Finding the right lead guitar tone can often be a challenge for guitarists. It takes a lot of fine tuning to get the sound just right and when that perfect tone doesn’t fit perfectly in the mix, it can be disheartening.
But instead of feeling deflated the next time your leads aren’t sitting just right in the mix, take a hint from us and try out a slightly different approach. The tips we’re going to discuss today are geared toward sitting lead guitars right alongside lead vocals and other featured instruments in your song. When used correctly, they’re certain to create a single, cohesive sound that’s polished and ready for mastering.
It doesn’t take an expert mixer with decades of experience to get these right – just a few common tools and some intuition on when to use them.
Take Your Time When Tracking
We could spend hours on this one topic alone with how important it is to your mix. The reality for most mixers is that there’s only so much that can be done to clean up a poorly tracked instrument and guitars are no exception. So if you think you can just throw up a mic and hit record – think again. There’s much more to it.
If you’re working with live amps, you’ll want to be especially cautious about what you’re committing to during tracking. Real amps in real spaces need to consider things like mic selection, mic placement, and the amp’s placement in the room. That’s all in addition to the tone itself which can be as simple as dialing in an amp or as complex as routing a whole pedalboard and fine tuning each effect.
With virtual guitar rigs, the need for proper technique is still there, but you’ve got a more forgiving scenario to work with. The biggest advice I give to new self-recording guitarists is to get the best possible DI tone they can. That means using a dedicated DI box when you can afford one and proper gain settings even when you can’t. A clipped DI is going to be difficult to work with, as is a signal that’s way too soft. Find your sweet spot and a lot of the in-the-box decision making can happen well after the recording session as the entire mix starts to come together.
Focus On Post-Processing
As we started with – great tone is hard to find, but when you get it right, you shouldn’t have to change it to work with the other instruments in your song.
This is where post-processing comes into play.
Essentially, post-processing is the plugins and processors immediately after your amp that focus less on making your guitar work with other instruments and more on giving you a tamer, more controlled track to work with. These can be anything from compressors and limiters to effects like reverb that help round off some of the harsher edges of your tone.
Knowing that post-processing is an essential part of any guitar tone, we’ve intentionally paired dynamics processing as part of all Toneforge models – carefully considering the specific needs of each. For example, Toneforge Menace includes both an EQ and limiter. Both come in handy with shaping the final guitar tone in a way that changing the EQ on the amp itself cannot. The limiter acts as a great final stage that creates more consistent dynamics, giving you a mix-ready guitar tone that works on its own and pairs well with many other plugins should you decide to process it further.
Despite our best efforts to keep our guitar tones consistent from tracking to mix, sometimes it just isn’t in the cards once you sit down and start trying to find room for everything. The only way to know for sure if your lead guitar is fitting is to listen to it in context with other instruments. This means avoiding that solo button when mixing and doing what you can to create balance and clarity in the moment. Just check out this example from Garrett Payne:
As you can see, Garrett has a lot going on in his session and trying to mix any of it in isolation would be a nightmare. By working in context, he’s not only able to get a better, well-seated guitar lead, but he’s able to proactively mix it throughout transitions and changes in production.
Finding The Perfect Sound
One of the most important parts of a mixer’s job is helping them find the sound they’ve got in their head. With guitars, this often means plenty of critical listening and understanding of what makes up a specific tone. It’s not a hard skill to learn, but you must know what you’re looking for.
If this sounds like an area that you struggle with, you’re not alone. We created the Toneforge Bootcamp for people just like you that want great guitar tones but need some help understanding where to start. The course covers everything from tone matching to more advanced mix techniques and is a must-read for anyone looking to level-up their guitar skills in the studio.