Tech Tip:Putting the "heavy" into recording heavy guitars
By Ronan Chris Murphy, Veneto West Studios
There is one thing that is always true when it comes to recording: the most important contributor to how we perceive the "sound" of a recording is the performance. Most of our perception of the sonic quality of a recording is governed by the music and performance, and quite often this can fool us into thinking records sound different than they actually do. This is the reason we can hear an old Black Sabbath song, such as "Iron Man" and hear it as something very heavy. But if you objectively analyze those recordings, the actual sounds are not particularly big or heavy. When looking purely at the sonics of recordings, the first album by the band Daughtry is heavier than any of the original Black Sabbath albums, but when we hear the majestic heavy riffs of Tony Iommi or the radio-friendly hooks of an American Idol finalist, people will often hear the heavier performance as the heavier recording.
If we accept that it all begins with the performance, the question is what can we do to make those great heavy performances sound even heavier? The answer is counterintuitive: heavy-sounding recordings are usually cleaner and more articulate than you might expect. Of course you will find exceptions to this: the sound of the "stoner" rock bands is often a low murky sludge, and some black metal of the last decade is often a wall of grating distorted fizz. But for the majority of great hard and heavy records, the heaviness comes from clean punch and power. AC/DC is a group with an impeccable groove and two pretty clean guitars. Mötley Crüe's Shout at the Devil is a great-sounding rock record with fairly clean and bright guitars. Even Slayer's classic Reign in Blood album is heavy and aggressive, but still clearer and more articulate than most people would expect—and the guitars are far less distorted than the possibilities offered by a modern high-gain amp.
There is a reason why Andy Wallace, a mixer known for very clean mixes, is one of the most sought-after mixers by many of the heaviest bands, including Slayer, System of a Down, and Sepultura. The reality is that heavy records are almost always cleaner or less distorted than you would think. You can prove it to yourself with a very simple experiment on a two-channel amp or with a stompbox. Set up a clean channel and a distorted channel (max distortion) and make sure they're at the same output level. Play your distorted channel first, then switch to clean and hear what happens. The clean guitar sound will jump out of speakers and have more impact than the distorted, or less articulate, guitar sound. Very distorted guitars will actually have less impact when blended into a track with other instruments. I always suggest that guitarists back off on the amount of distortion they think they need. This becomes even more important if the recording will have layers of guitars. Overly distorted guitars will usually make mixes sounds smaller rather than bigger, and the problem gets exponentially worse when those guitars are layered on top of each other.
The main reason why cleaner guitar sounds often work better in heavy music is because overly distorted guitars are extremely dense in harmonics and have been extremely compressed by virtue of the distortion. Heavy distortion limits dynamic range significantly, softens the transients of the guitar's attack, and reduces articulation; pick-strokes lose their detail and clarity. As a result the guitars become mushy and lose their punch. One reason you see many heavy guitarists using expensive boutique tube amps is that many tube amps (as opposed to solid state or digital) can push further into distortion while still maintaining the articulation needed to keep the guitars sounding big in the final mix—but even a great tube amp can lose its impact with excessive gain.
There are exceptions to the cleaner guitar guidelines, which you can hear in modern bands that use very high-gain guitar sounds, sometimes called the "Dual Rectifier" sound (a nod to Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier amps that started it). But the thing you find in most of these bands is that either a) The guitarists play very percussively with a lot palm muting, which actually cleans up the amount of space the guitar takes up in the mix and enhances rhythmic clarity by reducing harmonics; or b) The guitars will play more of a support role when it comes to the rhythm and groove of the track, while the drums are pushed up to create the punch and clarity in the mix—usually with the help of triggered drum samples.
One other point in our quest for punch and clarity when recording the amp is to understand that too much natural reverb or delay in the room can smear the impact and clarity of the guitar sound. If you are recording an amp in a very "live" space, consider using soft baffles around the guitar amp to create a more focused sound. If you are trying to record heavy and punchy guitar rhythm parts (especially with lots of gain), it often works better to record as dry as possible and add a hint of reverb in the mix (if needed), as opposed to using the natural ambience of the room. In other types of music, the natural ambience of the room can be a plus, but for heavier sounds it often works against you.
Here are a few things to think about when trying to get great-sounding guitars in heavy music:
So, consider not using as many layers of guitars. If you are going to layer guitars, use a different sound with each layer.
As with all things art and music, there should not be any rules, especially when talking about heavy music. But, in my work as a mixer trying to make a heavy band sound huge, I am often in a situation where I wish the guitars were a bit cleaner, but rarely in a situation where I wish they were more distorted.
We'd like to thank producer-mixer-artist Ronan Chris Murphy (Steve Morse, Robert Fripp, Steve Stevens, California Guitar Trio) for sharing his unique insights into the world of recording. Be sure to check out Ronan's Recording Show at ronansrecordingshow.com where you can see video production tips, gear reviews, and tours of world-class studios. And don't forget to check out Home Recording Boot Camp at homerecordingbootcamp.com, where you can learn directly from the modal Yoda himself, Ronan Chris Murphy.