TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 48 Mixing Guitars – Electric

Last week in the TCM Mastering Home Music Studio series, we discussed Acoustic Guitars. This week and next, we’ll continue looking at Electric and Bass guitars in the mix stage.

There have been many signature guitar sounds – a couple that spring immediately to mind are Hendrix and Santana. But there are several other musicians who have developed their own sound and style…..Les Paul, Eric Clapton, Joe Satriani, Mark Knopfler, Django Reinhardt, Bert Jansch, Segovia, B.B. King, Chet Atkins, Pat Metheny or Paco De Lucia. Whilst bassists like Stanley Clarke, Jaco Pastorious or John Myung stand out in their field.

Each of the players above have acquired their own sound and style of playing in their chosen genre, over several years.

To achieve your own sound/style, you have to be prepared to experiment and make your own mistakes. Persist with the things that you like and drop the contributing factors to your sound that you hate and replace them with better elements until you eventually end up with your unique signature.

In other words, if you’re an electric guitarist don’t settle for the first sound that comes out of your amp. Try out as many different guitars as you can, effects pedals and amps, try different gauge strings, pick or fingerstyle…..there are so many things that make up a guitar sound.

When it comes to recording, there are also a whole host of factors that determine the sound of electric and bass guitars – the instrument itself (pick-ups and construction both contribute to the sound), the amp, the player, various DI techniques, how the amp was miked and how much processing was used.

Recording engineers favour recording a clean signal separate from any processing, because it allows more control in the mix. However, guitar players usually want to hear something that comes close to the final sound as they record – what they hear affects how and what they play.

As the performance is always the most important aspect of any sound, whenever possible, it’s advisable to record the clean guitar signal on one track and record any processing on another, whilst feeding the player a mixture of whatever combination he/she needs to hear in their headphone mix.

It’s important to try to capture as close to the raw sound of the guitar that you want in your recording, before you add any effects. Electric (and bass) guitars are often processed quite heavily in modern music genres, but you still need a good raw sound to work with. We covered recording electric and bass guitars in this blog.

Weak, Clipped & Good Signal Level.

It’s also imperative that the guitars are in tune, as free from noise as possible and at a healthy but not excessive recording level. The electric (and bass) guitar can be a very loud instrument, especially when used in conjunction with certain effects like overdrive/distortion etc. So any unwanted source noise generated by the guitar (even with noise-cancelling pick-ups) is going to be amplified too. Get it right in the recording stage and it’s less to worry about in the mix.

If you decide to use a gate to remove noise from the signal, make sure you place the gate first in the chain before reverb or delay effects. If you position the gate after the effects it will undoubtedly cut off the very effects you’re adding.

High & Low Pass Filters.

Low-pass filters can help enormously to reduce unwanted hiss/noise from electric guitars, high-pass filters are good for getting rid of rumble and low hums – just take time to set them up so that only the offending parts of the signal are attenuated without detrimentally affecting the sound of the instrument. For more information on filters and EQ, click here.

An Example Of An EQ Curve For Electric Guitar.

As a general guide, use a high pass filter to cut out mains hum at 50 Hz (UK) or 60 Hz (USA) and anything up to around 80 Hz. Cutting at around 100 Hz can reduce muddiness. Fullness and warmth can be added by boosting between 150-250 Hz, but this range is also prone to boxiness so listen carefully to any adjustments. Whilst attack or punch can be added at 2.5-4 kHz. If you need to add brightness to the electric try a little 7 kHz.

If you’ve been following this blog series you’ll be fully aware that I regularly impress the importance of getting it right in the recording stage. It’s especially important if you’ve recorded other musicians who you cannot simply call up and ask to come back to redo a badly recorded performance.

Fixing it in the mix is not always an easy option.

Logic’s Guitar Amp Pro Plug-In – Used As An Amp Simulator And Reverb On Lily Allen’s Second Album, By Producer Greg Kurstin.

To give yourself more options in the mix, record your guitar through an emulator or basic amp/mic configuration (so that the player can get a good idea of what the guitar really sounds like) whilst splitting the signal to a DI box. Record the two signals to separate tracks.

Then when it comes to the mix, you could feed the DI’d track back through a much better tube amp (maybe hire or borrow a Mesa Boogie, Fender, Marshall etc) to take your sound beyond the emulator or  basic amp’s limited settings. There are some solid-state amps which are excellent, but in general a great tube amp will usually get my vote.

Guitar Compressor Pedals. There Are Also Many Plug-In Choices.

Subtle use of compression can often help an electric to stand out in a mix, for example, it can help to increase the sustain in an electric solo. Choosing the right compression ratio and threshold depends on the effect your after. An 8:1 ratio with a high threshold could be used to limit peaks in the playing. A more gentle 2:1 ratio might help to even out an erratic performance.

As a side effect of compression background noise will also be raised, so bear this in mind. And always listen carefully to make sure that over-compressing does not introduce pumping to the signal.

The attack time can be crucial in getting the right effect. Don’t always assume a fast attack is desirable. Sometimes a slight delay between the signal increase and compression starting gives a more natural, less muffled sound. If you hear unwanted distortion back off the attack a little, or lower the ratio or raise the threshold. Lowering the ratio and slowing the attack will allow some of the transients through before the ‘squashing’ of the compressor kicks in. Set the release time to give a smooth effect.

The Middle Section Of Waveform – Squashed Or Clipped And Most Likely Distorted.

A note on compression – if you find yourself applying compression or limiting to a guitar track, for example, just to keep the meters from overloading and as a result it sounds squashed; you might want to turn down the individual levels of all your tracks by a few dB so that you can reduce the compression on the guitar and maintain relative levels of all the tracks in your mix.

If you’re working in a DAW or other digital programme, you don’t have to worry too much about peaking your tracks to the ‘maximum’ or ‘optimum’ levels. As long as you’re close, the quality should be fine. Better to err on the side of ‘a little low’ than to have digital distortion from peaking too high.

Remember, the mastering stage will usually involve applying some compression to your mix as well as considering many other essential factors that will allow your music to compete with the professionals.

We’ll cover Mastering in an imminent future blog.

If you’d like more detail on dynamics and the use of compressors and gates, check out this blog.

Les Paul & Hendrix Masters Of Multitracking & Effects.

Providing you have recorded the clean guitar separate from any effects the performer might have wanted whilst playing, you now have the option of keeping those effect(s) and adding more or replacing the original effect(s) with any you wish to choose. If you only have a married track of guitar with effects, you’re stuck with the sound. In this case, your only option is to re-record the guitar part if you want something different from the original.

Take a look at TCM Mastering Home Music Blog Part 27 and Part 28 for more info on the use of effects processors.

If you want the guitar part to stand out and be upfront, be cautious with the use of too much reverb as this will distance the sound. Start with a short reverb, 1-1.5 seconds or so. Try different room sizes until you find the setting that works for the song. You could try a short reverb/small room setting panned slightly left and have a longer/plate or large hall setting off to the right.

With effects, what works depends on how busy the mix is. Do you want the instrument sounding close up or distant? How many guitar or other instrument parts are there? A long reverb with echo/delay (timed to the beat of the track) can provide a lush, spacious sound to a solo but there must be room in the mix/arrangement for it to work. A gentle chorus, flanger or phaser before the ‘verb can add interest to the sound.

Time permitting, try out as many different effects as possible. It’s the only way to find out what works and what doesn’t. This link is useful in explaining the different effects.

Listen to the Cure’s ‘Friday I’m In Love’ to hear chorus on strummed rhythm guitar. If you want to hear a flanger effect, take a listen to ‘Itchycoo Park’ by the Small Faces and for a phaser effect, check out Queen’s ‘Keep Yourself Alive’.

Remember, the more of anything that you add – whether it’s instruments and/or effects – the bigger the possibility of the mix sounding cluttered. So don’t rush this part of the process. Add one thing at a time. Take breaks to rest the ears. And ask others to listen and comment on the mix.

Similar sounding conflicting guitar parts can be panned separately, EQ’d differently or better still utilise different sounding amps (when recording) or rework the arrangements so that they both work together better.

In general, electrics with Humbucker pick-ups tend to produce a thicker sound than single coil pick-ups and are therefore better suited to sparse mixes with fewer instruments. The single coils are useful for cutting through busy mixes.

A great guitar sound, a good arrangement and a skillfully played part will go a long way to ‘making’ a song.

Next week we’ll look at the Bass Guitar.

If you have any questions so far, our contact details are here. We love to hear from you.

And don’t forget, TCM Mastering and TCM Music Group provide a professional, fast and affordable service to musicians of all genres.

If you have some songs that need producing, recording, mixing or mastering contact us for details on our rates and some incredible recording packages.

Make your music shine with TCM Mastering.

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