The intrinsic nature of a recorded guitar sound is arguably less forgiving when approaching a mix. The reason for this is because, fundamentally, there is actually very little mixing required. Even if a recording is subjectively bad and your initial response is to apply a multitude of effects/processing during the mixing stage, you may find yourself chasing your tail. Guitarists by nature (and I can speak from personal experience as a guitar player) have often spent a significant amount of time crafting their tone, playing style, effects rig etc. A great guitar recording will capture the essence of the sum of these parts and (if captured correctly) will stand on it’s own sonically. The following tips highlight some techniques you can implement to help you achieve a balanced and cohesive mix:
It’s advisable to remove the low-end rumble from guitars, as they generally have very little useable content below 80hz. A simple high pass filter will take care of this promptly, you can even route all your guitars to a group track and filter them together. The only exception might be heavy metal guitars where you’re searching for the optimum frequency where that “chug chug” sound resides. In that instance, you might filter at 50 or 60hz depending on the recording. You may also benefit from a low pass filter for a smoother guitar tone (filter out everything above 8-10khz to tame harshness and leave room in the frequency domain for important things like vocals).
PANNING & WIDTH
An interesting, engaging mix nearly always has some form of guitar panning left and right. Rhythm guitars usually respond well to hard panning left and right, whereas lead guitar often sounds more natural placed in the centre of the mix, much like a lead vocal. Experiment with different pan positionings, you might have a mixture of acoustic and electric guitars, try some hard panned and some in between until you feel a good balance is achieved. Another method to widen the stereo image, is to use a multi-band stereo imager. This can be ideal if you have a very narrow guitar sound and panning isn’t giving you the desired stereo effect. Always check mono compatibility!
WORK THE TRANSIENTS
A transient designer is an extremely handy tool when balancing guitars in a mix. They are highly effective in taming an overly poky-picked acoustic guitar (which can really mess with drum transients and cause weird masking effects). At the same time, they can be used to add energy to guitar parts that need more aggressive transients. Experiment with automating the parameters during the song for added dynamics.
There is a plethora of options when it comes to distortion plugins these days, many of which have the much-heralded ‘mix’ knob. This simply blends the dry signal with the wet to add your desired amount of distorted flavour. Multi band harmonic exciters are highly versatile and can help with adding body to weightless guitars or adding analog-sounding grit to dull guitars. Always use moderately and regularly reference your mix, it’s very easy to overdo it when it comes to distortion. Particularly if you are working with already distorted guitars.
REVERB AND DELAY
Depending on the genre of music, quality reverb and tasteful usage of subtle delays can really bring guitars to life in a mix. Room reverbs can help if you have an extremely dry, dull recording and need to give it some space. Sky’s the limit if you’re working on a more ethereal piece of music where large, lush, cavernous reverbs are your friend. Also experiment with widening the stereo image of the reverb send for added effect. Stereo delays tend to work best on lead guitar, but once again be very careful not to be too heavy-handed, as it can destroy the tone and feel of the original recording very easily. Not to mention, you might have a very grumpy guitar player if his or her parts are getting washed away with reverb and delay!
During mixing, I often find myself gravitating to the low-mids when making subtractive EQ decisions. More often I’m finding dynamic EQ is a great choice for cleaning up this area without removing the body of the guitar sound. Modest EQ choices are always more forgiving and always check in context of the entire mix, rather than listening to the guitars in solo mode. In most cases, you will find very little EQ is required on guitars.
Subtle usage of chorus, flanger and phaser effects can add depth and space to guitar sounds. For example, a very subtle chorus effect on an acoustic guitar can give it a completely new dimension. It can also be used to create a pseudo-stereo effect, however it’s recommended to be careful not to overdo with this category of FX also. Modulation FX can make a mix quite artificial and ‘tinny’ sounding, if not applied tastefully. Experiment, reference, rinse and repeat as always!
Until next time,