Getting a great tone from your guitar an amp is just one part of your recording challenge. You also need to learn how to best capture that tone.
As with all recording techniques, there is no 100% correct method – just a lot of differing opinions. But if you want to find out what’s best for you for recording an amp with a microphone, it’s good to know what experts think.
Lessons from Jimmy Page
When I interviewed Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, I asked him: “what is your proudest guitar moment of Led Zeppelin’s catalog?” An almost impossible question to answer, but Page paused, and then responded “to be honest, it’s the production.”
Page is well known for his preferred methods of how to record guitars. Despite Zeppelin’s gargantuan live backline, LZ album guitars were often recorded with small amps that sounded huge. In his 1960s session days, Page learned a lot of about mic’ing, particularly “ambient mic’ing” and microphone placement. He remains adamant that recording a guitar amps is not as simple as placing a mic straight in front of your speaker cone. And it didn’t just affect Led Zeppelin’s guitars.
“I think part of the key was that we miked John Bonham’s drums like a proper acoustic instrument in a good acoustic environment,” said Page. “The drums had to sound good because they were going to be the backbone of the band. So I worked hard on microphone placement.”
Example: John Bonham’s mammoth drums of “When the Levee Breaks” were recorded at (U.K. mansion) Headley Grange’s huge hallway – the stairwell climbed three stories above the hall’s entrance. Page and engineer Andy Johns hung two stereo mics above Bonham’s kit, one about 10 feet from it, the other 20. Bonham’s bass drum wasn’t even directly mic’ed – what you hear is the ambience of the room.
For guitars, Page is just as focussed. “You shouldn’t really have to use EQ in the studio if the instruments sound good. It should all be done with microphones and microphone placement. The instruments that bleed into each other are what create the ambience.
“Once you start cleaning everything up, you lose it. You lose that sort of halo that bleeding creates. Then if you eliminate the halo, you have to go back and put in some artificial reverb, which is never as good.”
What’s in a Room?
David Bowie/T-Rex/Thin Lizzy producer Tony Visconti concurs. Visconti told Sound on Sound magazine, “It's not so much that you're mic’ing a guitar – you’re mic’ing a guitar in a room. I [was recording] a cellist, and I moved her until I got a good sound. Once I put her in one particular corner, her cello just sang — the room just filled up with the low end, and the sound exploded!
“A person who hasn’t had years of experience might not have thought of doing that, but I could tell there was something lacking when she was in the centre of the room. That’s mic technique. It’s not so much the instrument; the room is very much part of the sound.”
This is where experimentation comes in, wherever you are recording. Some recording experts swear by putting guitar amps in corners of live rooms. Especially with an open backed cab, there’s a lot of sound flying around, and not just from the speaker cone. A mic behind a cab/speaker is often credited with getting a darker tone.
Others suggest placing your amp on a stand, so some soundwaves aren’t immediately hitting the floor and you’ll reduce “phase cancellation.”
Adam D of Killswitch Engage says, “Mic placement is pretty crucial. You can get a million different EQ responses depending on where you throw the mic in front of the cab. I personally have the best luck – or at least I think so – when I back the mic off a little bit.”
Your amp choice remains important itself, of course. U.K. producer Mike Hedges (The Cure, U2, Manic Street Preachers) says, “In choosing the amplifiers and speakers, it’s important to remember that larger speakers give a more compact, tighter sound. A tiny amp turned all the way up will give a more blown-out sound.”
10 Tips to Consider
Sound travels in all directions, we know that. So where best to capture it? It seems obvious, but all players need to remember that they are rarely in the same place when hearing their favorite tone. Guitarists move around, and you’ll hear different nuances at any one point.
But there are some general “rules” you can follow when trying to record your favorite tone.
1. Put your mic closer to the center of the speaker for a brighter, more “immediate” sound. You get the brightest, crispiest sound when you aim the mic directly at the center of the speaker.
2. Place your mic “off-axis” towards the outside of your amp’s speaker cone for a darker, bassier and smoother tone. Half an inch difference in any direction can make a big difference to your recorded tone. As you move your mic further to the toward the edge of the speaker cone, the tone will be progressively softer and more diffuse.
3. Close mic’ing is more immediate for “pure” amp sound. If you are recording in a room with less-than-great natural reverb, this will minimize any outside ambience.
4. In a wooden-floor recording space? Ambient mic’ing may be an option, for some naturally reverb-ish tones as they bounce off a hard surface.
5. In a carpeted room? Grab a sheet of hardboard or MDF and lay it between the amp and your “ambient” mic for a livelier sound.
6. Raise your amp off the floor. You’ll need a sturdy stand (and that may not work with a Marshall double stack!) but for small amps it can give you better tone that you can then capture with your mic, wherever you choose to place it.
7. Got two mics? Maybe go for one center, another off-axis. You’ll get the best of both worlds and can then blend if you have the mixing tech.
8. Microphone choice is also key, of course. Capacitor mics tend to have a much more extended high-end than most dynamic models and can sound “edgy” if used close up on a guitar amp.
9. Using a small amp? Try also DI’ing it via a speaker simulator. Moving the mic further from the amp will capture more ambient room sound. Combining a close mic or DI feed with a more distant, ambient mic can be interesting. Compressing an ambient mic output can also help create a “bigger” sound from a small amp in a live room.
10. Be patient! Recording what you hear as a great guitar tone can take time. Record some guide tracks with your mic(s) in different positions. As Jimmy Page notes, you shouldn’t need to EQ at the mixing stage if you get your guitar + amp tone right first time.
Please, add your own tips and your own experiences. As we say, it’s all about opinions…