Tracking Clean Rhythm Sounds

Dialing In The Guitar Sound for "Clean" (Non Distorted) rhythm playing for Pop, Rock, Country and any other similar styles.

Most of the information in this article series is based upon a separate mixer and recorder. Yes, in this era, computer hard disk recorders have built in mixers and are becoming the norm. Throughout the series I'll make sure to note how to work with computer hard disk recorders/mixers, but I'll default toward separate components. There are still many users that have separate mixers and recorders so as to be fair to all readers, it is easier to adapt to using a separate mixer and recorder than it is to adapt using a computer hard disk recorder. Just the same, it should be easy enough for computer/hard disk recorder owners to adapt the information. Ok, let's get to work.

Now that we have the best mic position set and the mic stand and cable is anchored down and the amp baffled if needed, before we EQ the guitar signal, you may ask the guitarist to change amp tone control settings. Of course, if you are the guitarist, a one-man show, that allows total control. For example, you may think the sound needs slightly more treble, presence, mid-range, or bass. Depending upon the amp tone control options, this is the time to experiment. After achieving the best possible settings from the amp, it's almost time to add EQ on the recording mixer.

To make things easy I always refer to the mixer/recorder set up. Yes, you will need to refer to other details in previous articles from this series, so please do so after the mixer recorder set up. For our example, we are recording the guitar on track #7 and using mixer module #9 for the guitar mic input. If you're using a digital recorder with a built in mixer, simply adapt with the same layout.

1 - Plug the guitar mic cable into mixer module #9 mic input.
2 - On module #9, 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 gain or mic input. If you're 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 buss #7 (buss #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 up 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 - Adjustments to Step 2 for analog/separate mixers: If you're using an analog mixer and recorder (hardly used these days) adjust the mic pre-amp trim level on the mixer to average zero dB on the recorder track meter for now.
9 - Adjustments to Step 2 for digital mixer/recorders: If you're using a digital recorder format, adjust the mic pre-amp trim 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! Of course, as John Lennon proved  there are no rules - so this is a good time to slam the level to see what digital distortion sounds like.

Regarding the adjustments to Step 2, if you are the guitarist and engineer, if the amp is in a separate room or closet, you will be monitoring over the control room speakers. If you have no guitar amp isolation, meaning the amp is in the same room as the board/recording deck/monitors, you will be using headphones to monitor. In any case, if you're going to be playing chords for the guitar part, play all the open strings when adjusting the level with your other hand. If you're going to be playing single notes for the part, simply play one string for now, such as the "D" or "G" string, and adjust the mixer level with the other hand.

Experiment with EQ settings on your mixer, whether it's a stand-alone mixer or 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 he or she will be playing for the song. 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 and you want to get a little "tape compression," it is acceptable to use a higher level than an average of zero dB (step 8 above). In this case, to set the level for tape compression (after setting the EQ, outboard compressor (if used), and possible other effects), you would need to put the guitar track in record and monitor it in "playback" mode (monitoring off the playback head). Bring up the level on mixer module #9 to taste. If mixer module #9 becomes maxed out and you want more level, use the line level trim pot. The VU meter for track #7 will be slamming way past +3 dB (+3 dB is the end of the meter range on most analog meters). Understand that there is a difference between tape compression and electronic distortion. We tend to like a little tape compression, but electronic distortion - which you get by pushing the machine too far, usually doesn't sound so good. To avoid ugly distortion in the mixer and tape machine electronics, back off on the level a little until it goes away. Note that you want to do this level setting after EQing since positive EQ adds level.

Note that when monitoring the guitar in "playback" mode there is a delay, so if the guitarist is not you and is wearing headphones, it may be best to take the guitar out of the headphones while doing the level settings.  I know - I haven't gotten around to the headphone mix stuff yet, but I will do so in following articles.  

If you're using a digital recorder (step 9 above), it's 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!  Yea, no rules as usual and just the opinion of the author.

If you don't think the guitar sound needs EQ, there's no reason to add any, BUT the only way you will find out is to experiment with EQ settings. So here we go.


EQ'ing The Guitar On Mixer Module #9.

Here is a tip for EQ'ing 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" [Editor's note: "Roll out" is a typical studio term used when wanting to subtract EQ level at a desired frequency.] 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.

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 you don't want to play around too much with the low frequency EQ settings is that 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 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.


Layering Instruments and Their EQ Settings

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 don't 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 built-in mixers, in most cases, all EQ designs are available, such as peak, shelf, parametric, and graphic EQ. Stand-alone mixers typically incorporate only peak and/or shelf EQ. Parametric EQ may be included on mid- to pro-line mixers. You should read your mixer manual to see what type of EQ capabilities your mixer incorporates.

Stand-alone mixer input modules will typically have two, three, or four 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 five bands, and in some cases more!

An outboard equalizer may be used along with the mixer module equalizer, allowing more frequency bands. It is possible to "gang" mixer equalizers together if need be. This could be performed in series or parallel. I'll get into much more on this type of routing in future columns.   

Remember that after recording the guitar, when you mix the song, you can once again EQ the guitar 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 playing for Pop, Rock, Country and Any Other Similar Styles.

Low frequency filter: A low frequency filter is 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 (often it's usually an on/off choice). Also, 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 work 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.

80 to 200 cycles: The typical rhythm guitar sound does not require low-frequency information, but there are no rules friends. If the low strings will be played, you may like the sound of adding a few dB around 150 to slightly bring up the bottom. But be careful that it does not mush up the sound. If the low strings will not be played, meaning just the upper 4 strings (typical for pop and R&B rhythm playing), there is no reason to add in this area. If you need or want to roll out the 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 to 150 cycles.

200 to 300 cycles: In most cases, there is nothing to do here, but again, there are no sonic rules. If the amp is a small, low-wattage amp and you are playing the low strings (and wanting 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 tone. But be careful not to mask or muddy the sound if the guitar sound does not need the help.

300 to 600 cycles: This is the cloudy mid-range area. If the song is using a keyboard instrument that is playing chords, the main keyboard will typically take up space in this area. But the clean guitar sound 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), or if the guitar is thin sounding, you might want to add a few dB to fill in the gap, but be careful not to mask note definition. If you like the guitar sound to be thicker in this area and it is fighting with the keyboard, but 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 of the EQ creates the "boxy" sounding mids and is part of the meat of the sound. Most likely, this area will not need help UNLESS you want a thick midrange sound or want to roll off a few dB to get rid of some of the mid thick area. 

800 to 1kHz -. This area starts to bring out the "honk factor." If you need this help or want this sound, add. There is typically no reason to roll out in this area but again, no rules. 

1K to 2 kHz. - 1K is the center on the midrange area. The bandwidth of a telephone comes to mind. Be careful in this area with humbucking style pickups since adding will surely get sonic attention but may sound ugly.

2 kHz to 3.5 kHz. - This is the area that will make the guitar cut through a track even when set back in level within the overall mix. For that matter, this area will make most any mid-range instrument/vocal sound cut through a mix even if not that loud. Note this concept is called "apparent level." If the guitar is a single coil pickup style like 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, 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 have a slight build up in this area. You may still want to bring up this area but be careful to not add ear 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 area. 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 area 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 sonic rules as usual - you may want the sonic pain.

3.5 kHz to 5 kHz. - This area starts bringing up the "sparkle." Rhythm guitar typically likes this area. If using a Fender Strat-type guitar with the above mentioned settings, and if the amp, speaker(s) and mic features this EQ pocket area, you might not need to add here, but experiment to find out. If using humbucking pickups, try adding a few dB for sure. This EQ area is a friendly spot since typically, nothing is in its way regarding other instruments or vocals.

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".

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 a few dB 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 mixer tape return module to also take down the tape hiss at the same time.

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, 95% of the time I find that compressing the rhythm guitar (or most any guitar application) 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 suckouts (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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