Recording Tips: 7 Steps for Dialing in Heavy Guitars WiredGuitarist November 20, 2016 Articles, Recording Tips, Tutorials, Uncategorized It doesn’t get better than a thick, heavy, aggressive, articulate, and bone-crushing guitar tone! But how do we get there? Let us show you. Treble, middle, bass. That’s it, right? I mean, when you’ve got three knobs to work with, how hard can it really be to dial in an incredible guitar tone? In a word: excessively. Getting that amazing guitar tone you hear in your head is so much more complex and nuanced than that, and dialing in such professional sounds takes years of honing your ear and developing your skills… … but it doesn’t have to be that way. Whether you’re using a tube amp or a digital modeler, the biggest obstacle in your path is not years of tedious tweaking and $10,000 worth of equipment, but the knowledge that those years of experience and experimentation impart upon so many great guitarists: knowing what to look for, and knowing how to fix it. Before We Start… Before we get into the core content of this article, we are obligated to remind everyone of the most basic principle of life (and guitar tone): you can’t polish a turd. You can’t make muddy pickups sound clear and articulate. You can’t make a cheap 5 watt solid state practice amp sound like a screaming Soldano. You can’t make a blown out 1×12 cab sound like a tight, punchy Mesa 4×12. Before you try and get amazing guitar tones, you need to make sure your setup has the potential to sound amazing. This goes for both your gear, and your playing. Once you’ve got your ducks in a row, we can then start our journey! 1) What Are We Trying To Achieve? We can’t get “that tone” without knowing what “that tone” sounds like. So what does a great guitar tone sound like? What do all legendary heavy guitar tones have in common? Whether it’s a scooped, old school death metal sound, or a modern, tight, mid-heavy djent tone, they all: – Have a balanced frequency spectrum – Blend well with other instruments, especially bass – Have some amount of clarity and note definition That’s really all there is to it. It seems too good to be true, but we’ll show you what to listen for, and how to make the tones in your head a reality. Let’s dig in. 2) Start With The Basics: Amp and Cab Before diving in, we have to start with the basics. It’s easy to be unhappy with our tone shortly into tweaking and decide that adding more gear will make things better, but that’s the worst thing we could do! Start with your amp, and your cab. Nothing else. Put aside your overdrive, your compressor, your noise gates, your graphic EQ, your “secret weapon” clean boost pedal. We’ve got to get as close as we can to the tone we want with just the basics. This has two benefits, the first is that we can focus on getting things right at the source, so we can then enhance that core tone with many of the elements we’ve just listed. The second is that we can help isolate the weakest links in our chain, and find out if the amp or cab we’re using is the reason we aren’t happy with the tone. 3) Picking An Amp A key component when choosing your gear is the genre you are playing. If you’re playing sludgy doom metal, it probably doesn’t make much sense to reach for an extremely tight and articulate Peavey 5150. Likewise, if you’re playing technical death metal, it might not be the best idea to reach for a saggy and fairly low gain Marshall JCM 800. Your genre is going to dictate your gear choices to a certain extent. These are not hard rules, but the viability of certain pieces of gear is going to be dependent on the goals that each genre has for guitar tone. Generally speaking, you’re going to want to reach for an amp that will get you enough gain without the use of a boost pedal. The reason behind this is surprisingly obvious: because high gain amps are tailored to high gain music. They were built with lots of drive in mind, so they have worked to make sure you still have punch and clarity even when the gain is on 11. That being said, this is just a guideline to keep in mind, not a hard rule. 4) Picking A Cab When looking for a complementary cab (or IR) many of us have limited choices, but for those who do have options, it’s smart to start with a matching cab if possible. We use a matching cab (a Mesa Recto cab with a Mesa Dual Rectifier, for example) as our starting point for the same reason we suggest reaching for high gain amps: they are designed for that purpose. Manufacturers design their amps and cabs to work together, and to sound their best when using matched gear. (In case you are shallow like me, matched gear also looks super nice. Just check out this gorgeous Engl rig!) If a matched pair isn’t doing quite what you want, start looking at other popular choices within your genre. Your next move will depend on how close you are to the tone you want. If you’re really close to what you want, try a cab with the same speakers but different brand or size. If you’re way off, go for something with completely different speakers. Maybe even try something with different construction, like an open back instead of a closed back. (Side note: Micing a cabinet is also really important in getting the recorded sound you want. Be sure to check out our 5 Beginner’s Tips for Micing a Cabinet.) 5) Finding The Optimal Gain Settings The first step is to find the right gain setting. We turn up the gain in order to make our guitar sound aggressive, but there is such thing as “too much.” If your gain is too high, your tone gets muddy and fizzy – it loses definition and punch. So where’s that sweet spot? Start with the gain off, and slowly start turning it up. There’s going to be a point at which you hit “playable gain.” This is the point where you’ve got just enough compression and sustain from the distortion that you don’t feel like you’re missing notes, or that the dynamics are too varied to be workable. The is the beginning of our “useable gain range”. Once you reach this point, take note of it and then start going a bit further. You’ll start to hear added grind and aggression to your tone, where you’ve still got a workable amount of punch and clarity. At a certain point, you’ll hit the upper limit of our useable gain range. You’ll start to find that there’s no dynamics, no low-mid punch, and clarity and not definition start to disappear. The sound doesn’t get any more aggressive, but instead becomes muddy and fizzy, turning into an undefined mess. Between these two points is where our “useable gain range” is, and it’s up to you to decide where your tone sits in that range. Lower gain will give you an articulate, punchy, and organic tone. Higher gain will give you a grindy, harmonically dense, and more aggressive tone. The “sweet spot” here is different for every tone, and every scenario. 6) Tone Carving Now we get to the good stuff! Start with all your EQ controls at zero. This way we have a blank slate to work from, a completely fresh start. Getting a “balanced” tone means that there’s not too much or too little of anything – treble, mids, or bass. It’s important to note that you should be listening at the volume you intend to be playing it. Our ears interpret sound differently based on the volume of that sound. If it’s louder, our ears tell our brains that there’s more bass and treble, and less when it’s quieter. This is a big part of why we love to turn our music up loud! It’s also the reason that your “killer tone” you dialled in at home in your bedroom ends up sounding like a fizzy, muddy mess on stage! This also applies to the studio, tweaking your tone quietly will have the same results when you turn up your mix really loud and hear what an ear-sore it has become. Mind your ears, we don’t want to do damage to them, but we do need to get that volume to a decent level. Because guitars are a mid range instrument, your mids are a good place to start. Figure out where your mids need to be, if it should extremely up front and almost nasally, or very scooped and hollow sounding. Slowly bring up the mids knob until you’re happy, then start to build the rest of your tone around that. Start bringing up the bass knob until you fill out the sound – it has a nice full bottom end, but doesn’t get muddy or too loose and slow to react. The treble should be brought up to bring bite, aggression, and clarity to the sound without getting harsh or fizzy sounding. You want to be listening to how each turn of a knob impacts your overall tone. Don’t get fooled into getting tunnel vision! When adjusting a single knob, it’s easy to want to focus on just the frequencies that knob is shifting, but that’s not the way we listen to music. We listen to music by hearing the whole picture. (PRO TIP: An easy path to balanced tone is to play your low open string, while playing the octave above it at the same time. With a normal 6 string, you’d be playing your low E string and the 2nd fret on the D string at the same time. The goal here is to make these notes perfectly even in volume, by using the bass knob to control the low E volume, and the treble knob to control the middle E volume.) Some amps also have a presence and resonance control on them. These need to be balanced against the bass and treble knobs. Bass against resonance, and treble against presence. Setting the resonance should be fairly straight forward, but presence can be tricky. A great way to find a balance is to apply the same tip we just talked about, but this time using the middle E and your high open E string. The high string in this case will represent the presence, and the middle E will still represent the treble. 7) Play Well With Others Once you have the awesome tone you’ve just made, we’re still one step away from perfection. Context. Is. Key. A guitar tone that sounds amazing on it’s own isn’t guaranteed to sound good with a full band! In order for a mix or a live band to sound clear and punchy, every instrument needs to have its own “sonic space.” If your guitar has too much bass and resonance, there’s no room for your bass guitar and kick drum to live, it just ends up adding way too much low end into the mix and you get mud. Too much treble and you’ll just be adding a ton of harsh fizz into your live show. At this point we need to apply our tone and finish our tweaking in context. Play along with your band or your recorded tracks and make your final tweaks here. It’s important to think about what parts of your guitar tone will be in a similar range to other instruments you’re playing with. For example, the “bite” from your treble knob might be getting in the way of the vocalists clarity, or the attack and snap of the snare. Can’t hear the bass and kick through the mud? Ease off the bass or resonance. Can’t hear the vocals or snare over all that fizz? Try pulling back on the treble and presence. Can’t hear yourself? Bring the mids up a touch. Can’t hear your notes clearly? Take a notch off your gain. At the end of the day, your guitar is just part of the bigger picture, and it needs to play nicely with all the other instruments in order to make your music sound its absolute best. Put your ego aside, and put the band first. Serve the music, not the musician. Conclusion That’s all there is to it! While dialling in an amp might seem like an easy job, we all know it’s harder than it appears to be. These simple but practical and highly effective tips will make sure that you spend less time tweaking, and more time shredding. We hope you enjoyed this article! If you did, make sure to check out more, because we upload new reviews, technical articles, lessons, and more daily! Also, we are a dealer for many beloved brands such as PRS, Ibanez, Mayones, Schecter, ESP, and more! Feel free to stop by our shop and we can help you find the right guitar for you at the best price possible. This article was written by Connor Gilkinson, our editor located in Canada.