This article is about how and where to place microphones so you can capture the best tone from an electric guitar. It’s a subject that I literally wrote a book on (and recorded a CD to help explain): Recording The Electric Guitar—It’s All About Tone. My beloved editor has asked me to be brief, so I will try not to say anything redundant more than twice.
Loud is critical
Where to begin? Begin at the source, of course. If the amp doesn’t sound good in the room then it probably won’t sound that great even with the best mics. Twiddle every knob on the amp until it does something you like, and keep in mind that most amps don’t really get “their sound” at too low a level. How loud you crank it is a critical factor in both the tone of the amp and where you should place microphones.
As you probably know, some guitar amps can create a sonic wall of death that can literally break your eardrums. Please be careful when approaching these beasts with a microphone. They can hurt you faster than you can react to save yourself. I remember more than one session where I was unable to be in the same room with the guitarist and his amp—but we got a great sound on tape in spite of it.
When things get loud, remember this. Guitar amp distortion is warm and fuzzy and gives you goosebumps. Microphone distortion is brittle and raspy and makes you cringe. If what’s coming out of the control room monitors sounds nothing at all like what your ears hear in the room, try using the pad switch if the mic has one, or back it off a foot or two. Not all mics were designed to take the abuse of a loud guitar amp, so treat them gently when they scream in pain.
As for mic placement, I would like to put forward a radical idea: always start with a Shure SM57 close up on the grille cloth and angled slightly away from the center of the cone. Why? The Shure SM57 usually sounds pretty good on guitar amps. It can take a lot of level without distorting, and it’s cheap. It makes a great jumping-off point for further creative possibilities with microphones.
The truth is, there’s a whole new breed of microphones out there that outperform the ubiquitous SM57 on guitar amps. To actually hear a mic outperform an SM57 is a bit of a thrill—which is why I always put up an SM57 for comparison with other mics.
Some mics work better on crunchy, distorted guitar sounds, and others work better on clean amp tones. For crunchy rhythms and fuzzy lead tones I have had great results with a Royer R-121 ribbon mic. It exhibits a lot of proximity effect (bass boost when close to a sound source), so I generally back it off 6 to 8 feet. Exactly where to put it is determined by ear—your ear moving around in front of the cabinet—or else by listening in the control room while someone else moves the mic around.
Ribbon mics pick up as much from the back of the ribbon as the front, so you get a nice room sound mixed in with the direct signal. Compared to the SM57, it sounds less nasal and has a nicer texture in the upper frequencies when you boost them slightly with eq.
The SM57 will appear to have more attack and better transient response on picked notes because it is closer to the speaker, so mixing the two mics together can sometimes improve the sound. And you can pan them left and right to create a stereo field.
Mic feeding frenzy
Why stop with 2 mics? Why not try half a dozen mics and see which combinations work best? If the guitar sounds particularly good out in the room, a combination of close mics and room mics can work together to make a good recording. Deciding exactly where to put room mics is more of an art than a science, but if they’re too far away you’ll hear a noticeable delay, which drives guitarists crazy. Sometimes there’s a nice sound off to the side of the amp, or above it.
A Neumann U 87 out in the room usually picks up something interesting. It has selectable cardioid, figure-8 and omni patterns which let you control how much room and how much direct sound they pick up. Two of them spaced apart and aimed at one or more speaker cabinets can make a nice stereo pair. Condenser mics are generally more sensitive to loud amps than dynamic mics, and can add a nice sheen to the sound when placed at some distance from the amp.
It’s good to have a well-rounded mic collection (see page 12 in this issue) because sometimes a good sound can come from a mic designed for something other than miking guitar amps. A Shure Beta 52 kick drum mic has a nice thick sound that can help fatten a track. Place it up close to the speaker near the center of the cone. This mic really picks up the low-end chunkiness of cabinets with 12-inch speakers.
For edgier sounds, consider using a cheap portable cassette recorder mic or a small lavalier mic. Mixing in a little of this mic at key points in your screaming solo might actually sound good. Or you can do what I do—pan some cheap mic left and some Beta 52 right to really confuse the brain.
I’ve been known to put up to eight mics on a guitar amp powering its own four 10" speakers and an extension cab with four 12s to get the right sound. With eight mics on eight faders in the control room, all with eq and panning capabilities, you can dial up an enormous sound for a big fat stereo pair. The trick is to get each of the eight mics to give you something different. Of course, if there are three guitarists in your band you’d need 24 mics for this to work.
You can also get a nicely compressed sound by miking the back of a speaker. Stick that SM57 right up next to the back of the cone and see what that does to the mix. You may want to reverse the polarity (flip the phase) of that channel when blending it with other mics.
Another great trick is to turn the amp on its face so that the speaker is pointing directly at the ground. This compresses the air in front of the speaker, restricting its motion, creating a really compressed sound. In fact, you may want to prop up one corner to let a little air escape if it sounds too compressed. Mic placement is tricky unless you mike it from the rear, or use a flat PZM style microphone.
Clean and mean
Mostly, when we think of loud guitar amps we think of the heavily distorted variety, but clean amps can get loud, too. In fact, something very nice happens to the sound of a Fender guitar in a clean Fender amp as you turn up the level. You can almost hear the tubes turn blue.
Clean amp sounds are a little harder to record than their dirtier counterparts because they lack the natural compression of the amp distortion circuitry. They have considerably louder attack transients for the same perceived level, and can turn a mic to mush if you’re not careful.
With a street price of less than a hundred bucks, it’s hard not to want to put a good ol’ SM57 there and hope for the best. But if your mic budget can afford it, there are some mid-priced mics that are worth looking into.
My favorite mic for recording clean amp tones is the BLUE Dragonfly. At the risk of sounding like a spokesman for the company, I have to say that this mic has an uncanny ability to capture the sound of a clean Fender amp and deliver it to the control room speakers. With this mic you can close your eyes and imagine that there is a Fender amp mounted in the control room wall.
The Dragonfly somehow picks up something very close to what your ears do in the room. You might think that all mics are supposed to do that, but actually very few of them mimic the response of the human head. It’s relatively rare when a mic signal sounds like what your ears hear out in the room. When it happens, it’s magical.
Often, it doesn’t happen immediately. It can take hours to set up and blend multiple microphones to achieve a sound worthy of your next CD. You can also completely kill the creative vibe by hours of said activity. Sometimes it’s best to record the guitarist’s performance while he still cares about it, and agonize over the tonal aspects later.
To do this properly, you have to capture a rather clean, dry, uninspiring tone to tape or disk. Use a standard DI (Direct Inject) box to send a signal to your recorder. You can bet that the guitarist will not want to listen to his clean, dry, uninspiring tone while performing, so you will have to send some of the DI signal to a practice amp or effects device before it reaches his headphones. When you play back the tape you will want to have that effect patched in, too.
Later, you can run this track through some tone shaping gizmos to create a final track. A good trick is to use a DI box in reverse (or a reamping box, which matches levels and impedances better) to send a guitar-level signal back to an amp for miking after the talent is gone, or even later, when mixing. This way you’re not committed to one sound, which may have been chosen before all the ingredients in the mix were there to compete against it.
The whole story
I could go on at great length about how to get a killer sound when recording the electric guitar, but there’s not enough room in one magazine to tell the whole story. For that, please check out my combination CD and book Recording The Electric Guitar—It’s All About Tone, available from Music Maker Publications at www.musicmakerpub.com.
Jon Bare is an author, guitarist, recording engineer, and producer.