Resources for the Recording Musician
November 7, 2008

Recording Distorted Guitar

Wise One:

Do you have any tips for recording distorted guitars?  When I try it, the recording sounds for ssssssizzzzly.

I have a Big Muff and a Boss OD2.  I've experimented with an SM57, a Cascade ribbon and I'm about to get a Sennheiser MD421.  I have a Marshall JCM2000.

Any tips would be greatly appreciated.

Although at first it seems like it should be simple to record distorted guitar, it can be very tricky to get just the right tone.

Obviously, you have to start at the source.  You need to tweak your guitar and amp, and any pedals/effects you are using, until it sounds good in the room.  Note that this may involve moving the amp around to different parts of the room, or getting the amp up off the floor, or even laying the amp on its back on the floor with the speaker pointed up.

It can be tough to do if you are trying to record yourself, as it's hard to play and figure out how to set up everything to get the best sound.

If the volume levels aren't deafening, you can try covering one ear and moving your head around the amp (while someone else is playing) until you find the spot where it sounds best to your ear.  Then, start with the microphone there.  Then, put on some sound isolating headphones so you are only hearing the sound through the headphones (and not the sound from the amp in the room) and slowly fine tune the position of the microphone until it sounds best in the headphones.  Then, double-check the sound through your studio monitors (especially if your headphones aren't that great), and tweak some more.

Note that this may involve moving the amp around as suggested before if you simply can't find a sweet spot with the microphone the way you first have it set up.

Try to keep it simple with one microphone to start with.  Any of those microphones you mentioned should give you a pretty standard sound if positioned correctly.  Later on, as you get more experience, you can try putting up more than one microphone and blending the tone, but then you need to watch for phase issues between the microphones.  Sometimes you can use two microphones up close, at the same distance from the speaker, to get two different close sounds that you can blend to taste.  Or, you could have one microphone up close and another further back in the room to pick up some room ambiance, if you have a good sounding room to record in.

You also have to think about how the tone is going to fit into the overall mix.  Most people who are relatively new to recording put too much distortion on the sound when there are setting it up, and it becomes too fizzy and sometimes even small sounding in the mix.  You generally want to try backing off a bit on the distortion/drive than what you initially think, especially if you are going to be double-tracking, or doing multiple layers.

Also, you are generally looking for mostly mid-range bite out of distorted guitars.  The bass guitar is going to fill in the low end in the mix, so you don't want too much low end on the distorted guitars, or else it will get all muddy in the mix, and not leave enough room for the bass.

If it's sounding too sizzly, back off of the treble on the amp, and/or move the microphone more towards the edge of the speaker cone.  Having the microphone pointed right at the center of the cone gives you the brightest sound... the more you move it off center, the less bright of a tone you get.  That's part of moving the microphone around while wearing headphones to figure out the right spot.

I've heard that some people get the best guitar tone by cranking the mids on the amp, and turning the bass and treble all the way down.  Of course, this all depends on the amp and the sound you are going for.  Also, be careful about adding too much extra distortion and fuzz with pedals... sometimes, all you need is the guitar straight into the amp to get the best sound.

In addition, what works in a live situation may not be the best for a studio, especially a home studio.  Many people prefer smaller amps with really low wattage in the studio because you can crank them up to the optimum distortion levels without making everyone's ears bleed or over-exciting the room, or overdriving the microphones.

Really, the key, though, is lots of practice and experimentation.  There is no right or wrong way to do it.  You just have to figure out what works for the particular song you are working on and the other instruments that are in the mix.  What sounds good by itself may not work at all in a dense mix with lots of other instruments.

Addition from another forum member:

If all you have is a stack or a half stack amp such as a Marshall or MB, you know you just can't get that ballzy sound unless you crank that puppy up, but who the hell can stand to stay in a small room with a full blown 100WT Marshall screaming at the top of it's lungs!!?? LOL

You can use a Marshall Power Brake or other amplifier sound attenuator. The unit makes the amp "think" it's running into a cabinet, so you can crank the gains and volumes to the high heavens, while not putting your ears through hell. The unit has a volume knob on it to only allow the amount of volume you want while getting more gain than you'll ever need. I'm not saying it will save your life or anything, but it might be a good solution if you only have a stack situation.

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