“Studio Standard” Microphones & Tips for Recording Electric Guitars

This next part in the series will focus on several “studio standard” microphone choices and recording tips for electric guitars.

Although there are a wide variety of digital amp simulators available today that allow you to plug your electric guitar in direct and get a wide range of sounds, there still is nothing quite like a real amplifier and guitar cabinet physically moving some air!  Capturing a great guitar sound from a real amp and cabinet just takes a little bit of time and experimentation to find the right microphones and the proper placement.  Below are some common starting points that many professionals use in the big studios.

SHURE SM-57

By far the MOST popular and most used microphone for guitar cabinets is the ubiquitous Shure SM-57.  You’ve heard this sound on countless albums by just about every type of artist that plays an electric guitar.  Place a Shure SM-57 right up against the grill of a cabinet, or a few inches back, and simply move it around until you get the sound you are after.  If it’s pointed right at the center of the speaker cone, you’ll get the brightest sound.  Moving it towards the edge of the speaker, or angling it off to the side, will take off some of the edge and mellow the tone out a bit.  Many times, this single microphone is all you need to get the sound you want.  Works on just about any guitar sound and almost any style of music.  In addition, it’s cheap!  Every studio needs at least two Shure SM-57 microphones!

Guitars are all about mid-range anyway, as most guitar cabinets usually have one, or more, decent size speakers (10 or 12 inch speakers are probably the most popular) that don’t produce a lot of extended high frequencies.  So, generally, there is no need for a condenser microphone since you aren’t trying to capture a detailed high frequency sound from a guitar cabinet.  Also, if you were to use a condenser microphone right up on a guitar cabinet, chances are the sound would be too bright and harsh for most styles of music.  Thus, dynamic microphones with a strong mid-range presence, such as the venerable Shure SM-57 are usually the first choice for guitar cabinets.

Sennheiser MD-421:

If there is a second place microphone for most common choices for guitar cabinets, the Sennheiser MD-421 is probably the closest thing.  You would use this dynamic microphone in the same way you would use the Shure SM-57.  Works great in all the same spots, and simply gives you a different tone than the SM-57.  Often times, recording engineers (myself included) will put up both the Sennheiser MD-421 and the Shure SM-57 on a guitar cabinet at the same time.  You could put each on a different speaker if the cabinet has more than one, or they could both be aimed at the same speaker.  The important thing is to check the phase of the two and get them as close to perfectly in phase as possible so you can blend the two sounds to taste.  But, the Sennheiser MD-421 can deliver a great sound all on its own as well, it’s just going to be a little bit different sounding than the Shure SM-57.  The Sennheiser MD-421 is considerably more expensive than the Shure SM-57, but it is a very versatile microphone that is also a “studio standard” on toms and percussion, and very useful for many other instruments as well.  Definitely the second choice of “must have” microphones you should add to your collection after you have at least one or two Shure SM-57 microphones.

Ribbon Microphones:

In the past several years, ribbon microphones have become very popular again, and several modern ribbon microphone manufacturers have come up with designs that can withstand the sound pressure levels that cranked-up guitar cabinets can put out (typically, ribbon microphones are very fragile, and the ribbon can easily be stretched or broken by big blasts of air).  Some of these ribbon microphones have now become a first choice for guitar cabinets for many engineers.  The response of the ribbon microphones are well suited for guitar cabinets since ribbon microphones have a very smooth high end that is not over emphasized or overly bright, like condenser microphones can be, and so they are great at smoothing out sources that can sometimes be too harsh sounding.  Ribbon microphones also sound a bit “warmer” partially due to the smoother high-end response, and also because they exhibit much more of a proximity effect than other microphone types, so they can really beef up a sound when the source is fairly close to the ribbon microphone.  Just make sure that you check the SPL handling capabilities of a ribbon microphone first before putting it right up on the grill of a guitar cabinet that has been cranked up!  A good starting point for ribbon microphones is to put them about 12 inchese away from the guitar cabinet, and then move it closer to, or further away, from the cabinet as needed to get the tone you want.  Taking the time to find the right position is everything with a ribbon microphone!

Be aware that ribbon microphones have a figure of eight pickup pattern, so they pick up sounds from the front and back of the microphone fairly equally.  However, with many ribbon designs, one side usually sounds a bit brighter than the other, so don’t be afraid to switch the direction around to see if the front or back side gives you the sound you are looking for.  Also, because of the figure of eight pickup pattern, you’ll be picking up some room sound as well, so a good sounding room and proper positioning in the room can be important as well.  However, if you are cranking the amp to very loud levels, the sound from the amp will most likely overpower the reflections from the room.  The closer the microphone is to the amp, the less influence the room sound will have.  But, if your room is small, and the walls are very close and reflective, a lot of the sound will reflect off the walls and into the back side of the microphone at nearly the same volume as the amp (when cranked), which could cause weird phasing and comb filter type effects.  Again, position of the microphone, as well as the cabinet position in the room, can make a HUGE difference in the sound.

Probably the most popular modern ribbon microphone choice for guitar cabinets are the Royer microphones.  The most popular Royer microphone for guitar cabinets is the R-121.  It was the first in their series, although they have added many more since then.  It can handle the loud levels of a guitar cabinet, and has a smooth response that seems tailor made for guitars.  Plus, as with most ribbons, you can get two distinct tones depending on which side of the microphone you use.
Another popular modern ribbon microphone design is the AEA R84.  I bought one of these for my own studio, primarily for use with brass instruments, but have found it useful for many other things as well.  Sometimes I use it on a vocalist that is overly bright or sibilant, and the R84 smooths that right out!  Due to its design, it’s usually not my first choice for putting right up close on a guitar cabinet that’s cranked to obscene levels.  However, I have recorded some really great tones using only the AEA R84 on a guitar cabinet for more mellow blues or jazz type sounds.  Others love it just as well for heavier, more distorted, guitar tones, but it takes some time to find just the right spot.

Combinations and other recording methods:

Many times, a single microphone won’t give you everything you want when recording a guitar through a cabinet.  Other times, you may just want to record with several microphones in several different positions, putting them all on separate tracks, to give you more flexibility when mixing.

As mentioned earlier, myself, and many other engineers, like the combination of the Sennheiser MD-421 and the Shure SM-57 on a guitar cabinet at the same time.  If you are looking for that “in your face” sound, use this combination right up close to the grill of the cabinet, and blend to taste.

Sometimes, though, you may want to capture some ambience from the room as well, or simply back the microphones off the cabinet a bit to let the sound “develop” a bit.  You could use a ribbon microphone a bit further back from the cabinet, as mentioned in that section, or you could even put a large diaphragm condenser microphone (or two) somewhere back further in the room, and blend those in with one or more microphones that are right up on the cabinet.  This is where you get into a lot of trial and error, moving the microphones around until you get a good sound from each, but also making sure that the phase relationships are such that they still sound good when blending them all together.  You’ll get plenty of phase issues and comb filter effects, so you have to be very patient and move the microphones around a little bit at a time until you find the perfect spot.  It’s very helpful to have an assistant for this… put them in the studio with headphones on while you sit at the console and listen to the sound of the microphones through the studio monitors.  Have the assistant very slowly move the microphone in question a little bit at a time, and yell at him through the talkback system to stop when it sounds right to you.

Sometimes the right placement for a microphone is not the most obvious.  One popular technique for open back guitar cabinets is to put a microphone BEHIND the cabinet to pick up the sound coming out the back.  Blending this is with another microphone coming from the front, may just be the sound you are looking for.  Be aware that you may need to flip the polarity on one of the microphones to get them close to being “in phase” with each other for the best tone.

Another not so obvous technique for room microphones that you are using to pick up some ambience would be to put them in a room corner with the microphone facing IN towards the corner walls (as opposed to pointing towards the guitar cabinet).  This will pick up more of the reflections from the walls and perhaps give a much nicer ambient sound than if the microphones were aimed towards the cabinet.

Also, consider moving the guitar cabinet around as well.  If the cabinet is close to a wall, it may sound too boomy.  Similarly, if it’s sitting on the floor, it may also sound too boomy, or you may get weird phase issues with the first reflections from the floor mixing in with the direct sound if the microphone is not right up against the cabinet.  Try getting the cabinet up off the floor on a chair, or stool, or whatever, to see if that improves the sound.

DIRECT:

Even if you are getting a good sound from the cabinet and the microphones you set up, it can sometimes be a good idea to record a clean direct signal as well.  Use a simple direct box to record a clean signal to your recording system while also splitting the signal to the guitar amp and cabinet at the same time.  Then, if you find out that the tone you recorded with the cabinet and microphones is not working for you in the mix, you can either Re-Amp the guitar part, or use an amp simulator plug-in to get a different sound.

As always, there is no right or wrong way to record a guitar cabinet.  Let your ears be your guide and do what sounds right to you and for the song!


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