Dialing in the Sound of a Distorted Guitar

In the third installment of this column, the article titled "Recording the Guitar -  Part 3 Miking the Guitar Amp," I explained the microphone, and the mixer and recorder setup. If you missed that article, read it before proceeding with this article on recording and EQing for distorted guitar tracks.

Dialing In The Guitar Sound for Distortion Guitar

Again, refer to Part 3 Miking the Guitar Amp for mixer/recorder/microphone setup details. Otherwise, let's just jump right into the EQ settings to nail a killer distorted guitar sound.

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. Also, if the guitar amp has a ground hum problem that can't be gotten rid of, the low freq 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. In this situation, it's best to not go above 100 cycles. If it's a fixed frequency, the odds are good it is around 100 cycles. Important: If the guitarist is playing "power low string 5ths" and the sound is thick in the low frequencies, pass on filtering here or filter around 60 cycles.

30 to 80 cycles: For lead playing, useless. For "low string power 5ths," if adding here, the guitar amp would need to incorporate a sub woofer and guitar tuning down to "D" or lower, or a 7 string guitar with a low "B" string. You might try adding around 80 cycles if looking for extreme lows but keep in mind that adding here will get into the bass instrument area and may mess up mix layering definition. Dig, if you want low end rumble, you will surely get it adding here!!! Hey, no rules so if it works for you, great!!!

By the way, we have not yet gotten into multiple speaker miking so if you're using a sub woofer system, such information will be explained in a future column when we get around to using more than one mic on the guitar amp.

80 to 200 cycles: For "low 5th's" follow the suggestions above, but more than likely this is a better area to add if wanting to let the bass instrument have more low-end sonic space in the mix. Try adding a few dB around 150 cycles.

In this EQ area (as well as in the 30 to 80 cycle area), the drums will typically have huge low end on the low toms and kick. Make sure there is not huge sonic collision build-ups between the guitar, bass, and drums. If so, something has to give in the "give and take world" of recording layering [Editor's note: For more on layering see Part 3 Miking the Guitar Amp]. The guitar would be the sound to not add in this area since the bass and drums are the low bottom end support. If the bass player will be playing notes other than the "root," check to see if adding this low end will cause low-end rumble between the guitar and bass. These are simply guidelines to consider.

Regarding low power 5ths, note that speaker cabinets have build-ups and suckouts. You may need to do some tweaking for uneven notes. When EQ'ing, keep this in mind. If you hear a low note "jump out" in volume, try to find this frequency by using the "sweep frequency technique" explained in Part 3 Miking the Guitar Amp. If you have a parametric equalizer, this would be a good time to patch it in so as to slightly "notch out" this area using a very small "Q," meaning width. If you find a dead note, you may need to bump it up. If you need to do both bumping up some frequencies and rolling out others to create an even sound, you many need to use two equalizers to fix the problem. My future article on serial and parallel equalizers will eventually explain all that in more detail.

For lead line or solo playing, if you need to add low-end weight to the sound, try adding a few dB at 150 cycles.

Remember, if adding in this area, if the amp is not baffled, you might be bringing up low frequency garbage from other instruments leaking into the guitar mic, especially if the room is medium to live sounding.

200 to 300 cycles: For the low "5th's" or line/solo playing, if the amp is a small-sounding, low-wattage amp, you may need to add a little here to slightly thicken up the sound, if adding in the 150 area did not help bring up the bottom. 

300 to 600 cycles: This area can cloud up the tone if not careful. This area is tricky since adding may sound good on its own but may make the sound get sucked up by other instruments in the monitor mix. Experiment as usual as to see what works.

600 to 800 cycles: For low 5th's, try rolling out a little if you're recording a power trio or the like. Typically, this style of music likes to dip out the mids for the low buzz saw 5ths. Around 800 cycles is a big sonic spot so add if you want the thick mid range tone.

For lead guitar, if you are looking for the sweet mid-range tone, try adding around 800 if the amp is not supplying enough in this frequency area.

800 to 1kHz: For low power 5th's, as with 600 to 800 area, you may want to slightly roll out or add depending if you want mid-range or not. It's best to check between 600 cycles and 1k to find the EQ pocket for the roll out or addition if you want the mid range sound. If you're dipping out or adding the mids, as usual, use the "sweep technique" to find the best spot.

For lead, again, if you are looking for the sweet mid-range tone, try adding around 800 if the amp is not supplying enough in this frequency area.

1K to 2 kHz: 1K is the center of the mid-range and the odds are good the amp will supply all you need. OK, low power 5th's may need a bit more on the board to bring out the middle harmonics, especially if adding at 2k is too painful. Again, if you want to suck out mids, experiment around 1k to hear if this is the spot to do so.

For lead, you may want to add around 1K if looking for more of a bright mid-range sound. Your ears will be the guide as usual. If the lead sound does not sound good with middle mids, try rolling out to taste.

2 kHz to 3.5 kHz: This is the area that needs to be dealt with very carefully for two reasons - Audio pain and distortion sonic trash. For lead, if the song is a power trio or the like, and if the guitar player will be switching from playing low buzz saw 5th's to lead, and if the low 5th's have a lot of 2k added, when going to lead, the 2k may really hurt your ears, especially if monitoring loud. Options around this problem will be explained in full at the end of this section.

For now, let's say that the guitar player is only going to play low power 5th's and not lead. Adding at 2k to around 3.5k may be needed to get the note definition, especially if the sound has a lot of low end. Since the notes are being played in the low register, there should not be a problem with pain unless adding many dB. Crank up the control room monitors to find out if in fact this area is adding too much pain. If it is, try adding in the 4k area instead if you need to open up the sound.

Regarding lead, the same applies regarding checking for pain. Be careful since adding a little in this area goes a long way. After many years of experience as a guitarist and engineer, I have learned when recording lead distortion guitar, it's best to crank up the monitor speakers when working in this area to make sure the addition is not adding ear pain to the sound! 

The other problem with this area is distortion trash. If the amp is not sweet sounding (meaning not a smooth mid-range distortion), this area will surely show the distortion trash. If the sound starts sounding like a fuzz tone when adding here, it's time to roll out instead. Don't fret (pun intended) if rolling out here since adding in the 4 to 5 kHz will open upper frequencies that should sound sweeter. 
3.5 kHz to 5 kHz: This area opens up the sparkle starting around 4 kHz. If the guitar sound is already loaded up in this area, be careful. If you have a mid-range sound, and it needs to be brightened up, around 4 to 5 kHz is a good frequency area to do so. 

5 kHz TO 8 kHz: Higher sparkle. Mess with this area as well as the 4 to 5 kHz area to see what works best for the application. If the sound is too "tizzy," try rolling out a dB or so.

8 kHz to 12 kHz: The pristine sheen area. Add if the guitar sound needs some air. If the guitar amp in noisy and this 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 on the tape return mixer module to also take down the tape hiss at the same time.

Negative EQ For The Distortion Sound

This is an area where negative EQ is occasionally used as a starting place. Forget about the above for now and start by rolling out first. For example, if you have too much 2 kHz (or so) from the amp sound, roll off the frequency level to taste. Since this pulls back the main meat of the sonic spectrum, be careful when adding low frequencies since that may make the sound too thick, causing sonic layering problems.

We will now deal with the logic: After the 2 kHz (or so) roll off, now build the EQ from there using positive low-end and or top-end EQ.  

Using positive EQ, if needed, try adding around 4 to 5 kHz to make up for the 2 kHz roll off. Now if you need some low-end, try adding around 150 cycles. This is a balancing act so, to get the best sound, revisit the 2 kHz roll off and the positive EQ additions. Since the equalizer allows for both negative and positive EQ, learn the sonic areas and let your ears guide the way.

Playing Low Power 5ths and Lead During The Same Pass

If playing low buzz saw 5th's and lead without overdubbing, meaning playing both styles on the same recording pass, separate EQ settings may be needed. If so, that will require multing off the recorded guitar to two different mixer modules or copying the track(s) digitally to another recorder track to EQ each separately. We will get into that in the mixing article in detail but for now, to play it safe, when EQing the guitar sound, just make sure there is no major 2 to 3 kHz pain for the lead sound. When mixing the song, you can easily add back that area for the low power 5ths if needed.

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