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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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This article is provided by Behind The Mixer.

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. 

Art Of Mixing
Famed painter and sculptor Michelangelo once said of a statue, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

Mixing electric guitar works in much the same way. The guitar’s sound coming into the console is something to be refined and sculpted into a better version of itself. Don’t try changing it into something it isn’t.

Michelangelo knew the properties of marble as it was his artistic medium. Likewise, the guitar’s tone is the medium of the mix engineer. I didn’t say “a” guitar’s tone but rather “the” because each one is different.

Before beginning any detailed mix work, go to the stage and listen carefully to the amp’s tone. When an amp is not in use, which is common with digital pedal boards like the Line 6 POD, listen to the guitar channel in the house system.

Note the nuances of the tone. Does it sound heavy, gritty, biting, airy, warm, grungy, or bright? What’s present in the low end? What about the high end? Mix with these audio properties in mind, not to completely change them but to free them, carving away what’s not necessary.

Be prepared to forget that newly-gained tone knowledge. Guitarists pick their tone for a song and will freely change it. Be happy when they do, and be prepared. From personal experience, guitarists regularly change patches and pedal selections between a practice and a sound check when performing new songs. They learn the song, have an idea for the sound they want, play with the band, and then re-evaluate the sound.

Getting mic placement right can make all the difference in the world. (Credit: Steve Jennings)

Gating can be applied on the amp’s mic channel for additional mix clarity. This can lessen stage noise in the mix, and besides, when the guitarist isn’t playing, there’s no reason to broadcast that into the house.

Nailing The Solo
Part of good electric guitar mixing is knowing the song arrangement and the guitar’s role in the song. The electric guitar, like a piano, can play the melodic line or take a supportive role. Guitarist Adam Lipps explains his supportive style to me as “grind behind,” typical of 80’s rock, providing a driving energy. But what about a solo?

“A guitar solo should be like a lead vocal,” says engineer Steve Dennis. The solo should stand above everything else in the mix. It’s more than an instrumental interlude, it’s an emotion. If you have any doubt about this, listen to a blues album.

Guitar solos should stand out both in volume and in presence.  Volume differentiation, the more obvious of the two, can be simple or complex. The easiest method is boosting the guitar’s volume. Go a step further and lower the volume of other instruments, especially a rhythm electric guitar, so the lead guitar really pops out. Finally, for a nice bit of added shine-through presence, try boosting in the upper range and beefing up the mid-range.

Despite the limitless tonal-variations of electric guitars, mixing these instruments is not an insurmountable task. Listen to the tone at the source, look at the arrangement of the song, and then bring the instrument in line with the needs of the song. And whatever you do, please use miking approaches that accurately capture the sound – I’m trying to limit my crying to romantic movies.

Chris Huff is a long-time practitioner of church sound and writes at Behind The Mixer, covering topics ranging from audio fundamentals to dealing with musicians – and everything in between.

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