There are a thousand ways to mix guitars. And no, before I disappoint, this tutorial does no include one thousand mixing tips. Every guitarist has a sound and every mixing engineer has specific mixing tricks that he likes using to draw forward the true character of the guitar. At least the sound of the guitar he hears in his head.
Because a guitar sound isn't set in stone as much as the necessity of having a great drum or vocal sound, you can get away with a lot of really radical and crazy guitar effects and sounds if you feel that it serves the purpose of the overall mix. However, there are a few things that are good to keep in mind when mixing guitars.
In the following Premium tutorial I'll be going through a few guidelines regarding EQ and compression on both acoustic and electric guitars as well as showing you some handy mixing tricks that are always good to fall back on when you are out of ideas.
Equalization is an important tool to push down the unwanted frequencies as well as bringing out those that flatter the instrument. There are a few specific frequency ranges that we can resort to that can make the guitar sound a little better, or different.
Before we begin, I want to point out that the frequency ranges are relative to the instrument itself. If I say that you can cut at 250 Hz to reduce boominess then you might have to search for the right frequency around 250 Hz. Don't take these numbers as set in stone. It's your job to actually find the correct frequencies and cut or boost for the desired effect.
- The Lows - There is not a whole lot going on that we need in the frequency range below 100 Hz. Therefore, using a high pass filter to cut out all the excessive low end is a good start to our equalization.
- The Low Mids - If we still need to add bass to a guitar track, the bass guitar is not supplying enough low end. Or if the guitar is sounding too thin, then a boost in the low mids can increase the warmth and make the guitar sound fuller. I love some thick mids in the guitar sound, but be wary of applying too much because it can muddy up the track quite fast.
- The Middle Ground - I usually cut a few frequency ranges in the mids, from 500 Hz to a 1 kHz that annoy me. Notch filtering unflattering frequencies is a great way to let those "nice" frequencies shine. You can soften up the guitar by cutting around 800 Hz to 1 kHz, and it can also make a cheap guitar sound, well, not so cheap. By softening up those frequency ranges we dampen the frequencies that create a clangy and jangly sound, therefore reducing the perceived cheapness of the guitar.
- The High Mids - If your guitar is too soft and need a little attack, the frequency range around 2-4 kHz can help increase the bite of the guitar. A high boost in the 4 kHz range on a distorted guitar will most likely increase the hiss of the distortion quite severely, so be aware of adding too much noise to the track. Rather, try cutting the lower frequencies to enhance the relative boost of the high frequencies - i.e. cut in the lower mids will create a subjective boost in the higher mids.
- Sparkling Highs - If the guitar is still in need of some high end sparkle, then a boost in the highs around 8 kHz will add some brilliance and sparkle to the strings, especially on acoustic guitar. Acoustic guitars can benefit from a high shelving boost from 10-12 kHz, giving added air to the sound, but distorted electric guitars can be low-pass filtered to eliminate unwanted high frequency hiss.
The acoustic guitar is a sonically rich and beautiful instrument. It has a wide frequency range and encompasses both the thick lows as well as the shimmering highs. Therefore, we need to bring out all the beauty of the instrument as well as cutting unwanted frequencies that clutter up and overshadow the true nature of the instrument. Before we delve into the mixing tricks of the electric guitar, let's stop a little bit at the acoustic guitar station.
High Pass Filtering to Fit the Bass
Like I mentioned in the EQ guidelines, it's important to let the bass deal with the bass frequencies, and if the guitar is too dominant down there it will result in a cluttered mix as the guitar, bass and bass drum are vying for dominance. So be sure to high-pass filter the guitar as far as you can. It'll just take up unnecessary space in the bass frequencies that you can live without. Turn your high-pass filter all the way up until you start hearing the guitar sound getting thinner, then back off a little bit. Now you should have created a nice space for the bass instruments.
Like many engineers, I'm an advocate of cutting before boosting. It could be because that's just what I was taught and what has stuck in my mind since the start, but it seems to work so why bother finding a new way to equalize when you can use a tried and tested method.
I usually try finding the annoying frequencies that bother me, cut them out of the mix and then first see what I can enhance with boosting. Finding problematic frequencies is easy since you just boost a specific frequency range all the way up with a fairly narrow boost, scan around the frequency spectrum until a less than stellar sound pops out and then you just simply cut it back down until you're satisfied. Widening or narrowing the cut can give different results, but I usually go for a medium-ish Q that cuts the annoying frequency and its neighbors out without being too broad as to compromise the whole frequency band. If an annoying frequency is exactly 437 Hz I'm not going to cut out the whole spectrum from 350 to 500 Hz, but rather cut a smaller bandwidth only surrounding that specific frequency.
Listen to this before and after example of an acoustic guitar. I mainly used cuts to take out the unflattering frequencies, but afterwards I felt a slight need to add some thickness to it as well as bring out the brilliance of the strings.
By boosting the frequency bands I quickly found the frequencies that popped out and annoyed me. They were the distinctly boxy frequencies in the 360 and 660 Hz range as well as a jangly cheap sound I eliminated from the 1.1 kHz range. By now I wanted to bring out a little low end on the acoustic so I boosted 148Hz a little bit as well as bringing out the high end brilliance of the strings with a high shelving boost from 8.7 kHz. This created a much nicer acoustic guitar sound than the original recording, with a smoother sound with ample information in both the low and high frequencies.
EQ settings are never set in stone, since you know well that everybody has an opinion on how things should sound. I therefore offer an alternative method to EQing the acoustic guitar track, that to me sound equally good, just a little different,
Whereas I used narrow cuts in the first example, here my cuts are a little broader, especially the one at 245 Hz as I EQ down the thickness of the acoustic. The jangly sound at 1100 Hz still bugs me so I left that in. However, instead of cutting in the 300 and 600 range I instead boost the 500 Hz, which is a characteristic frequency of the guitar's body. Not only that but instead of applying a shelving boost on the high frequencies I use a bell curve EQ centered at 10 kHz, giving it some high frequency energy but not as much of a string sound as the former.
Compressing Out the Pick Sound
The attack and release controls on the compressor allows some versatility in our compression techniques. Just using a different attack setting without changing any of the other parameters can create a different sound. Since the attack controls how fast the compressor starts working, using a really fast attack means that the compressor clamps down on the guitar sound immediately, without letting any of the initial transient of the instrument to come through. This can work for acoustic guitars that have a too edgy sound, or the strings are cutting out too much and you want it subdued and in the back.
Listen to these two audio examples where the compression settings are exactly the same except that the attack setting is really fast in one, and set at medium speed in the other. Notice the disappearance of the strings attack in the first one and how they come through at a medium attack speed.
The effect is very subtle, but the attack of the strings becomes quite subdued when the attack is set to such a fast setting. Can come in handy when you need to bury the acoustic guitar a little bit in the mix, serving as an anchor, or a padlike element.
Chorused Acoustic Guitar
A nice trick to making an acoustic guitar sound really full, but not dominant in a mix is to add some subtle chorusing to it. The chorus will enhance the sound of the guitar and at the same time push it a little bit back in the mix, making other elements stand out without you exactly noticing that the acoustic guitar is gone. A chorus effect like this effectively dulls down the attack and softens the guitar up, as well as adding a new dimension to the sound.
Listen to the example below where I have added some subtle chorusing to an acoustic guitar. Notice how it shimmers but softens up at the same time. In a crowded mix this can help push the acoustic guitar back without making it too distant like you would do by adding too much reverb.
Just like the acoustic guitar, we're dealing with similar frequency ranges, even though the instrument might sound radically different. By studying the areas where we find specific characteristics of the guitar we can zoom in on what we want. In this case I decided to give this clean guitar a little weight with some boosts in the 220 Hz. I rounded off a little bit of the jangly cheapness by giving it a wide boost in the 850 Hz and added a little bite to these chord stabs by boosting 2.9 kHz. As usual, the guitar is high-pass filtered, but I also low-pass filtered out the unnecessary high frequencies that weren't contributing to the overall sound.
Although the guitar sound wasn't that bad to begin with:
I like it a little softer and rounder like this:
Clean guitars have more dynamic range than distorted guitars, and often the more dynamic playing of the guitar player himself will be needing some compression to control the peaks and control the levels.
Rather than go into detail of what the compressor does, which Sean Vincent has already done in The Beginner's Guide to Compression, just know that if the volume levels of the guitar tracks are all over the place, some subtle and controlled compression is a great way to keep your guitar sound fresh but controlled.
Also, remember that compression is sometimes best used when it just works silently in the background, and not as a noticeable effect.
Overly saturated guitars can sometimes sound very hissy and noisy before you start mixing. Most of the hiss can be found in the higher frequencies and by using some EQ we can salvage even the most badly sounding guitar tracks.
By using the same techniques as before we can find the frequencies we don't want as well as boosting the ones we want to bring out in the instrument.
You might be starting to notice a pattern in the EQ department at yours truly, but that's just because there isn't a lot of tricks to EQing. It's just a matter of sweeping around the spectrum and picking and choosing how you want your sound.
In this example I've given it some weight to add to the thickness of the lead line, cut a little in the 500 Hz as well as the 1.3 kHz but boosted a the 3500 Hz to give it more bite. Lastly, in order to reduce the hiss from the distortion of the guitar I added some low pass filtering to the highest frequencies.
Listen to the guitar before EQ:
Now listen to the distorted lead line after some EQ processing:
Compression-wise, heavily distorted electric guitars don't really need it. The saturation and sustain they get from the distortion leaves them already compressed, with very little dynamic range. Just look at the waveform here below of this distorted electric guitar.
It's already pretty even. Even so, some overdriven or distorted guitar tracks might need a little compression to handle the peaks in level and keeping them at a steady and even place. Then it's just a matter of tweaking your compressor until it's compressing the peaks lightly without compromising the natural distortion of the recorded guitar itself.
Some Handy Mixing Tricks
Enhancing Lead Lines with Delay
Using a short delay is a great way to enhance already smooth sounding lead lines. Adding a stereo delay via an aux bus can make a lead line sound bigger without necessarily cluttering up the mix or taking up too much space.
Listen to the example below where the first example is a distorted lead line, and the second example has an added stereo delay effect of a 130 ms in the right channel and 120 ms in the left channel. The feedback is set very low since we just want to thicken up the already recorded guitar line as opposed to creating a heavily delayed guitar line.
Panning Clean Electric Guitars, Spreading Out the Tracks
Panning is an important tool in placing your tracks so that they don't interfere with each other. Panning allows each instrument to have its own space without sounding "on top" of another instrument.
Panning is great when you have multiple guitar tracks that are all doing different things. They all need special attention and space, so by panning them to different places in the stereo spectrum allows them to breathe together instead of sounding piled on top of one another.
Listen to the first track where these four tracks are all panned to the center. Two guitars are double tracked while the other two are playing chordal lead lines.
Feels kind of cluttered doesn't it?
Now listen to when we've panned out all the guitars. The double tracked rhythm guitars are panned hard left and hard right. The two lead guitars are also panned right and left of the center, giving each of them a little breathing room to shine.
Double Tracking Technique
A nice double tracking technique to enhance the already double tracked guitars is to add subtle differences to the EQ. This can give a different feel to each take, since the guitarist probably never changed his setting between double takes. The trick is to pan the already double tracked guitar (this technique also works for automatic double tracking) hard left and hard right and apply similar, but subtly different EQ settings to each one. This way we separate the guitar sounds even more.
Let's take the guitar we EQed earlier, slap the same EQ on the other track and move the EQ settings around just a little bit. Now each guitar is accenting different areas of the frequency spectrum.
Listen to the guitars without any EQ. They're only double tracked and panned, without any processing.
And now hear the subtle changes as we apply different EQ to each guitar.
Placing the Guitar Into a Room
Reverb has been said to be the glue that holds a mix together. You need reverb to liven up and elevate the sound of some instruments, giving them added depth and spaciousness.
A good trick when you are dealing with many different guitar tracks that were all recorded at separate times is to use reverb to glue them together. We can use short reverb to create a space around various instrument so that they sound more like they are playing in the same room. In a way, we're cheating, but that's OK. We're taking all these separate guitar tracks, sending them to a reverb set to a room setting and presto! Everybody sounds like they're playing together in the same room.
This is easy to do. We just select the guitar tracks we want to place inside the room and send them via an auxiliary send to a reverb bus. There we insert a reverb device, I'm using Logic's Space Designer but you can use whatever engine you like the sound of. I'm sending equal amounts of each guitar to the reverb, but you could vary the sends and place the guitars closer and farther inside the imaginary reverb room. Use a nice stereo reverb that has a good room sound to put all these guitar tracks into the same space.
Listen to the already great sounding guitars, but without any overall reverb on them.
Now listen to how we've created a nice room sound around these same guitars.
Allow Yourself Some Craziness
A great guitar sound is a very subjective term. You can allow yourself some crazy mixing tricks if it serves the context of the song to the right end.
It's not like a drum sound that needs to be punchy and thick and powerful to hold the rhythm together. A guitar can sound tinny, fuzzy and crazy psychedelic if that's what you're going for. Just listen to the crazy guitar sounds from the last few decades. Jimi Hendrix's fuzz effects, The Edge's crazy delay effects and Tom Morello's incredible whammy shenanigans filled with crazy modulation effects. Although the effects were the creation of their respective guitarist it's not to say that you cannot allow yourself some outside-the-box thinking when it comes to mixing your guitars.
Also, although these examples here above were demonstrated using only soloed guitar sounds, we need to be aware of the changes we might need to make when we introduce all the other elements of the mix. Guitars can clash with the snare drum, vocals and other instruments so you need to create a good middle ground of a great guitar sound and an amazing mix. Although that guitar sounds awesome with that bite boost in the 3 kHz, it could be that that's exactly where the guitar is clashing with the vocal.
So although this tutorial showed you some great steps to creating an amazing guitar sound, you also need to be aware of the steps needed to create an amazing mix. But even so, when you've got those great guitars sounding amazing, it's just a matter of tweaking a few parameters and moving things around a little bit to create that stunning sonic soundscape.