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Barry’s Guide to Recording Guitars – Equalization and Panning

In guitar driven music, as well as in most pop music, we usually encounter a combination of guitar parts with either clean or processed sounds, or both, playing different parts (as well as layered) that need to be heard clearly. This can often lead to problems during mixdown. Panning and EQ used either separately or in conjunction are most effective tools for creating intelligibility in a mix.

Panning Techniques When positioning guitars in the left to right stereo field, it is important to maintain an overall balance in the mix. Panning a primary rhythm part to one side of the mix without another part (either 2nd guitar or other instrument) producing similar musical drive and energy panned opposite to it will cause a mix to “lean” to one side, which, to be blunt, makes the music sound amateurish and distracting. If you don’t have another part with equal energy to offset the rhythm guitar, then running the guitar through an electronic double and panning it opposite will solve the problem (See Tech Tip Of The Day 05/21/2004). This technique will also prevent the guitar from conflicting with the lead vocal or other center panned parts. For example, if you pan the original part right with the pan control at 3 O’clock, pan the double left at 9 O’clock. This keeps the energy and drive of the guitar but allows space for the vocal be heard.

Perhaps the most common panning scheme in guitar driven hard rock and Metal, is to perform a live double of a distorted guitar (usually playing power chords) and pan each part hard left and right. While this is a very effective technique for producing a big, high energy, and full sound, aside from it being a rock cliche, it really doesn’t take advantage of the phantom imaging possibilities of the stereo field. (More on this when we discuss mixing techniques.) Basically, the sound created is what some producers call “Big Mono” or multi-mono. In short, we’re using panning to spread the sound one dimensionally from left to right.

A major problem with multiple guitar parts arises when the mix is played in mono. When the pan positions are laid on top of each other as everything goes to the center, each instrument must have unique and different EQ characteristics to maintain its identity in a mono mix.

The important thing to remember about EQ in general is that when you “boost” a frequency, you are increasing gain (not to mention adding phase anomalies, etc.). The more you boost, the more your overall level increases until you achieve that bad kind of distortion. Think of EQ as a subtractive process primarily, and when you do boost a specific frequency, cut the same frequency elsewhere.

There are certain EQ ranges that add specific qualities to guitar sounds. Depending on the type of guitar and style of music, EQ changes can have varying results. Here are some good starting points for equalizing a guitar.

  • 100Hz can add a good solid low end. Boost this frequency sparingly, as a boost here will conflict with the bass guitar (I tend to cut this frequency quite often on guitar).
  • 200Hz tends to be the muddy zone for guitar and can make the overall sound of the guitar dull if boosted. A cut at 200Hz can expose the lows and the highs so that the sound has more clarity and low end punch. Cutting this frequency can help a double coil pickup sound like a single coil pickup.
  • The frequency range from 250Hz to 350Hz can add punch and help the blend of a distorted rock sound.
  • The frequency range from 500 to 600Hz often contains most of the body and punchy character.
  • The frequency range from 2.5kHz to about 5kHz adds edge and definition to most guitar sounds.

Boosting 8kHz to around 12kHz makes many guitar sounds shimmer or sparkle. These frequencies can also contain much of the noise from the signal processors so cutting these frequencies slightly can minimize many noise problems from the guitarist’s equipment.

While some engineers prefer to record without EQ and add it in later in the context of the overall mix, it helps to think of EQ as a component of the guitar sound, and as such, it’s generally okay to print EQ. Just be careful that when you are using EQ to shape a guitar’s sound, try not to boost the EQ of the guitars in the same frequencies or sonic conflicts will result and you’ll wind up cutting them anyway, but the results will be less effective.

High Level EQ Tip: Low frequencies carry the most energy of all the frequencies and virtually determine the level of a mix. It’s generally better to print with less lows than you think you’ll need in mix down. Low frequencies are easy to turn up in the mix. If you wind up needing more high frequencies in the mix, they can be buried in the mass of lows. When this happens, your tracks can become very noisy (depending upon your signal path and recording process). As you try to recover the clarity by boosting the highs, you end up boosting processor and other noise.

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