Getting a good amplified guitar tone can be tricky business. There are so many factors that go into your overall sound – from your guitar and amp settings to the acoustics of the room you’re playing in. One critical and often overlooked element is making sure you have the right microphone setup. Your microphone is the first thing capturing the sound coming from your guitar amp or cabinet, so getting it positioned correctly goes a long way in determining the final results.
Why doing a Mic Check Matters?
One of the most important steps to getting a killer guitar tone is to do a mic check – making sure your microphone is set up perfectly to capture your guitar amp’s sound. Your entire guitar tone starts with the mic check, so getting it right goes a long way in achieving great results.
Here are some tips on mic’ing your guitar amp like a pro:
Location, Location, Location
The most crucial decision for your mic check is placement in relation to the amp. There are two main spots that produce the best results – either right up close and centered on the speaker cone (1-3 inches away) or further back at a distance of 6-12 inches. Up close you’ll get a very detailed, bright, and punchy tone as the mic captures all the nuances directly from the speaker. Farther back gives a more blended and balanced sound. Angled off-center can also yield good results by blending the bright center tone with the warmer edges. Take time during your mic check to experiment with different locations to find the best spot that works wonders with your amp.
Choose Your Mic Wisely
Dynamic mics and condenser mics both work well for guitar amps, but each has their strengths. Dynamic mics handle high volume levels well and give a warmer, smoother tone. Condensers capture more detail and articulation but can be overly bright on some amps. Ribbon mics are a good middle ground option, providing sweet highs and smooth low end. Match your mic to the particular amp and sound you’re going for.
Control Your Gain
Proper gain staging is crucial for a good guitar tone from your mic. With not enough gain you’ll get a weak, thin signal. With too much gain you invite noise and distortion. Set levels appropriately on both the mic preamp and at the interface for optimal signal without clipping or distortion. It helps to have someone play the guitar while you adjust the levels for the loudest dynamics.
Use Proper Mic Technique
Once you’ve got your mic placed, make sure it’s positioned properly – perpendicular to the cabinet at a 90 degree angle rather than at an angle pointing down or up at the speaker. Keep the mic secured on a stand rather than handheld to minimize vibration and movement. Use proper mic cables and maintain a clean signal path. And allow some distance between the guitar amp and other instruments to avoid bleed in the mic.
Polar Patterns Provide Options
When using polar patterns, don’t forget that figure 8 or bi-directional mics can also work very well for acoustic guitar, especially when positioned properly to pick up both the front and back of the instrument. The natural ambience in the room will really come through with this type of mic. Large diaphragm condensers often allow you to switch between multiple polar patterns too. Take the time during your mic check to experiment with different settings and hear how it changes the tone and ambient room sound. If isolating the guitar sound is critical, use the hypercardioid pattern to narrowly focus on the guitar while rejecting more of the surrounding room ambience.
Stereo Miking Expands the Image
When it comes to stereo miking, try using an ORTF pair with the capsules spaced about 7 inches apart and angled outward for a wider image. The ORTF technique produces a nice, realistic stereo field. For live use, a simple spaced pair lets you send each mic to separate sides of the PA system for wider coverage across the stage and audience. If possible, experiment with different mic models when setting up a stereo pair – the varying frequency response and transient response characteristics between mics can really improve the overall stereo image. And don’t forget to pan your two mics hard left/right and consider adding a subtle delay, like 10-20ms, on one side to increase the sense of space even further.
Optimize the Source Sound
Before you even think about mics, make sure the instrument itself is in top shape. An out-of-tune guitar will sound dissonant even through the highest quality mics. Properly intonate the guitar prior to recording. Also be aware that brand new strings can sound brittle and thin, while older strings lose top end presence. Find the right balance in string age for the best tone. Inspect the fretboard binding closely too – cracked or excessively worn binding can cause annoying buzzes. And pay attention to the room itself – a space with nice, even reverb will always make an acoustic guitar sound richer through the mics. Remember, a quality recording starts with the source!
Keep a critical ear on the amplified tone as you dial in your mic placement and gain staging. Small adjustments can make a big difference in the overall guitar sound you record or amplify through the PA system. As you get to know the nuances of each amp/mic pairing, you’ll zero in on creating the signature guitar sound you’re looking for every time.
Getting your guitar tone mic’ed right takes some trial and error, but following these guidelines will set you on the right path. So grab your favorite axe, plug into your go-to amp, and start dialing in that perfect mic’ed up guitar tone. The audience will thank you for it!
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