10 Tips for Recording Metal Guitars that Sound Monstrous
Metal records live and die on their guitar sound and there is perhaps no genre of music so closely associated with massive, roaring guitars.
Thankfully today with music technology, you don’t need access to an expensive recording studio or state of the art audio equipment to record huge sounding guitars. Seriously some of the best sounding metal records were recorded from home recording studios.
Whether you play low n’ slow doom metal or hyper-technical djent, these 10 tips will give you actionable ideas on how to record guitars that not only sound good but capture your own unique sound and identity.
Let’s get started
1. Use Less Gain
The most common mistake many bands make when recording metal guitars is using far too much gain.
You’d probably be very surprised by how little gain is actually used, even by extreme metal bands when recording guitars.
For example, Listen to these isolated guitar tracks from Slayer
While they’re still overdriven with plenty of saturation, they are nowhere near as distorted as the full band mix would have you believe.
This is because too much distortion overly compresses the sound, resulting in a muddy, wooly tone that has no dynamics or responsiveness to your playing.
By dialing back the gain, you will not only achieve a much clearer, sharper sound, but the guitar will naturally respond to changes in your own playing dynamics, leading to a much more natural, interesting recording.
2. Clarity & Mid Range
Another common mistake many guitarists make when dialing in metal sounds is scooping the mids from their tone.
Scooping the mids of your guitar recordings.
This was used to great effect by Metallica in their later recordings and since then became an almost ubiquitous sound in metal during the late 90s and early 00s, with guitars sounding much bassier than ever before.
However, by doing this, you make creating a balanced mix, where the bass and drums are clearly audible – much harder.
Much of the power and heft of metal comes from the bass guitar and kick drum, by scooping guitars you may end up with a colossal sounding guitar tone, but the full band mix will suffer as a result.
Most players will benefit from adding more mid-range frequencies to their sound. Not only does this give the guitar much more presence in the mix, helping cut through loud drums and bass, but it also adds a lot of clarity and definition, two elements that are essential for technical genres of metal.
3. Nail the Raw Guitar & Amp Tone First
One of the most crucial things I’ve learned recording metal guitars is to tweak the guitar and amp in the room first. Get it sounding how you want it before introducing EQ, compression or even mics.
Aside from your actual playing and performance, the guitar and the amp are the two most important parts of the recording. You should tweak the amp and guitar to be as close to what you have in your head first of all.
Effects come later, where you can then use EQ, compression and additional pedals to fine-tune the tone by making subtle changes.
This also helps in terms of choosing mic placements and mic combinations; instead of a sonic “blank canvas”, you have a sound in your head that you’re trying to recreate with the microphones.
4. Dial-in Your Tone in the Context of a Full Band Mix
A guitar tone that sounds great in isolation doesn’t necessarily sound great in a full band mix. This is a realization that you need to know, especially if you are solo guitarist who records from home.
The ultimate goal is to make a full band recording that sounds powerful and complete, so the guitars should be a part of that mix that complements the whole.
For that reason, sculpt and fine-tune your tone while hearing the guitar in the context of the band mix.
Some key areas to look out for:
- If the guitar is clashing with the bass and kick drum, cut back the bass.
- If the guitar is overriding the snare, pull back the presence.
- If the guitar isn’t clearly audible, increase the mids.
- If you can’t hear the notes clearly, ease off the gain.
Not only will this help you find a raw initial tone that works well, but doing this beforehand will save you a massive amount of time and effort when it comes to mixing
5. Layer Tracks of Guitar
When listening to modern metal records, it’s easy to assume that there is some sort of audio alchemy at work making the guitars sound so wide and huge. Many guitarists feel despondent as they can’t recreate the massive sounds they hear on record with their own rigs.
This is because you are rarely hearing just one guitar on modern recordings.
Most producers will add multiple layers of the same guitar parts, combining different sounding guitar tones to create monolithic sounding blended tones.
The most important thing to learn is how to choose complementary tones. Combining very similar sounding amps generally doesn’t have as much impact as, for example, combining a high gain, bright sounding tone with a warmer, lower gain sound.
By doing this, the blended tone sounds much fuller in the mix.
A standard multi-track rhythm guitar would be two different tones panned hard left, with an additional two tones panned hard right. Some producers even like to add a 5th track down the center.
If you struggle to play multiple takes tight enough, reamping into different amps is a good option, however, nothing beats the natural wideness of having multiple different takes. The odd notes and humanization you get with different takes will often add to the character and sound.
6. Experiment With Microphone Combinations
As well as layering different guitar tracks, combining different microphones is another excellent way to add width and heaviness to your guitars while retaining clarity.
Experiment with using different types of microphones in conjunction with one another. For example, dynamic microphones are much better at capturing warmer, mid-range frequencies while condenser mics sound brighter. Then again, each microphone has its own color and sound characteristics – so always be experimenting and never be afraid of trying something totally counter-intuitive.
By combining captures from both mics and blending them together, you not only get a much more expansive guitar sound but also give yourself much more mixing and EQ options later down the line.
Be sure to keep the microphones in similar positions in relation to the speakers, in order to eliminate phase problems. You can check/correct phase issues on double mic’d takes by zooming into the audio file in your DAW and making sure the sound waves line up in the different tracks.
7. Test Your Speaker Cones
When it comes to mic’ing up a cabinet, keep in mind that different speaker cones can sound different and deteriorate at different rates.
Test each speaker cone in the cabinet by recording samples and A/Bing them against each other to find the one you like the best.
Be sure to place the mic in as similar a position on the cone as possible.
8. Mic Placement Plays a Huge Part in Tone
Where you place the mic in relation to the speaker cone will have a massive impact on the sound you get.
Even half an inch will drastically change the tone and the frequencies captured. As a general rule, close to the center of the cone results in a brighter, more biting tone, whereas towards the edge will result in a warmer, more mid-range capture.
It helps to think about how you would want your final mix to sound like. If your arrangement has other instruments in it too, you may want to record a warmer sounding guitar to complement them. Again, this depends on your mixing style.
The best way forward is to experiment recording using multiple microphones, in order to better sculpt your sound and fine-tune the tone. This is why you see some recording studios place a few microphones at one time, so they can pick and choose the sound character to fit the mix later on.
9. Dampen Guitar Strings When Recording Palm Muted Sections
Even with great technique, strings will naturally ring and vibrate when playing intricate, staccato palm muted passages.
When combined with high gain tones, this can result in feedback, background noise and a less clear take.
One great way to make the guitar as clear as possible is to place some foam or cloth just behind the nut between the headstock and the strings. While this will reduce resonance and sustain a little, it will dampen any vibrations, resulting in a much clearer, sharper guitar take.
Dampening string vibrations – (Photo from Disc Makers)
10. Drop the Guitar Volume in the Mix
The best test of whether or not you’ve nailed a massive guitar tone is to lower the guitars in the mix.
Before committing to tones, record a small section of the song with the multi-tracked tones you’ve chosen. Well captured raw guitar takes should still sound clear, defined and wide even if they’re not at the forefront of the mix.
If you’ve nailed the raw EQ, tone blends and mic placements, your guitars should sound distinct to the rest of the instruments and the different tones should complement each other.
If, even with the guitars down in the mix, you have a sound that you’re proud of, then tweaking time is over and it’s time to record your takes!
About The Author
Scott Ronald has been an active, touring musician for over 7 years. With plenty of experience as both a session player and a band member, he has worked with some of the best metal and hardcore producers in the UK & Europe, picking up invaluable tips on recording heavy guitars along the way.
He also runs www.guitargearheadz.com, a guitar and audio equipment review site that helps players find the right instruments for their needs.