Dialing in Clean Lead Sounds

In my last article I explained the mixer and recorder setup for tracking and EQing the guitar for clean rhythm sounds. If you missed that article, read it before proceeding with this article on recording clean lead guitar tracks.

So, without further delay, here are the EQ settings that will help you record great clean leads, or hand muted single or double note "pseudo" rhythms:



Low frequency filter: Typically a very steep filter that eliminates low frequency information. If the guitar amp is being recorded in a room with other instruments (such as bass and drums) and there is low frequency leakage from other instruments into the guitar mic, it's best to use the low frequency filter. Another use is that if the guitar amp has a ground hum problem that can't be gotten rid of, the Low frequency filter should help. The filter may be frequency adjustable or a fixed frequency. If it's adjustable, experiment with the frequency settings to find which works best. Most likely it will be in the 100 to 150 cycle area. If it's a fixed frequency, the odds are good it is around 100 cycles.

30 to 80 cycles: No reason to add in this area since clean guitar lead and hand muted style typically does not require extreme low frequency information.

80 to 200 cycles: For muted single/double note playing, I would typically not add in the 80 to 200 cycles range since this area will most likely mush the sound. For the clean lead sound, if the guitarist is playing the low strings and the sound is thin and needing some low body, try adding a few dB around 150 to 200 to bring up the bottom (if needed). But you do not want the sound to be mushy so be careful. If you need to roll out low-end stuff (mentioned in the Low frequency filter section above), and you have no low-end filter, try rolling out a few dB or so around 100 cycles. Yes, there is a trade off here if you like adding at 150 or so, but even though the filter is in the chain at 100 cycles, the filter is dropping down whereas the 150 to 200 cycle add is dropping down AND also reaching up in frequency land. The 150 to 200 cycles will be heard with no problem. 

200 to 300 cycles: For muted single/double note playing, I would typically not add in this range since this area will most likely mush the sound. For lead, If the amp is a small, low-wattage amp and you are playing the low strings, and want some low-end support - and if adding at 150 up to 200 cycles did not help - you may need to add a little here to slightly thicken up your sound. Be careful not to mask the sound if the guitar sound does not need the help.

300 to 600 cycles: For muted single/double note playing, I would typically not add in this range since this area will most likely mush the sound. This is a cloudy area but, for lead, you might want to add a taste if you are looking for a thick sound. There are no rules, and your ears will lead the way.

600 to 800 cycles: This area provides the "boxy" sounding mids and is part of the meat of the sound. You may want to add here if looking for a mid-range tone. You may want to roll out a taste if you want a bright sound without much mids. The musical style will lead the way. For the muted thing, I would not add and may slightly roll out in this range if looking for that "glassy" sound.

800 to 1 kHz: This area starts to bring out the "honk factor." If you need this sonic help or want this sound, add in this range. Again, the style will dictate. For the muted thing, I would typically not add here unless the amp sound lacks mids. As with the above area, if you want that glistening, glass-like beautiful hi-fi tone, roll out a dB or so.

1 kHz to 2 kHz: 1K is the center of the midrange. The bandwidth of a telephone comes to mind. Ironically, I seem to not add or pull out in this area unless looking for an "effected sound." If your ears like adding or subtracting, do so.

2 kHz to 3.5 kHz: This is the area which will make the guitar cut through a track, even when it's back in volume in the mix. For that matter, this area will make most any mid-range instrument/vocal sound cut through a mix even if not that loud. If the guitar is a single-coil pickup guitar, such as a Fender Strat, with three pickups and the pickup selection is the middle and rear pickup together or the neck pickup and the middle pickup together, try adding here if you want more note definition. If the guitar has two humbucking pickups and the pickup switch selector is activating both pickups; this sound will typically already have a slight build up in this area without any EQ help. You may still want to bring up this area but be careful to not add pain. Bring up the monitor volume on the mixer to find out if adding in this area hurts your ears. If so, you have too much build up in this EQ range. In some cases, you may need to slightly roll out here. If you do, be careful not to roll out too much or the sound will become distant, even if set "forward" in the overall band mix.

This EQ range is the most sensitive since it is the key to note definition (clarity) as well as pain (if too much) when monitored loud. A dB or so goes a long way in the audio spectrum! Of all the EQ areas, this can be your best friend or your worst enemy. Again, when adding, listen loud to see if you are adding too much. No rules friends - you may want the sonic pain.

For the muted thing, you may like this area since it will not be painful and will really open up the sound.

3.5 kHz to 5 kHz: This area starts bringing up the "sparkle." If using a Fender Strat type guitar with the above mentioned pickup selections, and if the amp, speaker(s) and mic features this EQ pocket area, you might not need to add here. This EQ area is a friendly spot since typically, nothing is in its way regarding other instruments or vocals. For lead, if the guitar player is playing with a hard attack and is using light strings, this area might sound thin. If so, and you like the sound, try adding in a lower area, such as 800 cycles, to offset the EQ balance.

For the muted thing, this is a delicious area. Again, if you're recording a Strat using two pickups, this sound may already be there big time. This will be obvious when adding.

5 kHz to 8 kHz: More sparkle. If you are looking to brighten up the sound further, add to see if this is needed. Humbucking pickups may like this area as well if you want more sheen factor. For lead, watch out not to thin out too much here. If the guitar player is using thick strings or a dark tone, adding in this area may sound good.

8 kHz to 12 kHz: The pristine sheen area. Add here if the guitar sound needs some air. As with the other upper treble frequencies, watch out to not thin out the tone, especially if playing high up on the guitar neck. If the guitar amp in noisy and the area does not add much to the tone you are looking for, you might try rolling out in this area to keep the noise down. If recording to analog tape, you may want to do the roll out later when mixing to also take down the tape hiss at the same time.

If the guitar is going back and forth from playing rhythm to lead, you will need to EQ to find the best of both worlds. When in doubt, my school of thought is to always EQ on the bright side especially if using analog tape. It is better to roll off a little top end when doing the final mix since you will also be taking down noise recorded (especially if recorded on analog tape) and recorder return/module path noise as well.


Using Negative EQ

The last sentence in the above paragraph relates to negative EQ. I have not yet mentioned this as a concept when EQ'ing. Negative EQing means starting a sound shape not adding any positive EQ - shaping the sound instead using only minus EQ to start. Here is an example: Let's say that the guitar amp sound featured tons of 2K. Using positive EQ, we might try to thicken up by adding some bottom and some top end, around 5k or above. Using negative EQ, we would roll out the 2K area until the bottom and upper top is in balance. When doing this, we are also pulling back the overall gain so you may need to add more overall gain to the path.

On the other hand, you now may wish to add some positive EQ. If so, don't worry about the level yet. Let's say you now want to add some positive EQ. With all of the above in mind, dial in the sounds to taste.


Adjustments Other than EQ

I covered this in my previous article, but let me go through it again here just in case: After EQ'ing in full, if the sound is not what you want, you may need to move the mic around to find a better sonic position. If so, center the EQ level pots and start over. You may want to try other mics as well. Hey, note that mikes of the same model all sound different! This is typical so don't get bugged. You may want to keep a notebook regarding the characteristics of all your mikes. For all of my Shure SM 57's I have a piece of artist tape on each mike stating stuff like, "honest mid range," "bright sounding," "dark sounding," etc.  

Remember that recording is a give and take situation. Each instrument needs its own frequency sonic pocket and pan settings. EQ the guitar to sound great on its own and get ready to change the EQ shape when listening to the whole band, as well as changing the EQ shape of other instruments. Paint the sonic picture with EQ. After mic experimentation selection and placement, the EQUALIZER is your best friend for sonic layering.

After EQ'ing for the clean lead or muted sound, 99% of the time I find that compressing helps to kind of "even up" the level as well as adding "punch" (impact). The odds are good that the guitar amp speaker cabinet will have frequency build ups and suck outs, meaning that some notes may jump out or be sucked back. The mixer EQ will also add frequency build-ups and suck outs (if negative EQ is used as well). This is so very typical in both cases. After you are happy with the EQ settings, it's time to compress. The compressor/limiter article will be posted soon.

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