We’re probably all familiar with the idea of making a production wider. Especially when it comes to guitars. We record more guitar parts and doubles than we can count on both hands and it still doesn’t sound WIDE enough. We compare our productions and mixes to what’s on the radio and think “If I could just make my chorus as wide as that song,” or, “If I could just get that kind of separation in my mix.” How do the pros do it? It’s simpler than you may think and it can also be quite counterintuitive. Here are three essentials to help you get width and separation with your guitar tracks.
Layers: When to double
One common mistake when recording guitars is to automatically double a part when you want it to sound bigger. Keep in mind, the more tracks you have, the more you have to turn things down to make everything fit in a mix. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to keep it simple and just have two different guitar parts that are hard panned left and right. Try having one main guitar in the verse of your song and then two guitars in the chorus. Keep the single guitar either in the center or even panned all the way to one side. When you get to the chorus, pan them hard left and right. While this sounds so simple, it's actually really effective.
If you have two different parts or even one part that you want to double to make it bigger, there are two key factors to keep in mind to maintain separation and width.
- Record the parts with different guitars or at least different pickup configurations. If you record the same part twice with the exact same settings, the parts will collapse into the middle and there will be no stereo width or separation. If you only have one electric guitar available and you want to record several parts, use different pickup configurations and change your amp settings slightly from part to part.
- The other key factor in hearing good width and separation is having rhythmic variance in your different parts or takes. If you’re recording a double of one part, make sure you record a completely different take for each double. If you were to just copy and paste a part, there would be no separation between the two tracks. The subtle variation in your performances will allow you to clearly hear the different takes. If you’re a stickler for perfection and you’re going to edit your performances to be rhythmically perfect, then I recommend playing the two parts slightly differently. This can come in the form of notes or rhythms or both. Again, this will allow your ear to perceive the two different parts and they will stand on their own. If you do quantize your performances and they are the exact same part, then your pickup and tone settings will need to be different in order to hear the two parts, as mentioned above.
Building your productions top to bottom
The second essential piece to maintaining width and separation with your guitars is to cover a lot of ground rhythmically and sonically. Notice the layers in classic Beach Boys songs from Pet Sounds or something modern like Muse. You’ll hear not only a lot of parts but a huge range from high to low and busy to simple. Think of your guitars like you would any part of your production - you’ll usually have pads, strings, bass or something covering your legato sounds, drums, loops and percussion covering your rhythmic sounds and vocals landing somewhere in between. Treat your guitars the same way, utilize the whole musical spectrum when producing and recording guitars. In addition to this, think of your production from top to bottom, and left to right. If you have several tracks covering your lows and low mids in your rhythm guitars, you’ll need something high to balance them out. If you have two guitar parts on the left, you may want two guitar parts on the right. Or at least something else musically to balance the production. It's all in the contrasts that you create. Your high parts will have more impact if you have something low to support them. Your slow, heavy parts will sound heavier if they have something faster and more rhythmic to balance them out.
Mixing: EQ, compression, delay, and reverb
Once you have your guitars recorded for your production, getting them dialed in the mix is crucial to making the parts work and serve your overall vision. First, let’s talk about EQ. Especially when dealing with multiple parts in the same sonic range, EQ is everything. If you have two rhythm guitar parts that are both in the same register, use EQ to carve space for them. On one track, cut 2khz 3 or 4 Db and boost 3.5khz but 3-4 Db. On the other track, do the opposite; boost 2khz and cut 3.5khz. Experiment with which frequencies you are boosting and cutting but most electric guitars will really respond to adjustments made between 1-8hkz. You may want to high pass all of your guitars above 80-120hz if your mix is sounding muddy. If you have many guitar tracks, you may want to do a lot of EQ throughout the parts to carve space for all of them. As always, use your ears and don’t blindly apply this technique. If you recorded your parts with different guitars and settings to begin with, you may not need to do a ton of EQing at this stage.
Compression is another key piece to getting your guitars to sit well in your mix. Especially with guitars, the attack time is crucial. If your attack time is too slow, you will miss the transients in your performance and just end up compressing the sustained parts of your performance. If the attack time is too fast, you may hear pumping or an unnatural sound. Start with a conservative approach of 4:1 ratio, medium fast attack and release times and 1-2 Db of gain reduction. This will usually get me in the ballpark and I can tweak from there.
When you’re dealing with lots of guitar parts and you’re having trouble hearing the differences in the individual parts, a short slap delay or very short reverb can do wonders. For this application, I will set up a return or buss track with a short delay and a second buss with a short room reverb. I do these on busses because I don’t want to change the integrity of the original guitar track. Usually, a little goes a long way when adding this type of delay or reverb. I use these to create a tiny bit of space around the tracks for clarity but as soon as I really notice them, they’re usually too loud. These busses are in addition to any long delays or reverb that I have happening that I really want to hear in my mix.
Variety truly is the spice of life and this is absolutely true when producing and recording guitars. When in doubt, do something different. Bigger isn’t always better and sometimes less is more. If you’ve recorded four doubles of one guitar part and you can’t get them to sit right, try muting two of them. Some of the biggest, widest recordings have the fewest actual tracks so listen closely as you work and don’t be afraid to keep things simple. Happy recording!