It’s hard to tell somebody how to use EQ without giving a recipe. There are plenty of guides online that will tell you to "cut these frequencies to remove muddiness" and "boost these frequencies” to improve presence.
Although these articles are great for absolute beginners, they're detrimental to any progression as a guitarist, a home recordist and as an audio engineer.
You may have heard the saying “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. Giving you a range of frequencies to cut or boost to adjust the sound would be giving you the fish.
Instead, in this series, I want to teach you how to fish.
Shape the Tone Before Starting Recording
Before I continue, I want to ensure that you have the right mindset when it comes to equalization.
A lot of people see EQ as a tool to completely change the tone of the guitar. A way to fix and cover up mistakes made in the recording phase. Unfortunately, this simply isn’t the case.
EQ should be used to remove some of the nasty stuff—like room resonances and tonal qualities of a guitar that are displeasing—and exaggerate the good stuff. That’s it.
If you want a guitar to sound warm, you need to do that with mic placement, guitar selection, amp choice and playing technique. You can’t do that at the last step with heavy EQ. You could try, sure. But you can’t add what isn’t there. You couldn’t achieve a convincing, pleasant and natural warm sound with drastic EQ.
Start to think about the tone that you want to capture before you start recording. Before you pick up the guitar. Ensure you’re happy with the sound that you capture on the day. Then EQ will be a doddle.
I'll cover the various ways that you can EQ your guitar before you hit the record button.
Think about the sound that you want to capture before you choose a guitar to record with. If you have multiple guitars to choose from, think about which one would suit the song or section the best.
If you already have some guitars recorded for the track, chose a guitar that will sound different and complement the other guitars.
If you’re recording several overdubs with a single guitar, try switching pickups every time.
If you want the guitar to pop out, select the bridge pickup to get a brighter sound. If you want the guitar to sit further back in the mix, flick over to the neck pickup for a warmer sound.
As I’m sure you’re aware, different amps have completely different tonal characteristics.
If you have several amps available, experiment with them to find the sound that you want. A small amps often works well for a lead guitar sound. Remember that it’s all about how the guitar sounds in the mix—not on it’s own.
Alternatively, you could bypass the amp altogether and record direct. You can then re-amp the guitar later, use amp simulation or just create a unique tone from the direct signal.
Play nearer the neck for a warmer sound and nearer the bridge for a brighter sound. Try using a pick versus fingerpicking.
Experiment and see what works best with the song.
The EQ on your amplifier works very differently to a fully parametric EQ in a DAW—a digital audio workstation.
Boosting on an amp will add a pleasant colour to the sound. Boosting with a parametric EQ sounds more surgical and interferes with other frequencies in an undesired way.
Using the tone knobs on the amplifier is a great way to shape the tone and achieve the exact sound that you want before you start recording. If you’re happy with the sound coming out your amp, applying EQ in the mix phase will be easy ...and often unnecessary.
If you have several microphones available, think about which would suit the song best. Use several microphones if you can to give you options later in the mix.
Use a dynamic microphone like a Shure SM57 for a duller, warmer sound. Use a large diaphragm condenser like a Rode NT1A for a brighter, airy sound.
This is the big one.
Regardless of the microphone you use, the guitar you use, the tone you create—if you don’t give microphone placement enough thought you could ruin all of your hard work up until now.
The easiest way to use microphone placement to your advantage is to consider where on the speaker cone you place the microphone.
With a mic right up on the speaker grill, put on a set of closed back headphones, get somebody else to play the guitar and listen back in real time as you move around the microphone.
If you can’t do this, an even easier way is to turn down the amp and put your ear right up to the speaker (where the microphone would be). Move your head around and listen to how the tone changes.
The centre of the cone will sound bright and tinny and the outer perimeter of the cone will sound warm and dull. Don’t forget that it’s all about context. In the centre of the cone the guitar might sound too bright on it’s own, but in the mix it might sit perfectly.
You can also experiment with distance from the amplifier. It’s common practice to use two microphones—one right up against the speaker and another a few feet away. You don’t have to use both. It’s just good to have the option later on. If you do use both, check they are properly in phase.
Think outside the box and experiment. If it sounds good, it is good. Try mic’ing the back of the amp. Try putting the mic inside the cab if it has an open back. Use your imagination.
It's important to think about EQ and tone before you start recording. Get a tone that you're happy with now, and the mix will be easy. With guitars, you should apply a less is more approach when it comes to mixing, and instead concentrate on getting a great sound at the source.
In the next part of these series, I'll show you how to apply EQ in the mix phase, after you have recorded the guitar part.
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