Electric guitars are very tricky instruments to record correctly, as you have a lot of small issues to overcome to achieve competitive results in the world of modern music production. We've all rushed to record a guitar track only to find out that it does not sound nearly as good as expected.
Here are a few common mistakes to avoid when tracking electric guitars and basses.
The term “guitar” is used loosely here to describe both guitars and basses.
NOT SETTING UP THE INSTRUMENT PROPERLY
This is a classic problem that many engineers encounter on a regular basis – a musician shows up with a guitar that's not adjusted correctly and still has strings on from that gig 6 months ago. There is no way that this instrument will sound good when recorded. Unless you’re going for that “unprofessional and I don’t care” sound.
Musicians may try to convince you that their instruments are fine when they really are not, to save money on strings and maintenance. Make sure that you check the instruments yourself before recording them.
Intonation, neck straightness, pickup height, string action and the overall condition of the frets are crucial to achieving a great guitar tone.
Be sure to use the appropriate string gauge for the guitar and the tuning. Strings that are too thin will be loose and won't stay in tune when played with more attack. Strings that are too heavy may impact the player's performance and will generally sound a little less bright.
One more thing – if the instrument has active pickups, change the batteries before recording.
A dead battery will make the signal distorted and lo-fi sounding which can only be fixed by re-tracking the takes.
NOT MAINTAINING THE INSTRUMENT DURING THE SESSION
Be aware of the fact that new strings are new for a very limited time. As crazy as it may seem, strings may start to sound dull even after 40 minutes of intense playing, so be sure to check the DI track from when the strings were just put on and compare if the high end has died off.
It's not uncommon for bands and producers to change strings after each song when tracking an album. This especially applies to bass guitar – there is nothing that can sabotage a recording like a bass tone that's dead and has virtually no harmonic content other than a boomy root note.
By maintaining the instruments throughout the recording session you will ensure that every song sounds clear and sonically stable. There is absolutely nothing that can be done in the mixing stage to fully bring back that depth and clarity that only fresh strings have.
FORGETTING TO ELIMINATE MECHANICAL GREMLINS
Guitars are very mechanical instruments – there's plastic or vinyl hitting metal and more metal grinding against metal which creates a lot of unnecessary vibrations and buzzing. Even if these small nuisances are sometimes not easily heard unplugged, once you plug the instrument in, add saturation, distortion and compression, they will poke out like a sore thumb.
One of the first things you can do is to mute any unnecessary strings that are subject to sympathetic vibrations, such as the string ends behind the nut on the headstock – these tiny open strings can and will vibrate when you play and create a dissonant droning noise that can be heard very well when playing staccato parts.
These strings can be muted by slipping tiny piece of foam under them, for example. The same applies to the other end of the strings behind the bridge, if the guitar has a tune-o-matic style bridge, or to the strings of a tremolo system.
Sometimes, when recording rhythm guitars, it's a good idea to tape off the unnecessary strings to eliminate a possibility of them ringing in the background and ruining what could possibly be the ultimate take.
IGNORING THE PLAYING TECHNIQUE
It's often said that the tone is in the hands. Once the aforementioned mechanical issues are taken care of, this is very well the case. The pick attack and fretting techniques vary greatly from player to player, ranging from mushy and squeaky tones to tight and crystal clear using the same gear and settings.
Sometimes the player will whack the strings way too hard causing the notes to go out of tune – in this case a thinner pick may just be the answer. Thin pick essentially works as a compressor – it flexes more and dampens the force of the stroke, while preserving the energy of the attack, making the notes sound more stable and clear. Thinner picks will generally produce less low end and that may just be what's needed.
Keep an eye out of extreme force being put into the fretting hand – this can also cause notes to go out of tune because the strings are being bent around the frets.
Don't be afraid to coach the guitar player in a constructive way about this, as the results will speak for themselves.
WEAK TIMING AND TUNING
This is actually the single most important thing that can make or break a guitar recording. A part that's in tune and on time will gel with the rest of the instruments and will sit in the mix nicely without much effort. On the other hand a part that's not in tune and on time will sound weak and will never have the same clarity.
Make sure to check the tuning as often as possible. Adjust the tuning according to the player and part – if a player has to really dig in with his picking hand, you may need to actually tune the string a little flat so that when it's picked it goes up to the required pitch. Just don't forget to tune back after the part is done!
Always try to get the best performance possible. It's better to capture a great performance rather than editing to create a passable one.
NOT RECORDING DI TRACKS
DI tracks can save you huge amounts of time on a project, if at any time you decide to change the guitar tones by re-amping or using an amp simulator. DI tracks also make pitch correction way easier if such a need should arise.
Even if you are not planning to use the DI tracks in the mix, they can serve as an excellent visual reference to the timing and playing dynamics of a performance, especially when editing.
You can also think of DI tracks as “insurance” for your guitar tones in a way.
Even though the amp, cabinet and mic placement are all very important aspects of a guitar tone, the issues discussed above are the very fundamentals that should be addressed before even starting to dial in amp tones and hitting the record button.
Make a list!
It's a good idea to make yourself a small list of things to check before recording guitars to make sure that you're ready to capture lightning in a bottle at any moment and not worry about some weird noise making the take unusable.