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Music

How to Fatten Up Your Guitar Tracks

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Difficulty:IntermediateLength:ShortLanguages:
This post is part of a series called Producing Guitar: From Recording to the Finished Product.
How to Record a Professional Electric Guitar Solo
How to Produce Guitars and Bass With Metal in Mind

Just about anyone who has listened to modern music in one form or another can appreciate a quality guitar tone. From solid clean chords to full on crunchy distortion, the guitar has a versatile sound that works in a wide variety of scenarios. Being such a mid-range focused instrument, sometimes the guitar can overwhelm the lower mids of a mix, in which case a simple EQ can usually solve that problem.

But what about the reverse? What if the recorded guitar lost its beef before we ever started mixing? Sometimes an EQ can fix it, but sometimes all it does is just add more mid-range volume, and not the thick tone we know and love. Perhaps you recorded the guitar right, but the song is so heavily focused on the guitars that we need to fatten them up even more for a hyper-realistic sound. What do you do then? EQ on its own would just muddy up the mix.

In this tutorial we are going to look at all the options available for fattening up your guitar tracks. Whether you need to compensate for a poor recording or take the beef to the extreme, all the tricks here will get the job done. So without further adieu, put on a napkin and dig in!


Saturation

FerricTDS (tape emulation) by Variety of Sound
FerricTDS (tape emulation) by Variety of Sound

Probably one of the best tricks for thickening up a guitar tone is to use some form of saturation. Since the dawn of recording, guitarists have loved the saturation effects from tubes, tape, etc. and how it can thicken their sound. But in today's world where even cheap audio interfaces are light years cleaner than their analog grandfathers, we sometimes lose some of that mojo. This is no good for guitars (we will forget about classical guitars in this case).

"But doesn't the guitar have enough harmonic content already with distortion?" While saturation does indeed add even more harmonic content, a good saturation is non-linear in nature. By using non-linear saturation we can generate pleasing signal dependent noise (aka non-static noise) that takes on a musical characteristic. Let's look at some examples.

Here we have two guitar tracks, one is cleanish, while the other is classic full on distortion through a ribbon mic. The cleaner take needs a little bump to fill it out, and on the distorted track we want to get even more thickness (because we can).

We will first stat out with transformer style saturation that covers the entire frequency range of the instrument. The effects are subtle, but being obvious is rarely a good thing!

  • Original Clean:
  • Transformer Clean: 
  • Original Distorted: 
  • Transformer Distorted: 

That's a nice addition to our tracks. This is good for simulating transformer based rack gear, mic pres, etc. that can induce all kinds of thickening goodness. But what about tape? Well you are in luck! Below are the same examples but now with tape saturation instead. Have a listen.

  • Original Clean: 
  • Tape Clean: 
  • Original Distorted: 
  • Tape Distorted: 

The effect in this situation is different, but not completely dramatic either. With any saturation, whether it is tube, tape, or transformer, you will probably gain 1-2 dB for the saturation to be audible. However, unlike boosting with an EQ or bringing up the volume fader, you instead get non-linear gain that varies with the signal, resulting in a much more dynamic and musical thickening effect.


Compression

ThrillseekerLA (optical compressor) by Variety of Sound
ThrillseekerLA (optical compressor) by Variety of Sound

Probably one of the most obvious ways to thicken up any track can be done via compression. For guitars, compression is in their very nature! Don't believe me? Ever heard the thick pumping sound from a tube rectifier amp? That is actually compression due to current limiting in the tubes!

So while compression may help us get a thick sound, not all compression is made equal. Since we are looking to beef up the mids for the most part, we need a compressor that is going to preserve that range. Super-clean compressors tend to control the mids and bass too well, and we end with the opposite of our goal. However, optical compressors tend to have a smooth sound that does not de-emphasize the mids and bass, and will work perfectly for us here.

We decided to use a 5ms attack followed by a 45ms release, so we could get some minimal pumping and really help control the top end. The average compression was about 5 dB. Remember the goal is for tonal and dynamic shaping, not pure volume!

Take listen to some before and afters:

  • Original Clean: 
  • Optical Clean: 
  • Original Distorted: 
  • Optical Distorted: 

Combining Saturation and Compression

One Fat Guitar!

One fat guitar!

If neither of the above tactics were enough for you, then it is time for us to combine them! Saturation and compression together can drastically shape the tone of any sound. However, you do need to be careful when including both options, as you can quickly reach overkill!

When working with both saturation and compression, you generally need to decide which option is more important. If you like the thickness that saturation offers, then start with that then focus on compression to sweeten the deal. However, if a more even smoothed out compressed tone is what you are looking for, start there and add some tasteful saturation on top.

Here are some examples to get you started:

First up is saturation followed up with compression. We chose to go with transformer-based saturation, coupled by an optical style compression, while the other examples use tape style compression and saturation to show some differences.

  • Original Clean: 
  • Sat+Comp(trans) Clean: 
  • Sat+Comp(tape) Clean: 

And now for the distorted guitar:

  • Original Distorted: 
  • Sat+Comp(trans) Distorted: 
  • Sat+Comp(tape) Distorted: 

Up next, we have the inverse: compression first, followed by saturation. All in all, not too large of a jump, but definitely different.

  • Original Clean: 
  • Comp+Sat(trans) Clean: 
  • Comp+Sat(tape) Clean: 

And finally the distorted version:

  • Original Distorted: 
  • Comp+Sat(trans) Distorted: 
  • Comp+Sat(tape) Distorted: 

Conclusion

As you can see, some saturation and distortion can go a long way to achieving a fatter guitar tone in your tracks. Of course, starting with the best tone at the source (aka the amp) is the most surefire approach, but not everyone has access to a Mesa Boogie Triple Rectifier! However, if you get as close as you can while tracking you will be able to make it work in the mix.

On one more final note, while I am sure some of you are crying, "Wheres the double tracking?", that is not exactly the same thing for fattening a guitar sound. While double tracking might give you a big guitar sound, it does not necessarily fatten up the actual tone. All it does is give you a wickedly wide guitar sound.

So with all that in mind, I hope you learned a trick or two! Until next time, thanks for reading.

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