In the pro audio world with so many choices and options on recording instruments, microphones have become a paramount ingredient. Mics are the true translation of guitar tones to recording and should be as accurate as possible. Every guitarist wants to record the sound he hears in the room through the amp, the question becomes “How?” Like everything else in life, there are thousands of interpretations of why certain mics are better than others. For starters, we might want to cut to the chase and see how some of our guitar heroes tackle miking and their techniques.
“Although many producers and engineers develop unique miking applications involving a plethora of microphones, it’s not always the expensive tube condensers or arcane microphone placement that captures the heaviest guitar sounds. I used Shure SM57s for recording the guitar, we tried all kinds of different mics and miking techniques, but we always came back to the tried and true SM57. Once the basic guitar tone was agreed upon, we simply moved the mics until we discovered the position that produced the perfect sound for whatever we were going for on a particular track.”
“I used my custom Dean guitar through a Marshall JCM 800 with a Robert Keeley modified Ibanez Tube Screamer. We near miked the cabinet with a Beyer M160 and five feet back miked it using a Neumann TLM 149. I want to feel the bottom boom of the cabinet so we left the iso booth door open where the cabinet was and let it ring through the control room”
“I use my Alembic basses and F2 preamps, recording them through two SWR amps and cabinets. One cabinet had 2×15” speakers and the other cabinet housed 4×10” speakers. I then miked each cabinet separately, taking a direct signal out of the amps themselves. This gave me the flexibility to blend during mixdown.”
I always like speaking to guitarist about how they get their tone and capture it on to a recording. Some are real basic, like placing a SM 57 in front of an amp, turn it to eleven and press the red button. While others painstakingly take hours to figure out the mechanics of where the sound projects best for mic placement. Larry Carlton once told me that he used to drive himself nuts by measuring the mic placement to the amp speaker, taking hours on moving the mic around until he got the right sound. He followed up by saying he now leaves that up to the engineer and sits back and plays, obviously with wonderful results. Below are some tips and tricks to help you get your tone recorded, and hopefully not drive yourself crazy trying numerous options.
AKG D112/EV RE-20
The Stanley Clarke technique of recording direct and miked signals is a great recipe for a huge bass sound in the mix. I use this method in many bass recordings, using the Radial J48 Direct Box as a buffer to split the signal. I plug the amp into the Radials Thru jack, and plug the bass into the input. I’ll then take the XLR signal directly to one track, and print the miked signal. I use the AKG D112 or the Electro Voice RE-20 to mike the bass cabinet near the bottom of the speaker, below the cone. This gives me the flexibility to blend the direct signal a little lower during mixdown, which I find adds full body to the bass sound. This is a method I used on producing the new Randy Coven album featuring Leslie West. For solo bass tracks it adds a wonderful depth of sound to the bass and gives the engineer flexibility when mixing. You can also do a nice stereo pan with the two signals, enabling you to EQ and affect the signals differently.
The M160 has to be one of my favorite guitar mics. A very simple design, but extremely effective for recording guitars. I’ve used it to record all types of guitar amps, open backs, closed backs, 1×12 combos to Marshall ½ stacks, and the result is always the same, Fantastic! During the Leslie West session, I used it to close mike a Legacy cabinet, placing it half way between the cone and the outer edge of the speaker. The mics characteristics are very clean sounding, with a nice punch to the upper mid frequencies. Because it is a ribbon mic, it really captures the nuances of the guitar and amp. It’s hard to believe that the company states that its manufacturing process for the M 160 has remained fundamentally unchanged since introducing the model in 1957. Ironically it was originally developed as an alternative to the then-expensive condenser microphone. Now-a-days, it seems that ribbon microphones have made a huge come back and have become well known for their accurate reproduction.
Neumann TLM 49
The TLM 49 is a solid-state cardioid microphone, with warm characteristics. I’ve used these mics on everything from guitar cabinets, sax, vocals and even piano (in stereo pair). I usually use it in conjunction with another mic when recording guitar cabinets. For instance, I’ll near mic a Marshall cabinet with a M 160 and place the TLM 49 about five feet back. I did this on the Leslie West recordings, which did a nice job capturing the fat tone of the 4×12 cabinet. Again, similar to the Stanley Clarke method of recording to different signals, it gives you great flexibility when mixing. You get a nice clear image with M 160 and a thicker cabinet sound of the room with the TLM 49. I blend these two signals together during the mix, placing the M 160 signal a bit higher, while fading just enough of the TLN 149 to create a thicker depth of the guitar. Because the TLM 49 is a large-diaphragm microphone, I feel it captures a fuller, warmer sound of the guitar cabinets, creating a realistic recording of the sound you hear in the room.
Sennheiser MD 421
The 421, put simply, is a SM 57 on steroids. Probably one of the most diverse mikes ever made. Most commonly used for miking toms, but has so much more potential than given credit. For example, it the 60’s The Who and Bob Dylan used them as vocal mics and later in the 70’s Eddie Van Halen used them for miking his guitar cabinets. In fact it shines in broadcasting applications such as radio announcing, featuring the five position bass control, which enhances its ‘all-round’ qualities. I’ve used it for all of the above purposes, plus a plethora of other things like miking bass cabinets or horn sections. A lot of engineers and producers use it in conjunction with a SM 57 and a ribbon to blend in and enhance certain frequencies of the guitar. I actually like using it with a SM 57 as well, because it actually boosts the lower mid frequency, while the 57 records the higher frequencies of the guitar tones, creating complimentary tones between the two. The wonderful advantage of the 421 is that it handles very high spls; born to be a rock guitar mic. Being a large diaphragm dynamic microphone that came out originally in the early 60s, the 421 has been on just about every classic rock recording, in some way or another.
Most of these mics aren’t terribly expensive. Prices can range anywhere from $200.00 to $1,500.00, which is worth it when if comes to achieving great guitar tones in your recordings. To be quite honest, I find that many artists tend to fall back on the less expensive reliable SM 57, especially after trying other mics, as stated by Andy Timmons earlier. I always find that by experimenting you get the best results; hence multi miking is a great avenue for covering the bases. Often you may find yourself liking the sound of two mics combined, but when soloed, the sound may not be as good or vice versa. Also, keep in mind how the guitar tracks sits in the song. Spending a lot of time getting a huge overdriven guitar tone for a Reggae song may not be the right direction. All of us have been in that boat some time or another. Working diligently on recording the best tone for the guitar part, only to realize that the guitar sounds great but does not fit the track at all. However, these mics will give you the tools for getting your guitar tones recorded. So when approaching all of these mics, think in terms as a producer as well.
About the author
Brian Tarquin is a Multi Emmy Award winning composer/guitarist and owner of Jungle Room Studios. Some of his accomplishments include, writing the theme music for MTV’s Road Rules, as well as producing music for many other TV shows such as CSI, ABC’s Making The Band, Extra, Alias and the Keanu Reeves film, The Watcher. In 2006, Tarquin opened his own boutique record label called BHP MUSIC, specializing in instrumental guitar music. Brian is also a featured music writer and has been published in magazines such as EQ, Guitar Player, Premier Guitar & Recording.