitars can be compressed and even limited at much more crushing levels than vocals without really seeing any quality or clarity degradation. I think situations where you find more compression or EQ to be necessary should override any concerns about “following your vocal guide”.

Tying It All Together

Much like a good vocal stack needs a vocal bus to get everything grouped together and under control, a guitar bus can provide that same peace of mind. Once all of the individual track mixing is said and done, grouping everything and sending it through a dedicated bus compressor can be the icing on the cake.

Do you tend to follow your vocals when mixing lead guitars, or do you prefer to keep the two completely isolated?

Come share your experience with us and thousands of other engineers & producers in the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum today!