Tracking Live Guitars in a Home Studio

Written by: Michael Heeley

From 1999 to 2004 the band I was in recorded 3 studio albums.  The first was recorded onto 2 inch tape and mixed onto ¼ inch tape in a recording studio in Saint Louis, MO.  The second was recorded on 2 inch tape in a church that was transformed into a recording studio in Union MO, taken to a studio in Chicago IL where it was mixed in Pro Tools then dumped to ¼ tape.  The mixing board in that church was the same board that the song “Rock Me Amadeus” was recorded, so that’s like my 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon right there, I’m sure Kevin Bacon and Falco had to have hung out in the 80s at one point, right?

The third was recorded direct in Pro Tools in the home studio of our producer, brought to a studio in Nashville, TN, transferred to 2 inch tape, back to Pro Tools to be mixed, and then dumped to ¼ tape.

Each time, the guitar recording got simpler and simpler, yet each record had the same chunky distorted pop guitar sound we recorded.  I learned a lot of lessons about recording guitars in those experiences, none of which included me singing in German about a composer who would have died in shock if he heard the Rock N’ Roll garbage my band used to write.  However, one of the tricks I did learn from our producer was to layer several takes with the distortion level from the amp lower than you use when playing live.  Once mixed, it gives you the same amount of grit and bite, but the notes are easier to hear, giving you a more pleasing guitar experience.  Your live distortion level will muddy up the notes in a recording, so this way you have a more legible sound.

When we recorded our first record in 1999, I was working at a local music store, and had access to a lot of cool guitar amplifiers.  I remember us recording the solo to a song using 8 different guitar amps, all linked together either through stereo effect pedals, or parallel inputs.  I stood in the middle of a circle of amplifiers which included a Marshall Plexi, a Marshall JCM 800, a Fender Twin, a Fender Vibrolux, a Peavey Ultra Plus, and a couple of bad sounding practice amps, cranked out the solo and got 8 tracks of varying sound in one take.  Not a bad way to go getting a lot of guitar takes at once, but hard for people to do at home, unless they have 8 amps, an interface with 8 xlr inputs, 8 mics, and neighbors who are out of town for the weekend.

“Your guitar amp rig doesn’t look like this?”

This can be easily mimicked however, with a guitar amp simulator plug in for your DAW.  You can record your raw guitar track using your plug in and an amplifier emulator that you like, then copy and paste the guitar track into new tracks, open your plug in again, bring up different amps for each track.  Since you are copying and pasting your original take, there isn’t a need to record your part 8 different times and contend with screwing up your part over and over again. Then you can get nasty with the mixing of each sound until you get the brain melting, ear piercing, filling rattling guitar sound that will make the jaws of all who listen to your song drop immediately due to your guitar god prowess.  That still happens, right?

“The moment their mouths dropped after hearing your blistering guitar recording”

If you like the sound of your guitar amp, don’t have sleeping babies upstairs, and can play decently well under the pressure of recording a track, then you can record your actual guitar amp sound, instead of using a plug in.  You can also use a variety of miking techniques, such as a close mic and a room mic, to get a variety of sounds and several different tracks from your single take.  Another trick is to use either a stereo effect pedal, or a/b box to send a dry signal into your DAW in order to have the ability to run the same take through a guitar plug in so you have options when mixing.

Either way, either using an actual amplifier, a guitar amp simulator plug in, or both, the trick to a good guitar take is variety.  Roll back your normal distortion, layer your tracks and you will get a take that is more legible but still has the distortion you are looking for.  If you mix it right and play with your takes, you can get really creative with your sounds, all coming from one clean recording of your part.  Now if we could only get the bass player to get his part down, we could actually release a song…Amirite?

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