Recording Distorted Electric Guitars at Home & Making Them Sound Professional

How Much Distortion, Gain. Or EQ Should I Use?

It seems that a lot of recording beginners are interested in just how much gain they should use when recording.

There is always discussion about cranking up tube amps but using less gain. This article will discuss recording distorted electric guitars and give you some insight on how to get the tones you are looking for.

Okay, here’s an interesting topic about guitar recording. Here was a great question asked by a forum member.

(I have also read that sometimes you’ll want to turn your gain/distortion down further than you normally have it so that it will record better, but I’ve also read to crank the amp and get it to a point where the cab begins to really vibrate in order to get the amps true sound. These seem to be two very different viewpoints, so is there a middle ground?)

I’m going to take a totally different take on this than you may be thinking. I could tell you that you should take X Marshall or Mesa Boogie head and run it through X cabinet with Celestian speakers and then use X microphone, X preamp, and X AD converter and you will have a great sound.

Well, guess what. That’s NOT going to happen.

Date Analogy

Let’s say you are out on the first date with a chick (assuming you are a dude. If you are a chick, then flip the situation, I guess) and you take your date out to a nice restaurant. Do you order her food for her? If so, what do you order?

(“Where the hell is this going, Brandon?”, you may be asking yourself.) Well, hear me out before flying off the handle.

Let’s think about this a tad. “Do you order her food for her?”. This is an issue of personality and personal taste.

Personally, I wouldn’t order food for a woman unless she had lost the ability to speak. So my personal taste is my date can order her own damn food. This isn’t the 50s and I’m too busy deciding what I want to eat!

Assuming you do order your date’s food, what does she like? Well, I can tell you right now that you are not going to find the answer on a recording website!

There is only one way you will know what your date likes. Ask her, and then listen. She’ll tell you what she likes. She will probably also tell you if she likes it when a man orders her food or not.

Back To Recording Distorted Guitars

Okay, so we are tracking some distorted guitar tracks. How do we decide how much gain, distortion, or volume to use. Do we need to crank the amp? Do we need to back the gain down?

Well, this is all an issue of PERSONAL TASTE. You, as the recording engineer, need to make yourself and the band happy with this tone. With that, anything goes. Just make sure you do the song justice.

So how do you know what you like? How do you decide if you like the sound of an amp cranked or not? How do you decide how much gain you like?

Just like our date analogy, LISTEN! Ask your studio monitoring system how your guitars sound and she will tell you.

I can’t emphasize this enough! Just about every engineering decision you make will be based almost entirely on what your studio monitors tell you.

If you don’t trust your studio monitors at least a little bit, you need to either improve your monitoring situation or spend more time on the monitors.

If you don’t know how your guitars will sit in the mix, there is only one way to find out. Just go for it! Go with your gut and see what happens. If your guitars are too dull, you know that you need to add some bite to them or take out some low-end next time. You’ll figure it out pretty quickly.

As long as you REALLY like your tone going down to tape/hard drive, then you will probably be okay. Even if you have second thoughts (I do all the time) you’ll be close enough to make it through the mix alive so you can do a better job next time.

Subtlety Is Stupid

Subtlety is good if you are a prowler. If you do anything too obvious, you’ll get caught. However, if you are trying to impact someone, throw it out the window.

I want my mixes to sound like someone just smashed you over the head with a metal trashcan. Achieving this is difficult when the end results is electronics flowing through an air pressure pump.

You will hear how people say “Only use EQ sparingly”. Only use X in moderation. Well, I try not to drink in moderation and I try not to use EQ in moderation. Either I’m going to use as much as it takes to create the desired effect or I won’t use any at all (which is hopefully the desired effect).

It’s easy to get sucked into this notion that you shouldn’t crank you tone controls on your amp. Don’t be sucked into that bullshit way of thinking.

If the amp sounds better with the lows on 0 and the highs on 10, use them! Forget the numbers. The only reason we even have numbers is so we can recall settings later.

Let me tell you something. I never feel bad about using extreme settings on my amp. Why? Because I can’t hear my amp. You can read about that later in this article. When I’m tracking I can only hear the exact sound that is being recorded.

I’m only hearing what the microphone is telling me. Regardless of how the amp is set, if the amp sounds thin, I’m going to add some low end and maybe cut some highs. If the amp sounds fizzy, I’m going to knock the gain back. If I still need more gain, I’ll crank up the volume to get some power tube distortion.

How much volume should you use?

To be honest, the difference between recording on 2 and recording on 10 isn’t monster mega huge. However, it’s enough to make it worth doing (assuming you have a way to contain all that volume).

If your guitar is so loud that the cops show up, it’s not worth it. If the guitar is so loud that your guitar player can’t hear the drums, it’s DEFINITELY not worth it.

I guess there is something “more full” about a tone that is cranked with power tube distortion. You’ll need to be careful to keep your preamp gain down when dealing with cranked amplifiers simply because the tone can get muddy.

I guess the real advantage to cranking an amp is that it offers a different kind of distortion than simply cranking up the gain knob. I find that on my Rivera Knucklehead, the amp doesn’t get any louder after 5. It just gets more saturated in the power tube section.

I have recorded on 10, but I really need to be careful with the preamp gain. Depending on what I’m recording, the gain may only be on 2 (or even less) with the volume on 10. The other day I was doing some 80s hard rock type of leads. I had the gain on 3 and the volume on 6.

Should The Cabinet Be Vibrating?

If you crank an amp, it will vibrate. A 100 Watt head will more than vibrate a 4×12 cabinet. I’ve actually had to tape the speaker cable into the jack of the cabinet because the air pressure inside the cabinet was blowing out the speaker cables over and over (and putting my tube amps at risk!). I don’t always push my cabinets this hard, but I do frequently.

Honestly, I’ve been trying to blow my cabinet up for nearly a year. I don’t think it’s going to happen. I’ve been trying to blow up the ribbon in my Royer R121 as well, but that hasn’t worked out well either.

 Should I Use Less Gain When Recording Distorted Electric Guitar?

I use my ears on this.

I don’t ever want to use too much gain unless I’m looking for a “too much gain” sound. The sound is obviously weird when I’m going for a killer rock tone and I use too much gain.

However, not enough gain is just as big of a problem. There are no rules here. It’s quite clear that Nine Inch Nails type of guitar tones have lots of gain and I still bought several of their records.

You have to decide what you want. If you are recording music with lots of pinch harmonics then maybe you need more gain. As mentioned above, you can get more sustain, gain, or whatever you want to call it by using a lot of power tube distortion and just a little preamp gain.

If you can get a little power tube distortion in there, you can get plenty of non-fizzy distortion to make the guitar player happy. In the end, that is the most important thing. Some players are used to using way too much gain and sort of rely on that for their playing style. It’s up to you to figure out if this is a good or bad thing and how to make the best out of it on the recording.

I must say that I went through a phase where I gave the band too little gain. It was so little gain that lead players had trouble. They were uncomfortable while playing because they didn’t have the sustain they were used to. (Try to keep your players comfortable!). The tone wasn’t better because it had less gain. It just sounded “less distorted”.

So you be the judge. How much gain does the song need?

Do not think there is this magical thing that happens when you turn the gain down. There is not. The only reason I turn the gain down is to get rid of the fizz factor.

Guitar Monitoring Through Studio Monitors

The biggest impact in my guitar sounds did not come from a new microphone, preamp, guitar, or even guitar amp (the most important part of the equation except for the guitar player himself/herself). It came when I opened my ears….sort of. My guitar breakthrough came when I isolated my amp so that 99% of the volume was coming out of my studio monitors. It took about $150 in Rockwool to build my “fort” around my 4×12 cabinet. This was the best money ever spent when it comes to recording guitars.

Now, I hear the actual recorded sound real time as the player is hitting the notes. If the sound is too fizzy, I knock back the gain or the highs (depending which one is the culprit). I know exactly what tone I’m getting and I can react to it.

In the past, I set up an amp, hit record, and then listened back. DO NOT DO THIS!!! Buy the $150 in Rockwool!!!! You are cheating yourself out magical tones when you don’t tweak the tone controls on your amp, try out an EQ pedal in front of the amp, or hear the immediate difference when switching guitars, pickups, playing styles, etc!

Conclusion

You hear this all the time, but there really are no rules with guitar recording. The tones of Bryan Adams are miles away from Rammstein or NIN. All three of these bands have exciting tones that add to the records. So just be careful who you take advice from.

There are guys who love the Bryan Adams “Summer of ’69” guitar tone but just don’t get Rammstein’s tone. That’s okay. But if Mr. Bryan Adams tells you should turn your gain down, he’s an idiot unless he’s heard an mp3 or ,even better, sat in front of your studio monitors and listened.

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