Ok, so now we’ve got our guitar in tune, and our cab is miked up with a few options ready to go. It’s time to start hunting for the perfect tone. Actually, there is no perfect tone – you’ve just got to find the right tone. Finding the right tone and committing to it can be a confusing and tedious task, but the following tips will help you maintain perspective and break down the process into a few simple elements.
If budget allows, I recommend that you pick up one or two quality tube amps to keep in your studio. Artists will often come in with their own gear, some of which will be unfamiliar to you. Having your own go-to amps gives you a starting point and a benchmark when testing and comparing other amps. This will save you from hours of knob-twisting and keep you from losing perspective. When choosing a studio amp, you’ll want to look for tried-and-true classics to cover the genres that you most often work on. Since I record mostly rock, pop-rock and metal, I have a Marshall JCM800 and a Peavey 5150 at my studio. These are both classic amps that can cover most of my needs, and it takes all of 5 minutes to dial in a good tone.
Beginning With the End in Mind
If you don’t know what kind of sound you’re going for, it’s going to be impossible to settle on a guitar tone. This is where reference tracks can be extremely useful. Choose a handful of records that you or the band admire, and spend a few minutes listening to the guitar sound. This will put your head & ears in the right space and give you a general idea of what you’re aiming for. If it’s taking a while to dial in the tone, go back and compare your tone to these records again. This often provides instant clarity and direction when you’re struggling to commit to a tone.
Tone & Layering Advice
Time to get a little more specific with some tone tips. Here are a few common pitfalls as well as some general guidelines to help improve your guitar tone instantly.
- Use less gain! It’s really easy to go overboard on the gain when recording heavy guitars. This will lead to an epic fight for clarity later on during mixing. Next time you track guitars, find your tone and back off the gain a little more than you’re used to. The added clarity and punch will actually make your guitar tracks sound bigger, and since mistakes will be more obvious, you’ll also end up with tighter tracks.
- Don’t overdo the low end. Remember that the bass should be providing most of the low end power. You’d be surprised to hear just how thin some guitar tracks sound when soloed, but become massive when combined with the bass.
- Switch it up. Try not to use the same amp & guitar combination for more than one or two tracks. Using different amp & guitar combinations for leads & overdubs will instantly give you more separation in your guitar tracks, as will using a variety of mics.
- Less is more. You don’t need to double everything, and doing so will reduce clarity and eventually start to make your mix sound small. Try going for a single track of rhythm guitar on each side, and then record single tracks for any leads and overdubs. I’ll usually only double a guitar part if I want to pan it wide, create a natural chorus effect, or blend two completely different tones (i.e. clean and dirty).
When the tone feels right, commit to it! On the flip side, if you don’t think it’s right, don’t record it with the hopes of fixing it in the mix. Guitars tracks (especially heavy tones) do not respond well to heavy doses of EQ. I can’t stress enough how important it is to get the best tone possible directly out of the amp. Ideally, you should only need a high and low-pass filter come mix time, and if you find yourself needing more than 1 or 2 dB of EQ, take note and try to avoid it next time.
Other Posts in This Series: