So you’ve just been tinkering around with your guitar and amplifier for hours and finally landed on a great tone. It’s clear, deep, and crushing. You go to record it and then listen back. While you’re listening to the song as a whole, suddenly, somehow, that perfect tone isn’t so perfect anymore. Welcome to the intricate and often frustrating world of mixing electric guitars.
Here’s the deal: That guitar tone you love so much might, in fact, be great. In the context of the whole song, however, changes might need to be made. Maybe the drums, bass, or vocals aren’t sitting at their ideal frequencies, clashing with your guitar. Another possibility, though, is that you have some work to do with the guitar mix itself. Let’s take a look at five techniques for mixing electric guitars.
1. Cut the lows early, but leave room for higher frequencies
Different instruments will sound best at certain frequencies. Mixing bass, for instance, will require different optimization than mixing electric guitars. It’s good to know generally where these different sounds should land on the frequency spectrum. If you start at relative extremes, you can gradually tweak the mix as you go to allow each instrument to shine.
When it comes to mixing electric guitars, they should be sitting at higher frequencies than the bass, kick drum, and other instruments with lower tones. You can begin by cutting anything under 100 Hz in the guitar mix. This will eliminate potential muddiness and save some room for the bass and lower tones to really come through in the mix.
Of course, the highest frequencies shouldn’t necessarily be reserved for guitars. If there are vocals, snares, or cymbals in your mix, you need room for these as well. In other words, guitars should sit higher than the bass-oriented instruments and lower than the treble sounds. When mixing with EQ, around 500 Hz is sort of the golden guitar frequency, so this region can be boosted. Be mindful of other instruments in this range as well.
2. Know the roles of the guitar
In the genres of rock, metal, alternative, and the several sub-genres under this umbrella, more than one guitar part is often present. There might be one or two rhythm guitars in addition to a lead guitar part. While all of these parts might be performed and tracked with the same guitar and same tone, they shouldn’t necessarily sit in exactly the same place in the end.
Rhythm guitars, relative to lead guitars, should sit lower on the frequency spectrum. This will allow the lead guitar(s), which normally provides higher pitches, to cut through as its own entity. Additionally, if a song has one rhythm guitar part, these guitars should be doubled. This means that the same part is tracked twice and panned to create a stereo effect and give the part more depth and presence.
Both of these rhythm tracks need to be EQed very similarly, though not identically. If different mics at different locations are used for this doubling, each rhythm track will already be EQed differently. More tweaking can be done to each track, however, if certain frequencies are being over- or under-emphasized due to phasing issues. Recording via direct input and then reamping the guitars is another great way to double them.
3. Pan carefully when mixing electric guitars
If two rhythm guitars are present in the mix, they should be panned. This widens the stereo field, separates each track, and provides greater depth in your mix. It also leaves some room for vocals to stand out and blend with the mix since they sit at similar frequencies to guitar. However, the degree to which these guitar tracks are panned will depend on the mix as a whole.
Some engineers prefer to save panning until after EQing and setting levels in the mix. This can be a great technique for sculpting the stereo stage. Another approach would be to pan one rhythm guitar track hard left and the other hard right. By going to the extremes you can gradually dial back the panning levels as you mix the song depending on its needs.
There’s no set way to pan electric guitars, nor is there a proper amount of panning. It really depends on the mix as a whole and how wide you want the stereo field to be. There is one important rule to follow, however: make sure your left and right guitar tracks are panned equally opposite each other. If not, the guitars will lean slightly to one side, which is often distracting and unappealing.
4. Leads deserve some delay
As for lead guitars, they should be treated a bit differently. For one thing, they’re often better off sitting closer to the center of the mix, though the smallest bit of panning can do much to widen the stereo field and add greater depth to your mix. Another way to make lead guitars stand out is to add some delay to them. Leads that are too dry often sound flat and actually take away from the mix by becoming distracting or jarring.
Because leads sit at higher frequencies, they can come off as harsh in the mix. Adding some delay or reverb softens the lead a bit by letting it linger and providing some extra ambiance. Using delay for lead guitars also helps separate them from other aspects of the mix at higher frequency levels such as vocals and cymbals. In short, you want the leads to really come through without dominating the mix or distracting from other important elements.
There are plenty of delay types to try out, from the twangy tape delay to reverse delay and so much more. Each can be altered in terms of feedback, tempo, and level. How much delay should be used depends on preference and the mix as a whole.
5. Understand the context of the song
Whenever we discuss mixing we have to keep context in mind. Again, mixing is the art of tweaking several moving parts to come together in an optimal way. So when it comes to mixing electric guitars, we need to keep in mind what they’re doing in the context of the entire mix.
In other words, when EQing electric guitars, don’t always do it in a vacuum. While EQing in solo is a good way to initially find the proper space of the guitar part, it’s key to tweak frequencies while listening to the whole mix. If you don’t do this, you risk offsetting the entire mix, favoring a certain frequency range too much.
This might hurt guitar players, but guitars shouldn’t always be the most prominent instrument in a song. More often than not, in fact, rhythm guitars should take somewhat of a backseat to other elements like vocals and lead instruments. This isn’t to say guitars don’t matter, or that they should never be in your face.
On the contrary, mixing electric guitars properly is crucial because they provide a song with so much backbone, drive, and power. The trick is to wield this power carefully. So remove the super low-end early on, understand the importance and purpose of the guitar parts, pan when doubling, throw in some delay (especially for leads), and always keep in mind the song as a whole.