Getting a good guitar sound on a recording can be a real challenge when recording at home. It’s not that it’s difficult mechanically, it’s difficult because of the environment. Working around the limitations of the environment is really the challenge. For instance:
- Most of us don’t have a dedicated sound-proof room; thus, we get a lot of sound leakage that translates to neighbors (and family) screaming to turn down the volume.
- Furthermore, most home recording areas aren’t optimized for a “flat” acoustic response. You can do some dampening to reduce room reverb, but you can’t eliminate it entirely.
- Finally, most of us don’t have expensive recording gear.
But despite all that, it’s still possible to record great, high-quality guitar tracks. I’ve done a lot of recording at home in the past year and thought I might share some of the things I’ve learned in capturing good guitar sounds. Mind you, I’m no audio expert. Everything I’ve learned comes from pure trial and error.
- First of all, invest in a decent tube pre-amp. PreSonus makes a great one called the TUBEPre. You can read my review on it here. Even if you use a dynamic mic that will draw power from your line, a pre-amp will boost your mic signal, and at low-volume levels, this is absolutely essential. Also, a pre-amp will add a lot of warmth to your mic signal. In my mind, it’s an essential piece of gear.
- Ribbon mics are great for adding depth to your sound, or for recording two amps at once. Unlike unidirectional or cardioid mics that have a reception field that’s in one direction, ribbon mics record in a figure eight pattern in two directions. What this means is that it’ll pick up the ambient sound behind the mic as well. I typically place my ribbon mic about a foot away from my amp cab, then place a 3/4″ thick piece of plywood about a foot behind the mic. This helps reflect the sound back to the rear of the mic. And as long as you keep the volume low on your amp, you won’t get feedback.I also have used my ribbon mic to record two amps at once. For instance, in this song, in the overdriven guitar part, I ran a dry signal out to one amp, then used the other signal to run through my board into the other amp. The net result was it sound like I was employing a lot more output than I actually was. In fact, you could speak (with just a tiny bit of effort ) over the combined volume of the amps.
- Use two mics to record an acoustic guitar. I read somewhere that using an “X” pattern aimed at the sound hole is really effective. Personally, I use my ribbon mic pointed at about a 30″ angle at the center of my guitar’s body, then use a dynamic mic pointed straight at it. The ribbon mic is about 6-8″ away from my strings, and the dynamic is placed about 10″ inches. The result is a very deep, very natural sound that captures the natural tones from your acoustic guitar.
- Because we’re talking low-volume here, there are pedals that you should have that will help quite a bit in getting a good sound:
a. First, get a decent compressor pedal. I’ve got the Maxon CP-9 Pro+, and just love it. This will help fatten your signal, and give the impression that you have a bit more amp than you actually have.
b. Invest in a couple of decent overdrive pedals. Personally, I use three: a DigiTech Bad Monkey, an Ibanez TS-808 and a Fulltone OCD. I will either use these individually, or “stack” them in a signal to produce varying levels of overdrive. I know, many purists want to get that power tube saturation sound, but at low volume levels, that’s not practical. Besides combined with a compressor, you can get pretty close.
- As far as reverb is concerned, I tend to use very light spring reverb, then layer reverb on top of that in my recording program. It makes it much easier to control on the recording. Some folks use dedicated pedals, which is fine, but I prefer to capture as much of the raw signal as possible, then layer reverb or other effects on top of that raw, dry signal. However, this doesn’t necessarily apply to time-based effects like chorus, flange, vibe, delay or phase. I’ve never been satisfied with the sound quality of software based time-based effects.
- There’s nothing like the sound of a tube amp. Unfortunately, with larger tube amps, they just don’t sound good unless they’re cranked. But there are a number of low wattage “practice” amps that actually produce incredibly good sound if you close-mic them. The one I use in particular is the Fender Champion 600. Epiphone also makes the Valve Junior, which has gotten some great reviews. Another low-wattage amp that I’ve been considering is the Blackheart Little Giant BH5-112, which is a switchable 3W/5W amp with a 12″ Eminence speaker. Very cool. Blackheart also makes a 7W/15W version called the “Handsome Devil,” that is also worth a look.
As I mentioned above, I’m not a professional sound guy, and I certainly wouldn’t call myself a recording engineer. But I recorded my first album over the past year entirely at home, under less than ideal recording conditions. It’s entirely possible to do. You just have to find ways to work out, work around and work with the limitations of your environment.
Got any other tips? I’d love to hear ‘em!