Ever notice how perfect the guitar tracks sound on most mainstream rock records? What about when you compare that to your own? The truth is, it doesn’t matter how good your engineering & mixing is if you’ve got sloppily played tracks. Time to expose the secrets behind tight modern guitar tracks.
DISCLAIMER: Great players will always sound better than any tricks that can be used to fix the bad ones, and great musicians with great feel will always beat out a heavily edited track. To the lovers of “real” music: I’m with you.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s face the truth. Most of the players you’ll encounter are not going to be great. Many of them will be downright terrible. I’m afraid that one downside of modern technology is that young musicians no longer believe in practicing. But that shouldn’t mean that you’re going to accept mediocrity in your recordings. You’ve (unfortunately) got to make up for their shortcomings and learn how to problem solve.
Recording in Pieces
Making your guitar tracks sound as tight as possible is best accomplished during the recording phase and not through after-the-fact editing. There’s little you can do to fix a sloppy take once it’s recorded, but if you chop up the guitar part into small sections, you can ensure that every note is played properly. I do this by breaking up riffs into small groups of notes to be recorded separately, and then edit on the fly to bring it all together into a complete riff.
To accomplish this, you need to record a DI track along with your amp signal. The DI track will be your visual guide and will allow you to make precise edits and adjust timing according to the grid.
For example, let’s say a riff consists of 8 notes. The guitarist can play the first 4 notes cleanly, but struggles with the second half. Get the player to play only the first 4 notes and stop, then have them punch in with the last 4. If the last note is still a little messy, just punch in that note. Use short crossfades placed slightly before the transient on the DI track. This will allow for the sound of the pick attack to come through. Placing the edit point (and crossfade) directly on the transient will result in a fake, robotic sound, kind of like a guitar being played on a keyboard.
Another common example could be a 4-chord progression where the player is sloppy on the chord changes. Simply record each chord on its own without switching, and then edit the takes together.
The half-speed TRICK
Once you get used to splitting up riffs like this, you’ll notice that it gets pretty tedious to constantly stop, start, and punch in. Once way to speed up the process is to record the riff at half speed. For example, if riff calls for notes on every eighth note, record the guitarist playing the notes on every quarter note instead. Then simply cut each not at its starting point and drag them back to the eighth notes where they should be. The result a clean phrase with crystal clear notes and no finger noise between them.
This approach is becoming more widely used, but few are doing it well. Over-editing can sound just as amateur as sloppy playing. It’s important to use this technique as a way of solving problems, not as a default approach. If you automatically decide to record every riff one-note-at-a-time, your guitar tracks will sound lifeless, your clients will be frustrated, and you’ll waste a ton of time. Instead, have the guitarists try a few takes while you watch and listen closely. If they can nail it, you’re in luck – move on! Otherwise, identify the problem sections of the riff and decide how you want to split it up while maintaining as much humanity as possible. Surprisingly, your skills as a musician are more important here than your skills as an editor!
Article by Jordan Valeriote