Adventures In Audio
What is the secret to the professional sound we hear on records?

David Mellor

David Mellor is CEO and Course Director of Audio Masterclass. David has designed courses in audio education and training since 1986 and is the publisher and principal writer of Adventures In Audio.

Saturday September 10, 2005

Question from an Audio Masterclass visitor...

I've been recording for years and I have attained the sound I've wanted for all instruments (acoustic guitar, bass, drums, vocals, etc.) EXCEPT the electric guitar. I've tried different amps, amp settings, microphone placement, different playing techniques (believe it or not!), different guitars, gadgets, plug-ins, EQ's, compression... you name it!


Is it the microphone(s) type that really makes the difference (ex. Shure SM57)?

I know this is a difficult question, and one that has haunted and frustrated many guitarists. But, I have a funny feeling that there's a trick/secret that I've missed. I've tried everything, searched everywhere, and spoke to different people for advice. Everyone seems to be 'amateurs' in this field, or they just do not want to divulge the recipe to this mystery.

Is it the mic? If so, what kind? Is it EQ setting? If so, what should it be (high-cut, etc.)? Is it the amp setting (too much distortion)? If so, how do I set the amp for a full rock sound without sounding too country/western?

Bla, bla, bla... I'm sure you've been asked this question many times before. But I'm frustrated, because I've been searching for the right sound since 1998!!!

For your true and honest opinion, I could even send you a sample mp3 for evaluation.

Thanks for your time.

Sender: Andrew Donovan

David Mellor replies...

This is an interesting question. When someone asks me about the 'secret' of great recordings, I normally reply that it's the skill and artistry of the engineer and producer developed over many years, together with the happy accident of 'catching lighting in a bottle' during the recording session.

However this question is more specific. Although the answer given above still applies, it is worth considering whether there are any 'do nots' that would prevent lightning being caught, even by a skilled engineer and producer?

The way I would tackle this problem is to remove unnecessary variables. So any equipment that hasn't stood the test of continued success over a long period of time should be taken out of play.

So if you use equipment that has an unimpeachable pedigree in musical history, you can't blame the equipment if the sound of your recording isn't right.

So choose a Fender Stratocaster or Gibson Les Paul guitar; plug it into a Fender Twin Reverb or a Marshall stack (not a transistorized Marshall - yerrgghh!). Or choose a guitar and amp combination that your favorite guitarist is known to use (not just known to endorse - there's a difference!).

If you start in this way, then you simply can't be heading in the wrong direction.

Oh but you can... the choice of guitarist is critical. If I were making a record and I could choose between the kid who lives around the corner playing the most wonderful vintage guitar through the warmest, fullest-toned amplifier with wonderfully aged and conditioned speaker cones, or the reincarnation of Jimi Hendrix playing a Futurama through an amp he picked up at a boot sale, well the choice is obvious isn't it?

You can't do better than to audition a few guitars, preferably in the same session. Where one player might sound good in isolation, put him next to a really good player and the difference will stand out a mile. I have a feeling that this might be where the problem lies. It often is.

OK, you have a great player with great musical equipment. Now choose a great mic - the standard Shure SM57. This mic helped to define the sound we expect from the electric guitar. Once again, by using the tried and tested product, you can't blame this if the sound isn't right. If you're using a combo amp, don't forget to position the mic on the opposite side to the mains transformer so you pick up less hum through magnetic induction.

Positioning of the mic is a key factor in getting a good sound. I always prefer to place the mic at the edge of the cone. The edge is where the cone bends more, producing more distortion. Don't bother to angle the mic, a good solid 90 degree face-on angle will do fine. Move the mic around and make a few test recordings.

So far so good - there is absolutely no reason why the sound you are getting should not be first class. But there is one more little bit of magic that you can add...

An ambience mic.

Place another microphone about a meter from the cabinet and mix this in. I guarantee that the improvement will amaze you. It's not just a small improvement - it's a massive improvement. You can even pan the ambience, or use two ambience mics in stereo. Lots of experimentation required.

One thing you do not need is to use compression, plug-ins or any kind of effects. Until the basic sound from the guitar and mics is in place, add nothing. Dynamics and effects should be icing on a cake that already tastes damn good.

One final point is that it is one thing to have a great sounding recording of an electric guitar. It's another thing entirely for that track to sound equally great in the context of a mix. Sometimes a track that sounds great by itself doesn't really gel with the rest of the instruments. It's a case of back to square one, but that is all part of acquiring great skill in recording. I don't think anyone promised it would be easy.

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