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Every guitar player, engineer and producer wants to record the ultimate guitar sound, but it’s not always easy to capture the great sound that you hear in the room. In this series, based around my new book The Ultimate Guitar Tone Handbook (written with Rich Tozzoli), I’ll outline why acoustic and electric guitars, amplifiers, speaker cabinets and effects sound the way they do, and the best way to record and mix them after you’ve gotten the sound. In Part 5 of this series, we’ll look different electric guitar miking techniques.
Also available in this series:
- Getting The Ultimate Guitar Sound – Part 1
- Getting The Ultimate Guitar Sound – Part 2
- Getting The Ultimate Guitar Sound – Part 3
- Getting The Ultimate Guitar Sound – Part 4
- Getting The Ultimate Guitar Sound – Part 5
- Getting The Ultimate Guitar Sound – Part 6
- Getting The Ultimate Guitar Sound – Part 7
While many believe there’s only one accepted way to mic an amplifier, you’ll be surprised to learn that there are as many ways as there are guitar and amp sounds. Let’s look at some.
It’s amazing what you can do with a single mic if you experiment a bit. Here are a number of techniques that have been used on popular recordings since the 50’s. They all work, but remember that what works for one recording may not work for another. That’s why it’s good to always have an alternative in your pocket when you need one.
The Classic Setup
Place a Shure SM57 about one inch away from the best sounding speaker in the cabinet. Place the mic about three quarters of the way between the edge of the speaker and the voice coil (away from the voice coil). If you need more high end, move the mic towards the voice coil (the center of the speaker). If the sound needs more body, move it towards the outside edge of the speaker. Make sure that the mic does not touch the speaker cone when the loudest passages are played (see Figure 1).
Classic Setup #2
The way amplifier miking was consistently done in the 60’s and 70’s was to place the mic from one to two feet away from the center of the speaker or speakers (see Figure 2). This allows the sound from the speakers and the cabinet to develop, but also captures some of the room, which can be a nice bonus. The ideal distance on a cabinet with two speakers is where the output of both speakers combine. Move the mic to the side to capture more of the sound of one of the speakers voice coils if more high end is required.
Single Mic Variation #1
If you’re using a Marshall cabinet, position a single mic 12 to 24 inches from the cabinet, dead center to all 4 speakers aiming for the logo plate (see Figure 3). You can use this for other closed back cabinets as well, except their logo’s might not be in the same position. On the typical 4x12 speaker cabinet (like the standard Marshall 1960 model), the four speakers usually become additive at a distance of 15 to 24 inches from the cabinet center (depending upon the speakers).
As much of a variety as you can get with one mic, you’ll get a lot more with two. Over the years, many engineers discovered that they could more closely capture the sound that they were hearing in the room by adding a second microphone. Here are some examples.
The Classic Two Mic Setup
Place the SM57 near or against the grill cloth as in the classic method #1 above. Now add a Sennheiser MD 421 at the same position to the right of the 57, but aimed at a 45 degree angle pointing towards the voice coil. Many sounds can be achieved from this setup by summing the mics at different levels and by flipping the phase on one (see Figure 4). Of course, you can use any mics you choose, but the classic setup uses the 57 and 421.
Two Mic Variation #1
With an open-back amplifier (like a typical Fender), place a mic about a foot away from the rear of the amp, off center from one of the speakers, while using any of the single mic setups for the front of the cabinet (see Figure 5). Usually you’ll have to flip the phase on the rear mic, but try both positions and use the one that has the most low-end.
Two Mic Variation #2
While using the mic setting from the single mic Classic #1 with the mic close to the grill of the cabinet, add an additional mic at the spot where the sound of the speakers converge 18 to 24 inches away (see Figure 6). This distance might be increased to as much as 6 feet depending upon the size and sound of the room, which will then increase the captured ambience.
The high-end of a guitar cabinet has never been a problem to capture; it’s always been the low end that’s been difficult. As a result, many engineers have resorted to using three microphones in an effort to record a bigger sound. Here are some of the most used methods.
Three Mic Technique #1
After finding the sweet spot of the cabinet as mentioned above, bundle an SM57, MD 421 and Beyer M160 (or other ribbon mic like a Royer R-121) together. All three mics are aimed directly at the best sounding speaker in the cabinet. Mix together to taste. The 57 will provide the bite, the 421 the mids, and the 160 the body (see Figure 7). Be aware that this only works with a 57 and 421, although any ribbon mic will do.
Three Mic Technique #2
To any of the two mic methods, add a third mic about 6 feet back from the cabinet (see Figure 8). Large diaphragm condenser mics work well, as do figure 8 ribbon mics or condenser mics configured with a figure 8 polar pattern. Make sure that you have plenty of space in the room to place this mic and that the mic isn’t close to the wall, since it might also pick up some unpleasant sounding room reflections. Remember, this technique only sounds as good as your room sounds.
Three Mic Variation #1
To any of the two mic methods, add a third mic facing a hard wall in the room (not aimed at the amp). Listen to the sound of each of the hard walls and find the one that has the most pleasing reflections. Place the mic about three feet from the wall. The three mics can be mixed together in various proportions to create many different tonal effects (See Figure 9). Once again, the success of this method depends upon the sound of the room where the amp is placed.
Marshall Cabinet Miking
It’s not uncommon for engineers to complain that they can’t seem to capture the low end of a Marshall cabinet. It might sound great in the room, but it just never comes across the same when recorded. Fortunately there is a trick to help capture that big Marshall sound, although it may look a bit unorthodox.
Along with any of the above miking methods, place a ribbon mic two inches off one of the rear corners of the cabinet in order to capture the low end of the cabinet (see Figure 10). This only works with Marshall cabinets due to the wood and construction technique used, but it works really well! Ribbon mics seem to work best, but you’ll still capture a nice round low end regardless of the mic you choose.
Eddie Kramer was Jimi Hendrix long time engineer and once showed me the setup he used for recording the Great One. He started with the microphone bundle of an SM57, MD 421 and Beyer 160 at the cone of the best speaker of Jimi’s Marshall cabinet. Then he placed a Neumann U-67 about three feet back from the cabinet, and finished it off with a stereo mic approximately six feet back from that (about nine or ten feet away from the cabinet total).
But wait, there’s more. Eddie would buss all of the mics into a tape-delayed EMT-140 plate reverb and bring the stereo returns back to the console. Between the mics and the reverb, there’s a total of eight channels for a single guitar sound. The proof, of course, is in the listening, as Jimi’s guitar sound is still emulated to this day.
There’s a lot more guitar miking techniques than above, but these prove plenty of variations for any eventuality. In part 6, we’ll look at what goes into making an acoustic guitar sound great.