Ten Tips for Mixing Guitars in Recordings
Many musicians think of the mixing stage of recording as something that happens after the music’s been made. Mixing is actually where a lot of the magic that can transform a good performance into something stellar happens. Of course, a strong basic performance is the foundation for any good recording, but if you’re interested in being truly creative, mixing can take things to another level.
Here are some suggestions to consider when mixing guitars in a band or demo recoding, and none of them are fancy. Any of these concepts can be approached with very basic recording software, like GarageBand, or funky old analog tape machines with some basic effects in the signal chain — and “basic” includes stomp boxes, which can sub for rack mount units for demo recordings on a budget.
• Wet or dry: As great as straight-from-the-amp tones can be, adding a bit of reverb or digital delay to what’s on tape can make a guitar pop out of the mix or even fit more subtly into a performance, or add vibe. Over the past 30 years almost every pop album has featured guitars with a bit of post-recording delay. In fact, our ears have subconsciously come to expect delay as part of what makes a recorded guitar sound normal. If delay is good enough for Bruce Springsteen and the Edge, you should considering adding this sonic option without feeling like you’re compromising your six-string’s voice.
• Adding effects: Reverb and digital delay are just the basics — the gateway. With today’s sound processing plug-ins (or a chain of dependable effects) there’s no need to be locked into straight-from-the-amp tones. Experiment if you’ve got time and consider what sounds might enhance song performances. Even today’s roots recordings have wah-wah, phase shifter and other classic effects, including the occasional splat of Big Muff-like overdrive or wiggy ring modulation. So consider your reference points — which might range from Doc Watson to Pink Floyd to U2 to the Black Keys if you’re sonically aware — and let your imagination roam regardless of context.
• Re-amping: If you’ve cut a track that you think is killer, but, with the rest of the instruments in place, it just doesn’t sound quite right in the mix, consider re-amping. This is done without tampering with the notes, chords and phrasing of the performance. In analog land, the guitar track you have already cut and love goes through the soundboard board (or even a reel to reel deck’s “out” port) and into another amp, and the sound coming out of that amp goes into a microphone and onto another track. At least that’s the old school technique. With the amp plug-in software for GarageBand, CakeWalk and the like it’s possible to accomplish that move with the click of a mouse.
• Subtraction: Sometimes less really is more. If you’ve got an epic solo or a slew of overdubs that just don’t seem to be working in the song quite as beautifully as you’d envisioned, try punching out certain phrases or runs that seem particularly glaring, or omitting entire tracks. Software makes this super easy. From GarageBand to ProTools, it’s just a matter of pulling tracks up and down and letting the automation do the work. Don’t be married to what’s on tape or compelled by ego.
• Addition: Repeat: don’t be married to what’s on tape. Say that rhythm track you’ve cut just isn’t putting the hammer down. Try doubling it. If you’re using ProTools or similar software you can simply duplicate the track and run it alongside the original to fatten it up. If you’re working in analog, you can also play the track through the board and run it back onto a fresh track on the tape machine, as mentioned above. Another approach is to plug a guitar straight into the board, dial up an amp on the software or blend in some EQ-ing or effects and let ’er rip. If you’re doubling tracks this way, consider doing the second track with an acoustic guitar ala Pete Townshend. And try playing the acoustic with open chords sets again the electric’s bar chords to really widen the sound. The point is, just because you’re mixing doesn’t mean you can’t put a find point on recording.
• Use the spectrum: You’re likely going to be mixing in stereo, so think about where you’d like the guitars to sit in the overall side-to-side mix. Positioning the guitars straight up — barreling out of both speakers at full central placement — is rarely the best technique, even for instrumental recordings. Think about each channel as a clock face, and position the guitars at different points. If you’re wrangling two guitars, start at 10 on the left channel for one and 2 on the right for the other, which provides plenty of separation, and work from there.
• Compression: If you feel like the tone you’ve cut is great, but maybe needs a little more smoothness and definition, think of adding compression. In the old days of cassette demo multitracking, we’d run the recorded guitar track out of the cassette deck into a soundboard and back into an input channel with a Dyna-Comp stomp box in the signal chain. Luckily, technology has improved significantly since then. And a well-compressed signal usually fits more comfortably, with better definition, into a dense mix.
• EQ: It’s not too late to change your mind about your guitar sound. Using equalization, it’s possible to burning highs to make a guitar cut through a mix, sweet the mid frequencies to warm things up, or roll off the bass frequencies so the six-string doesn’t get swallowed up by the actual bass guitar. Consider this a matter of reducing, rather than adding, frequencies. Pulling out undesirable frequencies enhances the audibility of those you want.
• Turn down: If your guitar isn’t popping out in a mix, it’s likely that turning it up is only going to make things worse overall. Mixing — especially with a band present — can quickly become like the arms race, with everybody dead certain his or her instrument needs to be loudest. If a guitar’s not loud enough, think about turning other instruments down and letting the guitar emerge naturally.
• Experiment: It’s a lot of fun to record, whether you’re laying down demos or making an album. If recording is something you think you could be passionate about, start working with simple technology like GarageBand — and do it as often as possible – to develop your basic instincts and roll from there. Recording with basic laptop software provides insight into more complex programs and begins to demystify the entire recording process, which will give you a positive, informed edge every time you enter a studio.
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Photo credit: Shane Sanders