On Tracks: Creative Amp-Micing Techniques

Ask a hundred recording engineers and producers how they record a guitar cab and the vast majority will say they put a Shure SM57 dynamic microphone in close proximity to the speaker. They might qualify that by adding that the 57 should be on axis or so many degrees off axis, or that it should touch the grille or be a specific distance from it—but one way or another, a 57 placed close up will be involved. The reason for that, of course, is that Shure SM57s sound really good on guitar cabs.

Now, most of those SM57 enthusiasts would likely also tell you that they place a second microphone a few feet in front of the cab and blend the two microphones together in various proportions to get the sound they’re after. That’s because the cab sounds very different out front than it does close up, and the two sounds combined more accurately represent the complete sonic signature of the cab. Large-diaphragm condenser microphones are typically used for this purpose, but ribbon mics are also a popular choice.

Having said all that, there are no unbreakable rules when it comes to microphone selection. Alternative dynamics such as the Sennheiser MD 421 and Electro-Voice RE20 might be used in place of an SM57, while classic condensers such as the AKG C414 and the Neumann U 87, and ribbons such as the Royer R-121 and Beyerdynamic M 160, are also used close up with spectacular results.

But what if fidelity isn’t what you are after? What if, instead, you are seeking uncommon tones to spice up your recording? Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Crappy Mics

There are hundreds of oddball microphones out there that are entirely inappropriate for recording guitar cabs, but which might be perfect for crafting new and unusual sounds. I’m particularly fond of bizarre old mics in poor condition; they’re typically so inexpensive that if they don’t work out, who cares?

The sound of the crappy mic can be used as is or blended with better sounds, and you might also try processing it in some way. For example, you could distort it, compress it, drench it in reverb, or EQ it drastically. Even the most “out there” sound, when used judiciously, can add spice to a more conventional sound without necessarily being obvious.


Space and Place

The farther a microphone is from the source, the more room sound will be captured. What that sounds like depends on the size and acoustic characteristics of the room, where the mic or mics are placed relative to the source, and how loud the source sound is. If you are in a good-sounding room and want to capture a realistic amp sound, experiment with mic selection and placement until you get the desired result. For a more “distant” sound, simply move the microphones farther away, which will increase the amount of natural room reverberation.

Recording in unconventional spaces, however, can result in more adventurous sounds. To get a really distant sound with lots of natural reverberation, record in a concrete stairwell, a parking garage, a long hall, or any cavernous space with reflective surfaces. Or, go small and put your amp and microphone in a tiled bathroom, shower stall, or anyplace with a distinct ambience. I once got a great guitar sound by putting a small amp on its back in my fireplace and suspending a microphone partway down the chimney.

You can also use an extension cabinet for this purpose, while recording the main cab conventionally, and then mix the two tracks together in various ways, including creating quasi stereo.

Additionally, a microphone’s polar pattern will emphasize some aspects of the ambient sound and deemphasize others. Omnidirectional mics can be particularly effective in large spaces. And if your mic has a selection of polar patterns, try them all just to see how they affect the results.


Make Contact

Korg Contact Mic

Try attaching a contact mic to the body, headstock, or other part of your instrument, then record the sound either as is or processed in some way, and blend it with your amplified sound. Typically, the sound will be thin and “plucky,” and by mixing in just the right amount—particularly to heavily distorted tones— it can add or restore articulation and increase the presence of the sound in a mix without increasing the volume.

Surround Sounds

Sound doesn’t just emanate from the front of speaker cabinets, especially with open-backed cabs. Try placing mics on the back, sides, and even top of your cab to see if you like what you hear. The results can be used as is or blended with the sound of other mics, though be mindful of phase relationships, particularly between front and rear mics.

These are obviously only a few of the countless ways to get creative when recording guitar cabs -— we haven’t even touched on truly wacky things like putting a fan between the mic and the amp...though I suppose we just did -— but hopefully these ideas will inspire you to seek out new recording possibilities for yourself.

This column addresses topics of interest to recordists, ranging from remedial tutorials on essential terms and concepts to more advanced examples of studio geekery. Next up in On Tracks: “Fun With Filters.”

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About the Author:

Barry Cleveland
Barry Cleveland

Barry Cleveland is a San Francisco Bay Area-based journalist, author, guitarist and composer. He was an editor at Guitar Player magazine for 12 years and at Mix and Electronic Musician magazines before that. His book, “Joe Meek's Bold Techniques” is a cult classic, and he also contributed to the book “Whole Lotta Led Zeppelin.” He has released five albums and composes music for film and television.

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