I have recorded a lot of rock music in my home studio, and I almost always want my guitars to sound big and wide. To achieve this, I very often double-track my rhythm guitar parts. But this does not mean that double-tracking is something you should do automatically without considering your particular song.
As a general rule, you should not always automatically double-track guitars. You should double-track guitars when you want a guitar part to sound wide and fill the stereo space. This especially applies to rock music. Double tracking is most appropriate on rhythm guitars, much less on lead parts.
There are certain situations in modern music when guitar parts are almost always double-tracked. This is very dependent on the style of music, and the intended role of the guitar. Read on to see when you should double track guitars, and when a different recording technique might be more appropriate.
If you are interested in checking out the best recording gear such as audio interfaces, studio monitor speakers, microphones, etc., you can find them at Amazon by clicking here.
Double tracking rhythm guitars
The most common situation where guitars are double-tracked, is when you want electric rhythm guitars to sound big and wide, as if they fill the stereo space. If this is the sound you want for your song, then you should double-track your guitars.
This particularly applies to rock and metal music, where it is an incredibly common technique used in almost all modern recordings.
In other styles of music, the technique is less ubiquitous, although still used.
However you decide to record your guitars, one of the most important things to get right is the recording level. Get this wrong, and you risk ruining an otherwise excellent take. I have a complete guide on guitar recording levels, which will help you record at the right level every time.
What is double-tracking?
Double-tracking is where you play and record a guitar part, then play and record that guitar part again. This gives you two tracks with two performances of the same part – a double track. Typically you then pan these two tracks hard left and hard right in your DAW. It gives the effect of one very wide guitar part that fills the stereo space.
It is important to realize that you must play and record the guitar part two completely separate times to get your two tracks. You cannot just record the track once, then create a copy of the recorded track in your DAW and pan each left and right. This doesn’t work; you will just end up with a centered track that sounds louder.
Listen to the differences in these sound clips (taken from one of my songs called Cyanide Chaser which you can listen to here if you’re interested)…
It is actually the differences in the performances that give it the space and make it wide, which is why it is so important to play and record the part two times.
If you happen to be using amp sims to record your guitar tracks, definitely check out my complete guide to recording guitar using amp sims.
When would you not double-track?
A stylistic decision to not double-track
Double tracking is used so much in modern music production, perhaps you have taken a creative decision that you don’t want to sound like everyone else.
There is nothing wrong with that. And don’t think that single-tracked guitars can’t sound great and huge…
Take Eddie Van Halen’s guitar on Van Halen’s debut record, where all the guitars are single-tracked. Listen to “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love”, and that guitar riff sounds massive. It gives it a very distinctive production style, making it stand out from a lot of music recorded around the same time.
Also, note the use of delay to fill the space. You can hear the delayed guitar coming out of the right speaker a short time after the original comes out of the left speaker. This is a very useful technique to widen your guitar sound without resorting to double-tracking.
When you don’t want the huge, spacious sound
As great as double-tracked guitars sound, that sound may not be appropriate for your song. You may want a more direct or more sparse sound, and that is entirely down to you and what you think fits best for your music.
Additionally, mixing double-tracked guitars with single-tracked guitars can be a very effective technique to add some dynamics in your music.
For example, suppose you have a quiet verse, with a single guitar and a narrow stereo spread. Then the song explodes into the chorus, with wide double-tracked guitars filling stretching the mix right out to the edges of the stereo space.
This type of technique can really help and some life and energy to your tracks.
If you do want a big guitar sound in your mix, double-tracking is not the only way to achieve it. Check out my article on making guitars sound bigger in a mix for tips and tricks on using other techniques to get that huge guitar sound.
Double-tracking lead guitars
Lead guitars are trickier from a double-tracking point of view. It is relatively rare to double-track a lead guitar part, certainly compared to how often it is done on rhythm guitars. If you already have double-tracked guitars across the width of the mix, doing it to lead guitars on top risks creating a bit of a muddy mess.
A common technique used on lead guitars to fill out the sound instead of double-tracking is to use delay. This performs a similar function – making the guitar sound bigger and more spacious. It can be easy to overdo though, so care must be taken not to overpower the mix with repeats from the delay.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t ever double-track lead guitars though. Randy Rhoads actually triple-tracked some of his leads, and they sounded absolutely fantastic!
If your lead part is intricate and detailed, I would probably stay away from double-tracking. You would need an incredible amount of precision to play the part twice, in as similar a way as to not sound messy. This is a situation where you may want to use the delay technique described above to fill out the sound.
If your lead part is very simple, then this would be a more suitable candidate to be double-tracked.
Another technique worth considering is not to double-track exactly, but play a second part in a different octave to the original guitar part. This can add some energy to the part, and you can experiment with how much of each octave you have in your mix for maximum effect.
Double tracking is most often talked about for electric guitars. But it can be used on acoustic guitar recordings as well. If you are interested in recording acoustic guitars, my article “How to record acoustic guitar with just one mic” will help you record a great acoustic sound.
Double tracking guitars tips
If you do decide to double-track your guitars, there are a few things you can do to help you get the best sound possible.
- Use different sounds for each track – this could mean using different guitars, different amps, different amp sim patches, etc. This helps the tracks blend together well, each contributing complementing frequencies.
- Use slightly brighter tones – double tracking has a tendency to warm-up and smooth out the recorded sound. Therefore you might want to record a slightly brighter tone than you normally would otherwise to compensate for this effect.
- Add a center sparse track – adding a third track panned straight down the middle can help thicken up your rhythm guitars even more. Try a cleaner tone, mixed at a lower level. Single note parts work well in this role, complementing chordal double-tracked parts.
As an aside, if you are relatively new to home recording, I highly recommend you check out my beginner’s guide to recording music at home. A huge amount of work has gone into this guide! It is a complete resource to take you from never having recorded before all the way through to making your first home recording.
When double-tracking isn’t double-tracking
Some rock tracks have rhythm guitars panned left and right, but they are not strictly double-tracked as they are completely different parts.
This can be a great alternative to double-tracking. You don’t get the impression of one guitar part filling the full space, but you do still get the spread of the guitars around the stereo image. For some examples, listen to Appetite for Destruction by Guns ‘n’ Roses. Just about all the songs on there have guitar parts in this style.
Of course, it means that you have to write and record another guitar part, but this could be a good way of making your song stand out from others in your genre.
As a side note, if you’re reading this article you are obviously interested in recording guitars. Perhaps you are also interested in recording vocals; maybe you are a singer-songwriter recording your own songs. Check out my “How to record electric guitar and vocals at the same time” article for tips on getting a great guitar and vocal recording in the same take.
Triple, quadruple tracking and more
Sometimes, even more than two tracks are recorded of the same part. These are panned around the stereo space to try and sound even bigger. For example, if four tracks are recorded they might be panned 100% left, 100% right, 70% left and 70% right.
It’s tempting to think the more guitars, the bigger the sound, right? This is not necessarily the case. The parts can start to emphasize unwanted frequencies and harmonics, and actually end up sounding thinner, counter-intuitive though that is.
Once you start adding guitars past the two tracks, it’s important to make sure your parts are different sounding to the original double track. Using a thinner sound, playing a more sparse part, using a different playing technique are all things to try to make your guitar tracks sit nicely in the mix together.
Here is some of my favorite home studio gear…
Thanks for reading this article. I hope you found it helpful in your home music-making activities. Here are a few of the tools that I personally use in my home studio. These are affiliate links, so if you decide to use any of them I’ll earn a small commission.
Audio interface: My personal choice for audio interfaces are the Focusrite Scarlett series. I have been using these for years, and they have always given me great-sounding recordings. For a very reasonable price from Amazon you can buy the excellent Focusrite Scarlett 4i4, or if you don’t need MIDI capability the Focusrite Solo is a great choice.
Amp sim: Guitar amplifier simulator software has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, such that I record all my electric guitar parts using amp sims these days. One of the very best is the incredible Amplitube from IK Multimedia, which I have used on many of my songs.
Headphones for recording: My favorite headphones for recording are the Sony MDR-7506s, which I use for monitoring during all my recording sessions. They can also be found in many pro recording studios. Get the Sony MDR-7506 headphones from Amazon here.
General-purpose microphone: You can’t go wrong with a good ol’ Shure SM-57, one of the most versatile and ubiquitous microphones around. I’ve been using one in my home studio for as long as I can remember. Amazon offers the Shure SM-57 for a very competitive price.
To see all of my most up-to-date recommendations, check out this resource I made for you!