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Embrace The Tone: Optimizing Electric Guitar Sound
Creating a great guitar mix starts with respecting the tone -- it’s here where two common mistakes are made...
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Weeping, with tears running down my cheeks, I can no longer hide my feelings. The microphone hangs lifeless; the cable, like a noose, suspends it midway down the amp for all to see. Yet the guitarist plays on, oblivious. Poor amp miking strikes again.

Mixing electric guitars should be easier like mixing acoustic guitars or vocals. Know the guitar’s sound, know the song arrangement, and blend accordingly. That’s a bit simplified, but many electric guitar mixing mistakes are found in these areas. A root problem is failing to recognize the value of tone.

Guitarists spend thousands of dollars on guitars, pedals, and amplifiers desiring to obtain the “perfect” tone for their signature sound. Consider the unmistakable sounds of B.B. King and the late Stevie Ray Vaughn. I can name that artist in three notes. 

Moving beyond equipment, musicians want the right sound for a song. They choose the guitar pickups and pedals they use for each song, change guitars between songs – and I haven’t even mentioned amplifier possibilities.

Creating a great guitar mix starts with respecting the tone. It’s here where two common mistakes are made, and the first starts with amplifier miking. Pardon me for a moment while I dry my eyes.

Amped Up
Amplifiers alter the tone of the incoming guitar signal. Common tonal controls include treble, bass, and reverb, and can extend further such as the Marshall DSL100H amp head that includes resonance, presence, midrange, and two types of reverb (“classic” and “ultra”). 

Amplifiers include two basic components, the speaker cabinet and the amp head, which can be either separate components or housed in the same enclosure. The head is the controlling part, sending power to the speaker(s) and providing tone and volume controls. Cabinets typically include four speakers, though smaller amps may only have one. The speakers emit sound waves differently across the speaker cone, and this is why microphone placement is a critical part of capturing the best tone.

Before discussing placement, let’s talk mics. They naturally alter tone, so it’s best to test various models until finding the right one for the job. The Shure SM57 dynamic is a popular choice. Rode makes a selection of instrument condensers, including the NT1, and Royer offers the R-121 “live sound” ribbon mic – if price is no concern. Look for mics with a unidirectional polar pattern for eliminating excess stage noise.

Begin the miking process by making sure the amp is correctly positioned. Guitarists must hear the right sound when setting up their pedals and amp controls, so be sure to point the amp at their heads. This is easy with single-speaker amps, but with full stacks, put a few feet between them and the stack.

Next, place the mic an inch away from the cabinet mesh, pointing it at the outer edge of the speaker (or one of the speakers). Listen to the sound of the amp through the house system, then move the mic an inch toward the speaker’s center and listen again. Repeat this until attaining the sound you’re seeking. Also try varying the distance; just be aware that farther away, the mic will pick up more stage noise, while closer will add bass to the sound, thanks to the proximity effect. 

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