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:

 

 

Nothing you do on the technical side of the recording setup matters half as much as the way the guitarist plays. Play heavy!

 

 

In the final mix, slightly less distorted guitars tend to sound more powerful and bigger than overly distorted guitars.

 

 

Every  guitar track layer you add will actually soften the attack and punch of  the guitars, which can make them sound smaller in the final mix.

So, consider not using as many layers of guitars. If you are going to layer guitars, use a different sound with each layer.

 

 

 

If  you use multiple mics to record your guitar amp (I am not suggesting  you necessarily should), be very careful of phase problems. Bad mic  phase can emasculate the guitars in the final mix.

 

 

Great  heavy-sounding records come from everything sounding great together. If  your guitar sounds amazingly huge by itself, your overall mix will  probably not sound great. In the final mix we hear the guitar sound as a  composite of the bass and guitar sound (and even the cymbals) together.  Competing low frequencies of the bass and guitar can take the punch and  impact out of a mix.

 

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.