Recording Guitar At Home: 5 Tips To Help Nail Your Tone
When it comes to recording guitar, there is one universal truth that every player lives by, and that is that good guitar tone is everything. It’s not an exaggeration to say that getting your guitar tone right in a mix has the potential to make or break your song. But for most folks who are recording guitar at home, it can feel like it’s impossible to create a guitar tone that they are happy with.
In this guide, we take a look at some basic tips and ideas that you can use to help perfect your guitar tone in your home studio.
Why Is It So Difficult To Get Good Tone When Recording Guitar?
Recording guitar at home can be a fickle task, regardless of whether you are working with an electric or acoustic performance. In truth, guitars are complex instruments with a lot of individual parts that contribute to creating their overall tone.
This gets even more complicated when you add amps, recording gear, and the qualities of the room you plan to use for recording into the equation.
While it may seem like you need expensive professional gear such as high-end instruments, amps, pre-amps, mics, and more to get anywhere close to a passable recording, this is not the case! At the end of the day, really knowing your gear and becoming familiar with some basic recording principles will take you further than the most expensive professional equipment alone can.
Fret Not! Good Tone Is Attainable With A Little Patience, Practice, & Experimentation
Dialing in a tone you are happy with in your recording may seem impossible at first. But with a little bit of practice in your back pocket, you’ll be dialing in your sound in no time. But how do you know where to start when pulling up the settings in your DAW typically involves a seemingly infinite amount of knobs and settings to play around with for any given track?
The answer is easy- start simple. Many novice home studio engineers take one listen to their raw track and are instantly tempted to start making drastic adjustments in a desperate attempt to salvage their sound. More often than not, this isn’t necessary or even helpful.
While your raw track may initially sound a bit rough around the edges, chances are a few subtle and well-thought-out adjustments will help wrangle that in nicely. A good rule of thumb when it comes to mixing any aspect of your song is that, more often than not, less is more. In fact, this is the core principle that we tried to keep in mind when developing this guide.
Remember, small changes usually equal big-sounding results.
Recording Guitar At Home: 5 Tips To Help Nail Your Tone
Below we break down some basic tips that should help you get started with establishing a tone you’re happy with using some fairly basic home studio equipment. While there are an endless number of tips and tricks that you can (and should) experiment with, we’d like to think these simple starting points will get you headed in the right direction.
1) Get It Right At The Source
One of the most important things to keep in mind is that capturing a clean and clear take of your guitar tracks from the start is crucial to a good tone. This is true when recording electric guitar tracks, but it is especially important when you are recording acoustic guitar.
If your raw recording is muddy sounding or too loud/ quiet, it’s unlikely that you will be able to clean this up and magically fix your tone later on. There are a lot of factors that come into play when it comes to getting a clear recording of guitar at home, including what gear you using and how you actually use that gear.
First and foremost, you will want to make sure you spend time properly gain-staging your guitar, whether you are recording directly through an audio interface or by mic’ing your guitar or amp. Gain staging your tracks will ensure that your signal is at the perfect level to come through as clean and clear as possible.
Think of it this way, a raw guitar track is essentially a blank canvas for you to build your tone. A clean and well-executed take will provide you the maximum amount of leeway to explore tonal options and find something that really fits with your overall track. The lower the quality of your raw track, the less amount of wiggle room you will have to try things out or make the track really shine.
While you may be tempted to plug in and play whenever you are feeling a song, we couldn't recommend taking the time to make sure everything is good to go before you hit “record.”
2) Getting Your Mic Placement Right
If you are going to be micing your guitar, whether you are recording an acoustic guitar directly or recording an amp, mic placement can have a drastic impact on your overall sound. Once you choose a microphone for recording guitar that works for your sound (we recommend doing a little bit of research on this topic), you will need to get familiar with how it performs.
When recording electric guitar through an amp, the most common method involves placing your mic right up against your amp grill. Dynamic mics work well for this as they can handle an amp's high sound pressure level (SPL). You will find the brightest tone by placing your mic dead center of the speaker cone. As you slowly move the mic out from the center of the speaker towards the edge, you will find the tone gradually darkens. Playing around with mic and placement combinations can go a long way in helping you establish a clear and unique tone.
When recording acoustic guitars, you may be tempted to prop a mic right in front of your soundhole. Micing the soundhole will pick up too much bass frequency and muddy up your sound, losing a lot of clarity and nuance in the process. To capture a more balanced sound, you should start by placing your mic near the 12th fret of your guitar, at a distance of about 12-16.”
Placing your mic in this position will allow you to pick up an even balance of bass and treble frequencies while also highlighting the fretted string sounds in more detail. You can of course play around with this positioning by moving the mic forward and back or up and down to find a sound you are happy with.
3) Pan Your Guitar Tracks
One well-known secret for beefing up your guitar tracks is to duplicate and pan your guitar tracks. This not only allows potentially thin-sounding tracks to come across more fully, but it allows you a chance to play around with using different gear & effects to build your tone. By panning identical guitar tracks that are recorded with different gear or effects added, you can add subtle layers to your sound without overcomplicating things.
A really great and simple way to try this out is by experimenting with HAAS effect. In short, the HAAS effect allows you to pan two guitar tracks to opposite sides of the mix, adding a much wider range to the sound. You can take this a step further by adding a bit of sample delay to one of the panned tracks to make the sound both deeper and wider overall.
4) Delay Adds Depth
We already mentioned how using delay could add depth to your sound, but it’s worth noting that the utility of delay is not limited to implementing the HAAS effect to your mix. Delay is a great tool because oftentimes, guitar tracks recorded in a controlled studio space can initially sound a bit dry and lethargic.
Adding a bit of slapback delay not only adds some dimension to the sound, it also emulates the way a guitar sounds naturally in a live setting. Most of the time, this will result in a wider and more natural-sounding guitar track that will sit nicely in your mix.
5) Recording A Real Amp vs. Amp Simulator
When you are recording electric guitar tracks (or recording a plugged-in acoustic), you will need to decide between recording your physical amp directly or using an amp simulator. While there is much debate over how accurate amp sims can sound when compared to their physical counterparts, the fact is that these days there are many excellent amp simulators on the market that produce an amazing tone for your recordings.
Amp simulators are increasingly used by professional bands and recording engineers, simply due to the fact that they offer a level of consistency and flexibility that may not always be attainable with a real amp recorded in a physical setting. Amp simulators also allow you the choice to play around with different simulators and set-ups that offer access to unique, rare, or high-end equipment which you may not otherwise have access to.
On the other hand, some players swear that a real amp offers a level of detail and playability that just isn’t matched by simulators.
At the end of the day, choosing between recording real amps or amp simulators is a choice that depends on personal preference and goals. If possible, it is worth trying out both just to see how you respond to each and whether or not you like the tone they produce.
Closing Thoughts: Things To Keep In Mind When Recording Guitar At Home
As you have seen from this list, there are many different tricks and methods you can use to try to dial in the guitar tones you are after in your recording. In fact, this list barely scratches the surface in that regard.
Hopefully, you will take away the lesson that great guitar tone is a matter of personal taste and little experimentation. The more you play around with your options, the better you will understand how tone is created and how to use that to your advantage.
When it comes to recording guitar at home, the best advice we can offer is to start with what you’ve got and gradually play around with your settings and approach. It may not come quickly, but you will be glad you spent the time on it when you listen back to your song and hear the tone you had been dreaming about all along.