Tech Tip:The Top 10 Guitar Recording Mistakes
By Craig Anderton
Whoa! That was some bad note. So naturally, you re-record the part. But are you paying attention to the other mistakes—the ones that involve the recording process itself? The following mistakes can tear your tone in two, so here’s a word to the wise: Avoid them.
1. Mixing direct and miked signals without compensating for delay.
Here’s the deal: Sound travels at about one foot per millisecond, while electrons move a whole lot faster. So the miked signal arrives at your mixer at the speed of sound, while the direct signal arrives at close to the speed of light. If the mic is one foot away from your speaker, zoom in on the tracks and shift the miked signal ahead in time by about a millisecond until they line up (Fig. 1). You’ll hear a much fuller, punchier tone. This is particularly important with bass.
Fig. 1. The green track is the dry signal, and the blue, the miked signal. The upper view shows their original time relationship. The lower view shows the same tracks after being time-aligned.
2. Forgetting to check for mono compatibility.
You love your cherished, vintage AxeBlaster Flanger with its s u p e r w i d e stereo spread. Only problem is the way they get that stereo spread is by flipping the phase 180° on one of the output channels. This may sound great live, but when the signal gets re-combined in mono, portions of it (maybe even all of it) will disappear. Ouch. This can also happen with stereo mics on a single sound source, so always check what a track sounds like in mono before you sign off.
3. Stringing along with dead strings.
Yes, change your strings before that important recording session and no, adding compression to increase sustain is not a suitable substitute. With new strings, your axe will sound brighter, notes will sustain longer, and tuning will be more consistent. Don’t just boil your strings – go ahead and splurge, spend the bucks, and re-string.
4. Using "automatic double tracking" instead of playing the part twice.
It’s that popular preset in your multieffects: Automatic Double Tracking, where the processor copies your signal, delays it a bit, detunes the copy to "humanize" it, then recombines it with the straight signal. Although ADT is a valid effect in its own right if you want a sort of more focused version of chorusing, nothing substitutes for doubling a part by actually playing it twice. Furthermore, when you record each part on a different channel, you can spread the stereo image – one track more right, the other more left – for a bigger, more enveloping sound.
5. Falling into a "mic rut."
You found a condenser mic that sounds great on acoustic guitars, and have a favorite dynamic mic for amps. And you’ve used them forever. But maybe you need to experiment. For example, one of the things that surprised me was just how great a Royer ribbon mic can sound on a guitar amp. And I once got an ultra-fat sound on an acoustic with a dynamic mic. Why be normal? Just don’t do anything dumb, like placing a super-sensitive condenser in front of an amp blasting at the levels of a Saturn 5 booster rocket.
6. Not orienting an electric guitar for minimum noise.
"Pickups" are appropriately named, because they pick up a lot more than strings – like buzzes, electrical hash, dimmer noise, and the like. The good news is that the pickup is directional, and changing the guitar’s position can make it less prone to picking up garbage. Don’t use your ears; look at the meters, because the levels will be really low. If the noise is hitting at -45dB, it may not be that obvious, but it will be if you start adding effects like compression. Try moving the guitar position, and you may be able to get that noise down to -55 or even -60 dB.
7. Turning up your amp too high.
We all know that you need to turn an amp up to a certain point to get a good "tone." But don’t go past that point. Why? Aside from the possibility of overloading your mic, things in the room will have more of a tendency to rattle, and poor room acoustics may be overemphasized.
8. Forgetting to bring a spare set of tubes.
Tubes fail, tubes go soft, and they sometimes do so at inopportune moments … ’nuff said. And remember, if one tube of a matched set fails, you need to replace them both. It’s a good idea not to trust the tubes you buy, but to try them out immediately in your amp to make sure they actually work. Once you’re satisfied they’re okay, pull them out and save them for when they’re needed.
9. Not paying attention to tuning.
This doesn’t just mean tuning up before the session; we all know that’s a good idea. But have you adjusted bridge intonation lately? Just changing strings can be enough to throw the intonation out of whack. You may not notice that there’s any problem until you start recording, and everyone’s listening to your guitar under the audio equivalent of a microscope. In my experience, few things can destroy a session faster than having to adjust intonation on a guitar with dead strings (see mistake #3), because it will be next to impossible to get it in tune. Tempers will fray, harsh words may be exchanged. It’s better to take 30 seconds to check tuning before recording a part than have to re-record the part because the tuning was off.
10. Using a stompbox with an AC adapter. Or for that matter, with batteries.
If you record with a stompbox that can use batteries or AC, try both and see which sounds better. With some old stompboxes, the AC adapter might add some noise or buzz that batteries will eliminate. Conversely, if the batteries aren’t super-fresh, the lower voltage may degrade tone. Moral of the story: When you show up at the session, bring both the AC adapter and a fresh set of batteries.
Also, note that rechargeable batteries sometimes peak out at a slightly lower voltage than alkaline types. Normally this shouldn’t make any significant difference, but if you use rechargeables (which is indeed a good idea), make sure that the sound is equivalent to what you get with standard alkaline batteries.