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We’ve all heard that killer rock guitar riff that just sounds huge. Electric guitars can give such a powerful sound in a mix, adding waves of emotion and really bringing a track to life.
However, creating such a sound is not just a case of recording a few overdriven guitar parts and you’re done. If you’re not careful, your guitars can end up sounding thin and lifeless, or turn your mix into a muddy incoherent mess.
Read on for 11 actions you can take to help achieve that big guitar sound.
As a side note, I also wrote a comprehensive beginners guide to mixing in general. I highly recommended you check it out if you are new to mixing. It will give you a great grounding in mixing, and help you get your mixes sounding good in a short amount of time.
Mixing never exists in isolation – you will always need to master your song prior to release. Mixing and mastering are often confused. That’s why I wrote this guide to the difference between mixing and mastering. It’s highly recommended reading if you are a beginner and want to learn more about the music process.
1 Use less gain
We all love overdriven guitar sounds. There’s something about cranking up the gain on your amp, standing in a rock pose and letting rip with a sustained power chord.
So when it comes to capturing that power in a recording, surely all you need to do is turn up the gain, stick a microphone in front of your amp and hit record, isn’t it? Well, it’s not quite as simple as that.
Most modern recordings are going to have more than one guitar part (see next section). And as you start combining those parts that overdrive starts to build up, and the fizz can start to become a problem. Notes start to become indistinct, and the harmonics that the overdrive provides can start to add-up and start overpowering or muddying certain frequency ranges.
Then as you try to counter these effects with EQ, volume reduction or compression, you can actually have achieved the opposite of what you wanted – making the guitars sound thinner and smaller.
So the advice here is when you are combining guitar parts, use less gain than you would naturally think you need. Set your amp to the point where you would if you were just playing the part into the room, then back the gain off to the point where you think “Hmmm….that could do with a little more gain”. If you are using amp sims, you could do this post-recording at the mixing stage.
Then when the gain sounds from multiple guitars combine, you are starting from a point where there is less to start with. Any problem frequency or harmonic build-ups will be considerably reduced, retaining the natural tonal qualities and power of the guitars.
I appreciate that this is counter-intuitive to an extent, as we associate gain and distortion with heaviness and power. All I can say is try it; if you are recording several guitar parts, use less gain than you normally would and listen to the effect. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
As a quick aside…if you want to try amp sims, Guitar Rig 6 is great for beginners and has an excellent free version. I have a whole beginner’s guide to Guitar Rig 6, which I highly recommend you work through. You’ll learn how to set it all up, how to choose presets, and how to create your own sounds from scratch.
2 Be careful layering guitars
An incredibly common trick when recording guitars is to”double-track” i.e. record a guitar part and pan in hard-left, then re-record exactly the same part again and pan it hard-right. This gives wide, big sounding guitars spread right across the stereo space, and sounds great when done well.
Logically it’s tempting to think that if 2 guitars spread out over the stereo space sound big, then 4 guitars would sound twice as big. And 8 guitars would sound twice as big again. Just keep adding guitar parts until the guitars sound as huge as you want them to! Unfortunately, this is not quite how it works in practice.
What actually happens in this situation is with every added guitar, the sound gets a little muddier. The clarity of the notes starts to get lost, especially with big full-voiced chords. Frequencies that the guitar is rich in start to become overpowering in your mix, and any problem areas will be compounded to the point of starting to sound very unpleasant. If you’re recording with microphones, phase issues can cause frequencies to cancel each other out.
This does not mean you shouldn’t layer guitars though. There have been some great recordings using lots of guitar parts, with a really full, powerful guitar sound. I would encourage you to try layering guitars, but just to be cautious when you do. If you are careful, using multiple guitars can be a very effective technique. Here are a few things you can try when layering guitars to get the best possible sound…
- Split the notes of chords across parts – don’t record lots of unison full-voiced chords
- Don’t record another part using the same equipment – use different amps, different guitars, etc. That way, you won’t get exactly the same frequencies that build and start combining to cause problems.
- Use amp sims to effectively do the same as above – try different amp models, different presets, different effects, etc.
- If you’re mic’ing real amps, try changing the mic position for different parts e.g. move the mic away from the amp to get less bass and less high-end. Try using different microphones as well if you have them.
When mixing multiple parts, it’s important to start with all your tracks at roughly the same level. That’s why gain staging is important. This is the process of getting all your tracks at a similar volume after they have been recorded. For a repeatable gain staging process that you can use again and again, I highly recommend checking out my step-by-step gain staging tutorial.
To accurately hear how clear or muddy your mix is, a quality pair of headphones or studio monitor speakers are essential. I highly recommend the AKG K-702 Reference Headphones (affiliate link), which you can get at Amazon for a very reasonable price. These are the headphones that I have been mixing on for years, with great results.
3 Combine single note parts
As already discussed, one of the problems, especially with distorted guitar sounds, is the lack of clarity and muddiness that can very quickly build up. This problem increases when all the guitar parts contain notes played simultaneously i.e. chords.
One technique to counter this is instead of recording the full chord guitar part, record single note parts with each note of the chord in.
For example, say there is a part with a D7 chord. Don’t record 4 parts all playing the D7 chord, which will probably get muddy pretty quickly. Instead, record 4 single note parts with each part playing one not of the D7 chord. The notes in D7 are D, F#, A and C, so…
|Guitar part 1
|Guitar part 2
|Guitar part 3
|Guitar part 4
This way you get the size and power of four guitar parts, but without the muddiness of combining the full chords. A much clearer sound will result, and because all the guitars are playing something different, the potential for problem frequencies to build is reduced. This works particularly well for overdriven or distorted guitar parts.
However you choose to record your guitars, it is vitally important to get the recording level right. Get it wrong, and you risk ruining an otherwise excellent take. That’s why I wrote my comprehensive guide on how to get guitar recording levels right every time. It shows you exactly how to get your guitar recording level right first time, every time.
4 Add extra parts with different sounds
Related to the above tip instead of double, treble, quadruple tracking an identical part, why not get a bit creative with the parts you do record? And the sounds you record them with?
The key to this is that each guitar part should have a clear purpose. For example, suppose you wanted to add some high end sparkle to a rhythm guitar. You could try a simple repeated one note part recorded with a sound with a lot of the lows and low-mids rolled off. Maybe even with a touch of chorus or delay. Pan this say 75% to the right or left.
Or maybe you wanted to add some girth, some bass-iness to the guitar. Maybe you could play a guitar part on the low E string in unison with the bass guitar, on a sound with most of the high-end cut. Pan this dead center, and you have an instant extra dimension to the bass and to the guitars.
This technique can be a great alternative to repeatedly tracking exactly the same part. Experiment with your own ideas. Some of them will work and some of them won’t, but you may well uncover some absolute gems of sounds taking this approach.
Many guitar parts these days are recorded using amp sims (guitar amplifier simulator software). This saves a lot of messing about with mic’ing up real amps – you can just plug your guitar straight into your audio interface and through the amp sim software. Check out my complete guitar to recording guitars with amp sims to learn exactly how to record this way, which is the perfect guitar recording method for modern home recording enthusiasts.
5 Make creative use of automation
There may be a part in your song when you want the guitar front and center, absolutely blowing the listener’s head off! When the main riff first comes in for example. But during the verses or choruses, you want the guitars to take a back seat and let the vocals have the full attention of the listener.
If you set your guitars at one level throughout the whole song, you risk either the guitars sounding too weedy when you want them to be at the forefront, or drowning out the vocals when they should be in the background.
This is a classic case for using automation.
What is automation?
Automation is having your DAW automatically change parameters for you on-the-fly without you having to do anything. You play your song and the DAW records what parameter changes you make. These can then be “played back” on subsequent plays, meaning all the changes you made now get made automatically.
Track volume is the most common parameter that gets automated – playing back the movement of a track’s fader for example. But many things can be automated, such as turning effects on and off, adjusting effects parameters, EQ, bus volume to adjust a group of instruments at once, etc.
You could automate the volume of the guitars to get a big boost when they first come in with their big power riff. Then you could bring them down during the vocal heavy sections such as the verses and choruses. Then maybe bring them up again in any instrumental or adjoining sections.
This leads nicely onto the next section…
6 Use buss processing on the guitars
Buss processing is when you group some tracks together, and process them as a whole. You apply EQ, compression, effects, automation, etc. on the “buss”, which has the effect of applying exactly the same thing to all the tracks on that buss.
What this means in practice for guitars, is that you can very easily treat the guitars as a cohesive whole. For example, if you applied some reverb on the guitars buss, it has the effect of making all the guitars sound like they were recorded in the same room. A subtle buss EQ boost could make all your guitars stand out, adding to their effective power in the mix. It’s also very easy to then control all the guitars’ volumes using one fader.
Different DAWs have different ways of creating busses. Yours may have “groups” or “sends” you can use to achieve the same effect. But there will be a way of treating a collection of tracks as one entity.
7 Stay away from the solo button
Ah…the most dangerous button in your DAW; the solo button!
What’s the problem with the solo button? The problem is that you are not trying to get one guitar to sound good on its own; you are trying to get your mix as a whole to sound good. And the two are rarely compatible!
Say you spend some time just playing your electric guitar, getting a good sound that you really like in your room. The sort of sound you would use to practice with, or maybe to use to learn a new song. If you put this sound in a full band mix, it is likely to be too low-end heavy and fight with the bass and other low-end instruments. Add in a few more of those, and your mix is likely to end up a muddy mess.
Conversely, if you took a guitar sound that sounds great in a mix and played it solo it will probably sound thin, lacking in low-end and body. You would be tempted to boost the low end at this point, thinking oh that will make my guitars sound more powerful. But it won’t! All that will happen is you will increase the muddiness, and you will end up having to turn the guitars down, reducing their power and perceived size.
So don’t use the solo button when mixing. If you need to hear something clearer as you mix turn it up temporarily, that’s fine. That way you still have all the elements present, and any mixing moves you make will still be influenced by everything in the mix.
I’ve already mentioned recording using amp sims. If you do go this route (and I can highly recommend it for a home studio), there are several things to bear in mind to get the best sound possible. Check out these articles to help you achieve a great guitar sound via amp sims…
- How to EQ an amp sim – tips on getting the best sound
- Do your amp sims sound bad? 11 tips for a better sound
- Reducing guitar amp sim latency – a practical guide
8 Let the bass provide the bass
It is sometimes underestimated, especially in rock music, how important the bass guitar is in a mix. Sometimes all the effort is put into the guitars, and the bass is almost an afterthought. But somewhat counter-intuitively, the bass can actually help the guitars sound huge.
You may think to get huge sounding bass in your mix, you should add low end to other instruments such as guitars. Surely this will make the bass sound bigger and fatter with each low-end instrument I add, right? Wrong!
Bass frequencies are particularly sensitive to building up mud, losing definition and clarity, and overpowering the rest of your mix. Even to the extent that with the most common owners of the bass in a mix – the bass guitar and the kick drum – you really should choose one to be “in charge” and let the other take a bit of a back seat.
So giving the bass guitar the bass frequencies pretty much exclusively, actually helps the guitars sound bigger. Roll off that low end from the guitars, maybe using a high pass filter. That clarity you gain from letting each instrument be in charge of its own space in the frequency spectrum, results in the perception of a big, full sound.
9 Try distortion on bass instead of guitar
If you followed tip 1, you may have reduced the gain on some of your multi-tracked guitars to boost their clarity and increase the perception of their size and power.
Sometimes an extra dimension can be added to your mix by adding some distortion to the bass instead of the guitars. You are unlikely to do this on a gentle ballad, but on an aggressive rock mix it can work very well. Think early Muse for an example.
The reason that this can work well to boost your mix’s power, is that the bass guitar is almost always playing single-note lines. This means you don’t have the combination of several notes played at the same time in a chord to all get muddy and indistinct very quickly. Add that there is usually only one bass guitar, this can be a very targetted way of adding some grit and power.
A variation on this is to actually record a second bass guitar part in unison with the guitars, high up on the D or G strings, then apply distortion to just that part. This gives an effect similar to a baritone guitar, and leaves the lowest bass notes free of distortion for clarity, while adding the dirt in a very focused way.
10 Use subtractive EQ on multiple guitars
It is tempting when you have multiple guitar parts in a track, to boost certain frequencies with EQ to get them to stand out from each other. Select one frequency for one track and a different frequency for another track, then boost each one to make them sound different.
This is fine in principle, but the more you add the more you are creating potential problems. What if instead, you picked the frequency for one track then cut that frequency on your other guitar part? And vice versa.
This is called subtractive EQ (as opposed to additive EQ). This can have a similar effect – making the guitars sound different and stand out from each other – but actually reduces the possibility of problem frequencies in your mix.
It is a bit strange that taking things away from your mix can actually make the mix sound more powerful, but it does work.
11 Mix in Mono
Stereo is great – it gives you a sense of physically being near musicians who are spread out in the room, much like if you were at a performance or concert.
But when mixing, stereo can mislead us. It can make us see things through rose tinted glasses to an extent, i.e. make us think our guitar parts are nicely separated, distinct and clear due to where they are in the stereo space.
In practice, music gets played effectively in mono in many different places. Think maybe on a bluetooth speaker in your kitchen, your phone, a small PA system in a café etc. Even where there are two speakers, when those speakers are very close together or you are a long distance away from them, then what you hear is effectively mono.
So it is always worth spending at least some of your time when mixing your guitars, mixing in mono. This makes everything occupy the same physical space, forcing you to concentrate on making the guitars clear and powerful using EQ, automation and the other tips detailed above.
Thanks for reading this far! Before you go, I have several other articles that will probably be of interest to you related to guitar recording. Check these out to further improve your guitar recording skills…