Home Recording Basics: How to Mix Guitars

Last week’s installment of Home Recording Basics covered low-end mixing for basses, synths, and samples. Next, we’re moving on to guitars.

When it comes to mixing guitars, there’s a lot of history to consider. As the heart of rock and roll and one of the most popular instruments since the birth of recorded music, there are many, many different mixing techniques. Would you mix Jimi Hendrix the same way you’d mix Chet Atkins? Eric Clapton like Eddie Van Halen? Prince like Kurt Cobain? Of course not.

So your first consideration is crafting the tone—that is, the tone you or the guitarist you’ve recorded are trying to achieve. Sure, take inspiration from the great players, engineers, and producers, but focus on what you have in front of you. What’s unique about this part? What’s it trying to say? Then, ask yourself how best to bring that out in the mix.

If you’re mixing a track another engineer or producer has recorded, first listen to the range of tones available to you in the tracks. Many engineers use multiple mics to record guitars. But just because they used them doesn’t mean you have to. Find the best mic (or combination of mics) to get the tone you want and mute the rest.

If you can’t get the desired tone from the mics provided, look to see if the engineer recorded a DI track. A DI track is a clean, unprocessed signal directly from the guitar, before it hits the amp. It can be re-amped or run through an amp simulator to achieve the tone you’re looking for.

Striking a Balance

The level of the guitar changes from genre to genre. Cranking the guitars can give a mix more energy and increase the perceived loudness—which is great for rock music. But pushing the guitars back in the mix a bit can give more room for other instruments, which is better for pop and R&B. Country is usually somewhere in-between.

In rock music, guitars are commonly mixed very wide. Many engineers choose to pan guitars hard-left and hard-right, especially if they’re recorded with different guitar/amp combos.

If you have two different guitar tracks, panning them hard-left and hard-right not only makes them feel big and wide, it helps separate the two parts."

If you only have a single guitar track, try using the Haas Effect:

  • Take a mono guitar and pan it to one side.
  • Duplicate the signal and pan it to the other side.
  • Put a short delay (5–25ms) on the duplicated signal.

If you have two different guitar tracks, panning them hard-left and hard-right not only makes them feel big and wide, it helps separate the two parts.

For other genres, you may not want to pan them so wide or you may not want to use stereo guitar tracks at all. Here’s a trick for adding width to mono guitars:

  • Take a mono guitar and pan it to one side.
  • Send it to a mono reverb.
  • Pan the reverb return to the other side.
  • Alternatively, you could send it to a stereo reverb, and pan the send.

Using EQ to Sculp the Tone

Every guitar sounds different. It's tough to say what your particular guitar will need for a given track, but here are some common areas of interest when EQing guitars.

Lows

Regardless of the type of guitar, most engineers start by rolling off the low-end. The lowest note on a standard 6-string guitar has a fundamental frequency of about 82Hz, so that’s a pretty good place to start.

Acoustic guitars get their power from the low-end. You can even boost frequencies as low as 50Hz–80Hz to help bring fullness to the sound and help feel the acoustic in your chest. You can still use a high-pass filter to cut out the subs.

Low-Mids

A lot of the body and power of electric guitars comes from the low-midrange. It's not uncommon to use a low-shelf filter to boost everything below 200Hz or so. It’s a good trick, especially if you're using a high-pass filter to roll off the low-end.

Just be careful when boosting in the low-mid. Too much volume around 200Hz–400Hz can cause muddiness.

Midrange

The midrange is a tricky area for guitars. Too much and they sound boxy, honky, and tinny. Too little and they sound thin and hollow. Keep a close eye on 400Hz–2kHz. Try to keep these frequencies balanced.

High-Mids

Guitars have a lot of character in the high-mids. Much of the instrument's clarity comes from the 2kHz–4kHz range, but too much can be harsh or brittle and cause problems with other instruments.

Highs

The high-end is what makes a guitar sound either near or far away. The more high-end, the closer the instrument sounds to you. The less, the further away.

Distorted guitars especially benefit from a boost around 6kHz–8kHz for added texture and "buzz." Too much can cause guitars to sound thin or brittle, though.

While there are no fundamentals above 10kHz, boosting with a high-shelf can really make a guitar sparkle. Some engineers call this the “air” band.

Finding the Right Compression

Some engineers compress guitars to push them right up in your face. Others use compression to bring out the attack of the transients and treat it like a percussive instrument. Some do it just to add “color” to a guitar and bring out the harmonics.

First, decide why you want to compress the guitar. That should tell you a lot about how to compress it.

Distorted guitars don't really need compression. Distortion inherently compresses a signal, so the more distorted the guitar, the less it needs compression. Just look at the waveform of a severely distorted guitar—it’s one big block. There are no transients to compress.

If applying compression directly to your guitar tracks sucks the life out of them, try using parallel compression. This allows you to keep the dynamics and transients of the original, and get the increased sustain and color by crushing the parallel."

Dry guitar tracks respond well to compression. However, any bleed or unwanted room tone in a recording will just get worse with compression.

A slow or medium attack time will allow the attack of the pick to come through, while a fast attack time will dull the initial transient. As always, release times should be set to “breathe” with the tempo of the song.

Typically, the more “affected" the guitar, the lower the ratio. 2:1 is enough to glue a couple crunchy rhythm tracks together, but clean guitars can stand ratios of 4:1 or more.

If applying compression directly to your guitar tracks sucks the life out of them, try using parallel compression. This allows you to keep the dynamics and transients of the original, and get the increased sustain and color by crushing the parallel. Don’t be afraid to apply upwards of 10dB of compression at 10:1 or more.

Adding Reverb and Delay

Oftentimes, guitarists will use their own effects pedals for things like reverb and delay. It’s part of their tone, and it’s usually integral to the part. Many amps even include built-in spring reverbs, which are commonly used on guitars for their bouncy, mid-rangey tone.

Aside from that, reverb and delay are usually used to simulate a space. This is especially evident when sending a mono guitar to a stereo effect, which increases the width. Adding effects to stereo guitar tracks, on the other hand, helps add depth and pushes them back in the mix.

Some genres don’t use any reverb on the guitars. This hyper-dry approach helps keep the guitars in your face, but it doesn’t sound very natural. Typically, the more distorted a guitar is, the less reverb is applied.

Cleaner guitars can be sent to longer reverbs to help push them back in a mix. As always, the tail of a reverb should be timed to the tempo of the track. Acoustic guitars sound particularly good in these spaces.

It’s not uncommon to see a little room reverb added to guitars to help create the vibe that they were played in a bar or club. To simulate the “slapback” sound of the guitar bouncing off a wall in a small room, add a short delay.

Back in the ‘80s, it was popular to see modulation effects like phasers, flangers, and choruses used on guitars to help add unique textures.

Bringing in Additional Effects

Guitars tend to benefit from the added harmonics that come from saturation and hardware emulation. The same goes for distortion, but remember—distortion is like salt. You can always add more, but you can never take it away.

Many engineers choose to add distortion in stages. A little clipping here. A little tube saturation there. Some harmonics from the tape machine. Maybe a parallel distortion channel to blend in a little extra bite.

Remember, mixing is a constant act of chasing your tail. Be sure you're not making the guitar sound good at the expense of another instrument, or that, if you are favoring the guitar, you are doing so intentionally."

All that “ear-candy" may sound good now, when you're mixing the guitars. But make sure to reference the guitar and all its added distortion against some of the other instruments in the mix to ensure it’s not overwhelming.

Making your guitars loud, wide, or otherwise overrepresented can cause problems for other elements in the mix. Make sure you check different frequency bands to catch these common problems:

  • Low-mids fighting with the bass
  • Low-mids, midrange, or high-mids fighting with the snare
  • High-mids fighting with the vocals
  • High-end fighting with the cymbals

Remember, mixing is a constant act of chasing your tail. Be sure you're not making the guitar sound good at the expense of another instrument, or that, if you are favoring the guitar, you are doing so intentionally. Next time, we’ll wrap things up with the vocals. Until then, for those about to rock, we salute you.


comments powered by Disqus