Make Your Guitars LOUD!!!

[Editors NoteThis article was written by Chris Gilroy, producer and house engineer at Brooklyn-based Douglass Recording. Chris earned his degree in Sound Recording Technology from UMass Lowell.  Chris has worked with a diverse range of artists including Ron Carter, Mike Stern, The Harlem Gospel Choir, Christian McBride, to name a few.]

 

I love guitars. Something about them excites all my nerve endings. From softly picked acoustics to a mountain of amps at full blast. These nuanced instruments can be tricky to record. Luckily for you, I’m setting up for a session right now where we will be tracking distorted guitars for the next 3 days. Let’s talk a bit about getting some of the best results you can while recording and the things I will be doing for this session.

Before you even get into the studio to shred, find a few different examples of recordings where you, the artist, producer, or whoever is in charge of the project, are inspired by for this session. Guy Picciotto of Fugazi has a very different tone then Matt Pike of Sleep/High on Fire. Talk to your engineer about how these different sounds speak to you and how they were achieved. What amps, guitars, pedals, etc etc were used for tracking.

If you are engineering, you need to learn the different sounds between guitars. Why grab a Fender Stratocaster over a Telecaster? What’s the draw of a hollow body guitar? Each instrument sounds very different. Then there are amps! A Fender Deluxe sounds AMAZING when cranked, but very different from a Marshall JCM50. It is a never ending task for us to learn these differences. I’m not a guitarist (my mind was simpler and could only handle smashing two pieces of wood against a drum) so every session I work on I make sure we try a few amps and guitars. Mostly so we can make sure that we have a sound we are happy with in the room, but partially so I can listen to different combinations of instruments and amps, learning it and internalizing it.

Luckily I am fortunate enough to work in a place that has a bunch of great sounding amps. When you turn the gain till the pre amp starts to clip, we reach a magical land. Which is emulated through so many pedals. To get geeky for a second, a lot of distortion pedals are trying to recreate the sound of tube amps distorting. Housed in much smaller and cheaper enclosures they are create to throw a few flavors in your bag for a gig.

But these boxes use transistors and diodes to compress and clip your sound, which will flatten your dynamics and take a ton of life out of your guitar. Live they totally rule, but if you are in the studio and have a Marshall Bluesbreaker, you probably also don’t need that OCD pedal on. Turn up the amp, and rock out.  

A hard balancing act while tracking distorted guitars is not OVER distorting. When we play live we have the benefit of watching the player’s hands on the instrument. We don’t get that same luxury through a recording. Our guitar sound must be clear enough to make out all the notes and harmonies played. For listening example, blink-182’s Enema of the State is laden with giant and punchy sounding guitars that we hear everything Tom DeLonge is playing. Back a few albums to Cheshire Cat, it is much more difficult to hear exactly what he is playing. His sound is muddied and a bit too crunchy to full hear everything. When we are tracking back down the amount of distortion a little less then when we play live. The clarity will come through but we still have the amp growl.

Kurt Ballou of Converge is a master at getting an insanely aggressive sound while still maintaining note clarity. Don’t get me wrong I LOVE horribly recorded black metal records. But after a short period of time my ears get fatigued because the guitars basically almost white noise (which then I wonder why I didn’t put on a Merzbow record).

When I double guitars I first make sure I know why we are doubling. Recently I finished mixing the new Nihiloceros EP. I wash’t involved in tracking, so during mixing I heard sections that I wanted a slight energy boost like after a bridge into the final chorus of a song. To solve this we tracked a meatier guitar sound to blend in slightly behind the rest of the guitar assault. Mixed in you can’t quite tell that there is another guitar, it just feels like the part swells a little more.

For another record, a new band from Philadelphia called Puriden, we wanted to have a massive wall of hard panned guitars. They had recorded an SG through a Vox AC30 as the main guitar. Since the guitarist has that rig as his tone, we didn’t want to lose the Vox sound so we doubled using the same amp and a Telecaster. This gave us enough sonic difference to know that we had two guitars, but have no phasing issues between the two.

Steve Albini spoke about this very eloquently in Mix with the Masters. In short, if you have a different initial sound source with a different timbre you decrease the chances of having phase issues. Even if it is a different amp, mic, etc, the initial harmonic character is the same. For the most clarity and less phase related issues down the line change your instrument. If you have the ability then change your whole rig but at the very least try a different guitar.

Micing amps is a whole other beast. This section alone can be a whole book so I will only briefly gloss over some ideas here. Or buy me a beer at a show and we can chat all night.

The placement of an amp in the room affects your sound dramatically. Having an open back amp against a wall will increase the amount of low frequencies in your sound. Having a small amp on the floor will increase first order reflections. Is the room large and live (reverberant) or tight and dry? Often the room sound will slip into your mics and affect your recordings. Speaking of mics, each type of mic responds differently and adds or subtracts to our sound.

The SM57, love it or hate it, will always be around and serve it’s duties wonderfully. Learn it and how to use it. Ribbon mics, like the Royer R-121, will add extra lower mids to your sound and often tame harshness. Condenser mics also sound incredible on amps. I love the sound of a Schoeps M22 (tube small diaphragm) on amps like a Fender Deluxe. Or a Soyuz 017 slays on guitar amps, as do so many other large diaphragm options.

Be mindful that each mic has a limit of how loud it can handle. If you have a Marshall Plexi at full blast some mics won’t be happy and give you thinner or distorted tones. You could also damage the microphone, like the sensitive ribbon mics, rendering them into very expensive door stops.

Placement of the microphone on the cabinet has a big change of sound. The more on the center of speaker cone you get, the brighter a sound you capture. As you move off axis, the sound gets a little darker, or warmer. How far or close your mic is will also change the timbre and room tone. Among other reasons, if you place a cardiod mic too close you will get a bass bump known as proximity effect. Listen to talk radio to hear this overused. Justin Colletti, of Sonicscoop, has this wonderful video exploring the different sounds we get with just this principle alone.

Originally I was hoping to get into mixing guitars, but that must wait till next time. The last point I want to drive home is that this is a skill set that we can always improve on. We are constantly learning. Go to conferences (AES), workshops, talks. Read magazines (Tape Op!) and watch videos. Talk to peers at all levels. Whenever possible I try assist other engineers. It lets me see how other people do things and handle situations. The amount I have learned from that or the conversations after the session about techniques and decisions used in the session has been monumental.

Master Your Tracks Instantly With Promaster by Aftermaster

If you’ve been using TuneCore or reading our blog for the past few years, you know that we’ve tried to highlight the benefits of well-mastered releases. Mastering is an art that can vastly improve the sound of your recorded music – and it once took knowing an audio engineer who specializes in this process to make it a possibility. It could also be more costly for those releasing on an indie budget.

In an effort to solve this, a little while back TuneCore began offering Aftermaster in our suite of Artist Services – a brilliant program that connects independent artists in need of mastering with GRAMMY Award winning engineers at a reasonable cost. Artists without the local resources or connections to high quality mastering options could now use Aftermaster to easily coordinate this studio magic-making in advance of their release.

Now, we’re psyched to announce a new and even more cost-friendly solution for instant mastering: Promaster by Aftermaster. TuneCore has expanded its partnership with Aftermaster in order to offer our artists the finest instant mastering tool on the market right now to polish their recently recorded tracks.

Promaster by Aftermaster is unlike any other instant mastering product in that it was wholly developed by artists, producers and audio engineers to streamline the mastering and storage process without compromising quality or creative intent. It uses cutting edge audio processing systems developed internally to instantly master audio to the highest standards.

Since we’re in the business of hooking artists up, Promaster by Aftermaster is ready to offer special rates exclusively for TuneCore Artists. For $9.95 per single and $24.95 per album, TuneCore Artists can also enjoy the following features:

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Whether you just wrapped up in the studio, recorded a new single in your bedroom, or feel like revisiting some never-released tracks – polish ‘em up fast at a price that doesn’t break the bank.

Learn more about TuneCore’s partnership with Promaster by Aftermaster here, or if you’re ready to start instantly mastering your tracks, get after it!

10 Ways to Make Vocals Sound Modern & Professional

[Editors Note: This is a guest blog written by Rob Mayzes, producer, mix engineer and founder of Home Studio Center, a site dedicated to providing valuable tips around recording from home studios.]

 

In most genres, the vocals are the most important part of the mix.

Especially in modern pop styles, there are a number of techniques that make a vocal sound modern, expensive and professional.

Once you apply these ten techniques, your mixes as a whole will improve.

1. Top-End Boost

This is perhaps the easiest and fastest way to make a vocal sound expensive.

Most boutique microphones have an exaggerated top-end. When using a more affordable microphone, you can simply boost the highs to replicate this characteristic.

The best way to do this is with an analogue modelling EQ, such as the free Slick EQ. Use a high shelf, and start with a 2dB boost at 10kHz.

Experiment with the frequency and amount of boost. You can go as low as 6kHz (but keep it subtle) and boost as much as 5dB above 10kHz. Just make sure it doesn’t become too harsh or brittle.

2. Use a De’Esser

When you start boosting the top-end, the vocal can start to sound more sibilant. To counteract this problem, a de’esser can be used.

These simple tools are a staple of the vocal mixing process, and required in at least 80% of cases. I find they usually work best at the very beginning or end of the plugin chain.

3. Remove Resonances

If you’re recording in a room that’s less than ideal, room resonances can quickly build up.

Find these resonances using the boost-and-sweep technique and then remove them with a narrow cut.

4. Control the Dynamics with Automation

For a modern sound, the dynamics of vocals need to be super consistent. Every word and syllable should be at roughly the same level.

Most of the time, this can’t be achieved with compression alone. Instead, use automation to manually level out the vocal.

I prefer to use gain automation to create consistency before the compressor. But regular volume automation works well too.

5. Catch the Peaks with a Limiter

Using a limiter after compression is another great way to control dynamics.

You don’t need to be aggressive with it (unless you are going for a heavily compressed sound). Aim for 2dB of gain reduction only on the loudest peaks.

6. Use Multiband Compression

As vocalists move between different registers, the tone of their voice can change. For example, when the vocalist moves to a lower register, their voice might start to sound muddy.

Instead of fixing this with EQ and removing the problematic frequencies from the entire performance, you could use multiband compression to control these frequencies only when they become problematic.

For any frequency-based problem that only appears on certain words or phrases, use multiband compression rather than EQ.

7. Enhance the Highs with Saturation

Sometimes EQ alone isn’t enough to enhance the top-end. By applying light saturation, you can create new harmonics and add more excitement.

8. Use Delays Instead of Reverb

For a modern sound, the vocals need to be upfront and in-your-face. Applying reverb to the vocal does the opposite of this, so is undesirable.

Instead, use a stereo slapback delay to create a space around the vocal and add some stereo width.

Use a low feedback (0-10%) and slightly different times on the left and right sides. I find that delay times between 50-200ms work best.

9. Try Adding a Subtle Plate Reverb

To add more width and depth to the vocal, try adding a subtle stereo plate on the vocal.

You don’t want the reverb to be noticeable, as discussed in the previous tip. Instead, bring the wetness up until you notice the reverb, then back it off a touch.

Start with the shortest decay time possible and a 60ms pre-delay to give the transients a bit more definition and room to breathe.

10. Try Adding a Subtle Chorus Effect

Another way to give the vocal a bit of depth and shimmer is to apply subtle chorusing.

Again, you don’t want the effect to be noticeable. Add a stereo chorus to the vocal and increase the wetness until you notice the effect, then back it off a touch.

Conclusion

The vocals are extremely important and will require more time mixing than most other instruments.

But once you apply the 10 techniques in this article, you can take a big step closer to a modern, professional sound.