Guitar parts can sound harsh for all sorts of reasons. Maybe you’ve got an inconsistent player or maybe their gear is proving to be a bit of a headache to work with. Whatever the case, it’s your role as the engineer, producer, or mixer on the session to make it work.
A lot of the harshness that you’ll find in your guitar mixes can be treated with common plugins that are easy to understand, but a few issues require you to use them in new or unique ways to really get at the core of the problem. Here are a few of our favorite ways to smooth out a harsh guitar in a mix.
If you’re fortunate enough to be working with a guitarist right from the start of the project or it’s easy enough to bring them back in to re-track, sometimes that’s the best thing you can do. It’s no secret that starting with a great source gives you better options than one that you’ll need to “fix” right away.
Make sure the guitar is set up properly – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten inconsistent/choppy tones from a guitar where the pickup heights weren’t right. It’s like getting the wheels on a car aligned & balanced – when done right, everything is smooth. When done wrong, you’re putting way more wear on one side than the other. I guarantee your tone will suffer as a result.
Those who record with live amps should experiment with mic placement as a potential fix for harshness as well. A close mic that’s placed directly in front of the cap of a speaker may only be capturing the harsher high frequencies the amp is pushing out. Either back it off from the amp to capture more room, move it off-axis so it’s not capturing the cap directly, or move it left or right to get more of the cone in the recording. Many engineers also get great results by blending two or more mics together – just be sure you’re keeping everything in phase.
As a final level of security during tracking, you can always record a DI of your guitars as well. Even if you have no intention of using a virtual guitar rig, this “clean copy” of your guitar track will be great in the event you missed something in the recording session and need to reamp later on.
For many mixers, their first instinct when it comes to cleaning up harshness in a guitar track is to reach for an EQ. A good surgical EQ technique should allow you to pinpoint the frequency or frequencies that are giving you trouble and subtract them from your guitar altogether. If you take a narrow band approach, boost the heck out of it, and sweep around until you find the problem, it’s a matter of seconds to flip that gain to a negative value and remove the harshness altogether.
Of course, this really only works when there’s a single frequency range that’s a constant issue in the mix. Otherwise, you’re stuck automating that frequency throughout the mix – a real headache when one or two notes are poking out in front of the rest of the song. That’s why there’s a third option.
Compressing guitars before the amp isn’t a new technique, but it’s also not one that’s commonplace amongst guitarists. Some choose to use a compressor because of the tonal characteristics it adds to their sound. Others use them just like we do in our mixes – to catch the peaks and bring them back in line with the rest of the notes. But for many guitarists, a compressor pedal for a single guitar part just doesn’t make their priority list when it comes to buying gear.
As digital recording engineers and mixers, we’re uniquely equipped with a way to compress a guitar part right inside our DAW. Even stock compressors can be used directly on a guitar’s DI track before being run into a virtual guitar rig or back out to a live amp with a re-amping box. This not-so-well-known technique means we can smooth out choppy or harsh guitar performances before they ever hit the amp – not after they’ve been amplified.
Check out this video preview from the Toneforge Bootcamp course on how it’s done:
As you can see in the clip, the pre-compression method sounds great on leads and tremolo picking parts where the dynamics between notes may not always been consistent. A compressor can go a long way to get those inconsistencies and the harshness that comes with them smoothed out.
More Ways To Achieve Great Guitar Tone
If you’d like to dive deeper into what makes a great guitar tone and learn how to replicate some of your favorite tones from bands you love, the Toneforge Bootcamp does just that. Utilizing the Tonestep™ System, you’ll learn how to get the tone you’re envisioning in your head each and every time for better sounding guitars in your mixes.