The year, 1992. The country music charts were topped by songs from Alan Jackson, Pam Tillis, and Garth Brooks, and peaking at the number 2 spot was Hal Ketchum’s “Past the Point of Rescue.” Pop on the headphones, cue the song, and let’s talk mixing multiple guitars.
The song arrangement includes three guitars. Panned right is a melodic finger-picked guitar. Panned left is rhythm. Dead center is the lead. Three guitars distinct in the mix, complementing each other, and sitting in precisely the right spot. Sculpting any multi-guitar mix, even in mono, comes down to two things: knowing each guitar’s role, and how to treat it.
Common guitar roles are lead, rhythm, and a melodic role such as the finger-picked guitar noted above. How guitars are used in these roles varies by music genre, arrangement, and the limitations of the band. Mixing an 8-piece country band requires different mixing than a 5-piece rock band. Ketchum’s song has been performed with only an acoustic guitar – the overall sound was equally as good but the mix requirements were quite different. Knowing the role of each guitar enables mixing in the right way for the song. And no role is less important than another.
The year 1992 also brought the release of the film “A Few Good Men,” with Jack Nicholson nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role. Imagine the movie without him – what a difference! The same applies to mixing multiple guitars. It’s a mistake to perfect the lead mix while only spending moments on a supporting guitar(s). Consider mixing multiple guitars in two common arrangements: two rhythms, and a lead and rhythm.
Synchronized strumming is an arrangement that happens with multiple acoustic guitars, electric guitars, or a combination. The key is blending with uniqueness. An easy mistake to make is boosting the same EQ areas in an attempt to create perfectly matching sounds. As discussed in my two previous articles (February and March 2014 issues), each guitar has a unique sound. The EQ work for one acoustic guitar usually doesn’t work for another.
A rhythm electric combined with a rhythm acoustic provides a significant amount of tonal variation. Such variation increases the range of frequency dynamics and adds depth to the mix. In the case of two rhythm acoustic guitars, hope that one musician is playing chords with different colorings. Otherwise, it truly is a case of synchronized strumming.
Coloring comes from alternate chord formations that bring added depth because of sonic differences. A major chord is made up of the 1-3-5 notes of the chord. For example, a C-chord would have notes C-E-G. By dropping the 3, the guitar is now ringing out only C and G notes. A guitarist might use a short-cut capo for such alternate coloring, and the capo also enables playing the same notes in a different octave.
While two guitars can be similar in volume, their contributions to the mix are quite different. But there are a few ways of blending them together. The first method is mixing a single unified sound. Identify any frequencies that make one guitar clearly stand out from the other and apply a slight cut. Consider cuts in the 800 Hz to 1,000 Hz range for smoothing out an otherwise harsh sound.
In the case of guitarists playing the same chords and the same type of guitar, this is fairly easy. But if the guitar types and/or playing styles differ, it leads to a second method: for those unique frequencies, instead of boosting, apply a slight cut in the same area for the other guitar. By carving out frequencies areas, each guitar’s uniqueness can shine through without dominating the overall band mix.
Despite various methods for mixing multiple guitars, song arrangement is a limiting factor in creating an emotional mix. An instrumental interlude with two synchronized strummers lacks excitement, with few exceptions. Unless another instrument brings melodic variation, there isn’t much to do.
Additionally, unless the two guitarists are in lock-step, synchronized strumming can get ugly. In these situations, it’s a monitor problem, so try increasing the in-synch guitar volume to the out-of-synch guitarist’s monitor. If that doesn’t work, pull back the volume on the out-of-synch guitar and let the other take the starring role.
Lead Me On
Enter the lead guitar, which can carry a song hook, a melody, or a solo. These sub-roles, within the lead role, define how they should be mixed. Melodic lines, not instrumental solos, should sit under the lead singer but above the rhythm guitar.
For my initial mix work, I set the lead vocal level and then tuck the lead guitar underneath. Only then is the rhythm guitar pulled in to support the lead.
Separating the lead and rhythm guitars is done through volume and EQ work. Delving into volume levels, this requires experimentation and knowledge of the arrangement and the music genre.
Dave Pensado, in episode 38 of his excellent “Into The Lair” video series available on YouTube, demonstrates instrument volume differences and their effect on the overall mix. Volume changes can take a mix from rock to punk to pop. In some cases, the changes take the mix from amateurish to perfect.
The EQ work depends on the guitar types and the song needs. Electric guitars for both lead and rhythm have different requirements than if the rhythm is an acoustic guitar. The more similar the sound, the more instrument distinction is required. Pull back on the frequency band of the rhythm guitar where the lead should own those frequencies.
Owning a frequency band is a mixing rule of thumb but be careful. Having experienced it myself, it’s possible to have two guitars that each should own the same frequency band because they have the same sweet spot. The result is an awful mess. Let the lead own it and back it out in the rhythm guitar.
EQ & Volume
Once the lead mix and rhythm mix have been established, the job’s not done. A lead mix isn’t the same as a solo mix. A guitar solo benefits from additional mixing in both EQ and volume. The volume part is about pushing it out front in the mix, like a lead vocal. The EQ work is about beefiness and clarity so the solo stands out. Try boosting in the 2-4 kHz range for bite and the 8 kHz range for clarity.
And watch the 4 kHz area on guitars with distortion – the goal is bite, not added hiss. Also keep in mind that a guitarist can switch patches for a solo, so don’t be surprised if a solo suddenly sounds different without any mix changes.
Guitar arrangements vary from song to song, so use the methods discussed here as a basis for mixing these variations. The arrangement for Hal Ketchum’s “Past the Point of Rescue,” originally written by Mick Hanly, uses each guitar for a purpose. One is no less important than another. Each sounds unique. Each sits in the right spot. All three work together to support the song.
Oh, did I mention 1992 was also the year I started in live audio production?