Recording the Guitar Direct - Part 2
OK, in the last article we had plugged the guitar into the direct box and the direct box output into the mixer. Note that if the direct box is mic level output (typical), it plugs into a mixer module mic input. If its line-level output, it plugs into a mixer module line input. On some mixers, that may be the same input using the mixer module trim pot to set the gain.
If you are using a channel strip that has a direct box on the front end and good sounding EQ, you might want to plug directly into the recorder input. If the channel strip does not have a compressor, you may want to plug the output of the channel strip in the compressor input and the output of the compressor into the recorder input. In any case, most of the following will apply in theory.
For our routing example, we are recording the guitar on track #7 and using mixer module #9 for the guitar direct input. If you're using a digital recorder with a built in mixer, simply adapt with the same layout.
1) Plug the direct box cable into mixer module #9 mic input. (Determine if the direct box is line-level output. If so, and if there is a separate input for line level on the mixer input, use it.)
2) On module #9, to start, set the mic pre-amp trim to 20 dB. (If you have only one input gain trim pot, that is used for either a line-input level or mic input level. (If the signal from the direct box is line-level, and if you have only one input gain trim pot, set it to zero dB). If youre using a computer hard disk recorder with outboard analog-to-digital inputs, use the same setting on the input level control to start.
3) Assign mixer module #9 to bus #7 (bus #7 routes to the recorder track we are using for the guitar). Make sure that module #9 is not sent through the monitor chain and is only routed to record track #7.
4) Set recorder track #7 into input mode so we can monitor through the recorder. (In digital land, you may want to monitor the mic-input signal on module #9 BUT only do so if you notice a delay monitoring through the digital mixer and or recorder path. I will get into this subject in future articles).
5) Bring module #7 (recorder track return) about half way up on the fader throw.
6) Bring the studio control room monitor level up to a normal listening level.
7) Ask the guitarist to play the part for the song. While the guitarist is playing, slowly bring up the fader on module #9 (guitar mic fader source) to zero (unity gain). This level setting is typically around 3/4ths up on the fader throw Look at the etching next to the fader to find the zero mark.
8) If the direct box has an input level control, now is the time to set it not to distort the input circuitry. With the guitar volume full up, have the guitarist play all the open strings with a hard picking attack. Listen for distortion and if any exists, back off on the direct box input level until the distortion goes away. To play it safe, back off on the level a little more.
9) Above Step #2 further adjustment: If you're using an analog mixer and recorder adjust the pre-amp trim level (possibly line trim level if the direct box is line-level) on the mixer to average zero dB on the recorder track meter for now.
10) Above Step #2 further adjustment: If you're using a digital recorder format, adjust the pre amp trim (or line trim level if the direct box level is line-level) to -4 dB on the recorder track meter for now (-4 dB is safe in case the guitarist players louder when recording the odds are good that will happen!) Always remember that going into the red (past zero) on a digital format meter will definitely clip the A to D converter (analog to digital converter) which is not advisable!!! Digital distortion sounds terrible!!!
Regarding #9 and #10 above, if you are the guitarist and engineer, and if you'll be playing chords for the guitar part, play all the open strings when adjusting the level with your other hand. If you'll be playing single notes for the part, simply play one string for now like the D or G string and adjust the mixer level with the other hand.
Experiment with EQ settings on your mixer (stand-alone mixer or within a computer hard disk recorder/mixer) After EQing to taste, go back to step 8 or 9 (depending upon your recorder format). Make sure to have the guitarist play as loud as will be played for the song. Yes, if you are the guitarist and engineer, do yourself a favor and play as loud as you will play for the performance.
If you're using an analog recorder (step 9 above), it is possible to use a higher level other than an average of zero dB if looking for tape compression. In this case, after setting the EQ, compressor (if used), and possible other effects, to set the level for tape compression, you would need to put the guitar track in record and monitor in playback mode (monitoring off the playback head). Bring up the level on mixer module #9 to taste. The VU meter for track #7 will be slamming way past +3 dB. The primary consideration is to avoid distortion in the mixer and tape machine electronics. So if you start hearing ugly distortion, back off on the level until it goes away.
Note that when monitoring the guitar in playback mode, there is a delay. So if the guitarist is wearing headphones, its best to take out the guitar in the headphones while doing the level settings.
If you're using a digital recorder (step 10 above), its best to have the signal not go above 4 dB on the recorder track meter to play it safe. Always remember that digital distortion is simply awful!!!
99% of the time for pop, R&B, and the like, the direct box will want major EQ to achieve a bright sound.
EQing The Guitar On Mixer Module #9
Here is a tip for EQing any sound source while searching through the frequencies. Keep the monitor volume fairly low and start with the EQ pots set at zero gain meaning the center of the pot or the detent spot. When switching in the EQ, you should hear no change at this point. Now, while the guitar is being played, bring up the frequency volume on the mid frequency area almost all the way up and sweep the frequencies twisting the pot through its full frequency spectrum. You will find certain areas that sound good or bad for the instrument. After finding the frequency you like, pull back the frequency volume to center and then add to taste. If you are looking for an area to roll out, start with the frequency volume all the way down (negative EQ level) and sweep the frequencies with the frequency pot. After finding the desired spot, put back the frequency volume pot to center (off) and start rolling out until you find the best negative level spot. Try this with all the EQ areas as well. This is how the pros work with EQ.
Note I do not recommend doing this in the low frequency area if the sound source has serious low end (bass frequencies) to begin with such as the bass instrument, bass drum, tom toms or the like. The reason is you may blow your woofers if the monitor volume is too loud. When using mid or upper frequencies, your ears will remind you to turn down the monitor volume down while you add the gain but the low end frequencies will not tell your ear to turn down the monitor volume until it may be too late. In the low frequency area, try adding about +6 dB for the sweep frequency checkout. By the way, note that most home stereo speakers do not go below around 60 cycles so in most cases, adding below 60 cycles is useless for instruments that have extreme low frequency information. (Again, if monitoring loud, adding below 60 cycles may toast woofers.)
Important: Let's assume we are recording a band that includes guitar, drums, bass and keyboard. The main keyboard may be a piano, organ or a synthesizer. Obviously, we want to EQ the guitar to sound good but we need to make sure we dont EQ in areas that will get in the way of other instruments. This is called layering.
In this era of digital hard disk recorders (with a built-in mixer), in most cases all EQ designs are available such as peak, shelf, parametric and graphic. Stand-alone mixers typically incorporate peak and shelf EQ. Parametric EQ may be included on mid to pro line mixers. You should read your mixer manual as to see what your mixer incorporates.
Stand-alone mixer input modules will typically have 2, 3, or 4 separate EQ frequency bands and a gain pot for each allowing roll off or gain addition. Hard disk computer based mixer/recorders typically include at least 5 bands and more in some cases!
An outboard equalizer may be used along with the mixer module equalizer allowing more frequency bands. Note that it is possible to gang mixer equalizers together if need be. This could be performed in series or parallel. Ill get into so much more on this type of routing in future articles.
Remember that after recording the guitar, when you mix the song, you can once again EQ the guitar as to further shape the sound. Keep in mind there are no rules, just guidelines. When experimenting with EQ, twist the pots and trust your ears!
Clean (Non Distorted) Rhythm for Pop, Rock, Country, etc.
Low frequency filter: Typically a very steep filter that eliminates low frequency information. The pick up configuration will make a difference in this area. If using the neck pickup the sound will be dark and thick so you may want to roll out at around 100 to 150 cycles. If this is too steep of a roll off, we will deal with this in the 80 to 200 cycle area. Also, if the direct box is causing ground hum (and you have no ground switch), the filter should help get rid of some of the hum. The filter may be frequency adjustable or a fixed frequency. If adjustable, experiment with the frequency settings to find which works best. Most likely it will be in the 100 to 150 cycle area. If the filter is a fixed frequency, the odds are good it is around 100 cycles.
30 to 80 cycles: Basically useless for this application BUT if you have a hum problem, you might try rolling out here as well. Try 60 cycles.
80 to 200 cycles: Note that If the low strings will not be played, meaning just the upper 4 strings (typical for pop and R&B rhythm playing), theres probably no reason to add or subtract in this area. After saying that, and if the low strings will be played, as mentioned in the low frequency filter paragraph, the pick up configuration will make a difference in this area. If using the neck pickup the sound will be dark and thick so you may want to roll out a few dB around 100 to 150 cycles. On a two pickup humbucking configuration using both pickups, or a Strat type in the middle pickup, or middle and rear pickup, again, the odds are good nothing will need to happen here. If using the rear pickup on any pickup configuration, you might try adding a dB or so if the sound is thin and wants some help. Try adding at 150.
200 to 300 cycles: 99% of the time, no need to add or subtract. It will sound kind of thick here for now but we are going to add major highs, which will balance out in the long run. Ok, if after adding the upper frequencies its a little mushy, try rolling out a dB or so at 300.
300 to 600 cycles: This is the cloudy mid-range area. The direct guitar will have a build up in this area but theres no need to roll out yet since, as mentioned above, when adding the upper frequencies, this area should be fine. If not, try rolling out a dB or so using the sweep frequency technique to find the magical spot. OK, one more consideration that has to do with the main keyboard. If the song is using a keyboard instrument that is playing chords, the main keyboard will typically take up space in this area. The clean guitar sound also gets its low mid-range sonic meat in this area as well. If the keyboard sound is thin in this area (like a clavinet type sound), and if you would like the guitar sound to be thicker in this area and it is fighting with the keyboard, and if the rhythm guitar is the feature in the mix, try this. Using the sweep frequency technique explained, find the spot to roll out EQ on the keyboard to make room for the guitar sound.
600 to 800 cycles: This area is the boxy sounding mids and is part of the meat of the sound and in this case, you will hear tons of this area. Again, we are going to add high-end information big time so for now, no need to do anything here.
800 to 1kHz: Nothing to do here at this point since the honk is not like with miking an amp.
1K to 2 kHz: 1K is the center on the midrange area. Nothing to do here at this point.
2 kHz to 3.5 kHz: Here we go with adding aggressive EQ. Using the frequency sweep technique (read Part 4), slam the EQ level full up and twist the frequency pot between 2 kHz to 3.5 kHz. The odds are good around 3 kHz is going to add the area that will open up the sound! I typically end up with almost full gain in this frequency area!
3.5 kHz to 5 kHz: This area starts bringing up the sparkle. We are going to slam EQ here as well! Using the frequency sweep technique, slam the EQ level full up and twist the frequency pot between 4 kHz to 5 kHz. The odds are good around 5 kHz is going to add the area that will open up the sound even more! I typically end up with almost full gain in this frequency area!
5 kHz TO 8 kHz: More sparkle. Hey, keep slamming the EQ and look for the best frequency point of the best sparkle. If you are looking to brighten up the sound further, add here to see if this is needed. Humbucking pickups may like this area as well if you want more sheen factor.
8 kHz TO 12 kHz and higher: You may get some help here but the direct box guitar signal usually is not passing information in this area. NEGATIVE EQ: With direct guitar, this approach may soften the sound too much since to make the sound seem bright, you would have to roll out tons of upper lows and lower mids. This approach would also add noise to the chain since you would need to make up for the gain loss after rolling out all the mentioned EQ.
OK, after saying that, you may want to try a combination by adding in the 2 to 3K area first. Then add in the 4 to 5K area. After doing this, try rolling out a few dB in the 100 to 800 area using the sweep frequency technique. After doing this, pull back a dB or so in the upper added frequencies. Go back and forth to get a good positive and negative EQ balance.
Now if this concept makes the sound too small, pass. Hey, it is a way to make the sound small if that is what you are looking for.
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 EQing the direct guitar, 99% of the time I find that compressing is absolutely necessary for most any style of playing. The compressor will add much needed punch (impact) to the sound since the direct guitar sounds kind of lifeless. Usually we use the compressor to help even out the notes. In this case, that is not the main event but in this application, the compressor is really important to give life/punch to the sound!!! Review the compressor article (Part 10) for one mic and get ready to slam the compressor with like an average of 5 dB of compression and a ratio of around 4 to 1. Use a fairly fast attack and release time as to start.