Recording is one of my great joys, and even when it’s not successful, it’s still educational. Recording can be done for cheap these days, and as long as you don’t have a large orchestra or choir, or an acoustic drum set to capture, you can easily make do with a spare bedroom. Here’s how I record guitar – and pretty much everything else:
Yes, it all starts here, and the better the source the better the result. This doesn’t mean that the other factors aren’t important, but this will set the bar for how high you can possibly go, i.e. if you were to take away all the other limitations, this is the ceiling above which you can’t go. For most of us this isn’t realistic, as other limitations set in earlier in the process.
The sources in my case are:
- A Fender Telecaster, Stratocaster or Gibson Les Paul into a Fender Twin Reverb or THD Flexi
- A Martin D-15 and/or a Martin J12-16GT acoustic
- A cheap Fender Precision bass
- An even cheaper Cort mandolin
If you’re going to get something resembling professional results when recording guitars, you’ll need at least one good microphone. Going direct – which means that you plug your guitar straight into a mixer – can be useful for some special effects, but most of the time the results you’ll want will require miking up a speaker cabinet or an acoustic guitar.
What Kind of Microphones?
For recording electric guitar – whether clean or dirty – a Shure SM57 is always part of the mix for me. It’s sturdy, accepts extreme sound pressure levels without clipping and makes the guitars sound, well, like they should. It’s an industry standard, and chances are that the majority of guitar recordings you’ve ever heard have had at least one of these in the mix.
I usually use two mikes for recording electric guitars, unless I’m after a totally clean tone. I add a second mic a bit lower in the mix that complements the SM57 nicely – a Sontronics Delta ribbon mic. It seems to fill the – arguably – small holes left by the 57 and pushes the low mids just a hint in the right direction. It’s not as sturdy as the 57, requires phantom-mating and can clip if pushed hard, so a bit more care is needed when setting up.
For acoustic guitar – and the occasional vocal recording – I use a Røde NT2 large-diaphragm condenser mic (not the NT2A, which I’m told is an updated version). It has an extended top-end and a nice, full low end compared to the more midrange-heavy SM57. This is why it’s such a great candidate for acoustic steel-string guitars. It really brings out the sparkle in the 12-string, and it also captures the plump lows of the all-mahogany D-15.
Mic Preamp and Audio Interface
All the mikes go into a Universal Audio 4-710D mic preamp, and from there (via a line mixer) into an Apogee Duet 2 audio interface. A good mic preamp is very important, and not only because of sound quality. Operationally it’s a godsend as all the mikes are plugged in all the time, and choosing between them is a matter of muting one and un-muting another. It’s vital that there’s enough mic gain available, as lightly fingerpicked acoustics don’t put out a lot of volume, and therefore requires pushing the levels in the preamp. Better preamps do this with less noise – and that’s a good thing! The Apogee Duet 2 has its own preamps, but I use it just as an interface. It basically just turns the music into bits and bytes.
I’ve been using Logic as my DAW for the better part of eight years now, and I have to say I’m pretty happy with it. It has good-sounding effects and software instruments, and it’s easy to use once you get accustomed to it. When I make demo videos I add a little bit of ambience from the Space Designer reverb plugin. I can’t bear listening to close-miked instruments without a little bit of simulated space around them. The proper way of doing it would be to use some distant mikes in addition to the close-up ones, but this is rendered impossible by my quite small – and acoustically deadened, as the natural ambience was horrendous – recording room.
Odds and Ends
Apart from the bits mentioned above, I have a couple of KRK VXT-4 monitors, and a pair of Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro headphones. I use the monitors when, er, monitoring, and for the lion’s share of mixing. The headphones are used to check bass content in the mix (due to insufficient low end response in the monitors, and a small total room volume) and as monitoring when recording. They’re especially handy when recording loud, distorted electric guitar, as they attenuate outside noise quite a bit. This makes it possible to crank the headphones just shy of ruining my hearing, as the blaring amp is somewhat drowned out by the racket I’m listening to.
One More Thing Before I Go…
I’d like to mention what might seem like an inconsequential detail, but is in fact quite important – namely recording levels. I always record with ample digital headroom, which means that the level meters are flickering at around 15-20dB below clipping. This is digital clipping I’m talking about (which is very bad) – not analogue clipping (which can be very nice). This means that the first thing I do when I start a new project in Logic is to pull down every fader at least 10dB. In addition, I make sure that any recording isn’t hitting anything higher than 10dB (peak value) below clipping, as this gives me ample room to adjust levels without the master going into the red. You’ll probably find that when all the tracks are recorded and you start mixing, everything flows a lot smoother because you don’t have to worry about the master bus clipping every time you adjust a fader.
So, how do you go about recording? Do you use microphones, direct recording, digital modelling, or a combination of all of them? Do you favour one over the other?