Tech Tip:Guitar Miking: Getting a Great Guitar Sound, Part 1

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Part 2

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Part 5



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Part 1: Intro / Mic Choices / Shure SM57 / Sennheiser MD421U

What makes a great guitar recording? Start with a good player, the right amp, and a sweet-sounding axe. Engineers can work magic with less, but it's unrealistic to expect a great track from a lame-sounding amp, guitar, or performance. But let's assume that the goods are coming from the speakers. To get that magic on tape (or disk), the recording engineer must combine his knowledge of guitars and amplifiers with an understanding of microphones and miking techniques. The ideal sound is the one that best fits the guitar part, the song, and the genre of production. While there are many excellent options for direct recording available today, we're interested here in the time-honored tradition of miking up amplifiers.


Choosing and positioning microphones are crucial steps in shaping and capturing a guitar sound. The wrong mic, or even the right mic in the wrong place, can sabotage even the best-sounding amp. Conversely, you can use mic placement to enhance the best qualities of an amp's sound. And while there are no hard and fast rules -- you'll need to use your ears to decide what's working -- we can tell you where to begin.


Choosing a Microphone
Microphone choice is as big a part of the guitar sound as any other factor. Mic type will greatly influence the player's tone and, by extension, the performance. There are almost as many mics and setups to choose from as there are amps and guitars. Let's take a look at some favorites.


The Trusty SM57
The Shure SM57 cardioid dynamic is the most common microphone used to record electric guitar. This started back when all the more expensive microphones had already been used in big tracking sessions. Engineers were left with the lowly Shure to handle those loud, cranky, noisy guitar amps. Fortunately, it turned out that the SM57 was perfect for the task; its frequency response, originally tailored for speaking, matches the mid-range "voice" qualities of the guitar. The SM57 also has a compression effect on loud sounds; it squashes nicely, facilitating the engineer's job of maintaining consistent recording levels.

You'll see engineers push a SM57 right into the grille cloth of an amp cabinet, taking advantage of the proximity effect, which boosts low frequencies when the mic is placed close to a sound source. The SM57 locks in a certain "size" for the electric guitar, maintaining its appropriate place in the mix without additional EQ or compression.


Sennheiser's MD421U
The Sennheiser MD421U cardioid dynamic is also popular. It offers a wider frequency response (more high and low frequencies) than the SM57. A five-position rotary switch adjusts the frequency response from the flat position, called M (for music), all the way to the contoured S (for speech). Generally, I find the 421 brighter with less of the compression effect than the SM57. This mic is also more directional than the Shure, which is important for isolating the sound coming from one speaker in a multispeaker cabinet.