Recording Electric Guitar
If you’re a guitarist, you know the feeling. You’ve developed your tone over years of playing – the guitar is right, the amp is right, the cabinet is right, your sound is killing it, the air is moving… But when you hear what you’ve recorded, or you listen to what’s coming out of the front of house system, you stand there wondering What happened to my SOUND???
The answer is to put a good ribbon mic on your cabinet, and the R-121 is the ribbon mic most professionals choose. Nothing gives a bigger, warmer, more natural reproduction of a guitar amp than a Royer R-series ribbon mic. It’s a great feeling to go into the control room and feel like you’re standing in front of your amplifier again.
The R-121 was the first ribbon mic tough enough to close-mic an electric guitar cabinet and it’s an industry standard for recording electric guitar. You’ll even find R-121’s and R-122’s on the road (see R-121 Live & R-122 MKll Live), on the guitars of Aerosmith, Muse, Keith Urban, George Strait, Phish, Kenny Chesney, Maroon Five, Brian Setzer, Matchbox 20, Johnny Marr, Green Day, Goo Goo Dolls, etc.
Before Miking Up
The best way to start is to spend some time listening to the amp you’re recording. While playing your guitar (or have someone play it for you), listen to the speaker cabinet and the individual speakers, close-up (watch your ears!) and from different places in the room. At a close distance, you’ll find that the speakers are brightest at the center (on the dome) and they become progressively warmer (darker) as you move towards the edge of the speaker. You’ll also find that the sound changes as you back away from the cabinet, often developing increased tonal complexity and low end at distances over 6 inches and up to 5-feet away. The cabinet develops more thump and the acoustic characteristics of the room come more into play.
Knowing what you’re trying to capture is important before putting a microphone up. Wherever you like the sound of your amp, don’t be afraid to try putting a microphone there to see what you get.
Miking Electric Guitars
The following positions are great starting places for miking guitar cabs with Royer R-101’s, R-121’s, R-122 MKll’s and R-122V’s. For this writing we’ll stick with the R-121, but each of the other mics are excellent and worth your time to try out.
Try these positions to familiarize yourself with the microphone and how it picks up your amp. You may find exactly what you’re looking for in the 1st or 2nd position, but once you have the basics, it’s worth doing some experimenting – you never know what you’ll come up with!
For the brightest sound, position the R-121 6″ to 8″ from the grill cloth, with the ribbon element centered on the dome of the speaker. This can be an overly-bright sounding position, but it’s good to know this sound before moving on. Like a tone control, you’ll find that the more centered on the speaker the microphone is, the brighter the tone will be.
The tone becomes warmer as you move the microphone from the center of the speaker towards the edge of the speaker. Keeping the mic 6″ to 8″ from the grill cloth, move the mic halfway between the dome and the outside edge of the speaker. Point the mic straight ahead at the speaker cone. After listening to that, leave the mic in the same place but rotate it in its stand so it’s pointed directly at the dome (center) of the speaker. The difference may be subtle, but you’ll definitely hear it.
Now move the mic back to a distance of 2 feet, then 3 feet. These working distances are far more useful than many people know – you get more speaker and cabinet development, and the spaciousness can sound remarkably good. The sound of the room you’re recording in will come more into effect here – a good sounding room can add a nice character to your guitar tracks. If the room doesn’t sound great but you like the ambiance of distance miking, you can hang sound deadening material behind the mic (no closer than 6 inches to the mic) to minimize room reflections.
Distance miking like this is nowhere near as commonly used as close miking, be we love the sound and we suggest you try it for a tuneful, spacious experience.
The majority of electric guitars are close miked in the studio and onstage. Learning the close-miking basics will pay off nicely. The R-121 was designed to handle the SPL’s of close-miking, and it sounds fantastic by itself or paired with other mics.
Start with the R-121 at 3″ to 5″ from the grill cloth, centered on the dome of the speaker, which is the brightest position. If you want a warmer tone, move the mic sideways, away from the dome, until you like the balance. With the mic so close to the speaker, you’ll notice the sound is direct with little or no room ambiance. You’ll also notice increased proximity effect (bass buildup) as the mic is moved closer to the speaker. Some microphones exhibit greater proximity effect than others – ribbons tend to have a lot of proximity effect. If the bass becomes too prominent with the R-121 close to the grill cloth, there are two common ways to reduce bass; 1) use EQ to roll some bass off (the mids and highs will jump right out), or 2) back the mic up until the proximity effect diminishes.
For a dramatic bass buildup, place the mic 1 to 2 inches from the grill cloth. The microphone’s proximity effect will give you larger-than-life low end (which can sound great when blended with brighter microphones).
Note: When recording electric guitar at extremely close working distances, we recommend tilting the R-121 forward by 15 degrees or more. This angling of the mic helps to protect the ribbon element in extremely high SPL usage without altering the tone.
For tracking aggressive electric guitars, many engineers like to blend a close-up R-121 with other mics that have a more pronounced high end response (57’s and 421’s are popular, and Mojave Audio’s MA-101’s are great). Record the two (or more) mics to separate tracks and blend them to taste during the mix, or if the sound is killer, commit and record both mics to one track. The close-up R-121 will give big bass and strong mids, but the proximity effect may dampen the highs (depending on how close to the center of the speaker the mic is placed). Blending in the more aggressive high end response of the other mics gives a well-balanced rock tone.
The R-121/SM57 blend is special in that the R-121 gives so much of the amp’s natural sound, and the 57 gives a tone and aggressiveness we’re all familiar with from hearing years of guitars recorded with SM57’s. Blend to taste for amazing guitar tones.
For details on proper mic placement, see Microphone Placement Technique with Ross Hogarth.
For an in-depth look Royers used on a number of amps, the Recording Electric Guitar Video Series with Ross Hogarth and Tim Pierce Is a must!
(Tip: Rock engineer Michael Wagener plugs his R-121’s into Chandler TG-2 mic pre’s, then sets the variable impedance to 300 ohms. This is technically wrong” because the mic needs a higher impedance to give full frequency response. But the lower impedance interferes with the R-121’s ability to respond to low frequencies, which balances out the close-miking proximity effect and gives an outstanding rock tone.